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Scientia Horticulturae 103 (2005) 453–460


Almond shell waste: possible local rockwool

substitute in soilless crop culture
Miguel Urrestarazu*, Gabino Alberto Martı́nez,
Marı́a del Carmen Salas
Departamento de Producción Vegetal, Universidad de Almerı́a, E-04120 Almerı́a, Spain
Received 15 October 2002; received in revised form 18 May 2004; accepted 9 June 2004


This industrial residue is the woody endocarp of the almond fruits. This material is normally
incinerated or dumped without control. Almond shell used (100% pure) as growing media can be
more ecologically-friendly and less expensive than traditional rockwool since it can be locally
produced. Three commercially produced random samples of two different textures and two volumes
(19 and 25 L) were evaluated as growing media for soilless production. Three experiments were
conducted to evaluate the effects of volume and texture and to compare this substrate with rockwool
in terms of yield and quality characteristics of fruits in melon and tomato culture. The physical,
physico-chemical and chemical properties studied did not differ significantly between both textures.
Tomato plants grown in almond shell residue used 21% less water compared to rockwool over the
course of production. We found non-limiting in comparison to rockwool for melon and tomato crops
in relation to fertigation parameters, water uptake and yield. Significant differences of yield were
found when we used the big size, specially in melon crop where commercial yield and soluble solids
of plants growing on 25 L bags was higher than that on small one. The results suggested that almond
shells seem to be an acceptable growing media as rockwool substitute for soilless vegetable
# 2004 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.

Keywords: Prunus dulci L.; Almond waste utilization; Waste reclamation; Sustainable agriculture; Growing
media; Particle size; Volume container; Soilless culture

* Corresponding author. Tel.: +34 95 001 5929; fax: +34 95 001 5939.
E-mail address: mgavilan@ual.es (M. Urrestarazu).

0304-4238/$ – see front matter # 2004 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.
454 M. Urrestarazu et al. / Scientia Horticulturae 103 (2005) 453–460

1. Introduction

Almond shell is the name given to the ligneous material forming the thick endocarp or
husk of the almond tree (Prunus dulcis L.) fruit. When the fruit is processed to obtain the
edible seeds, big ligneous fragments are separated. These materials remain available as a
waste product for which no important industrial use has been developed, so they are
normally incinerated. The almond tree is a common crop along the mediterranean coast
which is subsidized due to economic and environmental reasons; this rainfed crop is
established normally on lands with no other agricultural use showing high potential risk of
soil degradation. This low-demanding crop covers in Spain was 525000 ha yielding an
average of 225000 t per year during the last decade (MAPA, 1992–2002), generating
5000 t per year between September and May. Considering a global situation, in all over the
world the total area was around 1500000 ha between 2000 and 2003 (FAO, 2001–2004).
The total area of soilless crops in SE Spain is estimated to be between 4000 and 4500 ha
(Urrestarazu and Salas, 2002), half of them correspond to rockwool and the other half to
perlite, sand, coir and other minor soilless systems.
Finding a use for waste materials, most of them locally produced, as soilless growing
media has been the subject of an important number of studies, especially as a peat
alternative for ornamental potted plants (e.g. Ingelmo et al., 1997; Offord et al., 1998; Abad
et al., 2002), and less frequently for vegetable production (Shinohara et al., 1999; Ball et
al., 2000) and even for tomato transplant production (Ozores-Hampton et al., 1999).
Nowadays it is admitted that the volume of containers is of importance, probably
because the quality of the rooting system depends on it, so the use of larger containers will
produce greater plant growth, this having been studied and recorded in ornamental plants
(e.g. Biran and Eliassaf, 1980; Titl et al., 1987; Pastor et al., 1999) and less in vegetable
crops (Verlodt and Kamoun, 1981). Garcı́a et al. (1997) found non significant differences in
tomato yield using two volumes of perlite bags when fertigation was adopted.
The objectives of this work were to characterise the main physical and chemical
properties of commercial samples of almond shell, and to evaluate their potential as
growing media (100% pure) for vegetable production.

