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  • Author or Editor: Jonathan M. Frantz x
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There are several commercial materials available that have remarkable hydrating properties and many claim them to be ideal for use in horticulture and deliver water to the roots better than other soilless media. These are often referred to as “hydrogels.” There is general agreement in the literature that the physical characteristics of hydrogels are altered in the presence of divalent cations such as Ca and Mg. Tap water can reduce the water holding capacity by 70% or more. Unfortunately, the literature agrees on little else in terms of the performance of hydrogels. Some of the confusion is caused in part by comparing one type of hydrogel to another but treating all as equal. There has been no mathematical performance evaluation of hydrogel and what affect the environment may play in that performance to predict potential irrigation savings or shelf life extension. In a series of greenhouse and laboratory studies, we have evaluated the physical characteristics of several types of hydrogels and characterized bedding plant performance throughout a typical growth cycle. We measured leaf expansion, water content of the media, root growth, flowering, and fresh and dry masses. We have found little to no differences in the rate of leaf expansion when using hydrogels, but enhanced root growth early in production with the hydrogels. Our results indicated that plant growth was enhanced early in production, but any advantage they may have was lost by the end of production. Plants grown in hydrogels needed irrigation less frequently than those without hydrogel, but the effect was diminished over time. Since the use of the material can add about 15% to the cost of potting media, this data is designed to assist growers in hydrogel use and to determine any benefits of the added costs.

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“Float-bed” (FB) is a simple hydroponic system used by the tobacco industry for transplant production. “Ebb-and-flood” (EF) is a modified FB system with periodic draining of the bed to limit water availability and control plant growth. Field-bed cabbage (Brassica oleracea L. gp. Capitata) transplant production was compared with FB, EF, and overhead-irrigated plug-tray greenhouse systems. Plants were produced in May and June and transplanted in a field near Blacksburg, Va., in June and July of 1994 and 1995, respectively. Beds for FB and EF production consisted of galvanized metal troughs (3.3 × 0.8 × 0.3 m) lined with a double layer of 0.075-mm-thick black plastic film. In 1994, both EF and FB seedlings were not hardened before transplanting, were severely stressed after transplanting, and had higher seedling mortality compared with plants from other systems. Plug-tray transplants showed the greatest increase in leaf area following transplanting and matured earlier than seedlings produced in other systems. In 1995, EF- and FB-grown cabbage plants were hardened by withholding water before transplanting, and seedlings had greater fresh mass and leaf area than plug-tray or field-bed seedlings 3.5 weeks after transplanting. Less succulent cabbage transplants were grown in EF and FB systems containing 66 mg·L-1 N (40% by nitrate) and 83 mg·L-1 K. Compared with the FB system, the EF system allowed control of water availability, which slowed plant growth, and increased oxygen concentration in the root zone. Both EF and FB systems are suitable for cabbage transplant production.

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The cause of sudden substrate pH decline by geranium is unknown. Low Fe and low P have been shown to cause many plant species to acidify the substrate. Research was done to determine if low Fe or P stresses caused four geranium (Pelargonium ×hortorum Bailey) cultivars to acidify nutrient solution. Two cultivars were susceptible and two resistant to substrate acidification based on a grower survey. Rooted geranium cuttings were transferred to 4-L containers containing modified Hoagland's solution with N supplied as 15% NH4 and 85% NO3. The plants were grown in a greenhouse for 44 days. Treatments consisted of a complete nutrient solution and two similar solutions devoid of either Fe or P. Solutions pH was set at 5.8, changed weekly, and tested 3 and 6 days after each change. Because all cultivars showed similar responses, results were combined. Twenty days after transplanting (DAT), plants in all treatments, including control, caused solution pH to fall below 5. At 37 DAT, the solution pH levels for control, minus Fe, and minus P treatments were 4.1, 3.7, and 3.6, respectively. Results indicated that geranium is an acidifying plant when N is supplied as 15% NH4 and 85% NO3. Additionally, low Fe and low P stresses increase the acidification rate. Total dry weights of minus-P plants were about half that of minus-Fe plants. This indicated that plants under P stress had a higher specific rate of acidification than plants under Fe stress.

