Soilless Substrate Hydrology and Subsequent Impacts on Plant-Water Relations of Containerized Crops
Fields, Jeb Stuart
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Freshwater is a finite resource that is rapidly becoming more scrutinized in agricultural consumption. Specialty crop producers, especially ornamental crop producers, must continually improve production sustainability, with regards to water resource management, in order to continue to stay economically viable. Soilless substrates were initially developed to have increased porosity and relatively low water holding capacity to ensure container crops would not remain overhydrated after irrigations or rain events. As a result, substrates were selected that are now considered to be in efficient in regards to water resource management. Therefore, to provide growers with additional means to improve production sustainability, soilless substrate hydrology needs be innovated to provide increased water availability while continuing to provide ample air filled porosity to ensure productive and efficient water interactions. Historically, soilless substrates have been characterized using "static" physical properties (i.e. maximum water holding capacity and minimum air-filled porosity). The research herein involves integrating dynamic soilless substrate hydraulic properties to understand how substrate hydrology can be manipulated to design sustainable substrates. This task involved adapting new technologies to analyze hydrological properties of peat and pine bark substrates by employing evaporative moisture characteristic measurements, which were originally designed for mineral soils, for soilless substrate analyses. Utilizing these evaporative measurements provide more accurate measures of substrate water potentials between -10 and -800 hPa than traditional pressure plate measurements. Soilless substrates were engineered, utilizing only three common substrate components [stabilized pine bark (Pinus taedea L.), Sphagnum peatmoss, and coconut coir fiber], via particle fractionation and fibrous additions. The engineering process yielded substrates with increased unsaturated hydraulic conductivity, pore connectivity, and more uniform pore size distributions. These substrates were tested in a greenhouse with irrigation systems designed to hold substrates at (-100 to -300 hPa) or approaching (-50 to -100 hPa) water potentials associated with drought stress. Substrate-water dynamics were monitored, as were plant morphology and drought stress indicators. It was determined that increased substrate unsaturated hydraulic conductivity within the production water potentials, allowed for increased crop growth, reduction in drought stress indicators, while producing marketable plants. Furthermore, individual plants were produced using as low as 5.3 L per plant. Increased production range substrate hydraulic conductivity was able to maintain necessary levels of air-filled porosity due to reduced irrigation volumes, while providing water for plants when needed. The substrates were able to conduct water from throughout the container volume to the plant roots for uptake when roots reduced substrate water potential. Furthermore, increased substrate hydraulic conductivity allowed plants within the substrate to continue absorbing water at much lower water potentials than those in unaltered (control) pine bark. Finally, HYDRUS models were utilized to simulate water flux through containerized substrates. These models allowed for better understanding of how individual hydraulic properties influence substrate water flux, and provided insight towards proportions of inaccessible pores, which do not maintain sufficient levels of available water. With the models, researchers will be able to simulate new substrates, and utilize model predictions to provide insight toward new substrates prior to implementing production tests. It has been determined, that increasing substrate hydraulic conductivity, which can be done with just commonly used components, water requirements for production can be reduced, to produce crops with minimal wasted water resources. Concluding, that re-engineering substrate hydrology can ameliorate production sustainability and decrease environmental impact.
- Doctoral Dissertations