Potassium Management In Grapevines

Potassium Management In Grapevines

Potassium (K) is required by plants in large amounts. It has a major role in many plant processes, such as promoting root growth, increasing fruit size, and providing key features in metabolism that include the formation of starch, translocation of sugars, stomata regulation, and the formation of xylem vessels. The K concentration in grapevines can range from 1% to 4% on a dry weight basis, depending on the tissues and time of sampling.

A Comparison Of Some General Formulations Of K Fertilizer
Potassium Product % K2O* % K Advantages and Disadvantages
Dry Forms
Potassium sulfate K2SO4 53 43 Most popular due to safety to plants and high K content; contains 18% sulfur. Low solubility limits liquid formulation; readily applied with gypsum solution applicators for drip.
Potassium chloride
62 51 Highest K analysis and lowest cost; high solubility for liquid formulations. Chloride can cause salt injury.
Potassium nitrate
46 38 Contains 14% N. Most expensive dry form.
Potassium-magnesium sulfate
K2SO4 x 2MgSO4
22 18 Contains 10% magnesium (Mg) to offset potential Mg deficiency. High cost for K content; Mg may interfere with K uptake.
Liquid Forms
Potassium thiosulfate
K2SO4 x 2MgSO4
25 21 Contains 17% sulfur; acid-forming for alkaline soils.
Potassium carbonate
30 25 High pH is suitable for acid soils; high solubility for liquid formulation and drip irrigation.
Potassium sulfate
8 7 N (as ammonia) is commonly included in the formulation to assist K2SO4 solubility.
Potassium chloride
8 or 10 7 or 8 Most economical liquid formulation. Often sold with 2% N content.
*Multiply K2O (called potash by the fertilizer industry) by 0.83 to determine actual K content.


Harvest removes about 5 pounds K per ton of grapes, although this varies, based upon the rootstock and cultivar being grown. Varieties with high K demand, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cinsaut, or Syrah, should not be grafted to rootstocks prone to K deficiency if soil levels are low. University of California research has shown that vines on rootstocks with Vitis berlandieri genetic background, such as 420A, 110R, 5BB, 5C, and 1103P are sensitive to K deficiency. Freedom, 1616C, SO4, and 039-16 are examples of rootstocks that provide high K to the scion vines.

Annual soil analyses are of relatively little value in determining vine K needs since there are so many other factors that affect uptake and utilization, including soil type, texture, and depth; amount of soil compaction; root pest damage; variety; rootstock; irrigation practice; and crop size. Petiole analysis has been the main tool for assessing K status and the need for K applications to vines. Petioles are usually collected at bloom from leaves opposite the cluster position on the shoot. Vines are generally sufficient at 1.5% to 2%, and deficiency may occur at 1% or less. Though it is not a completely reliable tool for making K management decisions, petiole analysis is the most consistent guideline currently available.

Potassium Deficiency

Grapevines tend to show K deficiency when they are heavily cropped and maintenance applications of K have not been made in the vineyard. Deficiency can be more likely to occur under these conditions:
• Soil cut areas
• Areas where the K-rich surface soil
was removed during land leveling
• On sandy soils that have low
native K fertility
• On clay soils of certain
geologic origin
• Shallow soil areas
• Poorly drained soils
• Where soil pests have caused
root problems
• Water stress can also increase this deficiency by reducing vine uptake of K — keep this in mind when using deficit irrigation on red grapes.

Deficiency symptoms can appear in early spring in cool, wet years, into June, but mild deficiencies will not be seen until just before harvest. The first symptom is a fading of green color at the leaf edges and between the main veins, while leaf margins tend to curl upward. The leaves may turn chlorotic and begin to turn brown on the margins, and some leaves may die as the deficiency becomes more severe. Severe K deficiency also reduces vine vigor and crop yield, and can result in defoliation. Oftentimes petioles can remain attached as blades defoliate. Vines also tend to have fewer and smaller clusters that are tight, with unevenly colored, small berries.

