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Drawbacks of traditional synthetic fertilizer led us to explore a biologically based (bio-based) alternative. Our objective was to quantify the efficacy of wastewater-grown algae pellets and pastes harvested from rotating algal biofilm systems as fertilizers for three crops, ‘Honeycomb’ marigold (Tagetes patula L.), ‘Beefsteak’ tomato (Solanum lycopersicum L.), and ‘Ambrosia’ sweet corn (Zea mays L.). Factorial experiments were designed for each crop with fertilizer type (algae pellets, algae paste, a synthetic controlled-release fertilizer, or a commercially available bio-based fertilizer from wastewater treatment) and substrate (commercial or custom-made) as factors. Shoot growth, shoot nutrient concentration, and substrate pH and electrical conductivity (EC) were affected by fertilizer, substrate, or their interaction. Algae pellets and paste supplied nutrients to all three species effectively, increasing shoot size, dry weight, perceived health, and nutrient concentrations compared with unfertilized controls. Notwithstanding some variability among crops, performance of algal materials was similar to that of the synthetic fertilizer and better than that of the commercial bio-based fertilizer. As a bio-based fertilizer that supplies plants with recycled nutrients sequestered from wastewater, wastewater-grown algae can reduce the impacts of mineral nutrition management in container-crop production by partially supplanting synthetic fertilizer use.

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We evaluated emerging biopolymer horticultural products that provide fertilizer nutrients to plants (fertilizing biocontainers, pelletized biopolymer fertilizer, and biopolymer fertilizer spikes) for their effectiveness during greenhouse production and garden growth of floriculture crops, and during postproduction culture of container ornamentals. Greenhouse experiments (in 4.5-inch containers) and garden trials were performed with tomato (Solanum lycopersicum), pepper (Capsicum annuum), petunia (Petunia ×hybrida), and marigold (Tagetes patula). Postproduction experiments were performed with 12-inch hanging baskets containing lobelia (Lobelia erinus), trailing petunia (Calibrachoa ×hybrida), and petunia, and with 13-inch patio planters containing zonal geranium (Pelargonium ×hortorum), spikes (Cordyline indivisa), bidens (Bidens ferulifolia), and trailing petunia. Although slightly less effective than synthetic controlled-release fertilizer (CRF), all three nutrient-containing biopolymer horticultural products were sufficient and suitable for providing fertilizer nutrients to plants grown in containers and in garden soil. Results of the postproduction experiment provided proof-of-concept for the effectiveness and potential of biopolymer fertilizer spikes as a sustainable method for providing fertilizer nutrients to containerized plants. The current formulation of pelletized biopolymer fertilizer was somewhat more effective for vegetable crops (pepper and tomato) than for floriculture crops (marigold and petunia). For plants produced in 4.5-inch containers, the combination of the fertilizing biocontainer with no additional fertilizer in the greenhouse, then burying the fertilizing container beneath the plant to degrade and provide nutrients in the garden was very effective. Biopolymer horticultural products represent a promising alternative to petroleum-based plastic containers and synthetic fertilizers. Adoption of some or all of these technologies could improve the environmental sustainability of the horticulture industry without reducing productivity or efficiency, and without increasing labor intensity.

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We evaluated the effects of seven types of 4.5-inch top-diameter biocontainers and five rates of paclobutrazol drench on the growth and development of angelonia (Angelonia angustifolia ‘Serena White’) and petunia (Petunia ×hybrida ‘Wave® Purple Improved Prostrate’) during greenhouse production. The container types included were biopolyurethane-coated paper fiber; uncoated paper fiber; rice hull; coconut coir; peat; two types of bioplastic container, one made from 90% polylactic acid (PLA) and 10% lignin [PLA-lignin (90/10 by weight)] and another made from 60% PLA and 40% soy polymer with adipic anhydride {SP.A [PLA-SP.A]; (60/40 by weight)}; and a petroleum-based plastic control. All containers were filled with 590 mL of substrate composed of (by vol) 75% canadian sphagnum moss and 25% perlite. Ten days after transplanting seedlings, 2-fl oz aliquots of deionized water containing 0, 1, 2.5, 5, 10, or 20 mg·L−1 paclobutrazol were applied to the substrate surface as drenches. The date of anthesis was recorded for each plant, and growth data were collected 6 weeks after transplant. Shoots were harvested and dried and shoot dry weight (SDW) was recorded. Height (angelonia only) and diameter of angelonia and petunia and time to flower were calculated. Container type and paclobutrazol concentration interacted to affect size and SDW of angelonia and petunia. Growth index of angelonia treated with 0 mg·L−1 paclobutrazol and grown in coir and peat containers was 19% to 29% and 29% to 38% smaller than that of plants in other container types, respectively. Diameter of untreated petunia grown in peat containers was similar to that of those grown in coir and uncoated paper fiber containers, but was smaller (10.9 to 13.5 cm) than that of plants grown in other container types. As paclobutrazol concentrations increased from 0 to 20 mg·L−1 treatments, SDWs of petunia grown in coir containers were suppressed by 23%, whereas plants grown in rice hull containers were up to 45% less. Our results indicate that growth suppression of angelonia and petunia grown in biocontainers using paclobutrazol drenches varies by the type of biocontainer. Producers should reduce paclobutrazol drench concentrations to produce plants of appropriate size if substituting coir or peat biocontainers for traditional petroleum plastics, whereas no adjustment in plant growth retardant (PGR) drench concentrations is required for plants produced in the other biocontainer types we evaluated.

