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Guihong Bi, William B. Evans, James M. Spiers, and Anthony L. Witcher

Two experiments were conducted to evaluate the growth and flowering responses of greenhouse-grown French marigold (Tagetes patula L. ‘Janie Deep Orange’) to two non-composted broiler chicken litter-based organic fertilizers, 4-2-2 and 3-3-3, and one commonly used synthetic controlled-release fertilizer, 14-14-14. In both experiments, fertilizer 4-2-2 was applied at four rates of 1%, 2%, 4%, and 6% (by volume); 3-3-3 was applied at four rates of 1.34%, 2.67%, 5.34%, and 8.0% (by volume); and 14-14-14 was applied at rates of 0.99, 1.98, 3.96, and 5.94 kg·m−3. In general, substrate containing different rates and types of fertilizers had a pH within the recommended range of 5.0 to 6.5. Electrical conductivity (EC) was similar among substrates containing different rates of 14-14-14; however, EC increased with increasing fertilizer rate for substrates containing 4-2-2 and 3-3-3. Substrate EC within each treatment was generally higher earlier in the experiment. For the fertilizer rates used in these two experiments, increasing 14-14-14 fertilizer rate increased plant growth and flowering performance. However, low to intermediate rates of 4-2-2 and 3-3-3 in general produced the highest plant growth index, shoot dry weight, number of flowers per plant, total flower dry weight, and root rating. Plants grown at high rates of 4-2-2 and 3-3-3 showed symptoms associated with excessive fertilization. Plant tissue nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K) concentrations increased linearly or quadratically with increasing fertilizer rates for all three fertilizers. In general, plants receiving 4-2-2 and 3-3-3 had higher concentrations of N, P, and K than plants receiving 14-14-14. Results from this study indicated that broiler litter-based 4-2-2 and 3-3-3 have the potential to be used as organic fertilizer sources for container production of marigolds in greenhouses. However, growers need to be cautious with the rate applied. Because different crops may respond differently to these natural fertilizers, it is important for growers to test any new fertilizers before incorporating them into their production practices.

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Tongyin Li, Guihong Bi, Richard L. Harkess, Geoffrey C. Denny, and Carolyn Scagel

Plant growth, water use, photosynthetic performance, and nitrogen (N) uptake of ‘Merritt’s Supreme’ hydrangea (Hydrangea macrophylla) were investigated. Plants were fertilized with one of five N rates (0, 5, 10, 15, or 20 mm from NH4NO3), irrigated once or twice per day with the same total daily amount of water, and grown in either a paper biodegradable container or a traditional plastic container. Greater N rate generally increased plant growth index (PGI) in both plastic and biocontainers. Leaf and total plant dry weight (DW) increased with increasing N rate from 0 to 20 mm and stem and root DW were greatest when fertilized with 15 mm and 20 mm N. Plants fertilized with 20 mm N had the greatest leaf area and chlorophyll content in terms of SPAD reading. Container type had no influence on DW accumulation or leaf area. N concentrations (%) in leaves, roots, and the entire plant increased with increasing N rate. N concentrations in roots and in the entire plant were lower in biocontainers compared with plastic containers. Greater N rate generally increased daily water use (DWU), and biocontainers had greater DWU than plastic containers. The 20 mm N rate resulted in the highest net photosynthetic rate measured on 11 Sept. and 22 Sept. (65 and 76 days after treatment). Net photosynthetic rate (measured on 8 Oct.) and stomatal conductance (g S) (measured on 27 Aug., 22 Sept., and 8 Oct.) were lower in biocontainers compared with plastic containers. Two irrigations per day resulted in higher substrate moisture at 5-cm depth than one irrigation per day, and slightly increased PGI on 19 Aug. However, irrigation frequency did not affect photosynthetic rate, g S, or N uptake of hydrangea plants except in stems. Considering the increased water use of hydrangea plants when grown in the paper biocontainer and lower plant photosynthesis and N uptake, the tested paper biocontainer may not serve as a satisfactory sustainable alternative to traditional plastic containers.

