Sub-irrigation of Petunia: benefits in dry summers
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With the increasing frequency and magnitude of warmer days during the summer in the UK, bedding plants which were a traditional part of the urban green landscape are perceived as unsustainable and water-demanding. During recent summers when bans on irrigation have been imposed, use and sales of bedding plants have dropped dramatically having a negative financial impact on the nursery industry. Retaining bedding species as a feature in public and even private spaces in future may be conditional on them being managed in a manner that minimises their water use. Using Petunia x hybrida ‘Hurrah White’ we aimed to discover which irrigation approach was the most efficient for maintaining plants’ ornamental quality (flower numbers, size and longevity), shoot and root growth under water deficit and periods of complete water withdrawal. Plants were grown from plugs for 51 days in wooden rhizotrons (0.35 m (h) x 0.1 m (w) x 0.065 m (d)); the rhizotrons’ front comprised clear Perspex which enabled us to monitor root growth closely. Irrigation treatments were: 1. watering with the amount which constitutes 50% of container capacity by conventional surface drip-irrigation (‘50% TOP’); 2. 50% as sub-irrigation at 10 cm depth (‘50% SUB’); 3. ‘split’ irrigation: 25% as surface drip- and 25% as sub-irrigation at 15 cm depth (‘25/25 SPLIT’); 4. 25% as conventional surface drip-irrigation (‘25% TOP’). Plants were irrigated daily at 18:00 apart from days 34-36 (inclusive) when water was withdrawn for all the treatments. Plants in ‘50% SUB’ had the most flowers and their size was comparable to that of ‘50% TOP’. Differences between treatments in other ‘quality’ parameters (height, shoot number) were biologically small. There was less root growth at deeper soil surface levels for ‘50% TOP’ which indicated that irrigation methods like ‘50% SUB’ and ‘25/25 SPLIT’ and stronger water deficits encouraged deeper root growth. It is suggested that sub-irrigation at 10 cm depth with water amounts of 50% container capacity would result in the most root growth with the maximum flowering for Petunia. Leaf stomatal conductance appeared to be most sensitive to the changes in substrate moisture content in the deepest part of the soil profile, where most roots were situated.