Causes and Consequences of Overfertilization in Orchards

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  • 1 Department of Pomology, University of California, Davis. CA 95616-6683.

Over-fertilization (i.e., the application of fertilizer nitrogen (N) in excess of the tree or vine capacity to use it for optimum productivity) is associated with high levels of residual nitrate in the soil, which potentially contribute to groundwater and atmospheric pollution as a result of leaching, denitrification, etc. Overfert-ilization also may adversely affect productivity and fruit quality because of both direct (i.e., N) and indirect (i.e., shading) effects on flowering, fruit set, and fruit growth resulting from vegetative vigor. Pathological and physiological disorders as well as susceptibility to disease and insect pests also are influenced by the rate of applied N. Over-fertilization appears to be more serious in orchard crops than in many other crop species. The perennial growth habit of deciduous trees and vines is associated with an increased likelihood of fertilizer N application (and losses) during the dormant period. The large woody biomass increases the difficulty in assessing the kinetics and magnitude of annual N requirement. In mature trees, the N content of the harvested fruit appears to represent a large percentage of annual N uptake. Overfertilization is supported by a) the lack of integration of fertilizer and irrigation management, b) failure to consider nonfertilizer sources of plant-available N in the accounting of fertilizer needs, c) failure to conduct annual diagnosis of the N status, and d) the insensitivity of leaf analysis to over-fertilization. The diversity of orchard sites (with climatic, soil type, and management variables) precludes the general applicability of specific fertilization recommendations. The lack of regulatory and economic penalties encourage excessive application of fertilizer N, and it appears unlikely that the majority of growers will embrace recommended fertilizer management strategies voluntarily.

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