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Nastaran Basiri Jahromi, Amy Fulcher, Forbes Walker, James Altland, Wesley Wright and Neal Eash

Controlling irrigation using timers or manually operated systems is the most common irrigation scheduling method in outdoor container production systems. Improving irrigation efficiency can be achieved by scheduling irrigation based on plant water needs and the appropriate use of sensors rather than relying on periodically adjusting irrigation volume based on perceived water needs. Substrate amendments such as biochar, a carbon (C)-rich by-product of pyrolysis or gasification, can increase the amount of available water and improve irrigation efficiency and plant growth. Previous work examined two on-demand irrigation schedules in controlled indoor (greenhouse) environments. The goal of this study was to evaluate the impact of these on-demand irrigation schedules and hardwood biochar on water use and biomass gain of container-grown Hydrangea paniculata ‘Silver Dollar’ in a typical outdoor nursery production environment. Eighteen independently controlled irrigation zones were designed to test three irrigation schedules on ‘Silver Dollar’ hydrangea grown in pine bark amended with 0% or 25% hardwood biochar. The three irrigation schedules were conventional irrigation and two on-demand schedules, which were based on substrate physical properties or plant physiology. Conventional irrigation delivered 1.8 cm water in one event each day. The scheduling of substrate-based irrigation was based on the soilless substrate moisture characteristic curve, applying water whenever the substrate water content corresponding to a substrate water potential of –10 kPa was reached. The plant-based irrigation schedule was based on a specific substrate moisture content derived from a previously defined relationship between substrate moisture content and photosynthetic rate, maintaining the volumetric water content (VWC) to support photosynthesis at 90% of the maximum predicted photosynthetic rate. Total water use for the substrate-based irrigation was the same as for the conventional system; the plant-based system used significantly less water. However, plant dry weight was 22% and 15% greater, water use efficiency (WUE) was 40% and 40% greater, and total leachate volume was 25% and 30% less for the substrate-based and plant-based irrigation scheduling systems, respectively, than for conventional irrigation. The 25% biochar amendment rate reduced leachate volume per irrigation event, and leaching fraction, but did not affect total water use or plant dry weight. This research demonstrated that on-demand irrigation scheduling that is plant based or substrate based could be an effective approach to increase WUE for container-grown nursery crops without affecting plant growth negatively.

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Nastaran Basiri Jahromi, Forbes Walker, Amy Fulcher, James Altland and Wesley C. Wright

Container-grown nursery crops generally require daily irrigation applications and potentially more frequent applications during the hottest part of the growing season. Developing management practices that make more efficient use of irrigation water is important for improving the sustainability of nursery crop production. Biochar, a byproduct of pyrolysis, can potentially increase the water-holding capacity and reduce water and nutrient leaching. In addition, the development of sensor-based irrigation technologies has made monitoring substrate moisture a practical tool for irrigation management in the nursery industry. The objective of this research was to determine the effect of switchgrass biochar on water and nutrient-holding capacity and release in container substrates of Buxus sempervirens L. × Buxus microphylla (‘Green Velvet’ boxwood) and Hydrangea paniculata (Pinky Winky® hardy hydrangea). Containers were filled with pine bark and amended with 0%, 10%, or 25% volume of biochar. Plants were irrigated when the volumetric water content (VWC) reached the water-buffering capacity set point of 0.25 cm3·cm−3. The sensor-based irrigation in combination with the low cost biochar substrate amendment increased substrate water-holding capacity and reduced irrigation requirements for the production of hydrangea, a high water use plant. Biochar application rate influenced irrigation frequency, which likely affected plant biomass for hydrangea, but boxwood dry weight was unaffected by biochar rate. Total irrigation applied was decreased by 32% in 10% biochar treatment without reducing hydrangea dry weight. However, in the 25% biochar treatment, total irrigation applied was reduced by 72%, whereas dry weight decreased by 50%. Biochar application reduced leaching volume and leaching fraction in both plants. Leachate analysis over the course of the 8-week experiment showed that the average mass of phosphate (PO4), potassium (K), and total carbon was greater in the leachate from containers that received 25% biochar compared with those receiving 0% or 10% biochar for both plant species. For hydrangea, mass of total nitrogen (TN) and nitrate (NO3) in leachate was not significantly affected by increasing the biochar rate. However, for boxwood, the mass of NO3 and TN was greater in the 25% biochar treatment leachate, whereas the mass of ammonium (NH4) was unaffected. In hydrangea, total nutrients lost from the containers was lower in biochar-amended containers (both 10% and 25% biochar) because of receiving a lower total volume of water. Amendment with biochar also affected concentration of phosphorus (P) and K, with the highest concentration in both leaf tissue and substrate from the 25% biochar application rate.