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Stephanie Burnett, Marc van Iersel and Paul Thomas

Osmotic compounds, such as polyethylene glycol 8000 (PEG-8000), reduce plant elongation by imposing controlled drought. However, the effects of PEG-8000 on nutrient uptake are unknown. Impatiens `Dazzler Pink' (Impatiens walleriana Hook. F.) were grown hydroponically in modified Hoagland solutions containing 0, 10, 17.5, 25, 32.5, 40, 47.5, 55, or 62.5 g·L–1 PEG-8000. Impatiens were up to 68% shorter than control plants when grown with PEG-8000 in the nutrient solution. Plants treated with PEG-8000 rates above 25 g·L–1 were either damaged or similar in size to seedlings treated with 25 g·L–1 of PEG-8000. Impatiens leaf water potentials (Ψw) were positively correlated with plant height. PEG-8000 reduced the electrical conductivity of Hoagland solutions as much as 40% compared to nontreated Hoagland solutions, suggesting that PEG-8000 may bind some of the nutrient ions in solution. Foliar tissue of PEG-treated impatiens contained significantly less nitrogen, calcium, zinc, and copper, but significantly more phosphorus and nickel than tissue from nontreated impatiens. However, no nutrient deficiency symptoms were induced.

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Holly L. Scoggins and Marc W. van Iersel

Growing medium electrical conductivity (EC) is used in laboratory analysis and greenhouse production as a measure of the nutrient content of the growing medium. Fast, accurate ways to measure growing medium EC will make it easier to determine EC and maintain it within a suitable range for a particular crop. Several probes have been developed that can be inserted directly into the growing medium of container-grown crops for measurement of EC. We tested the sensitivity of four in situ EC probes (Field Scout, HI 76305, WET sensor, and SigmaProbe) at a range of temperatures, substrate volumetric water contents (VWC), and fertilizer concentrations. The HI 76305 probe was highly sensitive to temperature, while the WET sensor was temperature-sensitive at high ECs above its normal operating range. The probes responded differently to increasing VWC. The SigmaProbe and WET sensor measure the EC of the pore water specifically and show a decrease in EC with increasing water content, as the fertilizer ions in the pore water become more diluted as VWC increases. EC readings of the HI 76305 and Field Scout probes, which measure the EC of the bulk substrate (growing medium, water, and air combined) increased with increasing water content as the added water helps conduct the current of these meters. At a VWC above 35%, there was little effect of VWC on EC readings of all probes. The EC measured with the various in situ probes differed slightly among the probes but was highly and positively correlated with all three of the standard solution extraction methods [pour-through, 1:2 dilution, and saturated media extract (SME)] over the range of fertilizer concentrations at a given temperature and VWC. These results make it possible to convert substrate EC guidelines that have been established for any of the three standard methods for use with the in situ probes, though our results indicate the substrate VWC must be above 35% for the interpretation to be valid. The in situ probes are a viable alternative for measurements of substrate EC and eliminate the step of substrate solution extraction, thus simplifying data collection.

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Jong-Goo Kang and Marc W. van Iersel

In the last decade, there has been an increasing focus on maintaining the electrical conductivity (EC) of leachate of bedding plants within an optimal range. However, there has been no research determining whether an optimal leachate EC results in better growth than using constant fertilizer concentrations throughout the production period. To evaluate the effects of constant fertilizer concentrations and constant leachate EC on the growth of wax begonia (Begonia × semperflorens-cultorum Hort.) ‘Cocktail mix’ and petunia (Petunia × hybrida Hort. Vilm-Andr.) ‘Gnome white’, we grew plants either with one of six different fertilizer concentrations (fertilizer EC of 0.5, 1.5, 2.5, 3.5, 4.5, or 5.5 dS·m−1) or by maintaining a leachate EC close to 0.5, 1.5, 2.5, 3.5, 4.5, or 5.5 dS·m−1. The leachate EC of plants fertilized with constant fertilizer concentrations increased throughout the experiment if the fertilizer EC was 2.5 dS·m−1 or higher, was stable in the 1.5 dS·m−1 treatment, and decreased in the 0.5 dS·m−1 treatment. In treatments in which we tried to maintain the leachate EC constant, the leachate EC on average was within 0.2 dS·m−1 of the target EC. As a result of the acidic nature of the fertilizer, the pH of the growing medium decreased throughout the experiment with increasing leachate or fertilizer EC. When plants were fertilized with constant fertilizer concentrations, fertilizer solution EC of 0.52 and 1.24 dS·m−1 were estimated to be optimal for begonia and petunia, respectively. When the growing medium was maintained at a constant EC, 1.0 and 1.7 dS·m−1 were estimated to be optimal for begonia and petunia, respectively. Growth of both begonia and petunia was greatly inhibited when high fertilizer concentrations caused accumulation of soluble salts in the growing medium. Growth was reduced more by high fertilizer EC than by high leachate EC treatments. This difference probably occurred because superoptimal fertilizer concentrations resulted in very high leachate EC (up to 10.5 dS·m−1 for petunia and 12.5 dS·m−1 for begonia), which in turn inhibited growth. Periodic measurements of leachate EC can be a valuable tool in fertilizer management to prevent such excess buildup of salts in the growing medium.

