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Krishna Nemali* and Marc van Iersel

Monitoring moisture status of the growing medium is essential as growth and quality of greenhouse crops largely depend on the amount of available water. Recently, two new types of moisture sensors have been developed (ECH2 O, Decagon devices, Inc., Pullman, Wash.; Theta probe ML2X, Delta -T devices Ltd., Burwell, Cambridge, U.K.). We studied the performance of these sensors for measuring the volumetric water content (VWC) of a soilless growing medium. We also tested the sensitivity of these sensors to temperature and electrical conductivity (EC) of the growing medium. Our results indicate that these sensors can be calibrated and used effectively for measuring a wide range of moisture contents in the growing medium; however media specific calibration may be required. Regression analysis indicated that the output of ECH2 O probes was affected by changes in the EC and temperature of the growing medium. Effects of EC were too small to be of practical significance, while the measured VWC increased by 0.003 m3/m3 for each °C increase in temperature. The output from the Theta Probe was not affected by changes in the EC or temperature of the growing medium. In a comparison study, both probes were found to give similar estimates of the VWC of the growing medium within the common range seen under greenhouse production.

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Krishna Nemali* and Marc van Iersel

Subjecting bedding plants to non-lethal moisture stress is an established irrigation practice for bedding plants; however information on physiological responses of bedding plants to moisture stress is limited. We examined the CO2 exchange rates (CER) and water relations of salvia (Salvia splendens) and vinca (Catharanthus roseus) during moisture stress. Seedlings of both species were grown from seed in 7-L trays containing a soilless growing medium. After plants completely covered the trays, they were irrigated and shifted into whole-plant gas exchange chambers (27 °C and daily light integral of 7.5 mol/m2) arranged inside a growth chamber. Inside the gas exchange chambers, the growing medium was allowed to dry and plants were re-watered after wilting. Results from this study indicate that the growth rate (moles of CO2 gained by plants in a day) of salvia was higher than vinca before experiencing moisture stress; however the volumetric moisture content of the growing medium at which plant growth decreased was higher for salvia than for vinca. During moisture stress, the decrease in growth rate of salvia was gradual and that of vinca was rapid. After re-watering the plants, leaf water potential (ΨL) and growth rate of vinca revived completely, and ΨL of salvia remained low (more negative), whereas its growth rate revived completely. This study shows that bedding plant species respond differently to moisture stress, particularly with respect to the critical substrate moisture level for initiating moisture stress and the rate of development of moisture stress.

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Yuyao Kong, Ajay Nemali, Cary Mitchell and Krishna Nemali

High energy-use cost for electric lighting is one of the major issues challenging sustainability of the indoor lettuce-farming industry. Thus, maximizing electrical energy-use efficiency (EUE, g·KWh−1), defined as the ratio of dry matter production (g) to electrical energy consumption (EEC, KWh−1), is crucial during indoor production. Light-emitting diodes (LEDs) are energy efficient and highly suitable for indoor farms. Research on optimal spectral quality of LEDs for lettuce growth is extensive; however, there is limited research examining LED spectral quality effects on EEC and EUE. Photon efficiency, defined as the ratio of light output to electrical energy input (PE, µmol·J−1), generally is used for selection of LED fixtures. Because PE does not account for differences in emitted light spectrum, it is not clear whether light-fixture selection based on PE can maximize EUE in lettuce production. This study comprised two experiments. In Expt. 1, we used four “phosphor-converted” commercial LEDs with different light intensities and spectra to model the effect of light spectral quality on lettuce shoot dry weight (SDW), EEC, and EUE. We also evaluated relations between EUE vs. PE and EUE vs. PER (PE based on red light) for indoor lettuce production. Results indicated that light spectral quality affected SDW, EEC, and EUE in lettuce production. Fitted models indicated that EEC increased linearly with increasing percentage of red-light output and was unaffected by other spectral colors or ratios. However, EUE increased in a curvilinear fashion with an increasing ratio of red to blue (R:B) light and reached a maximum at a ratio of 4.47. Similar to EUE, SDW also responded in a curvilinear fashion to R:B. Results also indicated that EUE correlated poorly with PE but linearly to PER. In Expt. 2, we grew three lettuce varieties under two commercial LED fixtures. They had similar levels of PE but different percentages of red, R:B, and PER values. Regardless of the variety, fixtures with greater percentages of red, R:B, and PER significantly increased EUE. We conclude that red-light quality is an important determinant of EUE and growers should select fixtures based on R:B and high PER in indoor lettuce farming.

