Feeds:
Posts
Comments

So you’re standing in the aisle at Bunnings and you are being confronted with about 50 different fertilisers.
There are fertilisers for azaleas, citrus, veges, fruit trees…………
Then there are fertilisers you dispense through the garden hose, those you put a spoonful in a bucket of water, the controlled release, the powdered, the liquid, granular…………….
Oh and don’t forget the organic, the natural, the hydroponic………………….

Are you worn out yet? How do you make sense of all this?

First stop – the label. It should have something like a list of ingredients on it. It may go something like:
Nitrogen (as urea) 12%
Phosphorus (water soluble) 2%
Potassium (as sulphate) 8%

If it’s a liquid there should be something to indicate that those % are w/v (weight by volume), if its solid/dry/granular it will be w/w (weight for weight).

Next thing to look for is a rate – how do you dispense this product? One handful per square metre? One capful per bucket, one spoonful per 20 cm pot?

Lets look at the liquid feeds first – they are the most complicated. They will usually give you a measuring cap or a teaspoon and say use one of these in a 8L bucket of water (for example).

If they are really good they will tell you the volume (if it’s a liquid) or weight (if its powder) of the measuring cap or the teaspoon! If not you might have to weigh it yourself. To get an accurate result on your kitchen scales you might need to do say, 10 spoons and divide the answer by 10.

So lets suppose your powdered fertiliser comes with a spoon that hold 4 g product (when level) and you put that in 8L water. The analysis of your product is 22:4:15 (N:P:K) % w/w.

That means there is 22 g nitrogen in 100g of the powder. So one measuring spoon of the powder contains 22 x 4/100 g nitrogen = 0.88 g nitrogen or multiply by 1000 to get milligrams or mg: 880 mg N.

Put that spoon in 8L water and you get a solution that is 880/8 = 110 mg/L nitrogen.

You can repeat that for the P and K.

Take another liquid fertiliser and read the label. This time it says 10:3:6. And it says take the same sort of measuring spoon full of powder and put it in 5L water. The final solution will be 10 x 4/100 = 0.4 g N or 400 mg N/5L water = 80 mg/L N. So a bit weaker that the other one. Which is fine if its cheaper to buy but if its more expensive think again!

For liquids the sums are much the same except the analysis will be w/v so your 10 unit of N as in the last example will be 10g/100mL or 1g/L of product. If your measuring cap holds 20mL and you’re putting that into 5L water the sums are:
10 g/100mL means 10 x 20/100 = 2 g N or (2000 mg). In 5L water that’s 400 mg/L – quite a strong solution!

I recently went through this exercise from a supposed wonder product from the US – a liquid one at that and came out with something like 0.8 mg/L nitrogen as applied! It would have had to have been wonder product to do anything! Not only that liquids are often not very cost effective because you are shipping water around the countryside – very inefficient. Bear that in mind when you buy any ready-to-use product, typically those ones you attach to a garden hose and water on – they are terribly expensive for what you are getting in terms of chemical. They are convenient but you are paying for it big time!

It’s worth doing the sums. Kevin Handreck in his book Gardening Down Under did this exercise with about 20 products and the final nitrogen concentration went from 45 mg/L right up to 900mg/L! And I’m sure there wasn’t much correlation with price!

We’ll have a look at solid fertilisers next time.

Advertisements

Experimentally we can measure the amount of nutrient a crop removes from the soil or from a nutrient solutions when it grows. That means we can calculate how much nutrient is used to produce a crop. Crop removal can be measured in a few different ways. Sometimes its done in hydroponics. Then its easy to calculate what nutrients are put into the system and what is taken out. You can harvest the crop, dry it and analyse it to see exactly what’s in the root system, the leaves, the actual crop and so on. Of course it will never balance exactly because there are inefficiencies in the system. Plants require energy to grow and some nutrients will be lost to the environment.

Another way of doing it is to grow a crop in its usual situation such as soil, and then go through the same process of measuring what is in the plant at the point of harvesting the crop. Either way you end up with a set of figures such as those in the table below.

