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Research article2024Peer reviewedOpen access

Nutrient utilization and growth of tomato crops fertilized with solid anaerobic digestate

Asp, Håkan; Bergstrand, Karl-Johan


Anaerobic digestate is a valuable resource for horticultural production, as it contains nutrients and fibers that can be used in plant growing medium. However, compared with hydroponic production based on mineral fertilizers, obtaining accurate nutrient supply at each stage of the growth cycle may be challenging. In an experiment using container-grown tomato crops, we evaluated different fertilization regimes with solid anaerobic digestate (SAD). Four different treatments were compared, two involving different proportions (19 % and 37 % by volume) of SADs in the peat-based growing medium, one treatment where growing medium with 37 % SAD was inoculated with active nitrifying bacteria, and one treatment where 15 % (v/v) of the peat in growing medium with 37 % SAD was replaced with sawdust to control nitrogen (N) availability during cultivation. A mineral-fertilized treatment (N-P-K 5–1-5) with approximately similar N amount as in the treatment with 37 % SAD was used as reference. Nutrient availability, nutrient uptake efficiency, crop performance (plant growth, biomass accumulation), and plant stress (chlorophyll fluorescence) were monitored during cultivation. The concentration of ammonium was initially high (190–416 mg/L substrate) in the growing media fertilized with anaerobic digestate, while the concentration of nitrate was low. Readily available ammonium concentration decreased rapidly during cultivation, to around 50 % after 10 days and to almost 100 % by the end of the cultivation. Available nitrate concentration was initially low (0–8 mg/L in the different treatments) and decreased to zero within a week, but increased slightly from day 40 of cultivation. Nutrient use efficiency was generally higher (15–50 % for different nutrients) in the treatment with 19 % digestate. Inclusion of sawdust in the growing medium decreased nutrient use efficiency by 30–50 %. Compared with the mineral-fertilizer reference, biomass production was lower in all treatments fertilized with digestate, with 37 % and 19 % SAD resulting in 62 % and 47 % of total biomass obtained in the reference, and similar reductions in yield of harvestable fruits. Chlorophyll fluorescence measurements indicated elevated plant stress in the treatments fertilized with SAD. Addition of sawdust or nitrifying bacteria did not help to control nitrogen availability during cultivation. Therefore, anaerobic digestate fertilizers need further optimization before they can be a competitive alternative to mineral fertilizers.


Growing media; Mineralization; Nutrient availability; Organic residues; Peat substitution; Solanum lycopersicum

Published in

Scientia Horticulturae
2024, Volume: 329, article number: 112986