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Carolyn F. Scagel, Guihong Bi, Leslie H. Fuchigami, and Richard P. Regan

Growth, nitrogen (N) uptake, and N storage were assessed in transplanted 1-year-old rhododendron liners. Two evergreen cultivars, Rhododendron ‘P. J. Mezitt Compact’ (PJM) and R. ‘English Roseum’ (ER), and one deciduous cultivar, R. ‘Gibraltar’ (AZ), were transplanted into 1-gal. pots and given liquid fertilizer with (+N) or without (–N) N. Increased N availability increased growth after July (ER, PJM) or August (AZ), and resulted in three to five times more total biomass. Biomass continued to increase after stem elongation and leaf production ceased. Nitrogen uptake was correlated with growth of all plant structures on AZ, whereas N uptake was only correlated with stem and leaf growth on evergreen cultivars. The rate of N uptake was highest before July for AZ (1.9 mg·d−1) and in August and September for the evergreen cultivars (≈5 mg·d−1). Thirteen percent to 16% of total N uptake from between May and February occurred after N fertilization ceased at the beginning of September. Plants contained the most N in October (AZ), November (PJM), or December (ER). Biomass loss after November accounted for a loss of 14% to 48% of the maximum total plant N content. Nitrogen demand by roots and stems increased from May to February in all cultivars. The role of new and old leaves in N storage on evergreen cultivars varied with cultivar and time. Differences in N storage between the evergreen cultivars occurred primarily in their roots and leaves. Over the winter, PJM stored more N in its roots, whereas ER stored more N in its leaves. Changes in N concentrations and contents in different plant structures after November indicate that, during early winter, N stored in other structures moves to roots and old stems of PJM, old stems of ER, and roots and new and old stems of AZ. These results suggest that fertilizer application strategies for transplanted liners of these cultivars should include low N availability after transplanting followed by high N availability in mid to late summer. This type of strategy will not only improve N uptake efficiency from fertilizer, but also will minimize N loss from the containers. The results also demonstrated that N uptake in the autumn may play an important role in supplementing plant N reserves required for growth during the next season as well as for balancing N losses incited by leaf abscission, root turnover, and maintenance functions that occur over winter.

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Carolyn F. Scagel, Guihong Bi, Leslie H. Fuchigami, and Richard P. Regan

The influence of irrigation frequency (same amount of water per day given at different times) and nitrogen (N) fertilizer rate on water stress [stomatal conductance (g S)], N uptake, and growth (biomass) of container-grown evergreen Rhododendron ‘P.J.M. Compact’ and ‘English Roseum’ and deciduous Rhododendron ‘Gibraltar’ was evaluated. Both N deficiency and high N rate increased water stress. Water stress was greatest in plants fertilized with the highest N rate and g S of plants grown with the higher N rates changed more in response to water deficits resulting from irrigation treatments and seasonal climatic changes. Watering plants more frequently decreased water stress of plants fertilized with higher N rates and altering irrigation frequency had little impact on alleviating water stress of N-deficient plants. Increasing irrigation frequency decreased N uptake efficiency (N uptake per gram N applied), increased N use efficiency (growth per gram N uptake) and altered biomass allocation with little influence on total plant biomass. Response of biomass allocation to N rates was similar among cultivars and response of biomass allocation to irrigation frequency varied among cultivars. Altering irrigation frequency changed either the availability of N in the growing substrate or the ability of roots to absorb N. Our results indicate that transitory increases in plant water stress can alter N uptake, N use, and plant form without detectable changes in total plant biomass.

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Tongyin Li, Guihong Bi, Judson LeCompte, T. Casey Barickman, and Bill B. Evans

Colored shadecloths are used in the production of vegetable, fruit, and ornamental crops to manipulate the light spectrum and to induce specific plant physiological responses. The influence of three colored shadecloths (red, blue, and black) with 50% shade and a no-shade control on the production of two lettuce (Lactuca sativa) cultivars [Two Star (green-leaf) and New Red Fire (red-leaf)] and snapdragon (Antirrhinum majus) was investigated. Use of shadecloth increased plant growth indices of lettuce and total length of snapdragon flower stems (at the first harvest) compared with no-shade control. Red shadecloth resulted in longer flower stems of snapdragon (at the second harvest) than black and blue shadecloths and no-shade control. However, shadecloth delayed blooming of snapdragon for 1 week compared with no-shade control. Stomatal conductance (g s) and leaf transpiration rate of both lettuce cultivars and photosynthetic rate and transpiration rate of snapdragon were decreased in response to shadecloth treatments. All shadecloths decreased health beneficial flavonoids (luteolin/quercetin glucuronide and quercetin malonyl concentrations for both lettuce cultivars and cyanidin glucoside in red-leaf lettuce). The two lettuce cultivars varied in their phenolic compounds, with the green-leaf ‘Two Star’ having higher quercetin glucoside and caftaric acid than red-leaf ‘New Red Fire’, whereas ‘New Red Fire’ had higher concentrations of chlorogenic acid, luteolin/quercetin glucuronide, and quercetin malonyl. Shadecloths reduced substrate temperature and photosynthetically active radiation (PAR) to about half of full sunlight compared with no-shade control, which may have contributed to reduced g s and leaf transpiration (for lettuce and snapdragon), decreased phenolic compounds in lettuce, and delayed flowering of snapdragon.

