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LANDSCAPE TREES BENEFIT FROM POTASSIUM-BASED

SUPERABSORBENT POLYMER-AMENDED BACKFILL SOIL


By Dr. Bijan Dehgan
Weiner (1975) put it aptly when he stated that However rewarding the act of tree planting may be,
watching a young tree slowly die can be spiritually defeating. Landscape plants, noted Richard
Harris (1983) in his well-known Arboriculture book, probably suffer more from moisture-related
problems than from any other cause. The success of tree planting programs must be measured
by the health of the plants after planting and in years that follow. Tree survival can be assured only
if soil moisture and nutrients are maintained at adequate levels. To accomplish this, any product or
conservation technique with potential for reduction in water amount and irrigation frequency while
not adversely affecting tree establishment and growth, should be given serious consideration.
Many professional tree transplanting enterprises praise the benefits of superabsorbent polymers
for tree survival when evenly dispersed in the planting hole and/or mixed with the backfill soil at
transplanting time. However, limited research has been conducted and only cursory notice has
been given to utilization of polymers for trees in the urban tree plantings. We reported earlier
(Dehgan, et al., 1994) that at least for a fast growing species, such as Photinia X fraseri, amending
the growth with 0.75% (by volume) or potassium (K) based Terawets TeraGel (T-200)
superabsorbent polymer resulted in application of 50% less irrigation water. Other studies
(Johnson and Leah, 1990) have observed greater efficiency of utilization of gel-stored moisture
when various plants were grown in polyacrylamide polymer-amended media. Polymer-amended
media provide a buffer against temporary drought stress and reduce the risk of failure during the
establishment of the plant. Evidence has been provided (Ouchi, et al., 1989) that indicates water
held by the polymer is almost completely available to the plants, though sodium (Na) - based
polymers reportedly bind certain nutrients, making them unavailable, and result in reduced
hydration capacity of the media (Bowman, et al., 1990). In fact, it has been demonstrated in recent
studies (Ouchi, et at., 1990) that gel-stored moisture is utilized with greater efficiency than
conventional forms of water. Moreover, addition of polymer to the soil has been shown to reduce
evapo-transpiration by restriction of water movement from the subsurface to the surface layer
(Ouchi, et al., 1990). Our results as well as those of others have also presented evidence of
increased tissue nutrient levels concomitant with reduced leaching of some nutrients (Dehgan, ie
al., 1994). Thus, utilization of polymers may be a means of reducing nutrient runoff at nurseries
(Sweet, 1994).
In our most recent studies, nearly all of the 10 tree species [Podocarpus macrophylla
(podocarpus), Juniperus silicicole (red cedar), X Cupressocyparis leylandii (Leyland cypress),
Phoenix canariensis (Canary Island palm), Sabal palmetto (cabbage palm), Washingtonia robuste
(Washington palm), liez Z-attenuate Savannah (Savannah Holly), Photinia X fraseri (Fraser
photinia), Quercus schumardii (Schumard Red Oak), Lagarstroemia indica (Lagarstroemia)], as
well as Zamia floridana (= Z. pumilia, Florida coontie) which were planted at the Urban Tree
Teaching and Research Unit of the University of Florida at Gainesville, benefited from Terawets
TeraGel (T-200) superabsorbent polymer-amended backfill soil. This occurred despite a
drastically reduced irrigation frequency which began with 7.5 gallons of water every two, four, and

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seven days for the first two weeks and was ultimately reduced to once every seven, 14, and 28
days, for a total of six months. Surprisingly, plants of red cedar, a presumably drought tolerant
species, were the only ones to severely decline or die as a result of water stress. Plants of all
other species survived and in most cases were, to a greater or lesser extent, aided by the polymer
in their establishment and growth. In this regard two points should be noted. First, although
enhanced appearance was the obvious expected benefit when polymer was used, each of the
species responded differently, with some having larger calipers (e. g., podocarpus) while others
greater height (e. g., Leyland cypress) and still others with both greater height and caliper (e. g.,
Savannah holly). Second, despite absence of any irrigation in more than two years after projects
termination, even the remaining plants of red cedar, which as noted earlier suffered from lack of
water, have since recovered and exhibit superior growth.
Corresponding to the above experimental results, uniform distribution of Terawets TeraGel (T200) polymer to the periphery of planting holes may have been a contributing factor in survival of
100% of the transplanted 5-8 inch caliper live oak trees on the campus of the University of Florida.
In this ccase, the urgency of the assignment necessitated root pruning of the trees only tow weeks
prior to transplanting, but ample care was give to reduce shock during removal and transplanting
process.
In general, the intent of polymer and other irrigation frequency/amount studies at the University of
Florida, Department of Environmental Horticulture is to determine, demonstrate, and furnish
guidelines for maintenance of optimal soil moisture levels for transplanted trees in the urban
environment. Despite genuine interest and consideration for well-being of trees, those most
concerned with their planting and management are often perplexed by the contradictory irrigation
frequency information presented by experts and in the literature. The seemingly simple question
of irrigation frequency requirement remains an enigma. However, based on this and related
research, it is becoming increasingly apparent that, though there may be some exceptions,
frequent, protracted irrigation or application of excessive water amounts may be unnecessary for
establishment of the vast majority of landscape trees. Amending the backfill soil with K-based
superabsorbent polymers assists in maintenance of sufficient soil moisture, when irrigated
judiciously, during tree establishment period. In general, results of these experiments indicate that
while nearly all trees, irrespective of species or growth habit, may benefit from addition of
superabsorbent polymers, several factors, and influence effectiveness of the polymer. However,
logic does not necessarily dictate that because a small amount of polymer assists in tree survival
and establishment a larger amount is more beneficial. It is advisable that the manufacturers
recommendations be adhered to.

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REFERENCES
Bowman, D. C., R. Y. Evans, and J. L. Paul. 1990. Fertilizer salts reduce hydration of
polyacrylamide gels and affect physical properties of gel-amended container media.
J.Amer. Soc. Hort. Soi. 115:382-386.

Dehgan, B., T. H. Yeaper and F.C. Almira. 1994. Photinia and Podocarpus growth response to a
hydrophilic polymer-amended medium. HortScience 29: 541-544.

Harris, R. W. 1983. Arboriculture: integrated management of landscape trees, shrubs, and vines.
2nd Ed. Regents/Prentice Hall. Englewood Cliff, New Jersey.

Johnson, M. S. and R. T. Leah. 1990. Effects of superabsorbent polyacrylamide on efficiency of


water use by crop seedlings. J. Sci. Food Agr. 52: 431-434.

Ouchi, S., A. Nishikawa, and F. Fujite. 1989. Soil-improving effect of super-water-absorbent


polymer. 1. Total volume, three phase distributed, and available water of super-waterabsorbent polymer mixed soils. Jap. J. soil Sci. Plant Nutr. 52: 15-21

Ouchi, S., A. Nishikawa, and E. Kamada. 1990. Soil-improving effects of a super-water-absorbent


polymer. ll. Evaporation, leaching os salts and growth of vegetables. Jap. J. soil Sci. Plant
Nutr. 51: 606-613

Sweet, K. 1994. Polymers in horticulture: Easy to use hydrogels can save Florida growers
significant amounts of water, fertilizer, and ultimately, money. Florida Growers
Ornamental Outlook 3: 23.

Weiner, M. C. 1975. Plant & Tree: A working guide for greening America. Collier Books, N.Y.
* Bijan Dehgan is a professor of Environmental Horticulture where he teaches graduate and
undergraduate courses in plant identification and taxonomy and conducts research on woody
plants.