A split-plot experimental design was imposed in the year of planting and maintained for the first five growing seasons in a high density apple orchard on M.9 rootstock planted at 1.5 m (within row) × 4 m (between row) in a loamy sand soil susceptible to K deficiency when drip-irrigated. Four N-K fertigation treatments involving low (N1) and high (N2) rates of N combined with 0 (K0) or 15 g K/tree per year (K1) were applied in five replicated and randomized main plot units. Subplots consisted of three-tree plots of each of the apple cultivars Gala, Fuji, Fiesta and Spartan. Soil solution monitoring indicated the maintenance of distinctly different soil solution N and K concentrations in the respective N-K treatments during the study. The most important plant response was prevention of the development of K deficiency by the K1-fertigation treatment. Fertigation of 15 g K/tree generally increased leaf K, fruit K and Mg concentrations, fruit size and yield and fruit titratable acidity and red coloration at harvest for all cultivars. K fertigation also decreased leaf Mg and B concentrations, fruit N, P and Ca concentration and fruit firmness. In addition to leaf K concentrations <1%, K deficiency was associated with fruit K concentrations <100 mg/100 g fresh weight and soil solution K concentration <5 mg·L-1. Increasing the rate of fertigated N when growth was constrained by K deficiency increased leaf N and Mn and decreased leaf P and B, but had no effect on tree vigor or fruit production and quality.
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