2. Materials and methods

2.1. Almond shell samples

Three random samples of two different textures were collected from transformed
almond shell waste by Borges Andalucı́a in Almerı́a (Spain). These are commercially used
as growing media in soilless culture.
Additionally, commercial grodan1 Med + rockwool was used as standard and control
material for comparison.

2.2. Characterisation of almond shell properties

The following physical properties were measured: coarseness index, expressed as

weight percentage of particles with 1 > 1 mm (Richards et al., 1986). Shrinkage,
M. Urrestarazu et al. / Scientia Horticulturae 103 (2005) 453–460 455

estimated as volume lost by the medium after drying at 1058 C (Martı́nez, 1992) was
determined, and the wettability after drying was evaluated according to AS 3743-Appendix
A Australian regulation (1993). Air–water relationships were measured according to De
Boodt et al. (1974).
Physico-chemical and chemical properties were determined by the saturation extract
method (Warncke, 1986). Total organic matter content was determined by loss on ignition
for 4 h at 5508 C.
All determinations were carried out in triplicate for each sample.

2.3. Experimental design

Three separate greenhouse experiments were conducted in slab or bag culture with
melon (Cucumis melo L. cv Gustal) and tomato (Lycopersicon esculentum Mill. cv
Daniela) in Almerı́a (SE Spain).

2.3.1. Experiment 1: comparative evaluation of almond shell and rockwool

Coarse almond shell was the main treatment in bags of 19 L (100% pure content), and
the popular commercial grojdan1 Med + rockwool as standard and control material for
comparison. Melon seeds were sown on 27th February and transplanted on 23rd April
2001, tomato plants on 25th August and on 11th September. Melons were harvested
between 30th July and 5th September, tomatoes between 30th November and 15th
February. Plant density was one and two plants per square meter (three and six per
bag or slab) for melon and tomato, respectively.
Fertigation was applied with a localised irrigation system. pH, electrical conductivity
(EC), individual concentration of each nutrient, time and frequency of nutrient solution
applied were automatically adjusted depending on: development stage of plant, cultivars,
physical and physico-chemical properties of the growing media previously analysed
(Tables 1 and 2), climatic conditions in real time (specially irradiation), and the results
of drainage parameters (Salas and Urrestarazu, 2001).
Volume, pH, EC and chemical analysis of drainage (data not shown) were determined
every week. Anions and cations were determined using liquid chromatography with
Dionex mod. 2000i/SP chromatography provided with an AS4A anionic and CS12 cationic
columns and the method described by Gil de Carrasco et al. (1994).
Marketable and non-marketable fruits were established using UE regulation L 100/11
and L 214/21 as standard for melon and tomato respectively (OJUE, 2001). Firmness was
measured using a pressure-tester (7.9 mm diameter pressure-tester needle) and expressed
in terms of kg on three peeled tomato and melon fruits per replication and treatment. Total
soluble solids contents were measured in the juice of three fruit per replication with a
refractometer and expressed in 8 Brix.

2.3.2. Experiment 2: effect of texture on fertigation parameters and yield

Fine and coarse almond shell were compared. The experimental design was identical to
Experiment 1. The volume of the cropping units was 19 L in both treatments.
456 M. Urrestarazu et al. / Scientia Horticulturae 103 (2005) 453–460

Table 1
Selected physical, physico-chemical and chemical properties of two commercial samples with different texture of
almond shells used as a growing medium for soilless production (in comparison with rockwool)
Parameter or propriety Almond shell Rockwool Optimum value
Fine Coarse P
Bulk density (g cm3) 0.40 0.40 ns 0.06 <0.40b
Total pore space (vol.%) 71.0 72.0 * 97.4 >85b
Air capacity (vol.%) 40.0 36.9 * 35.9a 20–30b
Easily available water (vol.%) 1.2 1.2 ns 58.5a 20–30b
Water buffering capacity (vol.%) 2.6 4.7 * 3.5a 4–10b
Total water-holding capacity (mL L1) 194 188 ns 374 600–1000b
Shrinkage (%) 12.3 10.0 ns nd <30c
Wettability (minutes) 0.36 0.54 ns 0.11 5c
pH 5.20 5.09 ns 5.2–6.3b
Electrical conductivity (dS m1) 2.70 2.44 ns 2.00–3.50b
Organic matter content (% dry wt.) 98.9 99.0 ns 3.7 >80b
*, **, ***, ns are P  0.05, P  0.01, P  0.001 and not significant or P > 0.05, respectively.
Benoit and Ceustermans (1990).
Abad et al. (1993).
Abad and Noguera (2000).

