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Water quality remains a predominant issue within the Chesapeake Bay watershed, and nutrient loading continues to undermine the progressive recovery of this ecosystem. Until recently, the ornamental plant industry has had little information to develop better management practices to increase the efficiency of water and nutrient applications. This research used an integrated approach to examine container- production systems, to develop recommendations to increase nutrient uptake efficiency and reduce runoff.

A 40-month field study examined the effects of various cultural practices on irrigation and nutrient uptake efficiencies. Under cyclic scheduling, drip irrigation applied 3 to 4.5 times less water than overhead irrigation and had significantly less runoff when plants were spaced at low densities. While drip irrigation is significantly more efficient, overhead irrigation is more practical and economically feasible for most small container-nursery stock. Time Domain Reflectometry (TDR) was examined as an alternative to cyclic scheduling and when used with overhead irrigation, water applications were half that of cyclic irrigation scheduling. .

This research simultaneously documented nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P) dynamics by examining nutrient applications, uptake and leaching over the forty months. In most cases, N and P uptake efficiency and runoff was negatively affected by overhead irrigation, particularly when soluble nutrients were applied via fertigation and at low plant densities. Nitrogen and P efficiencies ranged between 10 and 30% and were dependent upon methods of irrigation and fertilization, plant density and water use. The use of both drip and TDR-scheduled overhead irrigation reduced nutrient runoff to half that of the overhead irrigation program

Intensive spring nutrient uptake studies showed that N influences the total growth of Rhododendron (azalea) and P uptake is a function of P fertilization rate and growth, influenced by N rate. Moderate N rates maintained optimal growth, while total P was only required at 1/20 of this N rate. Periodicity in nutrient uptake suggests seasonal timing of fertilizers may increase N and P uptake efficiency.

Novel management strategies in the area of irrigation, fertilization, and cultural practices should be adopted by the ornamental industry to improve upon low efficiencies and reduce nutrient pollution in our watersheds.