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Biocontainers made of coconut coir, paper, peat, wood, or other natural fibers are considered sustainable alternatives to containers made of petroleum-based plastics, but growers’ acceptance and use of fiber containers have been limited by their comparatively high cost, low strength and durability, and poor water-use efficiency (WUE). We hypothesized that coating fiber containers with biopolymers would improve their strength, durability, and WUE during plant production. We compared the effectiveness of fiber containers of coir, paper, and wood that were either uncoated or coated with one of four biopolymers [polyamide (PA), polylactic acid (PLA), polyurethane (PU), or tung oil (TO)], peat-fiber containers that were uncoated, and injection-molded containers made of petroleum-based plastic. Ease of coating was assessed, along with the cost and strength of containers, their effectiveness during greenhouse production of ‘Honeycomb’ marigold (Tagetes patula), ‘Autumn Bell’ pepper (Capisicum annuum), ‘Madness Red’ petunia (Petunia ×hybrida), ‘St. John’s Fire’ salvia (Salvia splendens), and ‘Rutgers’ tomato (Solanum lycopersicum), and their WUE during production of salvia and tomato. Castor oil-based PU was the least expensive biopolymer coating and was easy to apply as a water-based dispersion. The other biopolymers required a hazardous and costly organic solvent (e.g., chloroform). Coatings of PA, PLA, and PU increased container strength and durability, and improved WUE during plant production. Coated paper-fiber containers resisted horizontal compression better than petroleum-plastic containers. Greenhouse-grown plants in containers coated with PA, PLA, or PU were larger and rated healthier and of better quality than plants grown in uncoated or TO-coated fiber containers. Plants grown in paper- and coir-fiber containers coated with PA, PLA, or PU were similar in health and size to plants grown in petroleum-plastic containers. Two coatings of PU on paper-fiber containers resulted in WUE similar to that of petroleum-plastic containers for both 4- to 5-inch and gallon sizes. Coating fiber containers with biopolymers slowed, but did not halt, their degradation in soil, indicating that decomposition in soil may be a suitable end-of-life option for biopolymer-coated fiber containers. Our results support the hypothesis that coating fiber containers with biopolymers can improve their effectiveness for crop production, while maintaining an improvement in sustainability over petroleum plastic. Paper-fiber containers coated with PU showed particular promise and were similar in material cost and performance to containers made of petroleum-based plastic.

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Early nodulin genes, such as ENOD2, play a role in the first stages of nodulation. Although ENOD2 is conserved among nodulating legumes studied to date, its occurrence and activity have not been studied among woody legumes such as Maackia amurensis Rupr. & Maxim. Our objective was to localize MaENOD2 transcripts during nodule development and describe the anatomy of nodules formed on the roots of M. amurensis in relation to ENOD2 mRNA accumulation. Nodules (<1 mm, 1-2 mm, >2 mm in diameter, and mature) were prepared for light microscopy, sectioned, and stained with safranin and fast green for structural contrast or with the periodic acid Schiff's reaction for starch. The location of ENOD2 transcripts was determined by using in situ hybridization with DIG-labeled sense and antisense RNAs transcribed from a 602-bp fragment of the coding region of MaENOD2. Mature nodules from M. amurensis possessed peripheral tissues, a distal meristem, and a central infected region characteristic of indeterminant development. In situ hybridization showed that MaENOD2 transcripts accumulated in the distribution layer and uninfected cells of the central symbiotic region. Amyloplasts that contained starch grains were identified in these tissues and in the inner parenchyma of the nodule. Throughout nodule development, transcripts were restricted to areas with high levels of stored starch that surrounded cells actively fixing N2. Our results suggest that ENOD2 in M. amurensis may be a cell wall component of tissues that regulate nutrient flow to and from sinks, such as symbiotic regions of a nodule. These data may lead to a better understanding of the role of the ENOD2 gene family during nodulation.

