Using the Pressure Chamber to Schedule Irrigation in Almonds

Written by Matt Jones, Staff Research Associate, UCCE Merced County

One type of pressure chamber that can be used for almond.

Determining the appropriate time to irrigate is among the most critical tasks facing growers and farm managers. Traditionally, growers have relied on orchard water budgets using ET and CIMIS stations, and monitoring soil moisture levels to develop irrigation schedules. For in-depth explanations of these methods, consult the UC ANR Almond Production Manual. However, these methods only indirectly measure water status of trees in an orchard. To directly and quantitatively measure tree water status requires the use of a pressure chamber.

One of the quantities a pressure chamber can measure is stem water potential (SWP), or the amount of tension in the water column as it is pulled from the soil and through the plant. For a complete guide on pressure chamber use and plant-water relations, see UC ANR Publication# 8503.

But what do these numbers mean, and how can they be used in irrigation management? Interpreting these numbers depends on temperature, relative humidity, and the degree and type of water stress you are trying to manage with an irrigation set. Knowing temperature and relative humidity will establish what normal or ‘baseline’ pressure chamber values (in bars) would be for an orchard that is fully irrigated. Baseline values can be  precisely determined by looking at table 14 in ANR Pub 8503. However, a rough estimate baseline (in almond) is to divide temperature by ten. For example, if it is 100 F, then your baseline value is -10 bars.

The values measured in the field and how they deviate from baseline will determine the degree of tree water stress, and irrigation timing. If aiming for a fully irrigated, mature orchard, then irrigate when the measured SWP values are 4 bars lower (more negative) than the baseline. For example, if the baseline value is -10 bars, then irrigate when SWP is around -14  bars. If targeting moderate water stress conditions to promote hull-split or to discourage hull rot, then irrigate when measured SWP values are 4-6 bars below baseline (-14 to -16 bars in the previous example).  For one or two year old trees, irrigation should occur when trees are 2 bars lower than baseline. Keep in mind that SWP fluctuations will be dependent on irrigation frequencies. Systems with higher frequencies will experience a rapid changing SWP. It is common – although not ideal- for high producing orchards to have SWP spikes to around -18 bars in the middle of the summer.

Targeting SWP values for drought management strategies such as proportional deficit irrigation (PDI) or hull-split strategic deficit irrigation (SDI) do not take baseline values into account. In these situations, start irrigating once SWP values reach the targeted SWP. More information on the use of these techniques can be found here.

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2 thoughts on “Using the Pressure Chamber to Schedule Irrigation in Almonds

  1. I have a Watermark 900M soil moisture unit that gives readings in centibars with sensors at 12,24,36,and 48 inches.
    I have sandy loam soil with almond trees. I don’t know what the ideal centibar reading is for the above depths. Any advice you could give me would be appreciated.

    1. Jerry,
      Some general guidelines for the use of tensiometers: 0 – 10 centibars indicates saturated soils, 10-20 centibars usually means it is adequately wet, 30 centibars it is time to irrigate for sandy soil, 30-60 centibars is the usual time to irrigate – with the exception of heavy clays, and 60-100 centibars for heavy clays.

      Plant stress and the soil should be checked to help calibrate the system as it will vary based on soil type in your orchard.

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