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Christopher J. Currey, Kenneth G. McCabe and Kellie J. Walters

Ethephon drenches have been reported to effectively control growth of containerized bedding plants. However, previous researchers have indicated that the effects of ethephon drenches on growth and flowering may differ depending on the timing of applications. Our objectives were to quantify the effects of ethephon concentration, timing of substrate drench application, and their interaction on the growth, size, and flowering of two annual bedding plants. Angelonia (Angelonia angustifolia) and geranium (Pelargonium ×hortorum), seedlings were planted in 10.2-cm-diameter containers filled with a commercial, soilless growing substrate composed of (by vol.) 75% sphagnum peatmoss, and 25% perlite. Five, 10, 15, or 20 days after transplanting seedlings, 70-mL aliquots containing 0, 50, 100, or 200 mg·L−1 ethephon were applied as substrate drenches. Species varied in their growth and flowering responses to ethephon concentration, drench application timing, and their interaction. For angelonia, flowering was delayed most with early applications and high concentrations, and delay was diminished with later applications. Angelonia height was unaffected by late applications, though lateral growth was suppressed 20 days after transplant with 200 mg·L−1 ethephon. Flowering of geranium was only delayed when ethephon was applied 5 days after transplanting, whereas flowering, vegetative height, and shoot dry weight were affected more by earlier applications and higher concentrations. Width and root weight were only affected by ethephon concentration, with growth suppression increasing as concentrations increased. Ethephon is an effective growth regulator when applied as a substrate drench. However, the degree of activity and resulting impact on flowering, size, and growth is influenced by the interaction between ethephon concentrations and the timing of drench applications after transplanting.

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Christopher J. Currey, Kellie J. Walters and Kenneth G. McCabe

Our objective was to quantify the efficacy of different plant growth regulator (PGR) substrate drenches on growth of lantana (Lantana camara) cultivars varying in growth habit. Rooted ‘Little Lucky Peach Glow’, ‘Lucky Peach’, and ‘Landmark Peach Sunrise’ lantana cuttings were individually planted into 4-inch-diameter containers filled with a commercial, soilless growing substrate. Fourteen days after planting, solutions containing 0 (control), 0.5, 1, 2, or 4 mg·L−1 ancymidol, flurprimidol, paclobutrazol, or uniconazole were applied to the surface of the growing substrate. Six weeks after applying PGR drenches, data were collected. The growth index (GI), an integrated measurement of plant size incorporating the height and widths of plants, was calculated. There was variation in the GI among the control plants, reflecting variation among cultivars within the species. In addition, we measured variation in activity among the different PGRs applied. Across the concentrations applied, ancymidol generally had the lowest activity across the four PGRs. For example, drenches containing 4 mg·L−1 ancymidol resulted in plants that were similar to plants treated with 0.5 to 1 mg·L−1 flurprimidol or uniconazole or 2 mg·L−1 paclobutrazol for ‘Lucky Peach’ lantana. Across all cultivars, flurprimidol and uniconazole had the greatest activity in suppressing plant height, width, and GI. Substrate drenches containing flurprimidol, paclobutrazol, or uniconazole are useful to control size of lantana produced in containers, though the recommended concentration depends on the active ingredient and the growth habit of cultivars being treated.

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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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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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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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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.