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Jeb S. Fields, James S. Owen Jr. and Holly L. Scoggins

Many soilless substrates are inefficient with regard to water (i.e., high porosity and low water holding capacity), which provides an excellent opportunity to increase water efficiency in containerized production. We suggest that increasing hydraulic conductivity in the dry range of substrate moisture content occurring during production can increase water availability, reduce irrigation volume, and produce high quality, marketable crops. Three substrates were engineered using screened pine bark (PB) and amending with either Sphagnum peatmoss or coir to have higher unsaturated hydraulic conductivity between water potentials of −100 and −300 hPa. There was no correlation between substrate unsaturated hydraulic conductivity and saturated hydraulic conductivity (r = 0.04, P = 0.8985). Established Hydrangea arborescens (L.) ‘Annabelle’ plants were grown in the three engineered and a conventional (control) PB substrates exposed to suboptimal irrigation levels (i.e., held at substrate water potentials between −100 and −300 hPa) for 32 days. The plants in the engineered substrates outperformed the control in every growth and morphological metric measured, as well as exhibiting fewer (or no) physiological drought stress indicators (i.e., vigor, growth, plant development, etc.) compared with the control. We observed increased vigor measures in plants grown in substrates with higher unsaturated hydraulic conductivity, as well as greater plant water uptake. The coir increased unsaturated hydraulic conductivity and provided an increased air space when incorporated into coarse bark vs. if peat was incorporated into bark at the same ratio by volume. Increasing PB hydraulic conductivity, through screening bark or amending bark with fibrous materials, in concert with low irrigations can produce marketable, vigorous crops while reducing water consumed and minimizing water wasted in ornamental container production.

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Jeb S. Fields, William C. Fonteno and Brian E. Jackson

Wettability is a major factor in determining whether a material can be effectively and efficiently used as a component in greenhouse substrates. Poor wettability can lead to poor plant growth and development as well as water use inefficiency. This research was designed to test the wettability and hydration efficiency of both traditional and alternative components of substrates under different initial moisture contents (MCs) and wetting agent levels. Peatmoss, perlite, coconut coir, pine bark, and two differently manufactured pine tree substrate components (pine wood chips and shredded pine wood) were tested at 50% and 25% initial MC (by weight). The objective of this research was to determine the effects of initial MC and wetting agent rates on the wettability and hydration efficiency of these substrate components. Each component received four wetting agent treatments: high (348 mL·m−3), medium (232 mL·m−3), low (116 mL·m−3), and none (0 mL·m−3). Hydration efficiency was influenced by initial MC, wetting agent rate, and inherent hydrophobic properties of the materials. Wetting agents did increase the hydration efficiencies of the substrate components, although not always enough to overcome all cases of hydrophobicity.

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James E. Altland, James S. Owen Jr., Brian E. Jackson and Jeb S. Fields

Pine bark is the primary constituent of nursery container media (i.e., soilless substrate) in the eastern United States. Pine bark physical and hydraulic properties vary depending on the supplier due to source (e.g., lumber mill type) or methods of additional processing or aging. Pine bark can be processed via hammer milling or grinding before or after being aged from ≤1 month (fresh) to ≥6 month (aged). Additionally, bark is commonly amended with sand to alter physical properties and increase bulk density (Db). Information is limited on physical or hydraulic differences of bark between varying sources or the effect of sand amendments. Pine bark physical and hydraulic properties from six commercial sources were compared as a function of age and amendment with sand. Aging bark, alone, had little effect on total porosity (TP), which remained at ≈80.5% (by volume). However, aging pine bark from ≤1 to ≥6 months shifted particle size from the coarse (>2 mm) to fine fraction (<0.5 mm), which increased container capacity (CC) 21.4% and decreased air space (AS) by 17.2% (by volume) regardless of source. The addition of sand to the substrate had a similar effect on particle size distribution to that of aging, increasing CC and Db while decreasing AS. Total porosity decreased with the addition of sand. The magnitude of change in TP, AS, CC, and Db from a nonamended pine bark substrate was greater with fine vs. coarse sand and varied by bark source. When comparing hydrological properties across three pine bark sources, readily available water content was unaffected; however, moisture characteristic curves (MCC) differed due to particle size distribution affecting the residual water content and subsequent shift from gravitational to either capillary or hygroscopic water. Similarly, hydraulic conductivity (i.e., ability to transfer water within the container) decreased with increasing particle size.

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Jeb S. Fields, William C. Fonteno, Brian E. Jackson, Joshua L. Heitman and James S. Owen Jr.

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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Tyler C. Hoskins, James S. Owen Jr., Jeb S. Fields, James E. Altland, Zachary M. Easton and Alex X. Niemiera

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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Jeb S. Fields, James S. Owen Jr., James E. Altland, Marc W. van Iersel and Brian E. Jackson

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.