Flooding, Waterlogged Soils and Effects on Vegetables with Special Consideration for Plasticulture Vegetables

Gordon Johnson, Extension Vegetable & Fruit Specialist; gcjohn@udel.edu

Climate scientists predict that extreme weather events will become more common on Delmarva over the next several decades. This will present additional challenges for vegetable growers related to flooding, wet weather diseases, nutrient losses, ability to do timely harvests, field compaction, other wet soil issues, and resulting crop losses.

In flooded soils, the oxygen concentration drops to near zero within 24 hours because water replaces most of the air in the soil pore space. Oxygen diffuses much more slowly in water filled pores than in open pores. Roots need oxygen to respire and have normal cell activity. When any remaining oxygen is used up by the roots in flooded or waterlogged soils, they will cease to function normally. Therefore, mineral nutrient uptake and water uptake are reduced or stopped in flooded conditions (plants will often wilt in flooded conditions because roots have shut down). There is also a buildup of ethylene in flooded soils, the plant hormone that in excess amounts can cause leaf drop and premature senescence.

In general, if flooding or waterlogging lasts for less than 48 hours, most vegetable crops can recover. Longer periods will lead to high amounts of root death and lower chances of recovery.

While there has been limited research on flooding effects on vegetables, the following are some physiological effects that have been documented:

  • Oxygen starvation to vegetable roots will cause roots to cease to function resulting in plant collapse with limited recovery potential
  • Oxygen starvation in root crops such as potatoes will lead to cell death in tubers and storage roots. This will appear as dark or discolored areas in the tubers or roots. In carrots and other crops where the tap root is harvested, the tap root will often die leading to the formation of unmarketable fibrous roots.
  • Ethylene buildup in saturated soil conditions can cause leaf drop, flower drop, fruit drop, or early plant decline in many vegetable crops.
  • Leaching and denitrification losses of nitrogen and limited nitrogen uptake in flooded soils will lead to nitrogen deficiencies across most vegetable crops.
  • In bean crops, flooding or waterlogging has shown to decrease flower production and increase flower and young fruit abscission or abortion.
  • Lack of root function and movement of water and calcium in the plant can lead to calcium related disorders in plants. There is a potential for higher incidence of blossom end rot in tomatoes, peppers, watermelons, and other susceptible crops when fruits are forming and soils are saturated.

Low lying areas of fields are most affected by excess rainfall. However, cropping practices can also increase water standing. In vegetables, field compaction will reduce water infiltration leading to increased crop losses in wet weather.

Plasticulture Concerns in Wet Weather
In plasticulture, water can accumulate and persist between rows of plastic mulch because of the impervious surface of the mulch. Because much of the rainfall runs off the plastic, water pooling can be serious problem in plastic mulched fields, especially where row middles have become compacted. Vining crops that fruit into the row middles can have vines and fruits sitting in water and this produces ideal conditions for diseases of wet conditions to develop. A prime example is Phytophthora capsici (a water mold) that needs saturated soils or standing water to infect plants (fruits).

When water overflows the bed tops of plastic mulched crops, whole beds become saturated as water enters the planting holes. This often leads to plant losses as beds take a very long time to dry once saturated in this way and oxygen is very limited in the root zone.

To avoid water accumulation between plastic mulched beds, tilling with a deep shank or a subsoiler in row middles can help improve drainage. Cut drainage channels at row ends to reduce blockage (dams) that can back up water. Where practical, section plasticulture fields and install cross drains to remove extra water to improve drainage and reduce water damage potential. Growers may also choose not to plant lower areas in the field prone to water damage where plastic is laid.

In some crops such as peppers and strawberries, high raised beds will improve drainage significantly and can reduce losses to water standing between plastic rows. Another option in watermelons (and other strongly vining crops) grown on plastic is to reduce plastic bed width and increase distance between rows to limit impervious surfaces.

In some crops in our region (plasticulture strawberries for example), cover crops such as ryegrass are being grown between beds to reduce erosion. Research on row middle management will be a priority for the future.

Compaction between mulched beds can lead to increased ponding.

When water goes over top of beds they become saturated for long periods leading to plant losses. In this case the water just missed going over the bed (note the trash line).

Identifying Poorly Drained Areas for Phytophthora capsici Management
Growers with crops susceptible to Phytophthora capsici (P. cap) are encouraged to evaluate fields with susceptible crops (all vine crops, tomatoes, peppers, lima beans) for drainage issues where this disease can proliferate. The primary keys to P. cap management are limiting standing water, the potential for saturated soils, and water movement across the crop.

Row middles with ponding due to a field depression.

Recovering from Flooding or Waterlogging
One option to aid in vegetable crop recovery after floods or waterlogging is to aerate the soil by cultivating (in crops that can be cultivated) as soon as you can get back into the field. This allows for oxygen to enter the soil more rapidly. To address nitrogen leaching and denitrification losses, sidedress with 40-50 lbs of N where possible depending on the crop and crop stage.

In vegetable fields that remain wet, consider foliar applications of nutrients. Since nitrogen is the key nutrient to supply, spraying with urea ammonium nitrate (28 % N solution) alone can be helpful. These can be sprayed by aerial or ground application. Use 5 to 20 gallons of water per acre. The higher gallons per acre generally provide better coverage. As with all foliar applications, keep total salt concentrations to less than 3% solutions to avoid foliage burn.

Future Considerations
To address excess water challenges in the future, vegetable growers will need to invest in and plan for drainage in every field. Solutions including land levelling, surface drainage, tiles (tile wells, patterned tiling), and pumping may all need to be considered. See this article by James Adkins on drainage basics.