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David L. Ehret and Tom Helmer

Cuticle cracking (also known as russeting, rain checking, or shrink cracking) can significantly reduce the quality of greenhouse-grown tomatoes, adversely affecting appearance and shelf-life. In this study, the effects of several environmental and cultural factors on cuticle cracking were assessed. Plants (`Trust') were grown at one of three nutrient feed concentrations, with electrical conductivities (ECs) of 0.7, 2.0, and 4.0. Higher EC initially reduced the amount of cuticle cracking. Over 14 weeks, the amount of cracking increased in all treatments and the differences due to EC became less evident. Over this same interval, 24-h average relative humidity (RH) gradually increased and was correlated with the increase in cracking. Further analysis showed that this relationship was due primarily to an increase in nighttime RH. No other climatic conditions were related to cracking. To test the possibility that the increasing age of the crop also could have contributed to the increased cracking over time, two crops of different ages grown in the same greenhouse were evaluated for cuticle cracking. The older crop consistently showed a greater amount of cracking than the younger crop. Our data suggest that EC is useful in controlling cuticle cracking under some conditions, but that nighttime RH or possibly some factor associated with crop maturity may override the effects of EC.

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Zhengli Zhai, David L. Ehret, Tom Forge, Tom Helmer, Wei Lin, Martine Dorais, and Athanasios P. Papadopoulos

Organic fertilizer regimens consisting of combinations of composts (yard waste, swine manure, or spent mushroom substrate) and liquid fertilizers (fish- or plant-based) were evaluated against conventional hydroponic fertilizers in two experiments with greenhouse tomatoes grown in peat-based substrate. Crop yield and fruit quality were evaluated and several assays of substrate microbial activity and community profiles (fluorescein diacetate analysis and EcoLog, values, nematode counts) were conducted. Crops grown in 20% to 40% compost (yard waste or yard waste plus swine manure) plus a continuously applied liquid source of organic potassium (K), calcium (Ca), magnesium (Mg), and sulphate (SO4) could not be sustained more than 1 month before nutrient deficiencies became visible. Supplementation with a nitrogen (N)- and phosphorus (P)-containing plant-based liquid fertilizer at the point when plant deficiencies became apparent subsequently produced yields ≈80% that of the hydroponic control. In a second experiment, the proportion of mushroom or yard waste compost was increased to 50% of the mix, and liquid delivery of K, Ca, Mg and SO4 plus either plant-based or fish-based N- and P-containing liquid feeds was started at the date of transplanting. In this case, organic yields equal to that of the hydroponic control (8.5 kg/plant) were observed in some treatments. The most productive organic treatment was the mushroom compost supplemented with a low concentration of the plant-based liquid fertilizer. In general, organic tomatoes had a lower postharvest decay index (better shelf life) than did the hydroponic controls, possibly as an indirect consequence of overall reduced yield in those treatments. High concentrations of both organic liquid feeds resulted in lower yields as a result of treatment-induced fusarium crown and root rot. In contrast to some previous studies, those treatments showing fusarium crown and root rot also had the highest gross microbial activity. Measures of gross microbial activity and numbers of microbivorous nematodes were higher (average of 37% and 6.7 times, respectively) in compost/organic feed treatments than in the hydroponic control. Community physiological profiles of the bacterial populations, on the other hand, did not differ between organic and hydroponic treatments. Nematode populations were significantly correlated with gross microbial activity in the organic treatments.

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David L. Ehret, Brenda Frey, Tom Forge, Tom Helmer, and David R. Bryla

A study was conducted in the Fraser Valley of British Columbia, Canada, to determine the effects of drip configuration (one or two lines with emitters spaced every 0.3 or 0.45 m) and irrigation at moderate or heavy rates (5 or 10 L/plant) in a mature planting of ‘Duke’ highbush blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum L.). Results were compared with those published previously from the first 4 years after planting. Although plant size increased with irrigation rate when the plants were younger, there was no added benefit of heavy irrigation on growth in the older plants. However, the plants became more sensitive to soil water deficits with age and, therefore, unlike when they were younger, had greater yields when more water was applied. Berry size and fruit firmness were little affected by irrigation in the older plants, but antioxidants, measured as oxygen radical absorbance capacity (ORAC), were higher with than without irrigation, suggesting that irrigation has the potential to improve the health benefits of blueberries. Growth, yield, and fruit quality were unaffected by drip configuration in any year. Overall, the results revealed that the response of highbush blueberry to drip irrigation changed over time and indicated that irrigation management should be adjusted as a planting matures.

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David L. Ehret, Brenda Frey, Tom Forge, Tom Helmer, and David R. Bryla

A 4-year study was conducted to establish the effects of drip irrigation configuration and rate on fruit yield and quality of young highbush blueberry plants (Vaccinium corymbosum L. ‘Duke’). Plants were grown in a silt loam soil on raised beds and were non-irrigated or irrigated using either one or two lines of suspended drip tape. Each line configuration had in-line emitters spaced every 0.3 or 0.45 m for a total of four drip configurations. Water was applied by each drip configuration at two rates, a moderate rate of 5 L/plant per irrigation event, and a heavy rate of 10 L/plant. The frequency of irrigation was guided by measurements of soil matric potential. Irrigation was applied each year, and plants were cropped beginning the second year after planting. Rainfall was above normal in the first 2 years of the study, and differences in soil moisture were most evident in the last 2 years, in which soil matric potential increased with irrigation volume. Neither the number of irrigation lines nor emitter spacing had an effect on yield or fruit quality. Yield was unaffected by irrigation rate until the fourth year after planting and was only higher when 5 L/plant was applied. The yield increase was the result of differences in fruit weight during the second of two harvests and was associated with delays in fruit maturation. Irrigation affected plant mineral concentrations but leaves and berries responded differently; affected minerals tended to decrease in leaves but increase in the fruit. Many irrigation-induced changes in fruit quality were evident 1 or 2 years before changes in yield. Higher irrigation volume increased fruit size and water content but reduced fruit firmness and soluble solids. Irrigation reduced fruit water loss during storage and thereby promoted longer shelf life. Irrigation also resulted in a change in anthocyanin composition in the fruit but did not affect antioxidants or total anthocyanin content.