2.3.3. Experiment 3: effect of container volume on fertigation parameters and yield

Containers filled with 19 and 25 L of coarse almond shell were compared. The
experimental design was identical to Experiments 1 and 2. Again, conditions of cultural
management were used and conducted as described in Experiment 1.

Table 2
Daily mean fertigation parameters and total water uptake of melon and tomato crops using fine and coarse texture
of almond shell and rockwool as a growing medium in soilless crop production
Experiment 1 Experiment 2 Experiment 3
Rockwool Almond Fine Coarse Almond Almond
shell almond almond shell 19 L shell
(19 L) shell shell (25 L)
Uptake (L m2 crop1) 152 119** 101 121* 117 126*
% 17 34* 37 33* 36 30*
pH 6.53 6.73 6.90 6.81 6.64 7.37
EC (dS m1) 5.48 3.43* 3.64 3.45 3.42 3.14
Uptake (L m2 crop1) 109 108 110 106 116 118
% 31 33 32 35 30 25
pH 6.10 6.80* 7.10 7.90 6.80 6.80
EC (dS m1) 5.20 3.30* 3.30 3.10 3.60 3.40
The results are the average of four replications with the juice or the number of three fruits.
Indicate difference at P  0.05 by F-test.
Indicate difference at P  0.01 by F-test.
M. Urrestarazu et al. / Scientia Horticulturae 103 (2005) 453–460 457

2.4. Experimental designs and data analysis

Every crop and experiment was conducted under a randomized complete block design
using two treatments and four replications. Each plot (experimental unit) had 12 and 24
plants for melon and tomato respectively. Single Student’s t-test probability was used to
separate the means of the different treatments.
The experimental designs and data analysis were based on the procedure described by
Little and Hills (1987) and Petersen (1994). The Stagraphics Plus 4.1 statistical package
was used to calculate data (Statistical Graphics Crop., 1999).

3. Results and discussion

Particle size distribution of two different commercial samples of almond shell were
meassured, then there were no significant diferences (data not shown). There were only
significant differences in the small particle size. The coarseness index was around 85%, a
figure much higher than for peat (63%) or coconut coir waste (35%) recorded by Noguera
et al. (2000). This value easily explains the high wettability (Table 1) according to Bunt
(1988) and Abad et al. (1993). Bulk density for both textures similarly showed very high
values. These were within the limit of optimal range while rockwool proved very adequate
(much lower than 0.40 g cm3). In fact, this is the major disadvantage for transport. Total
pore space showed significant differences between samples, both values were lower than
for rockwool and the optimum levels. Air capacity was, with significant differences
between samples, higher than 35% and very similar to rockwool. On the contrary, the easily
available water and total water-holding capacity were much lower than rockwool and were
not within the optimum values (20–30% and 600–1000 mL L1, respectively; Abad et al.,
1993), that is the most important disadvantage along with the high bulk density. This, in
agreement with a low proportion of particles (around 3%) in the intermediate range (within
0.25–0.5 mm), was the second major disadvantage of almond shell used as growing media
for soilless cultivation, according to the optimal particle size distribution by Abad and
Noguera (2000). Water buffering capacity showed significant differences between samples,
but both substrates were within the optimum range and similar to rockwool.
However, the deficient physical properties were non-limiting in comparison to rockwool
for melon and tomato crops in relation to fertigation parameters and water uptake (Table 2).
This was probably due to the fact that crops were irrigated considering the analysis of
substrate physical properties as a method tailored to the water transport capabilities of each
individual substrate (Drzal et al., 1999). The criteria of Smith (1987) and the necessary
local adjustments (Salas and Urrestarazu, 2001) were adopted in the fertigation manage-
ment; watering was activated for short periods (around 3–4 min irrigation1) per bag with
coarse almond shell and 19 L, and higher for rockwool (around 6–7 min irrigation1).
Physico-chemical properties were very similar and close to the optimal range.
As Table 2 shows, in the three experiments all fertigation and water uptake parameters
were very similar under different fertigation managements. Yield and studied fruit
parameter (Table 3) showed similar behaviour. The EC of rockwool in Experiment 1
was higher than that of almond shell, probably due, for tomato plants, to the high drainage
458 M. Urrestarazu et al. / Scientia Horticulturae 103 (2005) 453–460