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Julián Miralles-Crespo and Marc W. van Iersel

Irrigation control systems that irrigate container-grown plants based on crop water needs can reduce water and fertilizer use and increase the sustainability of ornamental crop production. The use of soil moisture sensors to determine when to irrigate is a viable option. We tested a commercially available irrigation controller (CS3500; Acclima, Meridian, ID), which uses time domain transmissometry (TDT) sensors to measure soil volumetric water content (θ). The objectives of this study were: 1) to test the accuracy of TDT sensors in soilless substrate; 2) to quantify the ability of the Acclima CS3500 irrigation controller to maintain stable θ readings during the production of container-grown begonia (Begonia semperflorens L.) by turning a drip irrigation system on and off as needed; and 3) to study the growth and photosynthetic physiology of begonia at six θ levels. Calibration of the TDT sensors in pots filled with substrate (but without plants) showed that the θ determined by the TDT sensors had a very close relationship (R 2 = 0.99) with the gravimetrically determined θ, but the TDT sensors underestimated θ by ≈0.08 m3·m−3. Therefore, a custom calibration of the TDT sensors for the soilless substrate was necessary to get accurate θ data. The irrigation controller was programmed to maintain six θ thresholds, ranging from 0.136 to 0.472 m3·m−3 (based on our own sensor calibration), and was able to maintain θ readings within 0.008 m3·m−3 of the threshold. Theta and Sigma probes were used to collect comparative θ and bulk electrical conductivity (EC) data, respectively. The results showed a strong correlation with TDT sensor measurements of θ (R 2 = 0.92) but a moderate relationship for bulk EC (R 2 = 0.53). The begonias had similar dry weight at θ levels of 0.348 m3·m−3 and higher, whereas total evapotranspiration increased linearly with the θ threshold. The lowest θ threshold reduced leaf size, net photosynthesis (Pn), and stomatal conductance (g S). Overall, the TDT sensors can provide accurate measurements of θ in soilless substrate but need substrate-specific calibration. The Acclima CS3500 controller, using TDT sensors, was able to maintain stable θ readings throughout a production cycle. These results suggest that this irrigation controller may be suitable for production of greenhouse crops as well as in drought stress research.

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Geoffrey M. Weaver and Marc W. van Iersel

Physiological antitranspirants can reduce financial risks to growers by temporarily preventing drought stress, improving product quality, and extending the shelf life of ornamental bedding plants. Exogenous abscisic acid (ABA) is an effective antitranspirant that induces stomatal closure in a rate-dependent manner, reducing transpirational water loss in many species. However, it may also cause chlorosis, which reduces product quality. Synthetic ABA analogs have similar effects on stomatal conductance (g S) but are not known to induce chlorosis. We studied the effects of ABA and its analog 8′ acetylene ABA methyl-ester (PBI 429) on g S and net photosynthesis (Pn) in pansies (Viola ×wittrockiana), compared the efficacy and longevity of each compound, and quantified the resulting chlorosis. Plants were treated with spray solutions of ABA (0 to 2000 mg·L−1) and PBI 429 (0 to 200 mg·L−1) and irrigated daily. Gas exchange and leaf chlorophyll measurements were made twice weekly for 2 weeks. Additional measurements were taken once or twice weekly through 47 days. Abscisic acid reduced leaf chlorophyll content and Pn in a rate-dependent manner for 14 days after application but reduced g S for only 11 days, whereas PBI 429 reduced Pn and g S similarly for 7 days and did not reduce leaf chlorophyll content. Reductions in g S and Pn were greatest on the first day after treatment for both compounds. Our results demonstrate that ABA is more effective than PBI 429 at 100 and 200 mg·L−1, but also causes chlorosis, whereas PBI 429 is an effective antitranspirant without this phytotoxic effect.

