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Rhuanito Soranz Ferrarezi, Marc W. van Iersel, and Roberto Testezlaf

Subirrigation can reduce water loss and nutrient runoff from greenhouses, because used nutrient solution is collected and recirculated. Capacitance moisture sensors can monitor substrate volumetric water content (θ) and control subirrigation based on minimum θ thresholds, providing an alternative to timers. Our objectives were to automate an ebb-and-flow subirrigation system using capacitance moisture sensors, monitor moisture dynamics within the containers, and determine the effect of five θ thresholds (0.10, 0.18, 0.26, 0.34, or 0.42 m3·m−3) on hibiscus (Hibiscus acetosella Welw. ex Hiern.) ‘Panama Red’ (PP20,121) growth. Subirrigation was monitored using capacitance sensors connected to a multiplexer and a data logger and controlled using a relay driver connected to submersible pumps. As the substrate θ dropped below the thresholds, irrigation was turned on for 3 min followed by 3-min drainage. Capacitance sensors effectively controlled subirrigation by irrigating only when substrate θ dropped below the thresholds. Each irrigation cycle resulted in a rapid increase in substrate θ, from 0.10 to ≈0.33 m3·m−3 with the 0.10-m3·m−3 irrigation threshold vs. an increase in θ from 0.42 to 0.49 m3·m−3 with the 0.42-m3·m−3 irrigation threshold. Less nutrient solution was used in the lower θ threshold treatments, indicating that sensor control can reduce water and thus fertilizer use in subirrigation systems. The water dynamics showed that the bottom part of the pots was saturated after irrigation with θ decreasing quickly after an irrigation event, presumably because of drainage. However, the water movement among substrate layers was slow with the 0.10-m3·m−3 irrigation threshold with water reaching the upper layer 5.5 to 20 h after irrigation. The 0.10-m3·m−3 θ threshold resulted in 81% fewer irrigations and 70% less nutrient solution use compared with the 0.42-m3·m−3 θ threshold. However, the 0.10-m3·m−3 θ threshold also reduced hibiscus shoot height by 30%, shoot dry weight 74%, and compactness by 63% compared with the 0.42-m3·m−3 θ threshold. Our results indicate that soil moisture sensors can be used to control subirrigation based on plant water use and substrate water and to manipulate plant growth, thus providing a tool to improve control over plant quality in subirrigation systems.

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Maycon Diego Ribeiro, Rhuanito Soranz Ferrarezi, and Roberto Testezlaf

We evaluated the performance and determined the efficiency parameters of an automated subirrigation system in a commercial greenhouse facility for clonal eucalyptus (Eucalyptus sp.) seedling production to improve subirrigation management practices. A methodology based on the mass balance of the irrigation system was established to determine the volumes of nutrient solution (NS) applied, drained, stored, evapotranspirated, and leaked in each subirrigation bench. The application, drainage, and NS dwell time in the 55-cm3 conic containers (0.125 m height × 0.03 m diameter) and the depth of NS reached inside the bench were also assessed. The values of application efficiency, irrigation efficiency and system transport (supply and drainage), and disposal losses of NS were estimated for each bench and inferred for the entire subirrigation system. The benches had average application and irrigation efficiency values of 0.84% and 98.38%, respectively. The system showed irrigation efficiency values of 27.59% and the sum lost by transport, leakings, and disposal in the water treatment plant of 72.41%. The continuous return of NS because of the high irrigation frequency contributed to this loss, resulting in 10,070 L of NS consumed by the plants and 26,430 L lost after 15 days of cultivation. Our results demonstrated that the system presented an adequate irrigation efficiency, but a low application efficiency caused by the constant return of NS because of the high irrigation frequency and the excess of losses from leaking and disposal of NS after 15 days of cultivation. Nevertheless, the system operated like a hydroponic system, which kept the containers partially immersed in the NS and did not use the full substrate container capacity to provide adequate moisture. This reduced the overall system irrigation and the substrate storage efficiencies, which needs to be improved by proper equipment design, operation, water and nutrients use efficiency, and management to achieve all the benefits that subirrigation possess.

