Solving the mysteries of water and air underground
Stand outside and look underneath your feet. There, perhaps under some grass, is the soil. On a dry day, all the spaces in the soil are filled with air. And some distance further down, those spaces are entirely water. So, what's in between?
That's the capillary fringe. And it might just be the most important -- and mysterious -- thing you've never heard of.
Like a paper towel wicking up water from a surface, water rises above its natural level in soils through capillary action. A lot of chemical and microbial activity in the soil varies based on how much water or air is around. So, the capillary fringe controls many important functions in the soil.
"Important processes like contaminant breakdown and carbon storage depend on the amount of water and oxygen available," says Jaclyn Fiola, now a graduate student at Virginia Tech. "Understanding the conditions in the capillary fringe will help us predict where certain soil processes will occur."
Fiola and her team set out to better understand this strange region. But that's no easy feat. With the entire fringe underground, it's invisible. And even scientists have a hard time agreeing on where the fringe begins and ends. That's where lab experiments come in handy.
The team gathered two kinds of soil, one sandy and one loamy. The scientists packed this soil into five-gallon buckets with holes near the bottom to allow water to enter.
To track the key events in the capillary fringe, Fiola turned to cleverly simple systems. To study how much oxygen was in the soil, the researchers painted PVC pipes with rust-embedded paint. They inserted these pipes into the soil.
Wherever there wasn't enough oxygen, microbes would "breathe" rust instead. That would turn the rust into a different form of iron, which washes away. By measuring how much rust was left, the team could get a glimpse beneath the soil.
The researchers were surprised to find that the water rose the entire height of the buckets in both types of soils. That means the capillary fringe extended at least 9 inches, more than they were expecting.
They were also surprised that the PVC pipes had lost their rust well above the water table. "This means the soil in the capillary fringe at least 2 inches above the water table is behaving like soil in the water table even though it's not fully saturated," says Fiola.
"Based on the findings, the soil directly above the water table behaves a lot like the saturated soil within the water table," says Fiola.
Wetlands are defined by the government as soils that are saturated near the surface. But if soils act like they're saturated even above the water table, that means more areas might act like wetlands and deserve protection.
Scientists also wanted to better understand how water and air in the capillary fringe can affect other soil processes. To track decomposition, they inserted wooden sticks into the soil. Researchers found that microbes eating the wooden sticks were finnicky.
"Our results suggest that the microbes that carry out decomposition require ideal conditions - not too wet and not too dry," says Fiola. The wood was most eaten away in the middle of the buckets where it was moist.
"The capillary fringe is far too complicated to define based on one single measurement," says Fiola. Even though her team measured many different aspects of the fringe, those measurements didn't always agree with one another.
Soils are complex, especially outside of the lab. So now the researchers are planning to study the capillary fringe in more realistic conditions and in the field.
That future work might give us a better understanding of -- and appreciation for -- the fuzzy, complex, and vital in-between spaces beneath our feet.
- Author: Allison Rowe and Ben Faber
How to irrigate is probably the most common question in irrigated agriculture, even with 10,000 years of cultivation knowledge to guide us. The complexities of irrigation and the unique situation for each grower makes this question so difficult. Not enough water, and plants have diminished growth or the propensity for disease and disorder 1. Too much water leads to root disease and nutrient problems 2. So, it can't be too much or too little, but just right. There are times when citrus can handle a little more water stress than other times, which can lead to water savings 3, especially in a drought year or in areas where water costs are crucial. Salinity further compounds the question of irrigation where striking a balance determines the health of your tree. Staying in tune with your orchard and using appropriate methods to measure water need, water use, environmental water demand, and soil water-holding capacity will help inform irrigation management decisions.
There are all kinds of ways of estimating tree water need 4 , a valuable piece of information for irrigation decision making. An inexpensive and often overlooked method of estimating tree water requirements is grower observation in the orchard to assess leaf color, leaf size, the look of the leaves, and canopy fullness. Pure observation and knowledge of your trees yields a lot of valuable information regarding irrigation management. Beyond observation, a direct measure of the tree with a porometer, pressure gauge (bomb), sap flow meter, dendrometer or other device gives an absolute or relative number of tree performance. Technological advances, such as telemetry and imaging with drones or satellites, holds promise, but are still being perfected for general irrigation use. In general, technological devices yield informative data, but tend to be expensive, delicate, and require manual monitoring to account for tree-to-tree variation in the orchard.
Soil moisture sensors can be an effective method of evaluating water use by the tree. The most basic way to measure soil moisture is with a human powered shovel or soil tube 5. While it requires an operator who knows what they are doing, the technique is easily learned and repeatable. A human and shovel can move around an orchard checking out different suspicious spots that are not easily done with fixed-in-place sensors. Installation of soil moisture sensors systems range in cost and capabilities, yet provide specific data on water use. Integrating certain systems into communication relay systems allow for the monitoring of multiple sites at once. Some sensors can measure soil salinity, as well as soil moisture, to give a sense of whether the water in the soil will be useable by the tree. If soil moisture sensors are used, correct placement of where roots are taking up water is imperative to get an accurate assessment of water uptake. Overall, it is critical to keep the entire orchard in mind and understand that fixed sensors only take a specific location's reading.