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Svoboda V. Pennisi and Marc W. van Iersel

Interiorscape plants have many documented benefits, but their potential for carbon sequestration is not clear. This study was undertaken to quantify the amount of carbon assimilation under growth chamber conditions designed to mimic the photosynthetic photon flux (PPF) levels and temperatures of typical indoor environments and to quantify the amount of carbon assimilation in situ in a representative interiorscape composed of a variety of plant species and sizes. Quantitative data were obtained in 1) growth chambers with a typical range of PPF levels encountered indoors (≈10, 20, and 30 μmol·m−2·s−1); and 2) in situ conditions in an interiorscape. Under growth chamber conditions, most species exhibited positive dry mass accumulation and carbon sequestration but Sanseveria and Dracaena ‘Janet Craig’ exhibited consistent dry mass loss throughout the 10 weeks under simulated conditions. Carbon content was lower in herbaceous species (e.g., Scindapsus aureus, 38% of dry mass) compared with woody ones (e.g., Ficus benjamina, 43%). PPF-saturated net photosynthetic rates of plants were low, ranging from 3.4 to 7.0 μmol·m−2·s−1, whereas their light compensation points ranged from 8 to 78 μmol·m−2·s−1. In situ, plants exhibited varying dry mass gain, largely dependent on size. In general, a large plant and/or species with a higher amount of woody tissue in their above- or belowground organs (e.g., 4.6 m high arboreal plant) sequestered more carbon than small and/or herbaceous species. This study is the first to provide quantitative data of carbon sequestration in interiorscape environments.

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Marc van Iersel and Jong-Goo Kang

Subirrigation is an economically attractive irrigation method for producing bedding plants. Because excess fertilizer salts are not leached from the growing medium, salts can accumulate in the growing medium. Fertilizer guidelines developed for overhead irrigation may not be appropriate for subirrigation systems. Our objective was to quantify the effect of the fertilizer concentration (N at 0, 135, 285, and 440 mg·L–1) on whole-plant CO2 exchange and growth of subirrigated pansies. Whole plant CO2 exchange rate (net photosynthesis and dark respiration) was measured once every 10 min for 31 days. Whole-plant photosynthesis, dark respiration, and carbon use efficiency increased during the experiment. Fertilizer concentration started to affect the growth rate of the plants after approximately 7 days. Maximum photosynthesis and growth were achieved with N at about 280 mg·L–1 in the fertilizer solution [electrical conductivity = 2 dS·m–1]. Growth was reduced by ≈10% when the plants were fertilized with N at 135 and 440 mg·L–1 compared to 280 mg·L–1. Growth of plants watered without any fertilizer was greatly reduced, and plants showed symptoms of N and K deficiency. The size of the root system decreased and the shoot: root ratio increased with increasing fertilizer concentration, but the size of the root system was adequate in all treatments. These results indicate that subirrigated pansies can tolerate a wide range of fertilizer concentrations with relatively little effect on plant growth.

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Jong-Goo Kang and Marc van Iersel

Fertilizer recommendations for fertilizing bedding plants are normally based on nitrogen content of the fertilizer solution. However, nutrient availability is more closely related to the concentration of nutrients in the growing medium than the concentration in the fertilizer solution. Environmental conditions can affect the accumulation of nutrients in the growing medium and optimal fertilizer concentrations are likely to depend on environmental conditions. To test this hypothesis, we grew petunias and geraniums under three temperature regimes (35 °C/27C, 25 °C/17C, and 15 °C/7 °C) and with five concentrations of fertilizers [electrical conductivity (EC) of 0.15, 1, 2, 3, and 4 dS·m–1]. Temperature and fertilizer EC affected the plant growth. Optimal fertilizer EC decreased as temperature increased. Growth was better correlated with EC of the growing medium than with EC of the fertilizer solution. Irrespective of growing temperature, plant growth was best when EC of the growing medium was between 3 and 4 dS·m–1. A lower growing medium EC slowed down growth, presumably because of mild nutrient deficiencies. Higher fertilizer concentrations in the growing medium (>4 dS·m–1) decreased growth because of salt stress. The EC of the growing medium increased with increasing EC of the fertilizer solution and with increasing temperature. Because of the interactive effect of fertilizer concentration and temperature on the EC of the growing medium, plants should be grown with more dilute fertilizer solutions at higher temperatures. Fertilization guidelines for growers should be based on maintaining the EC of the growing medium within an optimal range instead of the more traditional recommendations based on the concentration of the fertilizer solution.

