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Jeff B. Million and T.H. Yeager

A goal of irrigation best management practices in container nurseries is to conserve water while maintaining optimal plant growth and quality. A web-based, container irrigation management program (CIRRIG) was developed to automatically provide daily irrigation run times for sprinkler-irrigated crops in container nurseries. The program estimates evapotranspiration rates based on weather uploaded from a weather station located on-site and plant production conditions monitored in each zone and adjusts irrigation run times based on irrigation application rate, the plant’s irrigation-capturing ability (for sprinkler irrigation), desired leaching fraction, and irrigation system uniformity. For this project we interfaced CIRRIG output with a programmable logic controller (PLC) to automatically irrigate a sprinkler-irrigated crop at a container nursery in Florida. Sweet viburnum (Viburnum odoratissimum) in 10-inch-diameter containers were grown by the nursery for 24 weeks in adjacent irrigation zones, one controlled automatically using CIRRIG and the other by the nursery’s traditional practice of manually turning on and off irrigation. Water use was monitored with flowmeters and plant growth by measuring plant size and shoot dry weight periodically throughout the trial. Plant growth was not different (P < 0.05) because of irrigation practice. CIRRIG reduced water use during the study period by 21% (42 vs. 53 inches) compared with the nursery’s irrigation practice. An assessment of the water-saving benefits of making daily adjustments to irrigation run times based on weather including rain indicated savings of 25% and 40% compared with biweekly adjustments with and without automatic rain cutoff, respectively. This trial demonstrated that CIRRIG coupled with an on-site weather station and a computer-controlled irrigation system can be used to manage irrigation while conserving water in a container nursery.

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Jeff B. Million and Thomas H. Yeager

The capacity for container-grown plants to capture sprinkler irrigation water plays a critical role in adjusting irrigation rates to deliver required amounts of water to the container substrate. The capture factor (CF) used to describe this capacity was defined as the amount of water captured with a plant relative to the amount captured without a plant. A wind-sheltered, irrigation test area was established to measure CF as affected by plant species, plant size, container size, container spacing, and sprinkler type. CF values for 11 marketable-sized, commonly grown plant species ranged from 1 to 4 with highest values exhibited by plant species with an upright, spreading growth habit. CF values increased as plant size increased. Close container spacings (less than one container diameter between adjacent containers) reduced CF when the allotted area outside the container limited the potential amount of water that could be captured. Compared with impact sprinklers, wobbler sprinklers increased irrigation capture 7% for Ligustrum japonicum grown in 27-cm-diameter containers but not in 16-cm-diameter containers. Results showed that CF is a dynamic parameter that depends on canopy size, container size, container spacing, and sprinkler type. A working knowledge of CF is crucial for determining irrigation requirements to maximize sprinkler irrigation efficiency in container nurseries.

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Jeff Million, Tom Yeager and Claudia Larsen

Although research has shown that plants grown with subirrigation systems such as ebb-and-flow and capillary mat require less water and fertilizer inputs than traditional overhead irrigation methods, similar information for capillary wick irrigation has not been available. We compared the growth and water use response of azalea (Rhododendron sp. ‘George Tabor’) grown in 6.5-inch-diameter “azalea” containers with three irrigation methods [overhead (OVR), subirrigation (SUB), and capillary wick (WCK)] and four fertilizer nitrogen (N) rates 0.5 to 2.0 lb/yard3 supplied by an incorporated, resin-coated, controlled-release fertilizer (Nutricote 17N–3.1P–6.7K, 180 d at 77 °F). OVR volume was adjusted to deliver 100% of evapotranspiration (ET) loss. For all irrigation treatments, the lowest N rate resulting in maximum plant growth was 1.0 lb/yard3, which was less than the label recommendation of 1.5 lb/yard3. At the N-limiting N rate of 0.5 lb/yard3, irrigation method had no effect (P < 0.05) on azalea growth. At N rates higher than 1.0 lb/yard3, decreased growth was observed for OVR compared with SUB and WCK. This negative effect on plant growth was attributed to salt injury as indicated by excessive pour-through electrical conductivity (EC) levels in OVR containers. At the end of the experiment, substrate EC was highest in the uppermost layer of SUB and WCK containers, reflecting the upward movement of water associated with these two irrigation methods. Water use efficiency, which ranged from 1.9 to 2.8 g shoot dry weight per liter of water lost through ET, was unaffected (P < 0.05) by irrigation method at the N rate of 1.0 lb/yard3. We concluded that the growth response of azalea to fertilizer N rate was similar for WCK and SUB despite periodic pour-through EC tests indicating higher substrate nutrient levels with WCK.