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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.

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Marc W. van Iersel and Krishna S. Nemali

We examined the effectiveness of an elevated capillary mat system to maintain constant and different moisture levels in the growing medium and verify the potential of drought stress conditioning in producing small and compact bedding plants. To differentiate between plant height and compactness, we determined compactness as the leaf area or dry mass per unit stem length. Marigold `Queen Sophia' (Tagetes erecta L.) seedlings were grown in square, 9-cm-wide, 10-cm-high containers filled with a soilless growing medium. A capillary mat was laid on top of a greenhouse bench which was raised by 15 cm on one side compared to the other side to create an elevation effect. Seedlings were subirrigated by immersing the low end of the capillary mat in a reservoir of water. The amount of water moving to the higher end of the mat progressively decreased with elevation. The moisture content in the growing medium averaged from 26 to 294 mL/pot at different elevations. Regression analysis indicated that growth parameters including, shoot dry mass, leaf area, leaf number, and plant height decreased linearly with decreasing soil moisture content in the growing medium. Of all the measured growth parameters, plant height was found to be least sensitive to decreasing moisture content in the growing medium. Plants in high moisture treatments had more dry mass and leaf area per unit length of the stem compared to those in low moisture treatments. Our results indicate that drought stress can produce small, but not truly compact bedding plants.

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Krishna S. Nemali and Marc W van Iersel

Efficient use of irrigation water is increasingly important in the production of bedding plants. Two approaches to efficient water use include reducing irrigation water wastage during production by growing plants at the optimal substrate water content (θ) and growing species with high water-use efficiency (WUE). However, there is little information on the effects of different θ levels on leaf physiology of bedding plants and variation in WUE among different species of bedding plants. The objectives of this study were to determine the effects of θ on leaf water relations, gas exchange, chlorophyll fluorescence, and WUE of bedding plants and to identify the physiological basis for differences in WUE between two bedding plant species. We grew salvia ‘Bonfire Red’ (Salvia splendens Sellow ex Roemer & J.A. Schultes), vinca ‘Cooler Peppermint’ [Catharanthus roseus (L.) G. Don.], petunia ‘Lavender White’ (Petunia × hybrida Hort ex. Vilm.), and impatiens ‘Cherry’ (Impatiens walleriana Hook F.) at four constant levels of θ (0.09, 0.15, 0.22, and 0.32 m3·m−3) using an automated irrigation controller. Regardless of species, leaf water potential (Ψw) and leaf photosynthesis (A) of all four species were lower at a θ of 0.09 m3·m−3 and were not different among the other θ levels, but stomatal conductance to H2O (g S) was lower at 0.09 than at 0.15 and 0.22 m3·m−3 and highest at 0.32 m3·m−3. WUE of bedding plants at different θ levels depended on species. The WUE of petunia was unaffected by θ, whereas for the other three species, WUE was higher at a θ of 0.09 m3·m−3 than at 0.32 m3·m−3. Differences in WUE between petunia and salvia were partly from differences in photosynthetic capacity between the two species. Based on the response of A to leaf internal CO2 concentration (Ci), mesophyll conductance to CO2 [gm (a measure of photosynthetic capacity)] was higher in petunia than salvia, whereas gas phase conductance to CO2 (gCO2) was similar for these two species, which resulted in higher WUE in petunia than salvia.

