Subtropical Fruit Crops Research & Education
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Subtropical Fruit Crops Research & Education

Posts Tagged: soil

Thoughts on Dirt and Irrigation

Irrigation volume and frequency: soil, salinity and nutrient considerations

Published on: July 18, 2019

Irrigation frequency and volume

One fundamental decision that a grower needs to make is how frequently to irrigate a vineyard; either applying small amounts of water frequently, or larger amounts of water less frequently. This choice determines how large the soil "flower pot" is that supports the vines, while also having implications for nutrient availability, salinity conditions and potential limitations on water infiltration. Changing from frequent small irrigations to infrequent large irrigations, either as an ongoing practice or as a one-time event, may lead to unanticipated outcomes and thus should ideally be done after ensuring that the conditions are adequate for this practice. For this reason it can be beneficial to evaluate the soil and water quality conditions at a site before making large changes in irrigation practices. Factors to consider include the potential depth of the rootzone, the presence of any layers in the soil which may cause infiltration problems, the salinity of the irrigation water, and the potential nutrient conditions affected by changing the wetted soil volume.

Root zone depth

If applying a large volume of irrigation water, the soil needs to have the capacity to store this water while providing adequate porosity conditions allowing gas exchange for proper root function. The soil depth to bedrock needs to be considered; if this depth is shallow in areas of the vineyard, this can lead to poor performance with large irrigations if they result in ponded water above the bedrock or large variations in total available soil water due to varying soil depths.

Figure 1. An example of shallow bedrock underlying an otherwise productive soil.


Most of our vineyards are located on deeper alluvial soils where shallow bedrock is not a concern. For a given rooting depth, finer-textured soils with their relatively high water holding capacity can store more water and thus be irrigated with larger volumes less frequently, while coarse-textured soils with their lower water holding capacity generally need to be irrigated with smaller amounts more frequently. Grapevine roots can grow very deeply in the soil, more so if that is where available water is found; however a vine which has developed mostly shallow roots from a history of shallow irrigation may not be able to take advantage of recently applied deeper soil moisture until it has developed the roots to do so.

Less permeable layers

Common throughout the Central Coast are different types of low-permeability layers in soils which can impede the movement of water, resulting in ponding or saturated conditions above the restrictive layer with negative impacts on any roots in that zone. These less permeable layers may not have been been given much attention until well after a vineyard has been planted, for example when mature vines are observed to suffer stress in heavy rainfall years or with a change to longer duration irrigation in the summer. A thorough evaluation of a site prior to planting should include an assessment of the deeper soil conditions to identify any potential restrictions on the movement of water or penetration of roots. Sites which have such conditions that cannot be corrected are not good candidates for applying large volumes of irrigation water in the summer, if doing so results in water saturation of the active root zone.

Figure 2. Local farmers a century ago learned about the limitations of hardpans with dryfarmed perennial crops. The same soils present challenges for irrigated production due to poor infiltration.


Impermeable layers can exist due to a variety of physical and/or chemical conditions in the soil. A hardpan can be formed naturally in the soil due to the gradual compaction and cementing together of soil particles. Agricultural practices of using moldboard plows and heavy equipment can also create hardpan conditions.

Figure 3. This hardpan layer became evident when irrigation volumes increased, and vines collapsed.


A clay lens is a horizontal layer of clay in between soil layers; this clay can be an effective barrier to both water movement and root penetration. These clay lenses can occur below the depths which can be effectively corrected with tillage, leading to perched water tables which can be particularly troublesome by preventing deeper drainage.

Figure 4. This thin layer of clay (between the ribbons) was an effective barrier to water infiltration.