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Jeff B. Million and Thomas H. Yeager

Irrigation scheduling in container nurseries is challenging due to the wide range of plant production conditions that must be accounted for at any given time. An irrigation scheduling system should also consider weather affecting evapotranspiration to apply proper amounts of water that will ensure optimal growth with minimal runoff (container drainage). We developed an automated system that relies on routine leaching fraction (leachate/water applied) testing and real-time weather recorded on-site to make adjustments to irrigation. A web-based program (CIRRIG) manages irrigation zone inputs [weather and leaching fraction (LF) test results] and outputs irrigation run times that can be implemented automatically with programmable logic controllers. In this study conducted at a nursery in central Florida, we compared the automated technology (CIRRIG) with the nursery’s traditional irrigation practice (TIP) of manually adjusting irrigation based on substrate moisture status of core samples taken twice weekly. Compared with TIP, CIRRIG reduced water use in six of seven unreplicated trials with water savings being greater for microirrigated crops grown in large containers than for sprinkler-irrigated crops in small containers. Reduced pumping cost associated with water savings by CIRRIG was estimated to be $3250 per year, which was insignificant compared with the labor savings of $35,000 to $40,000 anticipated by the nursery using CIRRIG in lieu of TIP. At the end of the project, the necessary hardware was installed to expand CIRRIG nursery-wide and control 156 zones of irrigation.

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Jeff B. Million and Thomas H. Yeager

Two experiments were conducted to determine if a leaching fraction (LF)-guided irrigation practice with fixed irrigation run times between LF tests (LF_FX) could be improved by making additional adjustments to irrigation run times based on real-time weather information, including rain, using an evapotranspiration-based irrigation scheduling program for container production (LF_ET). The effect of the two irrigation practices on plant growth and water use was tested at three target LF values (10%, 20%, and 40%). For both Viburnum odoratissimum (Expt. 1) and Podocarpus macrophyllus (Expt. 2) grown in 36-cm-diameter containers with spray-stake microirrigation, the change in plant size was unaffected by irrigation treatments. LF_ET reduced water use by 10% compared with LF_FX in Expt. 2 but had no effect (P < 0.05) on water use in Expt. 1. Decreasing the target LF from 40% to 20% reduced water use 28% in both experiments and this effect was similar for both irrigation practices. For the irrigation system and irrigation schedule used in these experiments, we concluded that an LF-guided irrigation schedule with a target LF of 10% resulted in plant growth similar to one with a target LF of 40% and that the addition of a real-time weather adjustment to irrigation run times provided little or no improvement in water conservation compared with a periodic adjustment based solely on LF testing.

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Jeff B. Million*, Thomas H. Yeager and Joseph P. Albano

The influence of production practices on runoff from container nurseries was investigated in Spring 2003 (March to July) and Fall 2003 (August to January). Viburnum odoratissimum (Ker-Gawl.) liners were planted in 3.8-L containers with a 2 pine bark: 1 sand: 1 Canadian peat substrate and placed on 1.5 m2-platforms at one of two plant spacing densities: 16 or 32 plants/m2 [spaced to 16 plants/m2 after 13 weeks (spring) or 14 weeks (fall)]. Overhead sprinkler irrigation was applied daily (1 cm) and runoff collected weekly. Osmocote 18 N-2.6 P-10 K was surface-applied to each container (15 g) in the spring and surface-applied or incorporated in the fall. Cumulative runoff averaged 1240 L·m-1; in spring (19 weeks) and 1050 L·m-1; in fall (20 weeks), which represented 72% and 66% of applied irrigation plus rainfall, respectively. The lower density spacing resulted in a 19% increase in cumulative runoff in spring (1340 vs. 1130 L·m-1) but had no effect in fall (970 vs. 890 L·m-1). Weighted average ECwa of runoff decreased 10% (0.436 vs. 0.485 dS·m-1) and 12% (0.420 vs. 0.476 dS·m-1) with the lower density spacing in spring and fall, respectively. ECwa in fall was not affected by fertilizer method. Plant size index [(height + width)/2] was reduced 22% in both spring (38.7 vs. 49.7 cm) and fall (26.9 vs. 34.4 cm) when plants were grown at the lower density spacing throughout production. This reduction in plant size was attributed to container heat stress. Plant size was unaffected by fertilizer application method (fall) but fertilizer incorporation resulted in greener plants than surface-applied fertilizer (60 vs. 53 SPAD readings).

