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  • Author or Editor: James S. Owen Jr x
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Water-efficient soilless substrates need to be engineered to address diminishing water resources. Therefore, we investigated soilless substrates with varying hydrologies to determine their influence on crop growth and plant water status. Aged loblolly pine (Pinus taeda) bark was graded into four particle size fractions. The coarsest fraction was also blended with either sphagnum peat or coir at rates that mimic static physical properties of the unfractionated bark or conventional substrate used by specialty crop producers within the eastern United States. Hibiscus rosa-sinensis ‘Fort Myers’ plugs were established in each of the seven substrates and maintained at optimal substrate water potentials (−50 to −100 hPa). After a salable crop was produced 93 days after transplanting, substrate was allowed to dry until plants completely wilted. Crop morphology and water use was affected by substrate hydrology. Increased substrate unsaturated hydraulic conductivity (K) allowed for plants to access higher proportions of water and therefore increased crop growth. Maintaining optimal substrate water potential allowed plants to be produced with <18 L water. Measurements of plant water availability showed that the substrate water potential at which the crop ceases to withdraw water varied among substrates. Pore uniformity and connectivity could be increased by both fibrous additions and particle fractionation, which resulted in increased substrate hydraulic conductivity (K s). Plants grown in substrates with higher hydraulic conductivities were able to use more water. Soilless substrate hydrology can be modified and used in concert with more efficient irrigation systems to provide more water sustainability in container crop systems.

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An understanding of how dissolved mineral nutrient ions (solutes) move through pine bark substrates during the application of irrigation water is vital to better understand nutrient transport and leaching from containerized crops during an irrigation event. However, current theories on solute transport processes in soilless systems are largely based on research in mineral soils and thus do not necessarily explain solute transport in soilless substrates. A study was conducted to characterize solute transport through a 9 pine bark:1 sand (by volume) substrate by developing and analyzing breakthrough curves (BTCs). Columns filled with pine bark substrate were subjected to the application of a nutrient solution (tracer) and deionized water under saturated and unsaturated conditions. Effluent drained from the columns during these applications was collected and analyzed to determine the effluent concentration (C) of the bulk ions in solution through electrical conductivity (EC) and nitrate (NO3 ), phosphate, and potassium (K+) concentrations. The BTCs were developed by plotting C relative to the concentration of the input solution (Co) (i.e., relative concentration = C/Co) as a function of the cumulative effluent volume. Solutes broke through the column earlier (i.e., with less cumulative effluent) and the transition from C/Co = 0 to 1 occurred more abruptly under unsaturated than saturated conditions. Movement of the anion, NO3 , through the substrate was observed to occur more quickly than the cation K+. Throughout the experiment, 37% of the applied K+ was retained by the pine bark. The adsorption of K+ to pine bark cation exchange sites displaced calcium (Ca2+) and magnesium (Mg2+), of which the combined equivalent charge accounted for 43.1% of the retained K+. These results demonstrate the relative ease that negatively charged fertilizer ions could move through a pine bark substrate while solution is actively flowing through substrate pores such as during irrigation events. This approach to evaluating solute transport may be used in horticultural research to better understand how mineral nutrients move through and subsequently leach from soilless substrates during irrigation. Expanding this knowledge base may lead to the refinement of production practices that improve nutrient and water use efficiency in container nurseries.

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Soilless substrates are routinely amended with dolomite and sulfate-based micronutrients to improve fertility, but the effect of these amendments on phosphorous (P) in substrate pore-water during containerized crop production is poorly understood. The objectives of this research were as follows: compare the effects of dolomite and sulfate-based micronutrient amendments on total P (TP), total dissolved P (TDP), orthophosphate P (OP), and particulate P (PP; TP − TDP) concentrations in pour-through extracts; to model saturated solid phases in substrate pore-water using Visual MINTEQ; and to assess the effects of dolomite and micronutrient amendments on growth and subsequent P uptake efficiency (PUE) of Lagerstroemia L. ‘Natchez’ (crape myrtle) potted in pine bark. Containerized crape myrtle were grown in a greenhouse for 93 days in a 100% pine bark substrate containing a polymer-coated 19N–2.6P–10.8K controlled-release fertilizer (CRF) and one of four substrate amendment treatments: no dolomite or micronutrients (control), 2.97 kg·m−3 dolomite (FL); 0.89 kg·m−3 micronutrients (FM); or both dolomite and micronutrients (FLM). Pour-through extracts were collected approximately weekly and fractioned to measure pore-water TP, TDP, and OP and to calculate PP. Particulate P concentrations in pour-through extracts were generally unaffected by amendments. Relative to the control, amending pine bark with FLM reduced water-extractable OP, TDP, and TP concentrations by ≈56%, had no effect on P uptake efficiency, and resulted in 34% higher total dry weight (TDW) of crape myrtle. The FM substrate had effects similar to those of FLM on plant TDW and PUE, and FM reduced pore-water OP, TDP, and TP concentrations by 32% to 36% compared with the control. Crape myrtle grown in FL had 28% lower TDW but pour-through OP, TDP, and TP concentrations were similar to those of the control. Chemical conditions in FLM were favorable for precipitation of manganese hydrogen phosphate (MnHPO4), which may have contributed to lower water-extractable P concentrations in this treatment. This research suggests that amending pine bark substrate with dolomite and a sulfate-based micronutrient fertilizer should be considered a best management practice for nursery crop production.

Open Access

Pine tree substrates (PTSs) may provide growers with sustainable substrate component options. Improved processing of PTS components has provided new materials with little scientific evaluation or understanding of their hydrophysical behavior and properties. Moisture retention characteristics were developed for two PTSs and four traditional greenhouse components: sphagnum peat, coconut coir, perlite, pine bark, shredded-pine-wood (SPW), and pine-wood-chips (PWC). Mixtures of peat containing 10%, 20%, 30%, 40%, and 50% of perlite, SPW, or PWC were also characterized. Hydrophysical properties were measured, allowing for comparison of the PTS components to the more traditional substrate components (peat, coir, perlite, and pine bark). The SPW was constructed to retain water similarly to peat and pine bark, whereas the PWC was made to increase drainage like perlite. Shredded pine wood had higher total porosity and more easily available water than did PWC components. Total porosities of SPW and PWC were similar to pine bark and coir; air space and drainage were higher than peat and coir because of the lower percentage of fine particles in the PTS components. The two PTS components had a greater influence on water drainage and retention dynamics than did perlite when amended with peat as an aggregate. Water release patterns of SPW or PWC components at low tensions were lower than peat and greater than pine bark; drainage was similar to perlite at higher tensions. Equilibrium capacity variable models predicted similar physical properties (and trends) across multiple container sizes for peat mixes amended with perlite, SPW, or PWC. The impact of PWC on drainage and aeration was similar to perlite in all containers, but these effects were greater in smaller containers.

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