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Michael R. Evans, Andrew K. Koeser, Guihong Bi, Susmitha Nambuthiri, Robert Geneve, Sarah Taylor Lovell, and J. Ryan Stewart

Nine commercially available biocontainers and a plastic control were evaluated at Fayetteville, AR, and Crystal Springs, MS, to determine the irrigation interval and total water required to grow a crop of ‘Cooler Grape’ vinca (Catharanthus roseus) with or without the use of plastic shuttle trays. Additionally, the rate at which water passed through the container wall of each container was assessed with or without the use of a shuttle tray. Slotted rice hull, coconut fiber, peat, wood fiber, dairy manure, and straw containers were constructed with water-permeable materials or had openings in the container sidewall. Such properties increased the rate of water loss compared with more impermeable bioplastic, solid rice hull, and plastic containers. This higher rate of water loss resulted in most of the biocontainers having a shorter irrigation interval and a higher water requirement than traditional plastic containers. Placing permeable biocontainers in plastic shuttle trays reduced water loss through the container walls. However, irrigation demand for these containers was still generally higher than that of the plastic control containers.

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Susmitha Nambuthiri, Robert L. Geneve, Youping Sun, Xueni Wang, R. Thomas Fernandez, Genhua Niu, Guihong Bi, and Amy Fulcher

The green industry has identified the use of biodegradable containers as an alternative to plastic containers as a way to improve the sustainability of current production systems. Field trials were conducted to evaluate the performance of four types of 1-gal nursery biocontainers [keratin (KR), wood pulp (WP), fabric (FB), and coir fiber (Coir)] in comparison with standard black plastic (Plastic) containers on substrate temperature, water use, and biomass production in aboveground nurseries. Locations in Kentucky, Michigan, Mississippi, and Texas were selected to conduct experiments during May to Oct. 2012 using ‘Green Velvet’ boxwood (Buxus sempervirens × B. microphylla) and ‘Dark Knight’ bluebeard (Caryopteris ×clandonensis) in 2013. In this article, we were focusing on the impact of alternative container materials on hourly substrate temperature variations and plant growth. Substrate temperature was on an average higher (about 6 °C) in Plastic containers (about 36 °C) compared with that in WP, FB, and Coir containers. However, substrate temperature in KR containers was similar to Plastic. Substrate temperature was also influenced by local weather conditions with the highest substrate temperatures recorded in Texas followed by Kentucky, Mississippi, and Michigan. Laboratory and controlled environment trials using test containers were conducted in Kentucky to evaluate sidewall porosity and evaporation loss to confirm field observations. Substrate temperature was similar under laboratory simulation compared with field studies with the highest substrate temperature observed in Plastic and KR, intermediate in WP and lowest in FB and Coir. Side wall temperature was higher in Plastic, KR, and FB compared with WP and Coir, while side wall water loss was greatest in FB, intermediate in WP and Coir, and lowest in plastic and KR. These observations suggest that the contribution of sidewall water loss to overall container evapotranspiration has a major influence on reducing substrate temperature. The porous nature of some of the alternative containers increased water use, but reduced heat stress and enhanced plant survival under hot summer conditions. The greater drying rate of alterative containers especially in hot and dry locations could demand increased irrigation volume, more frequent irrigation, or both, which could adversely affect the economic and environmental sustainability of alternative containers.

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Tongyin Li, Guihong Bi, Genhua Niu, Susmitha S. Nambuthiri, Robert L. Geneve, Xueni Wang, R. Thomas Fernandez, Youping Sun, and Xiaojie Zhao

