Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) biomass is being evaluated as a potential alternative to pine bark as the primary potting component in containerized nursery crops. Substrates composed entirely of switchgrass have higher pH than what is considered desirable in container substrates. The objective of this research was to evaluate the influence of elemental S, sphagnum moss, and municipal solid waste compost (MSC) as amendments for reducing substrate pH and buffering it against large changes over time. Three experiments were conducted; the first two experiments were conducted using annual vinca (Catharanthus roseus ‘Pacifica Blush’) to quickly assess how pH was affected by the three amendments, and the final experiment was conducted with blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum ‘Duke’) to assess the long-term effects of substrate amendments. Summarizing across the three experiments, elemental S was effective in reducing substrate pH; however, rates 1 lb/yard3 or greater reduced pH below the recommended level of 5.5 and lower S rates did not maintain lowered pH over time. Sphagnum moss and MSC together at 20% and 10% (v/v), respectively, were effective at reducing substrate pH and buffering against change. Sphagnum moss and MSC provided the additional benefit of improving physical properties of the switchgrass substrates.
James E. Altland and Charles Krause
James E. Altland and Charles Krause
Loblolly pine (Pinus taeda L.) bark is the primary component of nursery container substrates in the eastern United States. Shortages in pine bark prompted investigation of alternative substrates. The objective of this research was to determine if ground switchgrass (Panicum virgatum L.) could be used for short production-cycle woody crops. Two experiments were conducted using ‘Paprika’ rose (Rosa L. ‘ChewMayTime’) potted in 15-cm tall and wide containers. In Expt. 1, substrates were composed of coarse-milled switchgrass (processed in a hammermill with 1.25- and 2.5-cm screens) amended with 0%, 30%, or 50% peatmoss and fertilized with 100, 250, or 400 mg·L−1 nitrogen (N) from ammonium nitrate. In Expt. 2, substrates were composed of coarse-milled (similar to Expt. 1) or fine-milled switchgrass (processed through a single 0.48-cm screen), amended with 0% or 30% peatmoss, and fertilized with the same N rates as in Expt. 1. Summarizing across both experiments, coarse switchgrass alone had high air space and low container capacity. Fine switchgrass had physical properties more consistent with what is considered normal for nursery container substrates. Switchgrass pH was generally high and poorly buffered against change. Fine switchgrass had higher pH than coarse switchgrass. Tissue analysis of rose grown in switchgrass substrate for 7 to 9 weeks revealed low to moderate levels of calcium and iron, but all other nutrients were within acceptable ranges. Despite varying substrate physical properties and pH levels, all roses at the conclusion of the experiment were of high quality. Switchgrass processed to an appropriate particle size and amended with typical nursery materials should provide a suitable substrate for short production-cycle woody crops.
Magdalena Pancerz and James E. Altland
Stability of substrate pH in container-grown crops is important for proper nutrient management. The objective of this research was to determine the pH buffering capacity of pine bark substrates as a function of particle size and compare those results to sphagnum peat. The weight equivalent of 100 cm3 for fine, medium, and coarse pine bark and sphagnum peat, either as a whole or partitioned into several particle size ranges, was placed in a 250-mL glass jar and filled with 100 mL of an acid or base solution ranging from 0 to 50 meq·L−1 in 10 meq·L−1 increments. After 24 hours, pH was measured. An experiment was also conducted in the greenhouse. The weight equivalent of 500 cm3 of sphagnum peat, fine pine bark, or coarse pine bark was filled into 10-cm plastic pots and irrigated with one of the following: tap water or 10 meq·L−1 of HCl, NaOH, H2SO4, or KHCO3 and with or without a water soluble fertilizer. Substrate pH was determined 4 and 8 weeks after potting using the pour-through method. In all experiments, sphagnum peat had less buffering capacity than pine bark against pH changes from acidic solutions, whereas pine bark had less buffering capacity than sphagnum peat to pH changes from basic solutions. Substrate pH buffering in pine bark increased with decreasing particle size, whereas pH buffering in sphagnum peat was less responsive to particle size. These results will help growers and substrate manufacturers understand how substrate components contribute to pH management during crop production.