Another great technique to inform irrigation scheduling is an estimate of the demand that drives water use. An evapotranspiration estimate either by CIMIS, a private weather station with ET-calculation or atmometer gives not only an amount to apply but also when to apply that amount based on the water holding capacity of the soil and the rooting depth of the crop. Soil moisture holding volume can be complicated, but can be estimated from the NRCS table in the previous paragraph5 or from tables in the Web Soil Survey 7.
Simply running an irrigation system for a specific amount of time and probing for depth of water penetration and extent of wetted area is the best way to get an estimate of soil moisture holding capacity. This knowledge is needed in order to decide whether the active rooting volume is getting wetted sufficiently or too much is being applied. Emitters are rated by gallons per hour, but that 1 gph, 5 gph, 20 gph emitter output might differ according to water pressure that can vary over an irrigation period. On the flip side, monitoring soil moisture depletion over time can give an approximation of how depletion compares to ET estimates. Soil moisture depletion can be measured by soil moisture sensors or by shovel and feel. This estimate of applied water compared to output and ET only needs to be done once at a given growth stage of the orchard. If the orchards is young, it will need to be done each year as the trees fill out. An estimate of canopy growth can also be used to better approximate young orchard ET.
All of these methods suppose that a grower has the capability to irrigate when, where and for how long they need to. If water delivery is on a fixed schedule and the amount of water can be controlled it is valuable to understand specific water needs. Knowing the rated applied amount of an emitter is important, but that amount shouldn't be assumed, especially considering natural wear and tear, damage from harvest, poor filtration, clogging, or damage by wildlife. Maintenance to insure good distribution uniformity is critical to the operation and the correct application of water to trees and for the maintenance of tree health. Low-pressure systems are wonderful but they should be evaluated on a yearly basis and tuned up in preparation for every irrigation season. Many growing areas have mobile irrigation labs that will evaluate system performance and make recommendations for improvement.
All said, knowing the orchard and evaluating tree health will inform irrigation management decisions. Applying technology where technology is appropriate will help. Using it to help advise irrigation decisions is valuable, but new tools will not always be the answer.
It's important to know what is being applied.
Trust but verify.
NASA's Maps of Global Soil Conditions
Future of Farming
Find water anywhere.
By Mary von Aue
The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) is now using data collected from the first NASA satellite mission dedicated to measuring the water content of soils. These maps created by the space agency will be used to monitor global croplands, make commodity forecasts, and will help the USDA forecast crops globally.
The Soil Moisture Active Passive mission, or SMAP, launched in 2015 in order to map the amount of water in soils worldwide. On Friday, NASA announced that the agency is providing the mission with new tools developed by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center that will better predict where there could be too much or too little moisture in the soil to sustain farming.
“There's a lot of need for understanding, monitoring and forecasting crops globally,” said John Bolten, a research scientist at Goddard. “SMAP is NASA's first satellite mission devoted to soil moisture, and this is a very straightforward approach to applying that data.” NASA presents the satellite data in maps that are rendered to resemble watercolor paintings. Soils that are wetter than normal are seen in shades of greens, while those that are drier than normal are seen in shades of browns.
Before this collaboration, the USDA had used computer models that would incorporate precipitation and temperature observations to indirectly calculate soil moisture. However, this approach was prone to error in areas that lacked high-quality, ground-based instrumentation to collect the data. Now, NASA is incorporating direct SMAP data on soil moisture into Crop Explorer, the USDA's Foreign Agricultural Service website that reports on regional droughts, floods, and crop forecasts.
The SMAP viewer is still in beta but is expected to provide updated global coverage every three days once it launches. The maps will be managed for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and will provide Crop Explorer with timely updates that are essential for monitoring conditions and forecasting productivity.
This cross-agency collaboration will do more than help the USDA identify farming trends. By monitoring moisture in the soil globally, scientists can more accurately forecast conditions that could have tremendous economic and social impact.
Map created with NASA's SMAP data from May 16-18, 2018/h2>/h1>/h1>/h1>
A tensiometer is one of the most wonderful devices for figuring out when to water plants. It works equally well in orchard and garden situations. It follows the soil moisture content as it is depleted by the plant and will tell you when it is time to rewet the root zone. If, you monitor it faithfully. If you don't, it can give erroneous results. If you are not watching it, it can go dry and give a false reading. That should only tell you the reader to pay more attention to the plant's water needs.
It's actually very reliable if it is installed correctly. And once it is and maintained it can give good results for years.