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Tom Yeager, Jeff Million, Claudia Larsen and Bob Stamps

Florida container nurseries face the challenge of maintaining profitability while protecting the environment by improving the efficiency of water and fertilizer use. Best management practices (BMPs) provide irrigation and fertilization guidelines for meeting this challenge. BMPs are economically and technologically feasible to implement and they focus on the ground- and surface water quality issues of the state. However, increasing nursery participation in the statewide BMP program is crucial as the industry continues to expand and interface with urbanization.

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Jeff B. Million, Thomas H. Yeager and Joseph P. Albano

The capacity for evapotranspiration (ET)-based irrigation scheduling to reduce runoff volume and nutrient leaching was tested in Fall 2004 and Spring 2005. Runoff (container leachate plus unintercepted irrigation and precipitation) was collected continuously for 17 weeks during production of sweet viburnum [Viburnum odoratissimum (L.) Ker Gawl.] in 2.4-L (16-cm top diameter) containers fertilized with an 18N–2.6P–10K polymer-coated, controlled-release fertilizer. Treatments were a factorial arrangement of two irrigation rates (fixed rate of 1 cm·d−1 or a variable, ET-based rate) and two fertilizer rates (15 or 30 g/container in 2004 and 10 or 15 g/container in 2005). Averaged over the two experiments and compared with the 1-cm·d−1 rate, ET-based irrigation reduced the amount of irrigation water applied (L/container) by 39% and runoff volume (L/container) by 42% with greatest reductions observed during the second half of the 2004 experiment and the first half of the 2005 experiment. Compared with 1-cm·d−1 rate, ET-based irrigation reduced runoff nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K) (mg/container) by 16%, 25%, and 22%, respectively, in 2004 and runoff K 15% in 2005 with irrigation effects varying on a weekly basis. Irrigation treatments did not affect the response of plants to fertilizer rate. Because shoot dry weight was unaffected by irrigation treatments, results indicate that compared with a fixed irrigation rate, ET-based irrigation can reduce irrigation and runoff volumes and to a lesser extent nutrient loss while providing adequate water for plant growth.

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Jeff B. Million, James E. Barrett and Terril A. Nell

Drench applications of paclobutrazol (PBZ) are becoming increasingly popular as a means for controlling height in potted plants, and research is being conducted to quantify the distribution of PBZ following applications. In one trial, 120 ml of 0 or 1 mg 1-1 PBZ were applied to 15-cm pots filled with either Vergro Klay Mix (no bark) or Metro Mix 500 (bark). A bioassay using broccoli (Brassica oleracea L. Italica) seedlings was used to quantify PBZ in leachates and media following treatment drenches. Leachate PBZ concentrations were lower for Vergro than for Metro Mix 500; however, leachates for both media were <0.1 mg·liter–1. Concentrations of PBZ in media decreased with depth and were four to 10 times higher in the uppermost 2.5 cm than in lower horizons. For the uppermost 2.5 cm of media, higher PBZ concentrations were recovered in Metro Mix 500 than in Vergro. A follow-up study will compare surface vs. subsurface application methods on the movement of PBZ into pots.

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Jeff Million, Tom Yeager, Henry Bryant, Claudia Larsen, Joe Shook and Joseph Albano

Woven polypropylene groundcloth is used extensively in plant nurseries as a permeable and durable surface for container plant production. To better understand the fate of overhead sprinkler irrigation water, we designed and constructed runoff platforms (2.7 m2) to measure runoff and leachate from single irrigation events as affected by slope and underlay substrates. Groundcloth-covered platforms at slopes of 1.5% and 11% were tested with each of five underlay treatments: no underlay, coarse sand, 50% coarse sand and 50% no underlay (CS50), gravel, and native sandy soil. We applied 0.9 cm of irrigation at 1.8 cm·h-1 and determined runoff and leachate volumes. Runoff percentage [runoff × 100%/(runoff + leachate)] increased at the 11% slope for each underlay treatment. Mean (n = 10) runoff percentages (RP) for the 1.5% and 11% slopes were 0.5% and 15.7%, respectively, for no underlay, 0.1% and 1.1% for coarse sand, 0.1% and 0.7% for CS50, 0.7% and 2.5% for gravel, and 0.1% and 3.1% for native sandy soil. The low RP observed indicate that a high percentage of nutrients and agrichemicals associated with container leachate would move into the underlying substrate or soil rather than directly running off into surface waters.