Local Soil Composition And K Fixation In Soil

Soil composition plays a large role in which areas of a vineyard are K deficient. K ions are strongly adsorbed on clay; without this adsorbing ability, the soluble K in sandy soils is easily leached from surface soil. Therefore, sandy soils or sand streaks often have less plant-available K.

Soils high in clay or silt content may also need added K because of their K fixing capacity. In K fixation, clay minerals remove K from solution by trapping it on sorption sites within the mineral layers. Many soils in California’s San Joaquin Valley have high K fixing capacity and can tie up 50% or more of added K fertilizer. This K is not lost, but rather stored between layers of clay and slowly released in soil solution as exchangeable K. However, most will not become available fast enough during times of high K demand, especially following veraison. The actual K available for plant uptake represents a very small fraction of the total K in soils — it is found in the soil solution and on the cation exchange sites of both clay particles and humus. This is why soil K levels have generally not been reliable criteria for indicating the actual K status of grapevines.

The major clay minerals responsible for K fixation are illite, weathered mica, smectite, and vermiculite. Soils high in vermiculite are found on the east side of the Central Valley of California including in the Lodi wine-grape district, especially on landscapes with soils deriving from granitic parent material and that are weakly to moderately weathered. Vermiculite is a clay mineral, but actually it can be found in the silt and fine sand size fractions, which explains why coarse-textured soils are often found to fix K.

Potassium Fertilization

Response to a K fertilizer strategy may be influenced by several factors, including soil type and depth, variety, rootstock, cropping pattern, time of year, and irrigation system or general growing conditions, especially if in a drought or a heavy rainfall year.

The particular form of K fertilizer chosen offers no inherent advantage as grapevines don’t care how their needed K becomes available, only that it is available. However, particular formulations of K do offer advantages to growers, such as cost and convenience of application vs. possible soil effects (e.g., acidification of soil, salinity, etc.). Foliar sprays for K are not without benefit, but at best they reduce foliar symptoms, at great cost.

K can be applied in the fall as long as field access is possible. Early spring applications in bulk or through drip systems can be as effective, depending on formulation and timing. Generally, K use by grape vines can be as much or more than annual nitrogen (N) demand, but the need for K applications is often not as critical as N. This is because K doesn’t leach from the soil profile as readily as N and certain soil types provide enough K for fairly long periods under moderate crop demands.

Because of the strong fixing capacity of some soils and the relatively slower movement of K, a single heavy application (a “slug”) of fertilizer is needed to quickly mitigate K deficiency and show a vine response. The method of application and formulation of K will be determined by how fast a response is needed and how long it has been since any K was applied, or whether a more maintenance type strategy is being used.

Talk with your fertilizer company or consultant about what you want to accomplish and how fast, and try to keep your winery in “the loop.” Some important considerations are:
• What is the soil type?
• Are there some soil concerns, such
as pH, salinity, or drainage?
• How long has it been since K was
applied, if ever?
• Are symptoms present in just the
leaves, in the fruit, or in certain
sections of the vineyard?
• What have the yields been in
recent years?
• What is the comparative cost per
unit of K2O?
• How can the formulation of choice
be applied, and at what cost?
• When do you want to apply the

Whether you choose a dry formulation in the fall, or dry in early spring, or liquid in late spring/summer, or a combination, depends more on your operation and schedule than on critical periods of the vines’ ability to use K. Talk with your winery about your strategy as some wineries have concerns about amount, or timings of K. Generally, there is no hard or fast rule on K application, amount, or timing, but too much K just before or just after veraison can affect K uptake by fruit and pH. However, the interaction of available nutrients, soil type, crop load, irrigation management, variety, and rootstock make it complicated to predict — all the more reason to stay in communication with your winery or grape buyer.

Editor’s Note: A version of this article originally appeared in the University of California Cooperative Extension’s “Tree & Vine Newsletter.” It was written by the UCCE’s Chuck Ingels, viticulture advisor and co-county director, Sacramento County; Paul Verdegaal, viticulture advisor, San Joaquin County; Stuart Pettygrove, soils specialist, Dept. of Land, Air, & Water Resources, UC-Davis; and Ria DeBiase, research assistant, Sacramento County.