Another type of textural barrier occurs in a stratified soil, when a fine-textured soil horizon overlies a coarse-textured horizon. Water does not flow downward out of the fine-textured horizon and into the coarse-textured horizon until the former is fully saturated with water. This may seem counter intuitive, because we generally associate coarse soils with good drainage; in reality this stratified condition results in water-logging of the fine soil layer when large amounts of irrigation are applied. With small volumes of irrigation this fine soil layer may be wetted enough to support the bulk of the vine roots; a subsequent change to a large volume of irrigation can saturate this same soil and negatively affect root function.

Figure 5. A stratified soil, with a finer textured layer overlying a coarser textured layer. The roots are all in the finer textured layer, because moisture rarely passes to the coarse texture below. A heavy irrigation will saturate the fine texture layer, impacting root function.



A less-permeable layer can also be due to variations in soil structure where the cation exchange capacity of the deeper soil is dominated by magnesium, while the surface horizon has more calcium, typically from the historic additions of lime or gypsum amendments. The greater calcium content of the surface horizon creates a more porous and stable soil structure that allows for good water penetration, whereas the higher magnesium content of the deeper soil results in a very dense, massive soil structure with much less ability to infiltrate water. 


Figure 6. The calcium and magnesium content of a serpentine soil. The calcium in the upper horizon is a result of prior amendments.


Chemical weathering of the soil can also form low-permeability layers over thousands of years. An example are the "calcic" (also known as "caliche") soil horizons which are formed by rainfall dissolving the naturally occurring lime in the upper soil horizons, which then moves downwards where it precipitates out of solution (becomes solid) again at a deeper depth. Because the precipitation of the lime occurs within the existing soil pores, this process gradually clogs these soil pores and creates a barrier to water movement and root penetration.

Figure 7. A calcic horizon about two feet below the surface; east of Paso Robles.


The above types of restrictive layers may exist in current vineyards, and they can be very difficult or impossible to alter with the vines in place. These restrictive layers are more effectively addressed during the vineyard development phase, when deeper tillage is possible. Some conditions such as the presence of highly stratified layers can be very difficult to correct and require the use of very large equipment, which will forever alter the natural state of the soil.

Figure 8. Tandem D8H crawlers pulling a large slip plow to thoroughly mix a stratified soil near Santa Maria. The result has been described as a "blended" terroir. Photo by Frank Laemmlen, retired Farm Advisor.


Such extensive deep tillage may not be desirable or feasible for a variety of practical and philosophical reasons; in that case the irrigation management needs to be adapted to the presence of these soil barriers to water movement. Lighter, more frequent irrigation can avoid problems due to deeper restrictive layers. Alternatively, applying irrigation more broadly by increasing the number of emitters per vine (two 1/2 gph emitters instead of one 1 gph emitter for example) can increase the wetted soil volume while avoiding the potential deeper problem layers if applied volumes remain small. A heavy summer irrigation which results in the extended saturation of the soil horizon containing the most active roots can result in vine collapse and death, but the same soil conditions during the winter will not impact the vines in the same manner; thus applying large irrigations to soils during the winter to increase their water storage can be more successful than during the summer when roots are active and the vine root water uptake is at its maximum. This type of winter irrigation is more useful in dry regions where rainfall is limited, and may not be suitable for areas that receive heavier precipitation. 

Soil salinity considerations

Another factor to consider when determining the irrigation frequency is the potential for soil salinity to impact vine growth. Groundwater quality throughout the Central Coast is highly variable; sites with relatively poor-quality irrigation water, particularly those having rootstocks susceptible to salinity, need to take this into consideration when choosing their irrigation frequency. To understand why, consider this example: after applying irrigation, assume that the electrical conductivity of the soil water is the same as the irrigation water. As the soil water is consumed by root uptake and evaporation, the volume of soil water is reduced but most of the salts remain behind in the soil water. As a result, the concentration of salts in the remaining soil water gradually increases as the volume of soil water decreases. This adds an additional stress on the vines, an osmotic stress, which reduces the vine's ability to take up the remaining soil moisture. We can minimize this osmotic stress by increasing the frequency of irrigation, which ensures that at least a small volume of the soil is maintained at a higher water content and therefore a lower salinity level. With higher frequency irrigation, the vines won't experience the same degree of increasing salinity stress towards the end of the irrigation cycle as they would between large, infrequent irrigations. This characteristic of high-frequency drip irrigation to maintain a lower osmotic stress is what has permitted successful crop production where conventional irrigation would not be feasible due to the poor quality irrigation water.

