Container seedling production systems for forest tree nurseries are challenged by the need for judicious water consumption. Subirrigation systems may provide an alternative to overhead systems by mitigating water use, yet remain relatively untested for propagation of forest tree seedlings. We evaluated effects of overhead versus subirrigation under varying media (40:60, 60:40, and 80:20 peat:perlite) and fertilization (0 or 1.2 g nitrogen/plant) regimes on nursery development and first-year field performance of northern red oak (Quercus rubra L.) seedlings. Fertilization increased aboveground biomass production and nutrient content, but decreased root dry weight. Relative to overhead-irrigated seedlings, subirrigation increased red oak seedling aboveground biomass production as well as above- and belowground nitrogen content under fertilized conditions. Media had no effect on plant response. Subirrigation increased electrical conductivity (5 dS·m−1 greater) and decreased pH in the upper media zone (0 to 5 cm from top), whereas the opposite effect was found in the lower zone. Nursery fertilization was associated with reduced field survival and growth, which may have been the result of transplant stress resulting from higher shoot:root. Subirrigated seedlings had greater field diameter growth. Our results suggest that subirrigation could serve as a viable alternative to overhead systems in container propagation of hardwood seedlings.
Excessive fertilization may induce physiological drought and/or ion toxicity, which can reduce growth or cause mortality in cultured plants. Although nursery subirrigation produces stock of forest trees of equal or better quality to conventional overhead irrigation, detailed analyses of fertilization responses specific to these systems are lacking. We evaluated the effects of fertility applied as a 15N–9P–12K controlled-release fertilizer at rates equivalent to 0, 1.2, 1.8, 2.4, 3.0, or 3.6 g nitrogen (N) per plant on media properties and northern red oak (Quercus rubra L.) seedling development grown with subirrigation. Aboveground plant growth and nutrient content of seedlings increased up to 1.8 g N/plant but declined at higher rates and total mortality occurred for treatments of 2.4 to 3.6 g N/plant by the end of cultivation. Root biomass generally declined with increasing fertilization. Media electrical conductivity (EC) increased with increasing fertility, particularly in the upper media layers, where values exceeded 3.0 dS·m−1 at the highest rates. Fertilization had little effect on media pH. Predawn leaf water potential and osmotic potential (ψS) were reduced at high nutrient applications. Thus, increasing fertility beyond ≈1.8 g N/plant in this subirrigation system apparently resulted in accumulation of excessive fertilizer salts in media and/or ion toxicity, which caused plant mortality. Because subirrigation systems are prone to persistence of residual fertilizer salts in the medium and holding tanks, fertilization prescriptions must be carefully tailored to species and cultural systems to prevent potential for plant damage associated with overfertilization.