Posts Tagged: fertilizers
Every year growers get together to learn what is being done in the citrus research world that could affect their operations. This June, University of California and the Citrus Research Board are bringing some good talks to three different growing areas. All growers are invited, but RSVPs are appreciated.
There are 4,000 species of earthworms grouped into five families and distributed all over the world. Some grow uo to 3 feet long, while others are only a few tenths of inches. We call them nightcrawlers, field worms, manure worms, red worms and some people call them little diggers.
In California, we have some native species of earthworms, but in many cases non-native introduced species have come to dominate. The predominant native species belong to the Argilophilus and Diplocardia while many of the non-native are of European in origin in the Lumbricidae family. Many of these non-natives were probably introduced by settlers bringing plants from home, which had soil containing the worms. A survey of California earthworms by the US Forest Service can be found at:
This is a wonderful description of earthworm biology and their occurrence in the landscape.
When digging in citrus orchards, it is common to find earthworms in the wetted mulch under tree canopies. Many of our citrus orchards were initially established by “balled and burlap” nursery trees that brought worms along with the soil. In the case of many avocado orchards, on the other hand, it can be rare to find earthworms in orchards. Most avocado orchards have been established since the 1970s when potting mixes and plastic liners were the standard practice and worms were not part of the planting media. Even though there is a thick leaf mulch in avocado orchards, the worms have not been introduced, and it is rare to find them.
Numerous investigators have pointed out the beneficial effects of earthworms on soil properties. One of the first of these observers was Charles Darwin who published Earthworms and Vegetable Mould in 1881. He remarked on the great quantity of soil the worms can move in a year. He estimated that the earthworms in some of his pastures could form a new layer of soil 7 inches thick in thirty years, or that they brought up about 20 tons of soil per acre, enough to form a layer 0.2-inch-deep each year.
Earthworms, where they flourish, are important agents in mixing the dead surface litter with the main body of the soil. They drag the leaves and other litter down into their burrows where soil microorganisms also begin digesting the material. Some earthworms can burrow as deeply as 5 to 6 feet, but most concentrate in the top 6 to 8 inches of soil.
The worm subsists on organic matter such as leaves and dead roots near the soil surface. The earthworm ingests soil particles along with the organic matter and grinds up the organic matter in a gizzard just as a chicken does. This is excreted in what we call worm casts. The castings differ chemically from the rest of the soil, as they are richer in nitrogen, potassium and other mineral constituents.
Castings are a natural by-product of worms. When added to normal soils in gardens or lawns, they provide the same kinds of benefits as other bulky organic fertilizers. Castings today are not commonly used as fertilizer by commercial plant growers because of their cost relative to other fertilizers. However, castings are used by some organic growers and are sold commercially as a soil amendment or planting medium for ornamental plants grown in pots.
The physical soil churning process also has several important effects:
-Organic residues are more rapidly degraded with the release of elements such as nitrogen, sulfur and other nutrients.
-Some of the inorganic soil minerals tend to be solubilized by the digestive process.
-Extensive burrowing improves soil aeration.
-Burrowing can improve water penetration into soils
-The earthworm carries surface nutrients from the soil surface and imports them into the root zone of the plant.
Although earthworms are considered beneficial to soil productivity, few valid studies have been made to determine whether their presence will significantly improve plant growth. This may seem odd since many of us have learned from childhood that worms are good. It is something like the chicken and the egg analogy. The conditions that are conducive to earthworms are also ideal for plants. Both plants and worms need temperatures between 60 and 100 degrees F for good growth; both need water, but not too much or little; they both require oxygen for respiration; and they do not like soils that are too acid or basic or too salty. By correcting soil conditions that are unfavorable for one will also improve the outlook for the other. The earthworm is a natural component of the soil population. If the soil is properly managed this natural population will thrive. In this sense, the presence or absence or earthworms can be an indicator of the "fertility" of one's soil.
It’s that time of year when citrus and avocado growers need to collect leaf samples for nutrient analysis to guide fertilizer applications. Leaves are collected between August 15 and October 15 and sent to the lab for analysis. For perennial crops, leaf analysis is the most important guideline for managing tree nutrient applications. Many growers think that soil analysis is as important as leaf analysis, and is for annual crops, but is much less valuable for tree crops. Because a tree stores nutrients in its various parts, such as roots, trunk, branches, stems and leaves, it does not have to get all of its immediate nutrients from the soil the way a lettuce plant does. Trees also have a root association with beneficial fungi called mycorrhizae (fungus/roots) which aid in the uptake of nutrients such as phosphorus and zinc, and this ability is not reflected in a soil analysis. A leaf analysis integrates everything the tree is "seeing" – weather, soil, in-tree storage, water, crop load, disease – which is then reflected in the leaf analysis.
Leaf analysis is done at this period, because the leaf nutrients are somewhat stabilized. Young leaves are high in such nutrients as nitrogen and potassium, but low in zinc and iron. As the leaf matures it loses nitrogen and potassium, but gains in iron and zinc. A fully expanded four-month old leaf from the spring flush taken at this time of year has been found to best reflect the tree’s nutrient status. For a discussion on leaf sampling, see our fall 2003 edition of Topics in Subtropics - http://ceventura.ucdavis.edu/newsletterfiles/Topics_in_Subtropics3707.pdf.
If leaf nutrients are low or high, it can indicate not only what nutrient is the problem, but also what sort of corrective actions should be evaluated. It may not be the lack of something like iron, but waterlogging from too long or frequent irrigations. Waterlogged soils reduce iron uptake, and this deficiency might be better addressed by correcting the irrigation practice than spending money on iron applications. Zinc deficiency might be a result of root rot killing root hairs that take up zinc and addressing the disease issue is going to have a longer term improvement on tree nutrient status than simply applying zinc fertilizer. And then of course, if leaves are showing toxicities to sodium or chloride, correcting irrigation leaching and infiltration issues is the way to solve this nutrient problem, since this the easiest way to solve the problem.
This does not mean soil and water analyses are not important, on the contrary. A pre-plant analysis for water and soil can tell you before hand what you might be dealing with and allow you to correct the problem before planting. A high pH is best corrected before trees are in the ground. Trying to correct a zinc, iron, manganese, or copper deficiency with the trees in the ground is expensive and can take years to correct. It is easier to apply sulfur or sulfuric acid to the ground before planting and can be done relatively quickly without harm to the trees. The micronutrient availability is controlled by pH and once soil pH is in the 6-7 range, it is less likely for these deficiencies to occur. Trying to lower pH when the trees show iron deficiency, must be done slowly, since adding too much acidifying material at one time can kill the tree and during the process of acidification, some sort of stop gap measure, such as foliar feeding or fertigation must be employed until the soil pH has slowly been corrected. A water analysis too can forewarn you if you will be having problems with such things as high salinity, chloride, sodium, magnesium, boron or pH, and allow you to select appropriate rootstocks tolerant of the problem or again address it with soil amendments pre-plant.
A soil analysis in conjunction with water analysis can also be used for an ongoing determination of how well irrigation is being managed. Soil from trees doing poorly can be analyzed to see if adequate leaching is being accomplished with the frequency and amounts being applied. Generally, though, a soil analysis is a poor indicator of guiding a tree nutrition program and as an ongoing practice should be used for identifying the toxicity problems of salinity, boron, sodium, chloride and pH.