James S. Owen Jr and James E. Altland
A study was conducted to quantify the effect of substrate texture on water-holding capacity of douglas fir [Pseudotsuga menziesii (Mirb.) Franco] bark (DFB) in containers of varying height. Medium (less than 2.2 cm) and fine (less than 0.9 cm) DFB were packed into 7.6 cm i.d. aluminum cores 3.8, 7.6, and 15.2 cm tall to determine container capacity (CC) and air space (AS) at varying container heights. Increasing container height resulted in a linear decrease in CC and a linear increase in AS. Fine texture DFB bulk density (Db) increased 18% with increasing container height, whereas Db of medium texture DFB was unaffected. Water-holding capacity decreased 20% and 42% in medium and fine textured DFB, respectively, with increasing container height from 3.8 to 15.2 cm. A second study was conducted to investigate water distribution in a 15.2-cm tall container for a given substrate texture. Polyvinyl chloride cores (15.2 cm tall × 7.6 cm i.d.) were packed with the same substrates, drained to CC, frozen, and sawed into 2.5-cm sections to determine water-holding capacity at each height. A finer substrate texture increased the amount of water throughout the container profile, but percent of total water for each strata remained similar. Container height and plant size (i.e., transplant or salable), in relation to substrate texture, should be considerations when producing containerized crops. In addition, bark texture alters water-holding capacity and water distribution within the container, ultimately affecting water management practices.
James E. Altland and James C. Locke
A series of column studies were conducted to determine the influence of three different biochar types on nitrate, phosphate, and potassium retention and leaching in a typical greenhouse soilless substrate. A commercial substrate composed of 85 sphagnum peatmoss : 15 perlite (v:v) was amended with 10% by volume of three different biochar types including: gasified rice hull biochar (GRHB), sawdust biochar (SDB), and a bark and wood biochar (BWB). The non-amended control substrate, along with substrates amended with one of three biochar materials, were each packed into three columns. Columns were drenched with nutrient solution and leached to determine the impact of biochar on nutrient retention and leaching. Nitrate release curves were exponential and peaked lower, at later leaching events, and had higher residual nitrate release over time with each biochar amendment. The impact of biochar amendment on phosphate retention and release was more variable within and across the two experiments. In both experiments, the GRHB was a net source of phosphate, providing more phosphate to the system than the fertilizer application and hence obscuring any retention and release effect it might have. Potassium release varied by amendment type within each experiment, but within each amendment type was relatively consistent across the two experiments. All biochar types were a source of potassium, with GRHB providing more than SDB, but both providing far more potassium than the fertilizer event. The BWB amendment resulted in more leached potassium than the control substrate, but relatively little compared with GRHB and SDB amendments.
James E. Altland and James C. Locke
Byproducts of pyrolysis, known collectively as biochar, are becoming more common and readily available as ventures into alternative energy generation are explored. Little is known about how these materials affect greenhouse container substrates. The objective of this research was to determine the effect of one form of biochar on the nutrient retention and release in a typical commercial greenhouse container substrate. Glass columns filled with 85:15 sphagnum peatmoss:perlite (v:v) and amended with 0%, 1%, 5%, or 10% biochar were drenched with nutrient solution and leached to determine the impact of biochar on nutrient retention and leaching. Nitrate release curves were exponential and peaked lower, at later leaching events, and had higher residual nitrate release over time with increasing biochar amendment rate. This suggests that biochar might be effective in moderating extreme fluctuations of nitrate levels in container substrates over time. Peak phosphate concentration decreased with increasing biochar amendment rate, whereas time of peak release, girth of the peak curve, and final residual phosphate release all increased with increasing biochar amendment. Additional phosphate levels in leachates from biochar-amended substrates, in addition to the higher phosphate concentrations present in later leaching events, suggest this form of biochar as a modest source of phosphate for ornamental plant production. Although there was not sufficient potassium (K) from biochar to adequately replace all fertilizer K in plant production, increasing levels of this form of biochar will add a substantial quantity of K to the substrate and should be accounted for in fertility programs.
