Presenting their findings at the HTA water workshop held at EastGro last week, participants unveiled the progress that has already been made as well as some of the latest thinking on nursery irrigation, water treatment and recycling.
Lancaster University professor of plant science Bill Davies presented findings from the LINK project on enhancing the quality of hardy nursery stock and sustainability of the industry through novel water-saving techniques.
He said: "I don't think it is unreasonable to think we could achieve 20 or 30 times more efficiency with all of these technologies. I don't think it's that far away and the payback is surprisingly quick."
Davies demonstrated the use of rhizobacteria in limiting the effect of drought stress on growth.
The technology is immediately applicable but there are issues with developing patents, which need to be resolved before it is likely to be commercially available.
The four-year LINK project, jointly funded by Defra and the Horticultural Development Company with contributions from a number of industry players including five nurseries, comes to an end next month with an open day at Hillier Nurseries on 24 September.
Other highlights of the research include the use of simple gantry irrigation techniques, deficit irrigation to manage growth speed, pH regulation to manipulate growth and thermal-imaging cameras used to identify drought stress.
Hillier Nurseries hosted part of the project - using gantry irrigation and pin-jet bays it has experienced excellent results and is confident about the technology.
Hillier container production manager Dave Hooker has overseen the project on site and presented the findings to the workshop. He said: "I think it is a major step away from what the industry has been doing for years, by using a circular sprinkler system irrigating a square bed.
"The work done for the project has shown the payback time is less than people thought. It is not going to change overnight but there will be people thinking gantries are now viable options, and that's what I want to do in the future."
As well as providing an even coverage, the gantry can be used in conjunction with advanced scheduling techniques, including evaporation sensors piloted by East Malling Research (EMR).
EMR research scientist Olga Grant said: "Good scheduling not only reduces water use, it can also result in improved plant quality and uniformity. And scheduling can also be used to control plant growth, reducing the need for pruning."
HTA business development manager Tim Briercliffe said: "I think this is very exciting research, which could have a real impact."