Characterizing the physical and hydraulic properties of pine bark soilless substrates

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Virginia Tech

Soilless substrates, such as peat, pine bark, and coir, are widely used as growing media in containerized crops for their favorable characteristics, including low bulk density, balanced air exchange and water retention, disease resistance, and low pH and salinity. However, improper irrigation of these media can have negative outcomes such as root asphyxia, pathogen development, and reduced plant growth. Understanding pore size distributions, water dynamics, and gas diffusivity of these substrates is essential to promote plant growth. The effects of different particle sizes of soilless media on processes such as infiltration, hydraulic conductivity, and gas diffusivity are also not well understood. The characterization of these effects is important for the overall improvement of container crop production. This thesis presents three studies that aimed to characterize the physical and hydraulic properties of pine bark substrates, both unamended and amended with peat or coir. The first study looked at three substrate types: unamended, unscreened pine bark, peat-amended pine bark, and coir amended pine bark. Three methods were employed to quantify pore distributions: non-equilibrium infiltration measurements, equilibrium water retention characterization, and scanning electron microscopy. We characterized pore distributions during wetting and drainage for the three substrates. Coir-amended bark had the largest water-conducting porosity, highest hydraulic conductivity, and most water retention. Unamended pine bark had the highest microporosity, and the addition of peat and coir lowered macroporosity, with peat having the greater effect. The total porosity inferred from the infiltration method was significantly smaller than that inferred from drainage experiments due to assumptions related to pore shape. The second study focused on defining hydraulic conductivity and water retention for pine bark substrates of five different particle sizes, <1 mm, 1-2 mm, 2-4 mm, 4-6 mm, and an unscreened fraction. We utilized the same methods from the first study. The resulting data showed that the smallest particle sizes (i.e., <1 mm and 1-2 mm) had the highest hydraulic conductivity and greatest water retention. The three larger sizes had lower hydraulic conductivity and poor water retention, including the unscreened fraction, which more closely followed the results of the 2-4 mm size. The final study examined gas diffusivity of the five pine bark particle sizes at different moisture levels: 60% moisture content (initial conditions), saturated at the bottom of the sample, near-saturated at the sample bottom, and drained from saturation to container capacity. We used a one-chamber gas diffusion setup to find gas diffusion coefficients (Ds). The results displayed an inverse relationship between Ds values and substrate water content. In addition, the larger particle sizes were less sensitive to changes in water content due to their well-draining large pores. Proper balance of aeration and water retention is necessary for the success of soilless growing media. Overall, the smaller particle size fractions had the best water retention and hydraulic conductivity rates while the larger fractions had the largest Ds coefficients. This work contributes valuable knowledge on the physical and hydraulic properties of different size fractions of pine bark substrates, which can assist nursery growers in optimizing water usage for sustainable container crop production.

soilless substrate, pine bark, peat, coir, hydraulic conductivity, pore size, air diffusivity, gas diffusion, wettability