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Putting plants on a (water) diet

The first graduate on one of the UK’s biggest industry focused environmental PhD programmes walks straight into a tailor made job in horticulture

Dr Richard Boyle’s PhD examined two key issues for the horticultural industry- how much and how often should growers irrigate, and how can they harness new light source technologies to improve the health and value of their plants.

Richard is one of 155 students, including 50 PhD researchers, who have been collaborating on research projects with nearly 300 small and medium enterprises in the North West of England through the Centre for Global Eco-innovation.

 

The Centre is a collaboration between Lancaster University, the University of Liverpool and commercialization consultancy Inventya Ltd. Part funded by the European Regional Development Fund, it has recently won an Impact Award.

Richard, whose PhD was supported by the Agricultural and Horticultural Development Board, has now started work in the cut flower industry as Technical Innovation Manager at MM Flowers Limited.

“I will be assessing the quality of the flowers that come in to the business and how long they will last, and I also have a role carrying out research to improve and extend flowers’ vase life and performance”.

“Richard is supremely well organised and a natural experimenter,” said Professor Ian Dodd, who supervised Richard’s PhD at the Lancaster Environment Centre(LEC) , alongside Dr Martin McAinsh of LEC and Ms Sarah Fairhurst of Arden Lea Irrigation Ltd.

“Richard asked the simple question, should you have a ‘feast and famine’ or a ‘little and often’ approach to irrigation, and which of these outcomes provide more crop per drop. Surprisingly this hadn’t been researched in a horticultural context before.”

Working with the family firm, Arden Lea Irrigation, Richard carried out experiments with Arden Lea nurseries, who produce bedding plants, changing the volume and frequency of irrigation and measuring the impact on their plants.

Growers traditionally judge whether a plant needs watering by checking the dryness of the soil around the plant by hand. Richard measured the response of the plant itself, its water status and how that changed under different irrigation frequencies and volumes.

“Watering little and often promoted the most favourable response, increasing the compactness of the plant without any negative effect on foliage pigment, therefore enhancing ornamental quality. This was achieved while also maintaining water savings and so reducing costs.”

Richard worked with Dr. Phill Davies at Stockbridge Technology Centre for the second part of his PhD, replacing conventional lighting in horticultural greenhouses with different spectrum energy efficient LED  lights.

“We had different combinations of blue and red lighting and made measurements for physiology, quality and appearance. There were some quite striking differences.”

As well as reducing energy, using specific wave lengths changed the leaf colour of some plants, adding to their commercial value.

The nursery is now looking at how it can change its irrigation and lighting to take advantage of Richard’s findings. Richard has already published two papers and presented his findings to the Agricultural and Horticultural Development Board

Working with industry partners makes a PhD much more focused and relevant than traditional doctoral research, Richard believes, as it is driven “by key issues that are live in the industry.”

The research element in Richard’s job means that he can continue using his research skills to help solve the key problems facing horticultural growers and suppliers.

Two of Richard’s fellow PhD students from the Centre For Global Eco-innovation have also had good news recently, receiving funding from the Natural Environment Research Council allowing them to continue working with their companies for an extra six months.

Andy Freeman has been working with Peak Associates Environmental Consultants and The Manchester Airports Group, investigating sustainable approaches to the disposal of de-icing fluids, which are potentially a major source of contamination within water courses surrounding airports. Andy explored the treatment of contaminated runoff using aerated wetlands, with some extremely encouraging results. The new funding will be used to identify how to incorporate this technique into airport pollution prevention systems.

Stephanie Bryan is working with Arcis Biotechnology to help find an effective, economic and environmentally friendly pest control for nemotodes - soil-borne microscopic roundworms which are estimated to cause the loss of 11% of life-sustaining crops globally. They have recently disrupted major events like the Six Nations Rugby Tournament by damaging turf on sports grounds. Stephanie’s PhD focusses on the impact of nemocides nematicides on the microbial diversity of soils.

Thu 11 February 2016