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Carlos Vinicius Garcia Barreto, Rhuanito Soranz Ferrarezi, Flávio Bussmeyer Arruda, and Roberto Testezlaf

Citrus rootstock production in Brazil commonly uses manual overhead irrigation systems to water plants. Manual irrigation systems present low efficiency, apply more water than needed, and result in release of nutrients and pesticides into the soil with a potential to contaminate groundwater. Closed irrigation systems that avoid the disposal of nutrient solutions like subirrigation can be used to increase production efficiency and reduce the environmental contamination. Our objective was to evaluate the effect of subirrigation applied by a prototype tray on plant growth and morphological and physiological responses of Rangpur lime (Citrus limonia Osbeck ‘Limeira’) seedlings subjected to different water levels in conic containers filled with pine bark substrate. We tested three treatments: T1) subirrigation with water reaching two-thirds of the container height (8 cm); T2) subirrigation with water reaching one-third of the container height (4 cm); and T3) control with manual overhead irrigation. Subirrigation resulted in higher plant growth of Rangpur lime seedlings. At 90 days after sowing (DAS), we observed significant effects of T1 over the other treatments on plant growth, as indicated by higher total dry mass (P = 0.0057), shoot/root ratio (P = 0.0089), shoot height (P = 0.0004), leaf area (P = 0.0005), and root length (P = 0.0333). The number of bifurcations was 400% higher in T3 than at the subirrigated treatments, which can lead to an increase in the labor costs for pruning. Seedlings grown under T1 presented leaf water potential 13% higher compared with T3 at predawn, which was the time of highest stomatal efficiency, presenting the lowest water loss, maximum stomatal closure, and higher transpiration at lower stomatal resistance. T2 plants displayed intermediate water status with a water potential 5% higher than T3. T3 plants showed a higher transpiration rate under maximum stomatal closure, reducing leaf water potential. The subirrigated treatment with water level of two-thirds of container height (8 cm) induced higher plant growth and shortened the crop cycle, anticipating the transplanting to the next phase (grafting) with the possibility of reducing production costs in the nursery.

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Roberto Testezlaf, Fedro S. Zazueta, Claudia A. Larsen, and Thomas H. Yeager

The objective of these experiments was to evaluate the use of tensiometers to monitor substrate moisture tensions for Metro-Mix 500 and 2 pine bark: 1 Canadian peat: 1 sand (PBPS, by volume) used for container-grown azalea Rhododendron indicum L. `Mrs. G.G. Gerbing' and chrysanthemum (Dendranthema grandiflora Tzvelez.) `Coral Charm.' Commercially available ceramic cups of two sizes, small [0.374 inch (0.95 cm) diameter and 1.125 inches (2.86 cm) long] and large [0.874 inch (2.22 cm) diameter and 3.0 inches (7.62 cm) long] were used to construct pressure transducer-equipped tensiometers. Data from these greenhouse experiments, indicate that either the small or large ceramic cup could be used to monitor substrate tensions at which water would be available to container-grown plants.

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Rhuanito Soranz Ferrarezi, Geoffrey Matthew Weaver, Marc W. van Iersel, and Roberto Testezlaf

Subirrigation is a greenhouse irrigation method that relies on capillary action to provide plants with water and nutrients from below their containers. The first documented subirrigation system was described in 1895, and several variations on the basic design were used for research purposes before the modern ebb-and-flow type systems emerged in 1974. Most subirrigation systems apply the fertilizer solution to a waterproof bench or greenhouse section, allowing the substrate to absorb the water through holes in the bottom of the containers. Because there is little or no leaching, subirrigation typically allows for the use of lower fertilizer solution concentrations. Although excess fertilizer salts typically accumulate in the top layer of the substrate, this does not seem to have a negative impact on plants. Subirrigation can conserve nutrients and water, reduce labor costs, and help growers meet environmental regulations. A challenge with subirrigation is the potential spread of pathogens via the fertilizer solution. When this is a concern, effective disinfection methods such as ultraviolet radiation, chlorine, or ozone should be used. Sensor-based irrigation control has recently been applied to subirrigation to further improve nutrient and water use efficiencies. Better control of irrigation may help reduce the spread of pathogens, while at the same time improving crop quality. The primary economic benefit of subirrigation is the reduction in labor costs, which is the greatest expenditure for many growers.