Sensor-based management of container nursery crops irrigated with fresh or saline water

Luca Incrocci*, Paolo Marzialetti, Giorgio Incrocci, Andrea Di Vita, Jos Balendonck, Carlo Bibbiani, Serafino Spagnol, Alberto Pardossi

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

21 Citations (Scopus)


The objective of this study was to design and test a prototype fertigation controller for the management of container ornamental nursery stocks irrigated with different water sources, including saline water or reclaimed municipal/industrial wastewater. The prototype could schedule irrigation in various ways, i.e. as a time clock, or by means of a soil moisture dielectric sensor, or using a crop evapotranspiration (ET) model. The prototype also monitored the salinity in the root zone using a dielectric sensor that measured both substrate moisture and electrical conductivity (EC), or a probe measuring the EC of the water draining out of the containers. Excessive substrate salinization of the containers irrigated with saline water (containing 10 mM of sodium chloride) was prevented by the automated adoption of a series of measures: irrigation with fresh water or a mixture of fresh water and saline water; progressive increase of irrigation dose for each event, and progressive reduction of fertilizer concentration in the nutrient solution delivered to the crop. The system was tested in three experiments conducted in Pistoia (Italy) between 2008 and 2010 with two ornamental species: Photinia × fraseri Dress (a salt-medium tolerant species) and Prunus laurocerasus L. (a salt-sensitive species). When irrigation with fresh water was controlled with a dielectric sensor or an ET model, total irrigation water use and the loss of both N and P were reduced by 17% to 84% compared with the time-controlled irrigation. The sensor-based control of saline water irrigation reduced the salinity effects on dry matter accumulation in both species; however, it did not prevent the occurrence of leaf damages (leaf scorch) on Prunus plants, which were unmarketable by the end of growing season. On the contrary, no leaf damages were visible on Photinia plants irrigated with saline and/or fresh water, such that all were classified in the top quality market category. The controller developed in this work could be used in commercial nurseries to improve profitability and sustainability of container hardy ornamental nursery stock production.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)49-61
JournalAgricultural Water Management
Early online date11 Oct 2018
Publication statusPublished - 1 Mar 2019


  • Evapotranspiration model
  • Irrigation scheduling
  • Nutrient leaching
  • Salinity stress
  • Soil moisture sensor


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