Using Soil Water Depletion to Measure Spatial Distribution of Root Activity in Oil Palm (Elaeis guineensis Jacq.) Plantations

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Knowledge of where roots are active is crucial for efficient management of nutrients in tree crops but measurement of root activity is problematic. Measurement using soil water depletion is an approach that has not been tested in a humid climate. We hypothesised that the three dimensional distribution of root activity of a tree crop in the humid tropics (a) can be determined by measuring soil water depletion during rain-free periods, and (b) is influenced by environment (soil type and climate) and surface management. A field study was carried out in which soil water content was measured and water uptake calculated (by difference between soil water content at beginning and end of rain-free periods) for different surface management zones and depths (0.1 m intervals to 1.6 m depth) under oil palm (Elaeis guineensis Jacq.) at a loam-clay site and a sandy site. Significant differences were measured between sites and between surface management zones at each site. At both sites water uptake was highest under the weeded zone close to the palm stem, slightly lower under the zone where pruned fronds are placed, and lowest under the path used for removing harvested fruit. Vertical distribution of root activity differed between the sites, with higher activity near the surface at the finer textured site. Total water uptake values were lower than estimates of evapotranspiration made using climate data. The difference was probably largely due to water uptake from deeper than 1.6 m. This study showed that the spatial distribution of tree root activity in a humid climate could be quantified using a relatively simple method.

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