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The cause of sudden substrate pH decline by geranium (Pelargonium ×hortorum Bailey) is unknown. Published reports indicate that this response can be influenced in other plants by temperature and light extremes. The first of five experiments compared plants with all flowers removed to plants that were allowed to flower. Experiment 2 compared plants grown at four light levels (105, 210, 450 and 1020 μmol·m–2·s–1). Experiment 3 compared plants grown at four temperatures (14/10, 18/14, 22/18 and 26/22 °C day/night). Experiment 4 was a repeat of Experiment 1 and Experiment 5 was a factorial combining the three highest light levels and the three highest temperature levels. Plants allowed to form flowers had a final substrate pH of 5.7 compared to 6.3 for plants where flowers were removed. With increasing increments of temperature, substrate pH declined from 6.8 to 4.6 and with increasing light intensity from 6.1 to 4.8. There was no effect of flower removal in Experiment 4. Light and temperature had no consistent effects in Experiment 5 throughout 46 days after planting, with most pH values remaining in the acceptable range of 5.6–6.1. By 60 days, temperature treatments began to segregate, with pH being highest in the low-temperature treatments and lowest, down to 5.5, in the highest-temperature treatments. High temperature stimulated geranium acidification in both experiments, with the effect more severe in the first experiment. The flowering and high light effects were not duplicated in the second trial. This indicates that an additional factor is involved in expression of the light, temperature, and flowering control of acidification.

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A solid-matrix-over-liquid (hybrid) growth system was developed for direct sowing of small-seeded crop species into hydroponic culture and compared for performance with a standard solid-matrix, capillary-wick hydroponic system. Seeds were sown directly onto a 3-cm (1.2-inch) deep soilless seed bed occupying 0.147 m2 (1.582 ft2) within a tray. The planted seed bed was moistened by wicking up nutrient solution through polyester wicking material from a 7.0-L (6.6-qt) reservoir just below the matrix seed bed. The hybrid system successfully grew dense [435 plants/m2 (40.4 plants/ft2)], uniform canopies of dwarf Brassica napus L. in a controlled-environment growth room. Seed yield using the hybrid system was twice that achieved with the matrix-based system. Both systems eliminated the labor needed to transplant many small seedlings from a separate nurse bed into a standard bulk liquid hydroponic system. Root-zone pH extremes caused by ion uptake and exchange between roots and unrinsed soilless media were avoided for the hybrid system by the short dwell time of roots in the thin matrix before they grew through the matrix and an intervening headspace into the bulk solution below, where pH was easily managed. Once roots grew into the bulk solution, its level was lowered, thereby cutting off further capillary wicking action and drying out the upper medium. Beyond early seedling establishment, water and nutrients were provided to the crop stand only by the bulk nutrient solution. This hybrid hydroponic system serves as a prototype for largerscale soilless growth systems that could be developed for production of smallseeded crops in greenhouses or controlled environments.

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Currently, formulation of inorganic fertilizers is based on cation amounts such as NH4, K, Mg, Ca, Fe, MN Cu, and Zn, whereas anion species and amounts are viewed, with few exceptions, as necessary fillers. The delivery of cations in the nutrient solution is associated with an anion such as Cl, SO4, NO3, PO4 or CO3. These anions at higher concentrations can result in different growth responses by altering the rhizosphere pH, soluble salts, and influencing the uptake of both cations and anions. The impact of these anions has not been extensively studied in the formulation of inorganic fertilizers. Several experiments assessed the effect of SO4 and Cl on root and shoot growth and development of bedding plants represented by petunia, impatiens, and vinca. In all treatments, plant height, shoot and root dry weight, and flower number decreased with an increase in Cl concentration. Root morphology was marked by fewer total roots and shorter primary and secondary roots when grown with Cl anions compared to the plants grown with SO4 anions. This indicates that anions have a larger role in determining optimum fertilizer formulation than previously believed. This information provides an additional tool in formulating fertilizers for greenhouse bedding plant production.

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Nitrogen (N) is often supplied to plants in excess to minimize the possibility of encountering N deficiency that would reduce the plant quality due to leaf chlorosis and necrosis. This is not only costly, but it can reduce the quality of plants, predispose the plants to biotic stress such as Botrytisgray mold, and extend the production cycle. Several tools can be used to identify N deficiency in plants, and most are based on chlorophyll reflectance or transmittance. While sensitive when plants are experiencing N deficiency, spectral signals can saturate in an ample N supply and make it difficult to discern sufficient and supra-optimal N nondestructively. Three diverse ornamental species (begonia, Begoniacea×tuberhybrida; butterflybush, Buddlejadavidii; and geranium, Pelargonium×hortorum) were grown with a broad range of N supplied (1.8 to 58 mm) in three separate studies that resulted in a range of 1.8% to 6% tissue N concentration. Using a spectroradiometer, we measured reflectance from the whole plants twice over a period of 3 weeks. A first-derivative analysis of the data identified six wavebands that were strongly correlated to both begonia and butterflybush tissue N concentration (r 2 ∼ 0.9), and two of these also correlated well to geranium N concentration. These wavebands did not correlate to chlorophyll peak absorbance, but rather blue, green, red, and far-red “edges” of known plant pigments. These wavebands hold promise for use as a nondestructive indicator of N status over a much broader range of tissue N concentration than current sensors can reliably predict.