Crop removal table

As with hydroponics there is a fudge factor. If you were to apply just those amounts of nutrients you’d not achieve similar yields. Nutrients are always lost the environment because plant roots don’t explore 100% of the soil, so many nutrients may be lost through leaching. Where you have clay soil, if the clay is highly adsorbent (ie you haven’t been applying phosphorus fertilisers or manure for several years), then much of the phosphorus you apply may be adsorbed by the clay and not readily available to the plant (not in the time frame of that crop anyway). Perth’s sands are generally below 1.5% clay so this is not an issue.
Crops vary in their ability to take up nutrients. Some are very efficient, others not so. Much of that is to do with the architecture of their root systems.

The figures above are per hectare so have to be related back to a per plant basis but you can see that there is great variation between the relative amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium that each crop uses. The figures can vary a lot depending on things like:
• climate – in countries with low light levels generally have lower yields and therefore lower crop removal figures
• crop variety, and
• time of year.

In our work, we find we may have to apply 30-50% more nutrients to a crop over winter than summer. Why? Rain and slower growth are the reasons. No matter how well you apply fertiliser one decent shower of rain will leach most of it away. And because winter is cooler, invariably the time the crop takes to grow is longer and those inefficiencies multiply.

So what is the fudge factor you have to apply to actually grow a crop? About double is not a bad average. Some crops you might get away with 40% more.

The other consideration is the amount of each nutrient that a plant can access. Each nutrient comes with its own set of problems. Nitrogen is highly leachable. In sand so is phosphorus and potassium. In clay soils things may slow down a bit for the latter two but nitrogen is still converted to nitrate within about 24 hours of application in Perth so the advantages of applying ammonium are not great.

Lets now they can relate some of this to the manures and composts you may use. I’ve used this table before.

Manure composition table

Using tomatoes as an example. If you need 297 kg N per hectare – lets say 30 g N per square metre, then that amounts to 3.3 kg of sheep manure (at about 40-50% moisture content) per square metre per crop. And if we double that for our inefficiency factor then we’re up to over 6 kg manure per square metre of ground.

But that amount of sheep manure contains almost the same amount of phosphorus and our tomato crop only needs just under 20% of that! What happens to the rest?

And what about potassium? Our crop needs more potassium than nitrogen so we will be short changed on that score.

You can see how easy it is to waste heaps of phosphorus and probably how much better your yields may be if you added a lot more nitrogen. And why you might run into disease problems and fruit quality issues due to lack of potassium.

We haven’t even considered yet is at what stage in its life cycle our tomato crops needs each of these nutrients. The figure below shows the pattern of nutrient uptake over the life of a tomato crop.

Crop removal Yara

OK, so sheep poo is not a good idea. What about using chook instead? Well, you will be slightly better off for the relative amount of nitrogen to phosphorus but you are even more short changed on potassium!

If you use half sheep and half chook , the ratio of N:P:K changes to 13.5:10.5:6.5. Not a lot of help – well over on P again and well under on K.

What is my message? Well if you’re growing veges organically using animal manures and compost, unless you are operating in a closed system, don’t kid yourself you are being environmentally friendly. You might be saving on food miles and pesticides but the Swan river isn’t going to thank you for all that phosphorus you are dumping in to the groundwater. And if you are using some sort of closed system, at some stage you are going to have to dump nutrient as the levels of phosphorus (and other plant exudates) become toxic – and where will you put it?

Nematodes

OK, I know I have done much for a while but this came up on a forum today so it seemed like a good opportunity.

Nematodes are tiny worm like creatures. They are a particular problem around Perth because we have sandy soils. If you live in one of the older suburbs you probably have them for sure!

How can you tell if you have them?

Plants will be unthrifty, they may simply appear unwell, nutrient deficient or they may be getting a lot of other problems. For example roses or eucalypts with nematodes often have stem cankers as a secondary problem. If you dig the plant up and examine the roots they may have knots on them – or they may not. Most people aautomatically think of root knot nematode when they think of nematodes however many other species of nematodes don’t produce galls or knots. You may just see roots that seem more branched and profuse then normal (not to be confused with proteoid roots on banksias, hakeas etc. Or on leaves, you may see angular blackened sections.

Types of nematodes

Most nematodes can’t really be seen by the naked eye – the commonest species may be up to 1mm long. Some nematodes feed from the outside of the root (dagger, needle or stubby-root nematodes), or they may go inside the plant and either stay in one place (eg root knot nematode) or move around inside the plant and feed along the way (lesion or burrowing nematodes. Some other types of nematodes move around inside the plant but feed on above ground parts such as leaves or stems (such as Aphelenchoides that infect leaves of eg Chrysanthemum or some ferns)

How do you get nematodes?

