Mulching as a means of exploiting dew for arid agriculture?
A traditional mulching technique used in Lanzarote, Canary Islands, allows dry farming as well as pronounced water savings in irrigation. It is known to reduce evaporational losses, but is also supposed to enhance the nocturnal condensation of water vapour from the atmosphere. The mulch layer consists of porous volcanic rock fragments abundantly available on the island. The mulched surface is believed to cool rapidly and to be more hygroscopic than a bare soil surface. This was investigated during a field experiment conducted over 68 nights during different seasons in 2001 and 2002, as well as some simple laboratory measurements. It was found that nocturnal condensation on the mulch surface (max 0.33 mm) was lower than on the bare soil surface (max 0.57 mm) or any one of three alternative mulch substrates. However, a slightly stronger nocturnal cooling of the mulched as compared to the bare surface was present. It is shown that these contrary findings can be explained by the higher hygroscopicity of the dry loam soil, resulting in condensation gains beyond the strict definition of dew. Differences in plant-availability of non-hygroscopic dew water and hygroscopic water uptakes are discussed, and conditions under which mulching would show positive condensation effects are defined. This includes a theoretical section demonstrating that non-hygroscopic mulch layers of a proper thickness can provide small amounts of dew to plant roots at the mulch–soil interface. This condensation could also happen during the day and would be favoured by a high amplitude of the diurnal atmospheric moisture cycle.
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