Here is a video showing Gary Bender installing a tensiometer correctly.
Of course there are many ways to monitor soil moisture and the water needs of plants. A shovel, auger or trowel are incredibly accurate devices if you get down and dirty. The tensiometer allows you to stay clean, at least for soil moisture monitoring.
No matter where they grow in California, June is a month when avocados are being watered on a regular schedule. How regular that schedule is should be carefully reviewed by the irrigator. In 1991-'92, right along the coast in a Ventura irrigation plot, we applied 32" of water, but in '92-'93 we put on only 26". Same trees, nearly the same size, but a 23% difference in applied amounts dictated by differences in water demand due to different weather. The irrigation schedule we use is driven by tensiometers and a CIMIS weather station. The station generates reference evapotranspiration values which tell us how much water to apply at an irrigation, and the tensiometers are used to verify whether the trees are doing well by the schedule. Irrigation on a fixed schedule, such as once a week for 24 hours, is going to guarantee that on average you will be either under or over irrigating at each irrigation. Using some soil-based measure, such as a soil probe or tensiometer can assure an irrigator that trees are getting the appropriate amount of water when they need it. If you haven't done so, the irrigation calculator available at the Avovcadosource.com website can be quite useful in guiding an irrigation schedule - http://www.avocadosource.com/tools/IrrigationCalculator.asp - check it out. You also need to correct for salinity accumulation.
In orchards which have not closed canopy yet, weeding is an ongoing activity. In a research plot, we are using tensiometers to monitor the effects of weeds, bare soil and chipped yard waste mulch around trees. In weedy plots soil moisture profile rapidly show 30-40 cbars of tension at 6", whereas the bare and mulched plots can go much longer before showing 40 cbars. Centibars is a measure of moisture tension, the higher the value, the drier the soil. As trees get older they make their own leaf mulch and shade which limit weed growth. There is no question that a cover crop can improve soil conditions through reduced erosion, improved water infiltration, and possible reduced disease and pest problems. These soil improvements tend to improve tree growth and orchard productivity. But, if water is the primary issue, weeds and a cover crop can add considerably to water use in an orchard, especially a young one. Weed control through the use of mulches and herbicides can effectively reduce the water requirements of trees.
June is still a good time to replant an orchard. The soils are warm enough to give the trees a good start and there is enough fine weather left for them to establish before winter comes. Late plantings (September, October) are discouraged because the root-shocked plant sits in a cold, wet soil through the winter and becomes a prime candidate for root diseases. Especially in a replant situation, it is a good idea to start them off with a fungicide with one of the phosphonate products, to give them some protection until they get established. The best time for to apply the material to do its job on older trees is when there is a good root flush of growth which occurs after the leaf flush in spring and fall.
When replanting, try as much as possible to avoid interplanting between older trees. The different water requirements of the young and old trees is such that one or both will be stressed because they need different schedules - less but more frequent for the young trees. Attempts can be made to put together a system where the older trees remain on the 10 or 15 gpm mircosprinkler and the young trees are put on a 1 gpm dripper. This still cannot be an ideal situation, since the needs for application frequency are still different between the small and big trees. The best thing to do is to clear out trees within an irrigation block and replant, or replumb a block with a new valve so that small new block can be irrigated differently from the older trees. Where clonal rootstocks fail in a root rot replant situation, it is invariably where water control is lacking or poor.
As we all know, this has been a long dry spell in the avocado growing areas along the coast. With the levels of salt in our waters, it's important to have some kind of a leaching program to ensure that salts do not accumulate in the root zone. Each winter, rain leaches the accumulated salts from the previous irrigation season and starts the orchard off to a good start. These years it hasn't happened and one of the things that can affect the trees is a stress. This is a salt stress that is most pronounced at the end of irrigation lines and where low pressure results in low output, often at the top of the hill. Any irrigation system that has poor distribution uniformity is going to have areas where less water than average is applied.
One of the responses of the trees to salt stress is to exhibit cankers in the branches. These can be silver dollar-sized cankers running in a line up the branch or as diffuse white spots in the branches. The first symptom is related to bacterial canker and the second is to black streak. These are not killer diseases, but they are reflective of the tree being under stress. As soon as the irrigation schedule is corrected, these symptoms can clear up in several months. If the schedule is not corrected the tress will begin losing leaves and sunburn can result. The symptoms of these two problems can be viewed at the UC Integrated Pest Management website - http://www.ipm.ucdavis.edu/PMG/r8100611.html and http://www.ipm.ucdavis.edu/PMG/r8100311.html.
Again these are primarily stress-related diseases and the way to correct the situation is to improve irrigation distribution uniformity and the irrigation schedule. If it goes on too long it can cause problems especially in young trees. When you boil down farming to the basics, the most important activity in the orchard is ensuring proper irrigation.