They can come in on plant material which is already infected or in soil/soils mixes.

What conditions do they like?

Ideal soil conditions vary with species. Moist soil is required by all to reproduce and move. The optimum temperature varies with species. The pore size of the soil affects nematode movement. The small pores of clay soils make movement difficult so the nematodes have to move in the spaces between aggregates. The larger pores in coarse sands may be too big to allow nematodes to gain leverage between particles.

Control

The home gardener has a different range of options to a commercial grower. Nematicides used to be available to the home gardener (Nemacur® granules) but aren’t any more. They are all S7 pesticides so pretty nasty! Over time the microbes in the soil that break the chemical down build up numbers so over a period of a few years the pesticides become less and less effective. There are natural predators of nematodes – such as fungi or other nematodes but these aren’t really commercially available. Method more suited to the home gardener include:

Rotation – the use of a rotation crop that is resistant to the particular nematode. So for root knot, that may be something from the grass family eg a grass or sweetcorn or sorghum. This will not eliminate them entirely but reduces numbers to levels that don’t cause problems.

Fallow – leaving an area fallow has a similar effect to rotating with a resistant crop – numbers fall because they can’t reproduce.

Solarisation is another option. The use of clear plastic laid over tilled moist soil for several weeks during the hottest part of the year.

Bio-fumigation – there are some crops that can be grown and hoed back in that contain chemicals that will help control pests and diseases including nematodes – such as some of the mustards. These crop residues are planted densely and hoed in while in full flower. Castor oil plants and marigolds have root exudates that may kill nematodes – they can be grown as rotation crops and hoed in. The type of marigold matters, not all are useful. Tagetes patula has traditionally been the one to use but some other species also work.

Sugar and molasses – In some Brazilian work, 300g granulated sugar per litre of soil at 7 days intervals controlled root knot.

Work in Australia on field grown tomatoes found 150 m³/ha of sawdust plus urea (600 kg/ha) to be quite effective. Molasses at 375 litres/ha per week for 14 weeks helped reduce numbers but was inferior to the sawdust.

In some other trials, urea concentrations of 4% totally eliminated nematodes but adversely affected plants. A combination of urea and molasses reduced the phytotoxic effects. Some papers mention molasses in water with a final sugar concentration of about 2% reduces nematodes numbers by about half in just over a week.

Other plant extracts – many have been trialled. Things like calendula, rosemary, lantana, onion, fennel, datura and liquorice which are ground up and put in water. What works probably depends on the type of nematode and the crop. Many of these trials have been in vitro and not in field situations.

The APPS website has some good info if you’d like to do any further reading.

Just a quick one – firstly, observations in my own garden last weekend.  Wherever there was a layer of organic matter over the ground there was bone dry soil underneath nice wet organic matter.  Not much point in that being wet though when the  soil which is where the roots are! Now, I don’t mulch as a general rule, so I’m talking whatever lands there from trees around the place, and breaks down over time.  Fine textured organic matter.   Conversely, wherever there was soil only and no layer on top, the rain of the past week or so had wetted the soil up to a depth of a few inches. 

I also received some progress reports on the mulch work done at Murdoch TAFE over the last summer.  They quite definitely show that coarse mulch is the way to go and no more than 50 mm thick if you still want soil to be wetted in the root zone (bear in mind that work was in summer with supplemental irrigation).

We are doing some work outside of Perth (north by a few hours actually) in some quite clayey soils with a range of soil moisture monitoring gear.  We’re getting quite high moisture levels in the soil but the shape of the graphs and the way the probes react to irrigations are telling us that much of that water is not plant available, the bulk of it simply sits  there making the soil feel moist but not helping the plant much at all!

And in case you haven’t been tracking rainfall and you have just been blindly following the watering days regime, perhaps you wouldn’t like to know that in May I had 210 mm rain at home compared to 21 mm in June.  So if you didn’t water in June  as per instructions, you may be in some degree of trouble especially if you’re growing things with shallower root systems eg veges or if you have new plantings in the garden.