Figure 9. Severe water stress, and potentially salinity stress as well.


Nutrient considerations

The choice of whether we are growing the vines in a "big pot" or a "small pot" has important implications for nutrient management as well. When a larger volume of soil is wetted with irrigation, this can increase the total amount of soil nutrients which are available to the vines; this can be good or bad, depending upon the situation.

As the soil dries out over the summer and early fall, the most active roots will be in the volume of soil wetted by irrigation. If this soil volume does not contain sufficient nutrients, then deficiencies can occur. A common example is potassium; it can exist in adequate quantities in the drier soil outside the wetted volume but is not readily available to the roots under these dry soil conditions. This is an example of an induced deficiency, where the nutrient is present, but conditions do not permit its uptake by the vine. This condition is typically addressed by fertilizing with the nutrient in the wetted soil volume, generally by fertigation. Increasing the wetted soil volume can allow the vines to access nutrients which previously were not as accessible such as the potassium example above. It may also increase the availability of other nutrients, for example nitrogen which had leached below an earlier shallow root zone. An increased level of available nitrogen may lead to excessive vegetative growth, thus these deeper nutrient levels may need to be evaluated before increasing the soil wetted volume. 

Figure 10. A raisin grape vineyard in Argentina with excessive nitrogen fertilizer; the resulting extremely dense canopy had almost no light penetration and very little ventilation, resulting in a total crop loss due to powdery mildew. This image was taken during the daytime.



Prior to making major changes in the irrigation frequency and amounts at a site, the soil and rooting conditions should be evaluated to predict whether or not such changes might have any negative effects on the growth of the vines. The factors involved are relatively straightforward but can be difficult to evaluate due to the need to dig deeply in the soil, and often at multiple locations if there is much variability at the site. Making this effort can help predict what types of changes may occur due to alternations in the irrigation patterns, and help identify situations beforehand that could result in undesired outcomes.

Videos of water movement in soils

Water Movement in Soils, a classic 1959 video produced by Washington State University has some excellent demonstrations of how water moves in soils; some key examples:

A coarse soil layer underlying a fine soil layer:

A clay layer (which will behave similarly to a hardpan layer or a strong calcic horizon):

A more recent video from the University of Arizona has similar demonstrations of water movement in stratified soils:

A historical perspective on hardpan soils

For a history of local farmers dealing with hardpan soils on the Central Coast a century ago, see the earlier blog article: The rise (and demise) of the UC Experiment Station at Paso Robles


Posted on Friday, August 2, 2019 at 5:56 AM
Tags: hard pan (1), layers (1), salt (8), soil (25)

Dirt at Your Finger Tips - in the Field

SoilWeb 2.0 now available as a free mobile download from Google Play and Apple's App Store.

WASHINGTON, June 26, 2019 – USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and the University of California at Davis Soil Resource Laboratory today announced the release of the iOS and Android SoilWeb app, version 2.0. The app now has a cleaner and more modern interface with GPS-location-based links to access detailed digital soil survey data (SSURGO) published by the NRCS for most of the United States. The newly updated SoilWeb smartphone application is available as a free download on Google Play offsite link image     and Apple App Store offsite link image    .

“SoilWeb reached a new milestone this year when it was integrated with Google Maps and designed to scale across any device, desktop, tablet or smart phone,” said NRCS Chief Matthew Lohr. “SoilWeb app is a portable interface to authoritative digital soil survey data from NRCS, giving users access to practical detailed scientific soil information on the go.”

