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Kenneth G. McCabe, Christopher J. Currey, James A. Schrader, David Grewell, Jake Behrens and William R. Graves

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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Heidi A. Kratsch, James A. Schrader, Kenneth G. McCabe, Gowrishankar Srinivasan, David Grewell and William R. Graves

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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Kenneth G. McCabe, James A. Schrader, Samy Madbouly, David Grewell and William R. Graves

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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James A. Schrader, Christopher J. Currey, Nicholas J. Flax, David Grewell and William R. Graves

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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Nicholas J. Flax, Christopher J. Currey, James A. Schrader, David Grewell and William R. Graves

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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Nicholas J. Flax, Christopher J. Currey, James A. Schrader, David Grewell and William R. Graves

We quantified the growth and quality of ‘Arizona Sun’ blanket flower (Gaillardia ×grandiflora) grown in different bioplastic containers and characterized the interest of commercial perennial producers in using bioplastic-based biocontainers in their herbaceous perennial production schemes. Plants were grown in three types of #1 trade gallon (0.75 gal) containers at five commercial perennial producers in the upper-midwestern United States. Containers included one made of polylactic acid (PLA) and a proprietary bio-based filler derived from a coproduct of corn ethanol production, a commercially available recycled paper fiber container twice dip-coated with castor oil–based biopolyurethane and a petroleum-based plastic (control) container. Plant growth data were collected when most plants had open flowers, and plant shoots, roots, and containers were rated by commercial grower participants. Questionnaires were administered at the beginning and at the end of the experiment to characterize the perceptions and interest of growers in using these containers, their interest in different bioplastic-based container attributes, and their satisfaction from using the containers. Container type and grower interacted to affect growth index (GI), shoot dry weight (SDW), and container rating. Root rating was affected by container type or grower and shoot rating was unaffected by either. Our results indicate that commercial producers can adapt these bioplastic-based biocontainers to blanket flower production with few or no changes to their crop cultural practices.

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Nicholas J. Flax, Christopher J. Currey, James A. Schrader, David Grewell and William R. Graves

Our objectives were to quantify the growth and quality of herbaceous annuals grown in different types of bioplastic-based biocontainers in commercial greenhouses and quantify producer interest in using these types of biocontainers in their production systems. Seedlings of ‘Serena White’ angelonia (Angelonia angustifolia) and ‘Maverick Red’ zonal geranium (Pelargonium ×hortorum) that had been transplanted into nine different (4.5-inch diameter) container types [eight bioplastic-based biocontainers and a petroleum-based plastic (PP) (control)] were grown at six commercial greenhouses in the upper midwestern United States. Plants were grown alongside other bedding annuals in each commercial greenhouse, and producers employed their standard crop culture practices. Data were collected to characterize growth when most plants were flowering. Questionnaires to quantify producer perceptions and interest in using bioplastic-based biocontainers, interest in different container attributes, and satisfaction were administered at select times during the experiment. Container type interacted with greenhouse to affect angelonia growth index (GI) and shoot dry weight (SDW), as well as shoot, root, and container ratings. Container type or greenhouse affected geranium GI and shoot rating, and their interaction affected SDW, and root and container ratings. These results indicate that commercial producers can grow herbaceous annuals in a range of bioplastic-based biocontainers with few or no changes to their crop culture practices.

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James A. Schrader, Gowrishankar Srinivasan, David Grewell, Kenneth G. McCabe and William R. Graves