 

Correction

I have to apologise for an error in yesterday’s post.  You may have been more confused than necessary, I missed one graph out and put two in of another one.  So now if you look at the second graph its different.  And correct!

This post is a bit longer and more technical than usual.  I originally wrote it for a different audience and this is my attempt at making it user friendly for most people.  Like many things in nature it’s complex.

Healthy soils teem with microbes. Inoculating soil with with microbes to boost crop production is all the rage at the moment with companies sprouting – well, like microbes! Usually they are being sold to the commercial grower but more and more they are also being marketed into the home garden market where cost is less of an issue (ie home gardeners don’t have to make a profit).

Whether you can parachute in foreign organisms and expect them to live and prosper is really open to debate.  In most studies it doesn’t happen.  And in sandy soils with virtually no organic matter there is nothing there for them to feed on so it is even less likely.  Sure you can add composts and manures but these don’t tend to hang around much in sands, they burn off very quickly unless some clay is also added.  And large amounts of compost and manure provide phosphorus far in excess of plant needs which means it leaches down into the groundwater, potentially getting into waterways and causing algal blooms.

I have seen some papers showing how mycorrhizae have increased plant growth, even without fertiliser being added.  Those papers carefully omitted to cite a soil analysis!  One thing to bear in mind – I certainly don’t dispute that some substances can increase plant growth but they can’t do it forever without, at some stage, the food supply having to be replenished.  What you are doing is mining the soil.  It might work once or twice but then you run out of food.  Plants can’t feed on fresh air!  OK I can hear you saying they can fix nitrogen from the air – yes – but not phosphorus or potassium!

Mycorrhizae may alter root architecture – ie the way roots branch and proliferate.  That can make plants take up nutrients more efficiently by exploring more of the soil.  So you might see a growth spurt – but again, that nutrient will have to be replenished if that response is to be repeated and maintained.

So lets look at microbes.

A changing population

Populations of fungi are not constant. They change frequently in response to a whole range of factors. Even those associated with a single plant, change with the growth stage of that plant. Figure 1 shows the relative amounts of different fungal species over time for a pea plant. In the vegetative stage, Fusarium is most common but diminishes over time in contrast to Heliotales which increases as the plant matures.

The relative amounts of each fungus also change with fertility (Figure 2) and crop health (Figure 3).

                     Vegetative                                                    Flowering

 vegetativeflowering

legend

Senescence

senescent

Figure 1.  Change in microbial populations with growth stage in the rhizosphere of pea. (Note the rhizosphere is that thin coating of soil left on the roots after the rest of the soil is shaken off).

OM rates

Figure 2  Relative amounts of fungal species in pea roots grown with either nil or three levels of organic fertiliser (OF)

disease

Figure 3.  Relative abundance of fungal species associated with the rhizosphere of healthy and diseased pea plants.

You will note that in all the examples above there is a mixture of ‘good’ (e.g. Glomus sp.) and ‘bad’ species of fungi (e.g. Olpidium sp.).  This is normal and disease only occurs when this balance is disrupted in favour of the pathogen and other conditions in the environment and host are right for infection and disease development.

Mycorrhizae are one group of fungi known to have beneficial effects on plant growth in some circumstances, but this is highly variable. The term mycorrhiza covers a large number of genera. Glomus species are some of the most prevalent. Examples of their effects on plant growth are provided below.

Highly specific effects

Example – Three mycorrhizal species were studied on basil.  None affected plant phosphorus level.  Only one significantly affected plant growth and increased the amount of one essential oil produced while the other two increased the amount of a second oil and decreased that of a third.

Microbes can also have adverse effects such as growth suppression

Example ‑ A trial on onion and plantago showed varying effects of mycorrhizae on plant nutrient levels.  The authors expected the mycorrhizae to increase host nutrient levels, however in some cases they reduced them.

Example – Twenty-three different mycorrhizal strains were evaluated for their symbiotic response with Piper longum (long pepper).  Almost all resulted in increased plant growth, biomass and nutrient content (nitrogen and potassium) over the control, however six species depressed growth.

It’s Complicated!

Example – A comparison of mycorrhizal versus non-mycorrhizal roots showed phosphorus uptake doubled and was independent how much was in the soil. There was no additional benefit of the mycorrhizae on plant growth other than that due to increased P uptake.