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Various types of emerging bioplastic containers present a range of physical and chemical properties and can perform differently from one another in production environments. Container performance may be affected by substrate moisture content. We quantified the effects of bioplastic container type and substrate volumetric water content (VWC) on the aesthetic and mechanical strength properties of bioplastic containers and on plant growth. Seedlings of ‘Divine Cherry Red’ new guinea impatiens (Impatiens hawkeri W. Bull) and ‘Pinot Premium Deep Red’ zonal geranium (Pelargonium ×hortorum L.H. Bailey) were transplanted into five types of 11.4-cm–diameter containers, four types made from bioplastics and one type made from petroleum-based plastic and used as a control. Plants were watered to container capacity at transplant, allowed to dry down to VWC thresholds of 0.20 or 0.40 m3·m−3, and subsequently maintained at desired set points by using a precision irrigation system controlled by soil moisture sensors. Total volume of water applied per plant to new guinea impatiens was affected by VWC and not container type, whereas irrigation volume was affected by both for geranium. Growth index and shoot dry mass (SDM) of new guinea impatiens and geranium were affected by VWC. Container type affected growth index and SDM of geranium only. Water use efficiency (WUE) of both species was similar regardless of container type and VWC. Aesthetic quality varied based on VWC for only one container type, which was made from a blend that included soy-based bioplastic. Containers manufactured with polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA) and dried distiller’s grains and solubles (DDGS) or polylactic acid (PLA), soy polymer with adipic anhydride (SP.A), and a proprietary bio-based filler (BR) derived from modified DDGS were stronger when maintained at a lower VWC, 0.20 m3·m−3. Our findings indicate that restricting irrigation to the minimum needed to achieve the desired crop growth is a viable strategy for sustaining aesthetic quality and strength of bioplastic containers manufactured with plant protein–based fillers such as SP.A and BR. Other bioplastic containers, such as those made of PLA–lignin biocomposite, show durability equal to that of petroleum-based plastic containers and maintain pristine appearance regardless of substrate VWC during production.

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Research examining biocontainers for container-crop production has demonstrated that bioplastics made from soybean [Glycine max (L.) Merr.] can supply mineral nutrients to plants. Using soybean-based bioplastics and biochar (BC), we created pelletized fertilizer designed to be incorporated into soilless substrate. We evaluated the growth of ‘Honeycomb’ marigold (Tagetes patula L.), ‘Montego White’ snapdragon (Antirrhinum majus L.), and ‘Laser Synchro Scarlet’ cyclamen (Cyclamen persicum Mill.) grown with pelletized soy-based bioplastic fertilizers [soy-bioplastic polymer (SP.A) compounded with poly(lactic) acid (PLA) or polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA), containing 15% or 25% BC] or a synthetic controlled-release fertilizer (CRF). Our objectives were to evaluate the effectiveness of prototype SP.A-based fertilizers and compare their performance to that of a traditional CRF for growing common greenhouse crops. In our first experiment, treatments of 0, 346, or 691 g nitrogen (N)/m3 of substrate from different fertilizer types were applied to marigold in containers with 15.2-cm top diameter, and in our second experiment, 0, 211, 423, 819, or 1638 g N/m3 were applied to marigold, snapdragon, and cyclamen in containers with 11.4-cm top diameter. Marigolds grown in larger containers accumulated more shoot dry mass (SDM) when supplied with 346 or 691 g N/m3 from each type of the SP.A-based fertilizers than did plants in the nonfertilized control group. Plants supplied with synthetic CRF accumulated similar or greater SDM than plants supplied with the same rate of N from SP.A-based fertilizers. In smaller containers, marigold and cyclamen provided with 211 or 423 g N/m3 from SP.A-based fertilizers accumulated more SDM than nonfertilized plants. Snapdragon provided with SP.A-based fertilizer grew poorly, and plants of this species died before the end of 5 weeks when provided the high and heavy rates of SP.A-based fertilizers. Plants fertilized with CRF had the largest SDM across the three species at most fertilizer concentrations. Tissue N concentration and N uptake were greater for plants provided with SP.A-based fertilizers at most N rates (211, 423, 819 g N/m3) or synthetic CRF (all four rates) than for nonfertilized plants. The effectiveness of prototype SP.A-based fertilizers was better at common application rates (211 and 423 g N/m3), but showed a diminishing return at high and heavy rates of application (819 and 1638 g N/m3). The SP.A-based fertilizers made with PLA copolymer were more effective than those made with PHA. Our results serve as proof-of-concept that pelletized soy-based bioplastic fertilizers can be effective for meeting the nutrient needs of plants during containerized-crop production, but formulations require further development to improve their properties for use with a broad range of species and application rates.

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The container-crops industry relies heavily on single-use plant containers made from petroleum-based plastics, most of which contribute to the solid waste stream in landfills. Plant containers made from biorenewable materials have potential to be more sustainable, but most commercially available biocontainers are either not durable enough for common production cycles or do not effectively biodegrade in soil after use. In 2012 and 2013, we evaluated 28 novel biocontainers (injection-molded prototypes) for their performance during plant production and their biodegradation in soil at two sites with dissimilar soil and climate in Iowa and Nevada, and we compared their performance to that of commercially available biocontainers. Prototype containers made of blends or composites of polylactic acid (PLA) or polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA) performed well during crop production, and many showed an effective rate of biodegradation in soil. Their rates of biodegradation in Nevada were either similar or lower than they were in Iowa, but the highest rated containers were acceptable for use in both locations. Adding biobased fibers of distiller’s dried grains with solubles or corn stover to form composite materials improved biodegradation over that of the base polymers (PLA or PHA) and had little effect on container performance under greenhouse conditions. Many of the injection-molded prototypes performed as well as the petroleum control containers during crop production, yet biodegraded at similar or faster rates than commercially available fiber containers.

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