The use of water surfactants in fertigation constitutes a viable approach to increase soil wetting, potentially improving crop nutrient uptake and quality. An in-field demonstration test was carried out by applying an innovative, eco-friendly, non-ionic surfactant to fertigation water in Lactuca sativa
(var. Iceberg) production to increase nutrient use efficiency and improve the crop’s access to water. A non-ionic methyl-oxirane surfactant (methyl-oxirane + 2-methyl-oxirane) was added at an increasing rate to the fertigation solution (Hoagland). Upon harvesting, the main growth and nutritional parameters were determined on the aboveground and belowground portions of the lettuce. Leaf nitrate content, water, and nitrogen use efficiency were recorded; the relationship of lettuce aboveground dry biomass with nutrient uptake was evaluated using vectorial analysis; and ultrastructural analysis of lettuce roots was performed by scanning electron microscopy. The surfactant, applied by fertigation at the rate of 1.0 mL × LHoagland−1
, improved crop P, K, Mn, and Fe use efficiency. When applied by fertigation, although the surfactant did not increase the water use efficiency index, it induced a significant decrease of the specific leaf water content (−8.8%) and an increase of the leaf area (+13.3%). By comparison with the recent literature, we inferred a positive physiological response by more expanded and less thick leaves in lettuce, likely by the optimization of the crop water and nutrient root uptakes mediated by the abundant but shortest lateral roots. This finding corresponded to the lowest leaf nitrate content, indicating an improvement of the lettuce quality without losing the crop yield.
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