The SoilWeb app provides users with information relating to soil types that are associated with their location. The images are then linked to information about the different types of soil profiles, soil taxonomy, land classification, hydraulic and erosion ratings and soil suitability ratings. Identifying soil types is important to understanding land for agricultural production purposes and determining flooding frequencies and suitable locations for roads or septic tanks. SoilWeb provides gardeners, landscapers and realtors with information relating to soil types and how to optimally use the soil. Although soil survey information can be used for general farm, local, and wider area planning, a professional onsite evaluation may be needed to supplement this information in some cases.

SoilWeb is a great way to understand the landscape you live in,” said Anthony O'Geen, UC Davis Professor and Cooperative Extension Specialist in the Department of Land, Air and Water Resources. “Producing food, constructing structures and maintaining landscapes all depend on this little understood, but critical outermost layer of the earth's crust, the soil.”

The app gives access to valuable scientific data through modern technology. All the soil information in SoilWeb was collected from the National Cooperative Soil Survey, organized by the NRCS, and accesses soil survey information the agency has been collecting since the 1890s. The resulting database, the largest such in the world, makes it possible for soil scientists to generate specialized maps using computer-aided techniques.

O'Geen developed SoilWeb with NRCS Soil Scientist Dylan Beaudette, in 2010 when Beaudette was a Ph.D. student at UC Davis. The app was a popular download, but by 2017 was no longer in compliance with requirements set by Apple and Google. Frequent users of SoilWeb had to rely on the web-based version from 2017 to June 2019. Any users with the older version on their phone can do a simple update to access the newest version. The app is a product of a 14-year partnership between NRCS and UC Davis College of Land, Air and Water Resources.

soil layers
soil layers

Posted on Friday, July 26, 2019 at 7:18 AM
Tags: soil (25), soil web (1), usda (4)

CDFA Grant Help

Introducing your new information source for CDFA grants,

Kern County and Ventura County

Shulamit Shroder and Alli Rowe are two of the newest members to UC Cooperative Extension. Shulamit is based out of Kern County and serves Kern, Tulare, and King Counties. Alli is based out of and serves Ventura County. Both specialize in the climate smart agriculture initiatives from the California Department of Food and Agriculture. They provide technical assistance for the SWEEP, AMMP, and Healthy Soils grant programs.

-          The State Water Efficiency and Enhancement Program (SWEEP) encourages farmers to install more efficient irrigation systems that decrease their water consumption as well as their greenhouse gas emissions. You can apply for a SWEEP grant for up to $100,000.

-          The Alternative Manure Management Program (AMMP) awards funds - up to $750,000 - to livestock producers who decrease their methane emissions by changing the way that they manage manure.

-          The Healthy Soils Program incentivizes the implementation of conservation agriculture techniques that decrease erosion and greenhouse gas emissions, like cover cropping, compost, crop rotation, and mulching. For this grant, there is $75,000 available per project.

Keep an eye out for future announcements about grant deadlines - they have all passed but should reopen within the next year, pending further funding.

For more information about these programs and for help applying for these grants, please contact Shulamit or Alli at:

Shulamit Shroder: or 661-868-6218

Alli Rowe: or 805-645-1464



Posted on Friday, June 7, 2019 at 6:13 AM
Tags: cdfa (5), soil (25)

Controlling Soil pH with a Grass?

This is an intriguing article that popped up about how to improve blueberry production in alkaline soils.  High pH soils are a major issues for many of our tree crops along the coast.  pH is what controls the availability of most plant nutrients and what bacteria and fungi grow in the soil, creating the biosphere.   So can growing a grass cover crop in our orchards improve lemon and avocado production?

A lawn is better than fertilizer growing healthy blueberries

Intercropping with grasses is an effective and sustainable alternative to chemical treatments for maximizing blueberry yield and antioxidant content in limey soils.


Blueberries are prone to iron deficiency - and correcting it increases their health-enhancing antioxidant content, researchers have discovered.