Table 3
Yield and select fruit parameters of fine and coarse texture and volume of almond shell used as a growing medium
on melon and tomato crop, and comparison with rockwool
Experiment 1 Experiment 2 Experiment 3
Rockwool Almond Fine Coarse Almond Almond
shell almond almond shell shell
(19 L) shell shell (19 L) (25 L)
Fruit number 92 81 62 80* 78 90
Total yield (kg m2) 10.83 9.09 6.44 8.76 8.33 9.98
Soluble sugars (8 Brix) 4.71 5.17** 5.32 5.49 5.45 5.11
Firmness (kg) 2.19 2.99 2.57 3.05 2.85 2.37**
Dry weight content (%) 5.22 5.76 5.53 5.82 5.86 5.60
Fruit number 3.86 3.03 2.49 2.75 3.13 3.28
Total yield (kg m2) 3.84 3.18 2.61 2.88 2.86 3.72*
Soluble sugars (8 Brix) 11.20 10.55 10.75 10.25 9.80 11.20**
Firmness (kg) 4.25 4.30 4.65 4.10 4.10 4.25
Dry weight content (%) 9.45 9.50 8.70 9.04 9.50 9.03
The results are the average of four replications with the juice or the number of three fruits.
Indicate difference at P  0.05 by F-test.
Indicate difference at P  0.01 by F-test.

fraction and water uptake. Soluble solids of tomato plants growing on almond shell were
higher than that of rockwool grown when EC of the drainage was higher. This result does
not agree with those reported by Adams (1991) or Chrétien and Gosselin (2000), maybe
because average fruit weights (data not shown) of plants growing on almond shell were
lower than that of rockwool.
The texture, Experiment 2, showed little or no limiting effect. Similar results were found
for perlite culture using different particle size distributions on tomato and cucumber
(Garcı́a et al., 1997).
In Experiment 3, the studied yield and fruit parameters did not differ significantly in the
tomato crop with the exception of fruit firmness. An important significant difference was
observed in melon crop where commercial yield and soluble solids of plants growing on
25 L bags was higher than that on small volume (19 L) bags. This result agrees with Verlodt
and Kamoun (1981), who found higher yield with a higher volume (45 L) using tomato
crop and on organic substrate; by contrast it does not agree with Garcı́a et al. (1997) using
tomato and cucumber crops and perlite with volumes between 30 and 40 L.

4. Conclusion

The physical, physico-chemical and chemical properties studied did not differ sig-
nificantly between two textures. Yield trials show that almond shell seems to be an
acceptable growing medium for soilless culture and to present a viable and ecologically-
friendly alternative to rockwool. As it was suggested by Abad et al. (2002) for a similar
case (coconut coir dusts compared with peat): ‘‘. . . the decision on whether to use coir dust
M. Urrestarazu et al. / Scientia Horticulturae 103 (2005) 453–460 459

as a peat substitute (rockwool for us) will depend primarily on economic and technical
factors, and secondly on environmental issues’’.


This study was financially supported by Borges Andalucı́a S.A. and the Universidad de
Almerı́a (Spain).


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