As part of a project to develop and assess bio-based, biodegradable plastics for their potential to replace petroleum-based plastics in specialty-crop containers, we evaluated prototype containers made of protein-based polymers from soybean [Glycine max (L.) Merr.] for their effectiveness during production of plants in greenhouses and subsequent establishment of those plants outdoors. Our objective was to assess the function and biodegradation of soy-based plastic containers with special attention to whether a fertilizer effect results from degrading containers before and after plants are moved outdoors. In our first experiment, plants of tomato (Solanum lycopersicum L.) and pepper (Capsicum annuum L.) were grown in soy-plastic containers and control containers of petroleum-based (polypropylene) plastic under greenhouse conditions for 4 weeks. Each plant then was transplanted and grown in an outdoor garden plot for 5 weeks with the container removed, broken into pieces less than 4 cm in diameter, and installed beneath the roots of the transplant. Three additional experiments were performed: a greenhouse trial to quantify the relative concentration and form of plant-available nitrogen (N) released from soy-plastic containers of three types [soy plastic, soy plastic coated with polylactic acid (PLA), and soy–PLA polymer blended 50:50 by weight] during production; a greenhouse trial to evaluate the same three container types under production conditions with five container-crop species; and a field trial to assess the effects of the 50:50 soy–PLA container on transplant establishment. Plant-available N was released from soy-based plastic containers during greenhouse production, and transplant establishment was enhanced when the soy-based container was removed, crushed, and installed in the soil near plant roots. During greenhouse production, containers of high-percentage soy plastic released N at an excessive rate (623 mg·L−1 in leachate) and predominantly in the form of NH4 + (99.4% at 3 weeks of culture). Containers made by blending soy plastic with PLA released N at a favorable rate during production. In both field trials, growth and health of plants cultured in soy containers were better than those of controls. Although the design and material formulation of soy-plastic containers need to be improved to optimize container integrity and plant health during production, our results illustrate the potential to use soy-based plastics in biodegradable containers that release N at rates that promote growth and health of plants during greenhouse production and establishment of transplants outdoors.

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Kenneth G. McCabe, James A. Schrader, Christopher J. Currey, David Grewell and William R. Graves

Bioplastics and bioplastic composites are a group of emerging sustainable materials that exhibit favorable characteristics for use in horticulture-production containers. Biocontainers made from composite materials of soy [Glycine max (L.) Merr.] bioplastic and poly(lactic) acid (PLA) have been shown to release nitrogen (N) at a rate suitable for supporting plant growth. We hypothesized that fertilizer applications can be reduced while maintaining adequate nutrition levels for plant production when using soy-based containers. To test this hypothesis and quantify potential reduction of fertilizer, we grew marigold ‘Honeycomb’ (Tagetes patula L.) in five prototypes of soy-composite biocontainers [soy bioplastic compounded with PLA or polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA)] and a petroleum-plastic (polypropylene) control container with five fertilizer treatments supplying 1) 60N‒4P‒49K; 2) 75N‒5P‒61K; 3) 105N‒7P‒85K; 4) 150N‒10P‒122K; or 5) 300N‒20P‒244K mg. At harvest, plants grown in all soy‒PLA composite biocontainers and protein + PLA biocontainers had higher concentrations and contents of N and P compared with plants grown in petroleum-plastic containers across all fertilizer treatments. Shoot K concentrations were highest for plants grown in all soy‒PLA and soy‒PHA biocontainers compared with plants grown in petroleum-plastic containers across all fertilizer treatments, whereas shoot K concentrations in plants grown in protein + PLA biocontainers were equal to or lower than plants in petroleum-plastic containers. Total plant dry weight was greater for plants grown in biocontainers made of 50% soy‒50% PLA and protein + PLA than for plants grown in control containers across all fertilizer treatments except at the highest rate of fertilizer in which plants received 300N‒20P‒244K mg. Our results support the hypothesis that fertilizer inputs can be reduced when using soy-composite biocontainers. Biocontainers made with equal parts soy bioplastic and PLA showed strong potential for achieving adequate plant growth with reduced fertilizer input. Our results demonstrate that fertilizer can be reduced by as much as 80% when growing marigold in containers made of 50% soy‒50% PLA for 6 weeks.

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Nicholas J. Flax, Christopher J. Currey, Alexander G. Litvin, James A. Schrader, David Grewell and William R. Graves

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.