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Krishna S. Nemali and Marc W. van Iersel

Optimal substrate volumetric water content (θ) and drought tolerance of impatiens, petunia, salvia, and vinca were investigated by growing plants under four constant levels of θ (0.09, 0.15, 0.22, and 0.32 m3·m-3). Gas exchange, quantum efficiency (ΦPSII), electron transport rate (ETR), non-photochemical quenching (NPQ), and leaf water potential (ϒ) were measured for all species, and response of photosynthesis (Pn) to internal CO2 concentration (Ci) was studied in petunia and salvia. Leaf photosynthesis (Pmax) was highest at a θ of 0.22 m3·m-3 for all species and did not differ between a θ of 0.15 and 0.22 m3·m-3 for vinca and petunia. The Pn-Ci response curves for petunia were almost identical at a θ of 0.22 and 0.15 m3·m-3. Regardless of species, ETR and ΦPSII were highest and NPQ was lowest at a θ of 0.22 m3·m-3. Based on these results, a θ of 0.22 m3·m-3 for salvia and impatiens and a slightly lower θ of 0.15 m3·m-3 for vinca and petunia, is optimal. Mean osmotic potential in all treatments was lower in vinca and salvia and resulted in higher turgor potential in these species than other species. Analysis of Pn-Ci response curves indicated that Pn at a θ of 0.09 m3·m-3 was limited by both gas phase (stomatal and boundary layer) and non-gas phase (mesophyll) resistance to CO2 transfer in salvia. At the lowest θ level, Pn in petunia was only limited by gas phase resistance, indicating that absence of mesophyll resistance during drought may play a role in the drought tolerance of petunia.

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Krishna S. Nemali and M.W. van Iersel

The effect of increasing daily light integral (DLI; 5.3, 9.5, 14.4, and 19.4 mol·m-2·d-1) on photosynthesis and respiration of wax begonia (Begonia semperflorens-cultorum Hort.) was examined by measuring CO2 exchange rates (CER) for a period of 25 d in a whole-plant gas exchange system. Although plant growth rate (GR, increase in dry weight per day) increased linearly with increasing DLI, plants grown at low DLI (5.3 or 9.5 mol·m-2·d-1) respired more carbohydrates than were fixed in photosynthesis during the early growth period (13 and 4 d, respectively), resulting in a negative daily carbon gain (DCG) and GR. Carbon use efficiency [CUE, the ratio of carbon incorporated into the plant to C fixed in gross photosynthesis (Pg)] of plants grown at low DLI was low, since these plants used most of the C fixed in Pg for maintenance respiration (Rm), leaving few, if any, C for growth and growth respiration (Rg). Maintenance respiration accounted for a smaller fraction of the total respiration with increasing DLI. In addition, the importance of Rm in the carbon balance of the plants decreased over time, resulting in an increase in CUE. At harvest, crop dry weight (DWCROP) increased linearly with increasing DLI, due to the increased photosynthesis and CUE at high PPF.

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Krishna S. Nemali and Marc W. van Iersel

Physiological acclimation of plants to light has been studied mostly at the leaf level; however whole-plant responses are more relevant in relation to crop growth. To examine the physiological changes associated with different daily light integrals (DLI) during growth of wax begonia (Begonia semperflorens-cultorum Hort.), we grew plants under DLI of 5.3, 9.5, 14.4, and 19.4 mol·m-2·d-1 in a whole-plant gas exchange system. Photosynthesis-light response curves of groups of 12 plants were determined after 25 d of growth. Physiological parameters were estimated per m2 ground area and per m2 leaf area. On a ground area basis, significant increases in dark respiration (Rd), quantum yield (α), the light compensation point (LCP), and maximum gross photosynthesis (Pg,max) were seen with increasing DLI. Variations in physiological parameters among different treatments were small when corrected for differences in leaf area. On a leaf area basis, α, LCP, and the light saturation point (LSP) did not change significantly, whereas significant increases in Rd and Pg,max were seen with increasing DLI. There was a small decrease in leaf chlorophyll concentration (6.3%, measured in SPAD units) with increasing DLI. This study indicates that wax begonias acclimate to low DLI by increasing their leaf chlorophyll concentration, presumably to more efficiently capture the available light, and to high DLI by increasing Pg,max to efficiently utilize the available light, thereby maximizing carbon gain under both situations.