Published in Frontiers in Plant Science, their study shows that growing grasses alongside blueberry plants corrects signs of iron deficiency, with associated improvements in berry quantity and quality. The effects are comparable to those seen following standard chemical treatment - providing a simpler, safer, cheaper and more sustainable strategy for blueberry farming on sub-optimal soils.

What do superfruits eat?

All soils are rich in iron, but nearly all of it is insoluble.

"Most plants get enough iron by secreting chemicals that make it more soluble," explains senior study author Dr José Covarrubias, Assistant Professor of Agriculture Sciences at the University of Chile. "These iron 'chelators' can be released directly from the roots, or from microbes that grow among them, and allow the iron to be absorbed."

"Blueberries, however, lack these adaptations because they evolved in uncommonly wet, acid conditions which dissolve the iron for them."

As a result, most of the world's relatively dry or alkaline ('limey') cropland is unsuitable for optimal blueberry growth.

"Iron is essential for the formation and function of plant molecules like chlorophyll that allow them to use energy," Covarrubias continues. "That's why iron deficiency shows up as yellowing leaves - and drastically reduces plant growth and yield.

"And in blueberries, iron-dependent enzymes also produce the 'superfruit' antioxidants responsible for their celebrated blue skin and health-enhancing effects."

Strong blueberries must pump iron - but at what cost?

There are two approaches to correcting iron deficiency in blueberries: acidify the soil, or add synthetic iron chelators. Each has its drawbacks, says Covarrubias.

"The commonest industrial approach is soil acidification using sulfur, which is gradually converted by soil bacteria into sulfuric acid. The effects are slow and difficult to adjust - and in waterlogged soils, hydrogen sulfide might accumulate and inhibit root growth.

"Acids can also be added directly via irrigation systems for more rapid acidification - but these are hazardous to farmers, kill beneficial soil microbes, and generate carbon dioxide emissions.

"A commoner strategy among growers is application of iron bound to synthetic chelators - often sold as 'ericaceous fertilizer' - but these are very expensive and leach potentially toxic chemicals into the water table."

A cheaper, safer alternative is needed for efficient large-scale blueberry production. Thankfully, one already exists.

"Grasses - which are well-adapted to poor soils - can provide a sustainable, natural source of iron chelators via their roots when grown alongside fruiting plants. Intercropping with grass species has been shown to improve plant growth and fruit yield in olives, grapes, citrus varieties - and most recently, in blueberries."

A grassroots approach to sustainable blueberry farming

Now, Covarrubias and colleagues have brought intercropping a step closer to the mainstream of blueberry cultivation.

For the first time, they measured the effects of different methods of iron chelation on antioxidant content and other fruit qualities in blueberries.

"In an orchard of 'Emerald' blueberry bushes cultivated in alkaline (pH 8) soil, we compared the effects of five different iron chelation treatments: a 'gold-standard' synthetic iron chelator (Fe-EDDHA), intercropping with grass (common meadow grass or red fescue), cow's blood (Fe-heme), or no treatment (control)."

"We found the association with grasses increased not only the total weight and number of blueberries per plant, but also the concentration of anthocyanins and other antioxidant compounds in their skins, compared to control. The effect sizes were comparable with the proven synthetic chelator Fe-EDDHA, whereas applications of Fe-heme from cow's blood - a fertilizer commonly used in home gardens - had no significant effect."

The beneficial effects paralleled improvement in the plants' iron status (leaf color), which was also comparable between the grass-associated and the Fe-EDDHA-treated plants. None of the treatments had a significant effect on average berry weight

Turf is ready to roll out for healthier blueberries

A potential limitation of intercropping observed in the study was a decrease in berry firmness, since firmer berries are favored by consumers.

"The association with grasses decreased berry firmness compared with control plants, whereas the berries collected from plants treated with Fe-EDDHA reached intermediate values.

"However chemical analysis showed a non-significant trend towards increased ripeness in the berries collected from the intercropped plants, which could account for this small difference."