The performance of biocontainers as sustainable alternatives to the traditional petroleum-based plastic containers has been researched in recent years due to increasing environmental concern generated by widespread plastic disposal from green industry. However, research has been mainly focused on using biocontainers in short-term greenhouse production of bedding plants, with limited research investigating the use of biocontainers in long-term nursery production of woody crops. This project investigated the feasibility of using biocontainers in a pot-in-pot (PIP) nursery production system. Two paper (also referred as wood pulp) biocontainers were evaluated in comparison with a plastic container in a PIP system for 2 years at four locations (Holt, MI; Lexington, KY; Crystal Springs, MS; El Paso, TX). One-year-old river birch (Betula nigra) liners were used in this study. Results showed that biocontainers stayed intact at the end of the first growing season, but were penetrated to different degrees after the second growing season depending on the vigor of root growth at a given location and pot type. Plants showed different growth rates at different locations. However, at a given location, there were no differences in plant growth index (PGI) or plant biomass among plants grown in different container types. Daily water use (DWU) was not influenced by container type. Results suggest that both biocontainers tested have the potential to be alternatives to plastic containers for short-term (1 year) birch production in the PIP system. However, they may not be suitable for long-term (more than 1 year) PIP production due to root penetration at the end of the second growing season.

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Robin G. Brumfield, Laura B. Kenny, Alyssa J. DeVincentis, Andrew K. Koeser, Sven Verlinden, A.J. Both, Guihong Bi, Sarah T. Lovell, and J. Ryan Stewart

Greenhouse growers find themselves under increasing pressure to respond to consumer preferences to use environmentally sustainable practices and materials while maintaining profitable operations. These consumer preferences reflect a mounting awareness of the environmental issues, such as climate change and their associated social costs. Ideally, sustainable horticultural production accounts for both traditional economic considerations and such social costs, some of which can be explained through the calculation of global warming potential (GWP). An obvious candidate for a sustainable intervention is the traditional plastic pot, which growers can replace with alternative biocontainers with varying degrees of GWP. This study calculates the variability of direct costs of production using alternative containers to offer a comparison of social and economic costs. We evaluated these direct costs of producing petunia (Petunia ×hybrida) grown in pots made of traditional plastic, bioplastic, coir, manure, peat, bioplastic sleeve, slotted rice hull, solid rice hull, straw, wood fiber, and recycled reground plastic containers used in a previous assessment of GWP. Our analysis of the costs when using a traditional plastic pot showed that the highest contributors to GWP were different from the highest contributors to direct costs, revealing that the price does not reflect the environmental impact of several inputs. Electricity, the plastic shuttle tray, and the plastic pot contributed most to GWP, whereas labor, the plastic container, and paclobutrozol growth regulator contributed most to direct cost of production (COP). At 64% of total cost, labor was the most expensive input. Watering by hand added another $0.37–$0.54 per plant in labor. When we analyzed input costs of each alternative container separately, container type had the largest impact on total direct costs. Before adding container costs, the direct COP ranged from $0.56 to $0.61 per plant. After adding containers, costs ranged from $0.61 to $0.97 per plant. Wood fiber pots were the most expensive and recycled reground plastic pots were the least expensive in this study. Based on our assessment and the observed small variation in GWP between alternative containers, growers would benefit from selecting a container based on price and consumer demand. Some social costs that we are not aware of yet may be associated with some or all biocontainers.

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Xueni Wang, R. Thomas Fernandez, Bert M. Cregg, Rafael Auras, Amy Fulcher, Diana R. Cochran, Genhua Niu, Youping Sun, Guihong Bi, Susmitha Nambuthiri, and Robert L. Geneve

Containers made from natural fiber and recycled plastic are marketed as sustainable substitutes for traditional plastic containers in the nursery industry. However, growers’ acceptance of alternative containers is limited by the lack of information on how alternative containers impact plant growth and water use (WU). We conducted experiments in Michigan, Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Texas to test plant growth and WU in five different alternative containers under nursery condition. In 2011, ‘Roemertwo’ wintercreeper (Euonymus fortunei) were planted in three types of #1 (≈1 gal) containers 1) black plastic (plastic), 2) wood pulp (WP), and 3) recycled paper (KF). In 2012, ‘Green Velvet’ boxwood (Buxus sempervirens × B. microphylla siebold var. koreana) was evaluated in 1) plastic, 2) WP, 3) fabric (FB), and 4) keratin (KT). In 2013, ‘Dark Knight’ bluebeard (Caryopteris ×clandonensis) was evaluated in 1) plastic, 2) WP, and 3) coir fiber (Coir). Plants grown in alternative containers generally had similar plant growth as plastic containers. ‘Roemertwo’ wintercreeper had high mortality while overwintering in alternative containers with no irrigation. Results from different states generally show plants grown in fiber containers such as WP, FB, and Coir used more water than those in plastic containers. Water use efficiency of plants grown in alternative containers vs. plastic containers depended on plant variety, container type, and climate.