Example – The effects of a mycorrhiza on growth and photosynthesis of cucumber were studied using different rates of nutrient supply, phosphorus ratio and different forms of nitrogen.

cucumber

Plants inoculated and given full-strength nutrient solution showed a 19 per cent reduction in total biomass compared with mycorrhizal (AM) plants (Figure 5).

The highest percentage of mycorrhizal infection in cucumber was found at the low P treatment, however a 90 per cent reduction in total nutrient supply almost totally counteracted the potential positive impact of a low concentration of P on mycorrhizal infection.

The extent of mycorrhizal infection in cucumber was correlated with a low root P concentration, which agrees with other studies that plant P status influences mycorrhizal infection.

Not all plants are mycorrhizal

Some plants do not form relationships with mycorrhizae even when inoculated. Brassicas, beetroot and spinach are among those.

Local species usually prevail

This is probably the most important consideration of all.  Any microbe placed in a field situation will face competition from local species and may eventually be displaced.

Example.  A Turkish study took 70 soil samples from 25 different plant varieties grown in local fields.  Arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi (AMF) were found in 59 soil samples; 58 of these were identified as Glomus and one as Gigaspora.

The effect of the local Glomus sp. was compared to a commercial preparation on tomato and cucumber plants.

The local Glomus species increased cucumber and tomato plant growth, but the commercial mix did nothing.  The local Glomus species colonised plant roots at almost twice the rate of the commercial one.

The relationships are very specific

Each plant species, and even variety, tends to have a preference for certain mycorrhizal species. It is difficult to manipulate relationships and so the effect of inoculating a soil with mycorrhizae depends on many factors.  If there are already successful mycorrhizal associations present, those existing association may be stronger and the introduced species may fail to displace those already present, or it may displace a proportion of the existing associations.  Inoculation with mycorrhizae does not necessarily mean more root colonisation in terms of either numbers or species.

And lastly – Beware trial results!

Many research results, when you read the fine print, are from work that has trialled mycorrhizae under unnatural situations, whether using sterile media or in a laboratory. Those results are not often reproducible in field situations.  They work because the introduced (foreign) microbes have no competition.  A better approach and one more likely to succeed, would be to use local species, bulk them up and inoculate back.

I’ve been away for a while.  Mostly because work is busy but also because I haven’t had much new to report.  But in the last couple of weeks I managed to get some more data on some recent mulch trials and have written it up and presented it to a group of people at a meeting.  The most interesting thing to come out of it was that you CANNOT rely on winter rains to wet up the soil profile.  Even after 600 mm of rain over winter, at 20-30 cm depth the soil was still dry!  And of course the thicker the mulch layer the worse the problem.

The other things that’s apparent is soils are highly variable.  Lots of preferred pathways exist in soil so, in these trial for example, there was a high degree of variability between the three replicate treatments in all cases.  When a significant rain event occured (33mm) the response under the unmulched soil was less than under the other treatments – probably because of runoff due to non-wetting.

While some of the mulches maintained the moisture content in the soil below over summer most were so dry that it really didn’t matter!  They were drought stricken.  This raises an interesting point.  What is the point of amending soil to hold more moisture when there isn’t any!  Certainly, in discussions with someone that conducted trial on a range of soil amendments recently, under the Water Corporation watering regime there was absolutely no difference between treatments. Drought is drought!  If plants are water stressed it doesn’t matter a damn about the improved water holding capacity of the soil if there’s no water in it they can’t access it anyway!  And in fact the situation could be made worse because clay, while holding more water, holds much of it a higher soil moisture tension (ie its harder for plants to extract it).

So this whole issue is complex.  But the main thing to think about is whether or not the soil profile is wet up throughout the root zone over winter.  And due to preferred pathways that exist in soil, you will need to dig down in more than one place to find out!  If the soil largely remains dry in the root zone (20-30 cm) at the end of winter then you need to think about how you apply mulch, especially if you are a) overhead watering and b) only watering 2-3 times a week.

I would dearly love to do some research on this topic but alas funding for “home garden” type issues doesn’t exist so we are reliant on the bits and pieces done here and there, often by institutions like TAFE.  And extrapolations from the commercial stuff done by eg DAFWA.