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ARS Home » Midwest Area » Wooster, Ohio » Application Technology Research » Research » Publications at this Location » Publication #209850

Title: Investigation of Drainage and Plant Growth from Nursery Container Substrate

item Zhu, Heping
item Frantz, Jonathan
item Derksen, Richard
item Krause, Charles

Submitted to: Applied Engineering in Agriculture
Publication Type: Peer Reviewed Journal
Publication Acceptance Date: 6/18/2007
Publication Date: 7/2/2007
Citation: Zhu, H., Frantz, J., Derksen, R.C., Krause, C.R. 2007. Investigation of Drainage and Plant Growth from Nursery Container Substrate. Applied Engineering in Agriculture. 23(3):289-297.

Interpretive Summary: The container nursery production requires frequent irrigation and fertilizer applications to maintain high crop growth rates. Irrigation and fertilization practices in nursery production have raised concerns over efficient use of water and fertilizer because of water loss through the containers and the extent of nutrient and chemical leaching with the drainage water to the soil and ground water. In this study, we investigated the capacity of a popular nursery substrate to retain water and nutrients during early butterfly bush growth at various fertilizer application rates in container production systems. Current water and fertilizer use rates in nursery production are substantially higher than the plants actually need to maintain the highest plant growth with the least nutrient leachate and water loss. Scientific management strategies and application methods for container nursery productions can be recommended based on the research findings to produce healthy ornamental crops with minimum losses of water and nutrients through drainage.

Technical Abstract: The amount of water and major nutrients lost through drainage from a nursery container substrate treated with different amounts of nitrogen (N), phosphate (P), and potassium (K), and potted with butterfly bush plants were investigated. The substrate was mainly composed of aged pine bark and steamed composted nursery trimmings as well as leftover potting mix from a commercial nursery. Plastic containers with nominal capacity of 3.8 L were equally divided into 10 groups containing the substrate with or without plants, and treated with different amounts of N, P, and K applied to the surface of the substrate. A total of 4.8 L of water was applied to the substrate in each container during a 28-day period of the test. There was 48.4% of NO3-N and 6.3% of P leached away when 0.8 g of NO3-N and 0.4 g of P were applied to the substrate in the container with plants during the test. The amount of nutrients in the substrate with the greatest plant growth and the lowest nutrient loss through drainage was 0.44 g for N and 0.18 g for P. Substrate with plants had less water drainage and nutrient loss than the substrate with no plants. When the substrate moisture content was below 25%, the maximum amount of water that could be added into the substrate with plants before drainage was 257 mL of water/L of the substrate. Excess fertilizers applied to the container plants resulted in high nutrient loss and low plant growth rate. Current fertilizer use rates should be reduced to improve nursery production efficiency.