James E. Altland and M. Gabriela Buamscha
Two studies were conducted to determine the influence of substrate pH on nutrient availability in Douglas fir bark. Douglas fir bark was amended with either calcium carbonate (CaCO3) or calcium hydroxide [Ca(OH)2] at 13 rates to generate substrates with low to high pH. A nonamended control was also maintained. The substrates received no other fertilizer amendments. Substrates were filled into nursery containers (2.8 L) and maintained in a nursery setting with 1.2 cm·d−1 overhead irrigation. At 1 and 6 weeks after potting, four containers of each lime treatment were harvested to determine substrate pH and availability of 13 nutrients. Substrate solutions used for analysis were obtained with the saturated media extract method. Water-extractable phosphorus and DTPA-extractable boron, iron, copper, and aluminum decreased with increasing substrate pH. Other nutrients were either nonresponsive to substrate pH or the observed response was deemed more likely caused by calcium competition on cation exchange sites.
James E. Altland and Jennifer K. Boldt
Parboiled rice hulls (PBH) have been shown to be an effective mulch for weed control in container crops. As with other mulch products, there is concern that PBH mulch would interfere with nutrient delivery to the crop. The objective of this research was to determine the effect of PBH mulch on nutrient concentration of fertilized irrigation water as it passes through the mulch layer, and the subsequent effect on growth and nutrition of container-grown sunflower (Helianthus annuus). Parboiled rice hull mulch was placed in Buchner funnels at a depth of 0, 0.63, 1.25, or 2.50 cm. Irrigation was applied with a water-soluble fertilizer (20N–4.4P–16.6K) injected at a concentration of 100 mg·L−1 N. Filtrates were collected after passing through the PBH in the Buchner funnels and analyzed for nutrient concentration. In a separate study, sunflower in no. 3 containers were mulched with the same depths of PBH and irrigated with water fertilized similar to that in the funnel experiment. Parboiled rice hull mulch caused a temporary and slight decrease in NO3 − and NH4 + concentration. Phosphate and K+ concentrations generally increased with each irrigation event. Calcium and Mg exhibited an inverse relationship where the PBH mulch decreased Ca and increased Mg concentrations in the filtrates. Despite these measured differences in the chemical properties of water passing through the mulch layer, there were no measurable differences in sunflower growth or physical appearance, and only minor and inconsequential differences in plant nutrient status. Rice hull mulches are likely to have very minor effects on container crop nutrition with no adverse effect on plant growth over a 6 week production cycle as used in this experiment.
Ka Yeon Jeong and James E. Altland
Bagged potting mixes can be stored for weeks or months before being used by consumers. Some bagged potting mixes are amended with controlled release fertilizers (CRFs). The objective of this research was to determine how initial substrate moisture content and storage temperature affect the chemical properties of bagged potting mix with CRF incorporated and stored for up to 180 days. The base substrate composed of 60 sphagnum peat: 30 bark : 10 perlite (by vol.) amended with 5.5 g·L−1 dolomitic limestone and 0.5 g·L−1 granular wetting agent. This base substrate was either not amended with additional fertilizer (control) or amended with 0.59 kg·m−3 N of a CRF (Osmocote 18N–1.3P–5K) that was either ground (CRF-G) or whole prills (CRF-P). Substrates had initial moisture contents (IMCs) of 25%, 45%, or 65% and were stored at temperatures of either 20 or 40 °C. IMC and fertilizer type affected pH, electrical conductivity (EC), and nutrient release. Substrate pH increased with increasing IMC due to greater lime reactivity. About 25% of N from CRF-G treatments was immobilized between 2 and 14 days of storage. Low moisture content of bags, due to low IMC or storage at 40 °C, reduced the rate of N release from CRF-P treatments. Substrate P was rapidly immobilized by microbial communities.
James E. Altland and Kay Yeon Jeong
Dolomitic lime (DL) is one of the most commonly used fertilizer amendments in nursery container substrates. It is used to adjust pH of pine bark substrates from their native pH, 4.1 to 5.1, up to about pH 6. However, additions of DL have been shown to be beneficial, inconsequential, or detrimental depending on the crop to which it is applied and irrigation water quality. Carbonate ions from DL cause a rate-dependent change in pH. Dolomitic lime can adjust pH of pine bark up to ≈6.5, after which there is little change regardless of how much additional DL is added. Changes in pH affect the rate of nitrification in pine bark substrates. The rate of nitrification can impact the quality of some plants that are sensitive to ammonium toxicity, as well as affect nitrogen leaching from containers. Changes in pH also affect micronutrient availability in pine bark substrates. Dolomitic lime provides an abundant source of calcium (Ca) and magnesium (Mg) for plant uptake. However, the additional Ca and Mg might also suppress potassium uptake in plants.