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Krishna S. Nemali and Marc W. van Iersel

Environmental conditions and incorporation of nutrients into the growing medium can affect the fertilizer needs of bedding plants. To evaluate the effects of photosynthetic photon flux (PPF) and starter fertilizer on the fertilizer requirements of subirrigated plants, we grew wax begonias (Begonia semperflorens-cultorum Hort.) under three PPF levels (averaging 4.4, 6.2, and 9.9 mol·m-2·d-1) and four fertilizer concentrations [electrical conductivity (EC) of 0.15, 0.33, 0.86, and 1.4 dS·m-1] in a normal (with starter fertilizer, EC = 2.1 dS·m-1) and heavily leached (with little starter fertilizer, EC = 0.9 dS·m-1) growing medium. Except for shoot dry mass, we did not find any significant interactions between PPF and fertilizer concentration on any of the growth parameters. There was an interactive effect of fertilizer concentration and starter fertilizer on all growth parameters (shoot dry mass, leaf area, plant height, and number of flowers). When the growing medium contained a starter fertilizer, fertilizer concentration had little effect on growth. When the growing medium was leached before transplanting, growth was best with a fertilizer EC of 0.86 or 1.4 dS·m-1. Water-use efficiency (WUE) was calculated from 24-hour carbon exchange and evapotranspiration measurements, and used to estimate the required [N] in the fertilizer solution to achieve a target tissue N concentration of 45 mg·g-1. Increasing PPF increased WUE and the required [N] (from 157 to 203 mg·L-1 at PPF levels of 4.4 and 9.9 mol·m-2·d-1, respectively). The PPF effect on the required [N] appeared to be too small to be of practical significance, since dry mass data did not confirm that plants grown at high light needed higher fertilizer concentrations. Thus, fertilizer concentrations need not be adjusted based on PPF.

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Krishna S. Nemali and Marc W. van Iersel

To evaluate the effects of increasing photosynthetic photon flux (PPF) on optimal fertilizer concentrations, we grew wax begonia (Begonia semperflorens-cultorum Hort.) and petunia (Petunia ×hybrida Hort. Vilm-Andr.) seedlings in a soilless growing medium without starter fertilizer under three PPF treatments (high, medium, and low corresponding to an average daily PPF of 23.2, 15.6, and 9.8 mol·m-2.d-1, respectively) and subirrigated with six fertilizer concentrations [electrical conductivity (EC) of 0.12, 0.65, 1.18, 1.71, 2.24, and 2.77 dS·m-1]. Compared to low PPF, shoot dry mass of wax begonia and petunia seedlings increased 2- and 3-fold, respectively, at high PPF. Fertilizer EC resulting in maximum shoot dry mass was the same (1.28 and 1.87 dS·m-1 for wax begonia and petunia, respectively) in the three PPF treatments. Shoot dry mass and leaf area of petunias decreased little at higher than optimal fertilizer EC in the three PPF treatments, while growth of begonia was inhibited at high fertilizer EC. The optimal fertilizer range, calculated as the lower and upper limits of fertilizer EC within which plant growth was not reduced by >10% as compared to the optimum EC was 0.65 to 1.71 dS·m-1 in wax begonia and 1.18 to >2.77 dS·m-1 for petunia. Compared to those grown at 1.18 dS·m-1, wax begonias grown at 1.71 dS·m-1 had similar dry mass, but were shorter in all three PPF treatments (average height reduction of 6.5%). In general, EC of the top layer of the growing medium was higher than that of the bottom layer of the growing medium, and this difference increased with increasing EC.