Hydrangea is one of the most popular ornamental crops used for both florist and landscape purposes because of their showy blooms in various sizes and shapes (Orozco-Obando et al., 2005). There are more than 80 species in the genus Hydrangea, mostly used as ornamental shrubs. Hydrangea macrophylla, also known as bigleaf or French hydrangea, is considered the most popular (Reed et al., 2008; van Gelderen and van Gelderen, 2004). With more than 1000 cultivars, H. macrophylla is one of the most widely cultivated hydrangea species in the United States (Dirr, 2004). H. macrophylla blooms can be white, pink, red, purple, or blue, depending on cultivar and aluminum availability in the growing substrate (Dirr, 2004, 1998). They are low maintenance, have few pest and disease problems, can tolerate shade, and adapt well to both alkaline and acid soils (van Gelderen and van Gelderen, 2004). In the United States, the value of all hydrangea plants sold as nursery stock was $91 million in 2012. An additional $30 million were sold as potted flowering plants for indoor or patio use (U.S. Department of Agriculture, 2014).
Floral initiation of H. macrophylla occurs during the previous growing season, with flowers produced the following year on previous year’s wood (Sun et al., 2015; Zhou and Hara, 1988). Sufficient N fertilization is needed for perennial plants to increase stored N in the fall. Stored N is remobilized in the spring to facilitate new growth (Millard, 1995; Sanchez et al., 1991; Tagliavini et al., 1999; Weinbaum et al., 1984). Increasing N fertilization rate was reported to increase total N content in H. macrophylla ‘Berlin’ (Bi and Scagel, 2008). Bi et al. (2008) reported both vegetative growth and flowering during forcing were influenced by plant N status in the production of florists’ H. macrophylla ‘Merritt’s Supreme’. High N fertigation rates (210 and 280 mg·L−1) increased plant N content and improved flowering performance, number of flowers, and flower size in ‘Merritt’s Supreme’ (Bi et al., 2008); however, N leachate resulting from excessive N application can cause contamination of groundwater, which is not environmentally sustainable or cost efficient for growers. Concerns have been raised regarding N runoff from nursery production and possible environmental contamination (Yeager et al., 1993). An efficient fertilizer management program involves specific knowledge on the rate and application method of N fertilizer as well as the plant growth response to such fertilization practices.
Plant nutrient uptake is also affected by irrigation method (Scagel et al., 2011, 2012). Increased irrigation frequency was reported to increase N use efficiency and uptake of calcium (Ca) and decrease uptake of phosphorus (P), potassium (K), boron (B), and zinc (Zn) in Rhododendron species (Scagel et al., 2011, 2012). When the same total amount of irrigation water was delivered through more than one irrigation event, it decreased leaching from containers and compensated for certain nutrient deficiencies (Scheiber et al., 2008; Silber et al., 2003; Xu et al., 2004). The effect of irrigation frequency on nutrient uptake was attributed to possible altered N availability in the substrate and to differences in plant biomass among treatments.
It is challenging for growers to determine water requirements of a specific species because it is not clear how much water is available for uptake in soilless substrates and how water status affects plant growth and nutrient uptake (O’Meara et al., 2014). Plant species vary in their ability to absorb water and nutrients as growing substrate dries out. O’Meara et al. (2014) assessed how decreasing substrate volumetric water content (VWC) influenced water uptake of H. macrophylla ‘Fasan’ (hydrangea) and Gardenia jasminoides ‘Radicans’ (gardenia). Water use by hydrangea started to decrease at a higher VWC (0.28 m3·m−3) than gardenia (0.20 m3·m−3) and water uptake ceased at 0.16 m3·m−3 in hydrangea, suggesting that hydrangea was less adept at extracting water from a drying substrate than the gardenia (O’Meara et al., 2014). For hydrangea, a relatively higher water content in the growing substrate should be maintained to maximize plant growth and avoid water stress.
Sustainable alternatives have been studied in recent years to reduce use of plastic containers in nursery and greenhouse production of a number of ornamental crops (Beeks and Evans, 2013; Evans et al., 2010; Koeser et al., 2013; Kuehny et al., 2011; Nambuthiri et al., 2015; Wang et al., 2015). Biodegradable containers, also known as biocontainers, are made from a variety of biodegradable materials, such as feather, fabric, rice hulls, and paper, thus introducing varying influence on plant growth and nutrient uptake. Many tested biocontainers are able to produce plants of similar quality to traditional plastic containers (Beeks and Evans, 2013; Koeser et al., 2013; Kuehny et al., 2011; Li et al., 2015). However, compared with plastic containers, some biocontainers require more frequent irrigations and increased amounts of irrigation water when they are made from porous hydrophilic materials, for instance paper, which has high evaporation loss through the container sidewall (Evans et al., 2010; Koeser et al., 2013; Wang et al., 2015). The increased water use in biodegradable containers, mostly considered to be an insignificant contribution to total production cost (Brumfield et al., 2015), has an unforeseen impact on water status and nutrient availability in the substrate and, therefore, plant growth and nutrient uptake.
The objectives of this study were as follows: 1) to investigate plant growth and nutrient uptake of ‘Merritt’s Supreme’ hydrangea in response to N fertilization rate, irrigation frequency, and container type; and 2) investigate water use of hydrangea growing in black plastic containers compared with biodegradable containers made from recycled paper.
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