Intercropped plants also required an additional water supply to maintain a similar soil moisture to other treatments, but plant management was otherwise straightforward and the same across groups. The grasses were kept cropped between 5 and 15cm - a typical range for an attractive mown lawn.

"Our findings validate intercropping with grasses as a simple, effective, sustainable alternative to standard iron correction strategies in blueberries," concludes Covarrubias. "Both commercial and private growers can put this strategy to use right away to boost their blueberry crop and antioxidant content."


Please link to the original research article in your reporting:

Frontiers is an award-winning Open Science platform and leading Open Access scholarly publisher. Our mission is to make research results openly available to the world, thereby accelerating scientific and technological innovation, societal progress and economic growth. We empower scientists with innovative Open Science solutions that radically improve how science is published, evaluated and disseminated to researchers, innovators and the public. Access to research results and data is open, free and customized through Internet Technology, thereby enabling rapid solutions to the critical challenges we face as humanity. For more information, visit and follow @FrontiersIn on Twitter.

soil colors
soil colors

Posted on Tuesday, April 2, 2019 at 11:17 AM
Tags: acid (2), alkaline (2), avocado (289), citrus (338), nutrients (21), pH (6), soil (25)

Getting Down and Dirty - Soils Conference

The Soil Science Society of America had its North American Societies Conference (Canada/Mexico/US combined societies) in San Diego this month -

1,700 people came and gave talks.  Lots of talks!!! You can review the topics covered by various categories, such as mineralogy, soil chemistry, microbiology, fire impacts on soil, climate change, soil physics, irrigation management, etc,  etc, etc -

or by what was presented each day -


It's a huge amount of information. By clicking on the session, its possible to see the different speakers and topics and see an abstract of the talk.  For example, clicking on the Monday, 9:30 AM session on Fire in the Landscape:

24-7 Fire Effects on Soil Organic Matter in a Southern Appalachian Hardwood Forest: Connecting the Movement of Fire-Altered Organic Matter in Soil and Aquatic Systems'. Jeff A. Hatten1, Lauren Matosziuk2, Adrian Gallo1, Katherine Heckman3, Kevin D. Bladon4, Lucas E. Nave5, Brian D. Strahm6, Tyler Weiglein7, Jessie Egan8, Maggie Bowman9 and Ryan Stewart10, (1)Department of Forest Engineering, Resources and Management, Oregon State University, Corvallis, OR, (2)Oregon Sate University, Corvallis, OR, (3)Northern Research Station, USDA Forest Service (FS), Houghton, MI, (4)Department of Forest Engineering, Resources, and Management, Oregon State University, Corvallis, OR, (5)University of Michigan Biological Station, Pellston, MI, (6)310C Cheatham Hall (0324), Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, VA, (7)310 West Campus Dr., Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, VA, (8)University of Colorodo Boulder, Boulder, CO, (9)INSTAAR, University of Colorado Boulder, Boulder, CO, (10)Crop and Soil Environmental Sciences, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, VA


And clicking on the title will give the abstract : 24-7 Fire Effects on Soil Organic Matter in a Southern Appalachian Hardwood Forest: Connecting the Movement of Fire-Altered Organic Matter in Soil and Aquatic Systems'.


So, this is how some organic matter moves through the soil after a fire.  It doesn't all go up into the air as carbon dioxide, some of it actually migrates deeper into the soil and will probably persist there for a long long time.


Or maybe the whole issue of what constitutes a Healthy Soil interests you?  Check out these talks:


Read more about similar and different presentations at the Conference.  The full papers based on the abstracts will be out at some later date once they have been properly reviewed for accuracy.  That usually takes several months to get all of these presentations organized.


soil weathered from sndstone
soil weathered from sndstone

Posted on Friday, January 25, 2019 at 5:10 PM
Tags: soil (25), sssa conference (1), talks (1)

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