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- Author or Editor: Robert C. Adair Jr. x
The U.S. Department of Agriculture citrus scion breeding program is urgently working on developing huanglongbing (HLB; pathogen Candidatus Liberibacter asiaticus)-tolerant cultivars with excellent fruit quality and productivity when HLB-affected. The slow process of assessing new citrus hybrids is a major impediment to delivery of these much-needed cultivars. We generate thousands of hybrids each year, germinate the seedlings, grow them for 2 years in the greenhouse, plant them at high density in a field where the disease HLB is abundant, grow them for 5 to 10 years, and make selections based on tree performance and fruit quality of these HLB-affected trees. Based on promising reports of accelerated citrus growth when grown in a metallized reflective mulch (MRM) system, we tested the hypothesis that the MRM system may accelerate growth and selection of new hybrid seedlings compared with conventional soil culture (CSC). In the MRM system, tree rows are covered with a layer of metallized plastic film and drip irrigation is installed beneath the plastic. In 2 years of analysis, tree canopy volume was significantly greater with MRM in 2020 (27% greater than CSC) but not in 2021, and MRM tree height was greater in 2021 (7% greater than CSC). Mortality was significantly greater with MRM in both 2020 and 2021(in 2021: 32% vs. 17% under CSC), and MRM trees had more chlorotic leaves. Because of staff limitations, plant debris and soil were not routinely cleared from MRM, thus diminishing any benefit from the reflective surface. Better maintenance might have resulted in more sustained evidence of MRM growth benefits. With the current resource availability, the MRM system does not appear to accelerate the assessment of hybrid seedling trees.