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3.4.2 - Water in pots

Field capacity is not a term relevant to pot experiments, unless they are very tall. After irrigation, a drained pot will contain much more water than soil in the field.

The soil at the bottom of a freshly watered and drained pot is inevitably saturated with water; if the pot is short the whole of the medium may have such little air-filled porosity that it becomes hypoxic. This is a special problem with field soils used in pots, for these typically do not contain many pores large enough to be drained at the small water suctions that prevail. Such suctions are zero at the bottom of a freshly drained pot and rise by 1 kPa for every 100 mm increment in height, leading to suctions at the top of a typical pot that are much less than the 10–30 kPa that occurs in soils in the field that have drained to ‘field capacity’ (Passioura 2006).


Figure 3.39 The relationships, at equilibrium, between soil water suction (a), effective diameter of largest water-filled pores (b), and height above a free water surface, such as a water table within the soil or the bottom of a recently drained pot. The dotted lines exemplify conditions at a height of 100 mm. (J.B. Passioura, Funct Plant Biol 33: 1075–1079, 2006)

When a pot has finished draining, the soil at the bottom is saturated: it has zero water suction. The suction varies linearly with height, as illustrated in Fig. 3.39, from zero at the bottom of the pot, to 10 H Pa, where H is the height of the pot in mm. Thus, a freshly watered and drained pot that is 100 mm high has a water suction at its top of 1 kPa, very much less than the 10–30 kPa that occurs in a freshly watered and drained soil in the field. Similarly, a pot that is 200 mm high has a suction of 2 kPa at the top. Thus the average suction and thence average soil water content of a freshly watered and drained pot depends on its height.

It is worth noting that the size and number of drainage holes in the bottom of the pot have no bearing on the distribution of suction with height at equilibrium. The rate at which equilibrium is attained will also depend little on the number and size of the drainage holes — just one hole of a few mm diameter is adequate.

The implication of these small suctions is that much larger pores contain water than in a drained soil in the field. For example, at the top of a pot that is 100mmhigh, and where the suction is 1 kPa, all pores less than 0.3 mm wide will contain water. This contrasts greatly with the field soil, in which the suction will be at least 10 kPa and the diameter of the largest water-filled pore will be 0.03 mm or even less.

This has considerable implications for doing pot experiments on the availability of soil water to plants using field soils. Standard watering techniques, which result in adding excess water that then drains from pots, lead to initial soil water contents that are much more than they would be in the freshly drained soil in the field. To match what happens in the field, it would be necessary to water the pots by weight to reproduce a water content consistent with a suction somewhere between 10 and 30 kPa. Further, the large initial water content can produce problems with aeration.

The plant nursery industry is well aware of the difficulties in adequately aerating pots. That is why their potting mixes contain peat or vermiculite or other bulky materials that create large pores of 1mm or more in diameter, which contain air at heights greater than 30mm above the bottom of a freshly drained pot. These large pores protect the roots from hypoxia in a material that might otherwise have a dangerously small air-filled porosity. Nevertheless, despite these large air-filled pores giving the roots growing in them access to oxygen, the interior of aggregates in the soil or potting mix will still be essentially saturated and possibly hypoxic.

Data for three different types of potting mix are shown in Figure 3.29: horticultural topsoil, commercial potting mix is designed for growing plants for sale in garden nurseries, and fine potting mix designed for growing Arabidopsis thaliana in small pots. The topsoil is the worst aerated, with the bottom 150mm of a freshly drained pot in danger of becoming hypoxic. It is notable that in the small pots (70 mm tall) often used for growing Arabidopsis, all of the medium is in danger of becoming hypoxic, for the porosity ranges from 0 to only 7%within the pot (Figure 3.40). With a frequent watering regime, say twice daily, the medium could be permanently hypoxic. Commercial potting mixes overcome this problem by using coarse materials in the mix, which create many large pores (>1 mm diameter) that drain at small suctions.


Figure 3.40 Air-filled porosity of three examples of potting media as functions of height above a free water surface such as the bottom of a freshly drained pot. There is danger of hypoxia at air-filled porosities less than 10%. (J.B. Passioura, Funct Plant Biol 33: 1075–1079, 2006)

Field capacity should therefore not be confused with the water content of a drained pot, which should be called “pot capacity”.