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Geranium (Pelargonium ×hortorum) is considered to be one of the top-selling floriculture plants, and is highly responsive to increased macro- and micronutrient bioavailability. In spite of its economic importance, there are few nutrient disorder symptoms reported for this species. The lack of nutritional information contributes to suboptimal geranium production quality. Understanding the bioenergetic construction costs during nutrient deficiency can provide insight into the significance of that element predisposing plants to other stress. Therefore, this study was conducted to investigate the impact of nutrient deficiency on plant growth. Pelargonium plants were grown hydroponically in a glass greenhouse. The treatment consisted of a complete modified Hoagland's millimolar concentrations of macronutrients (15 NO3-N, 1.0 PO4-P, 6.0 K, 5.0 Ca, 2.0 Mg, and 2.0 SO4-S) and micromolar concentrations of micronutrients (72 Fe, 9.0 Mn, 1.5 Cu, 1.5 Zn, 45.0 B, and 0.1 Mo) and 10 additional solutions each devoid of one essential nutrient (N, P, Ca, Mg, S, Fe, Mn, Cu, Zn, or B). The plants were photographed and divided into young, maturing, and old leaves, the respective petioles, young and old stems, flowers, buds, and roots at “hidden hunger,” incipient, mid- and advanced-stages of nutrient stress. Unique visual deficiency symptoms of interveinal red pigmentation were noted on the matured leaves of P- and Mg-deficient plants, while N-deficient plants developed chlorotic leaf margins. Tissue N concentration greatly influenced bioenergetic construction costs, probably due to differences in protein content. This information will provide an additional tool in producing premium geraniums for the greenhouse industry.

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Diagnosis of incipient disease based on visual symptoms of geraniums (Pelargonium ×hortorum) exposed to water mold pathogens is often difficult, especially when the plants are maintained under optimum growing conditions. Such plants tend to be asymptomatic until late in the infection process when control methods are less effective and the aesthetic value of the finished crop is diminished. To circumvent such a problem and to be able to predict the susceptibility of the plants to infection, we used infrared transducers to measure leaf surface temperature, in addition to other parameters, in geranium plants exposed to a number of soil pathogens that are commonly associated with greenhouse production. Differences in leaf temperature among treatments were noticeable by 2 week after inoculation and were the greatest in week 7. However, visual disease symptoms were not detected until 3 weeks after inoculation. Results of this study suggest that leaf temperature measurements are a versatile, nondestructive way of rapidly determining whether plants are under pathogen stress before visual symptoms develop.

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Sudden pH decline (SPD) describes the situation where crops growing at an appropriate pH rapidly (within 1–2 weeks) cause the substrate pH to shift downward one to two units. ‘Designer Dark Red’ geraniums (Pelargonium ×hortorum Bailey) were grown in three experiments to assess possible effects of temperature on SPD. The first experiment tested the effect of four day/night temperature regimes (14 °C day/10 °C night, 18 °C day/14 °C night, 22 °C day/18 °C night, and 26 °C day/22 °C night) on substrate acidification. At 63 days after transplanting (DAT), substrate pH declined from 6.8 to 4.6 as temperature increased. Tissue phosphorus (P) of plants grown at the highest three temperatures was extremely low (0.10%–0.14% of dry weight), and P stress has been reported to cause acidification. It was not possible to determine if the drop in substrate pH was a singular temperature effect or a combination of high temperature and low P. To resolve this, a second experiment tested a factorial combination of the three highest temperatures from the first experiment and five preplant P rates (0, 0.065, 0.13, 0.26, or 0.52 g·L−1 substrate). Regardless of tissue P concentrations, which ranged from deficient to above adequate, substrate pH decreased with increasing temperature. At 63 DAT, in the 0.065 and 0.13 P treatments, tissue P was deficient and pH decreased with increasing temperature from 5.6 to 4.7 and 5.9 to 4.7, respectively. In the 0.26 P treatment, tissue P was adequate at the lowest temperature and there was no acidification. At the mid- and highest temperatures, tissue P was deficient and statistically equivalent, yet pH decreased to 5.2 and 4.7, respectively. In the highest P treatment, tissue P levels were unaffected by temperature, above adequate, and pH declined with each increase in temperature from 6.5 to 5.0. The results at 63 DAT once more showed that temperature acted independent of tissue P and caused geraniums to acidify the substrate. In the third experiment, the amount of acidity produced by roots of plants grown at the two highest temperatures used in the first two experiments was quantified. Plants grown at the higher temperature produced 28% more acid per gram dry root. The results herein indicate that high temperature can induce SPD by geranium.

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