Investigating tarps to facilitate organic no-till cabbage production with high-residue cover crops

Project Type: Research Only
Funds awarded in 2018: $126,668.00
Projected End Date: 11/30/2021
Grant Recipient: University of New Hampshire
Region: Northeast
State: New Hampshire
Project Leader:
Dr. Richard Smith
University of New Hampshire
High-residue cover crops can facilitate organic no-till vegetable production when cover crop biomass production is sufficient to suppress weeds (>8000 kg ha−1), and cash crop growth is not limited by soil temperature, nutrient availability, or cover crop regrowth. In cool climates, however, both cover crop biomass production and soil temperature can be limiting for organic notill. In addition, successful termination of cover crops can be a challenge, particularly when cover crops are grown as mixtures. We tested whether reusable plastic tarps, an increasingly popular tool for small-scale vegetable farmers, could be used to augment organic no-till cover crop termination and weed suppression.We no-till transplanted cabbage into a winter rye (Secale cereale L.)-hairy vetch (Vicia villosa Roth) cover crop mulch that was terminated with either a rollercrimper alone or a roller-crimper plus black or clear tarps. Tarps were applied for durations of 2, 4 and 5 weeks. Across tarp durations, black tarps increased the mean cabbage head weight by 58% compared with the no tarp treatment. This was likely due to a combination of improved weed suppression and nutrient availability. Although soil nutrients and biological activity were not directly measured, remaining cover crop mulch in the black tarp treatments was reduced by more than 1100 kg ha−1 when tarps were removed compared with clear and no tarp treatments. We interpret this as an indirect measurement of biological activity perhaps accelerated by lower daily soil temperature fluctuations and more constant volumetric water content under black tarps. The edges of both tarp types were held down, rather than buried, but moisture losses from the clear tarps were greater and this may have affected the efficacy of clear tarps. Plastic tarps effectively killed the vetch cover crop, whereas it readily regrew in the crimped but uncovered plots. However, emergence of large and smooth crabgrass (Digitaria spp.) appeared to be enhanced in the clear tarp treatment. Although this experiment was limited to a single site-year in New Hampshire, it shows that use of black tarps can overcome some of the obstacles to implementing cover crop-based no-till vegetable productions in northern climates.
Peer-reviewed Journal Article
Natalie Lounsbury, University of New Hampshire
Seamus Wolfe, University of New Hampshire
Nicholas Warren, University of New Hampshire
Richard Smith, University of New Hampshire
Target audiences:
Educators; Researchers
Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.