Pest Control in Cucurbits Using Paper Mulch and Intercropping

Project Overview

FNC13-907
Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2013: $7,500.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2014
Region: North Central
State: Iowa
Project Coordinator:
Rob Faux
Genuine Faux Farm

Annual Reports

Commodities

  • Fruits: melons
  • Vegetables: cucurbits
  • Additional Plants: ornamentals

Practices

  • Crop Production: intercropping
  • Education and Training: on-farm/ranch research
  • Production Systems: general crop production

    Summary:

    The purpose of this study was to measure the relative success of paper mulch in controlling pest population in vine crops that are more susceptible to cucumber beetles (Acalymma vittatum), squash vine borer (Melitta curcurbitae) and squash bug (Anasa tristis).  The study design included multiple replications over a two year period with a control (no paper) and treatment (paper mulch).  Weather conditions during the period of study required alterations in the method and scope of this project.

    Weather conditions on the farm in 2013 forced modifications to the study for the duration of the first year.  Longer season vine crops were eliminated from production and were not available for the study.  We added short season vine crops (summer squash and zucchini) in an effort to move the study forward despite the weather.  In 2014, melons were planted using the outlined study protocol with four replications of the treatment and control.  Weather prevented timely planting of the winter squash.

    Results for summer squash and zucchini showed no significant difference in production or pest presence during the trial.  A limited trial on shorter season melons and winter squash in 2013 showed differences in young plant survival rates.  A very limited trial on short season watermelon showed no differences.

    Weather conditions the following year significantly altered the useful life of the paper mulch applied for the study.  On the day of application and planting, strong wind and rain tore sections of the paper, killing a significant portion of the 750 transplanted melon seedlings.  Continued rain led to premature degradation of the paper on the edges.  This led to lifting of the mulch that destroyed additional plants.  We were forced to add straw mulch to hold the paper down and prevent further damage.  No useful results were collected in 2014 for the project.

    Introduction:

    Production of cucurbits becomes more challenging with the presence of various pest populations, such as cucumber beetles (Acalymma vittatum), squash vine borer (Melitta curcurbitae) and squash bug (Anasa tristis).  Not only do these pests damage these crops by girdling seedlings (cucumber beetles), destroying the flow of nutrients through the stem (vine borers) or consuming leaves and flowers (cucumber beetles and squash bugs), but they may be vectors to diseases that will hinder or destroy the crop.  Yellow Vine Decline is spread by squash bugs and cucumber beetles are known to be a persistent vector of bacterial wilt.  Prior data from our farm indicates to us that a loss rate comprising 60% of most winter squash and melon vines was not uncommon for some heirloom/open pollinated varieties. 

    The most common technique for handling these pest populations is to maintain a consistent application of pesticides.  However, this is an issue for growers who maintain organic certification or wish to reduce the application of chemicals.  Further, continued application of these chemicals often reduces populations of beneficial insects desired by the grower.  Many organic growers utilize row covers to exclude these pests.  However, covers must be removed to allow for pollination.  Further, row covers can present some management issues with respect to weed control and management in windy, unsheltered areas. 

    Good sanitation practices and selection of resistant varieties can also play a part in reducing losses to these pests.  While both are accepted as good practices by professional growers, there is still a desire to grow vine crops that are more susceptible to these pests without the use of chemicals and with a reduction in crop management, all while using techniques that have a reduced negative impact on the environment. 

    An increasing number of horticulturalists are finding ways to use plastic mulch as an important component of their growing systems.  However, many indicate that, while it appears to work in reducing weeds, it seems to be incongruous with a sustainable operation that hopes to minimize negative impacts on the environment.  Paper mulch has been considered as an option on and off for some time with a study as early as 1996 comparing plastic and paper (Project Number: AS93-007).  For example, a prior study in Vermont (Project Number: FNE05-562) illustrated complete failure of paper mulch due to splits in the paper at the point the mulch was laid.  Another study in 1988 suggested that paper mulch may not be adequate for larger scale operations (Project Number: LS88-011).  However, neither of these studies considers some newer developments in the product, nor do they illustrate the intention of the researchers to determine what needs to be done to make application of the product efficient and effective.

    In addition to weed control, there have been anecdotal and research-based results that suggest synthetic mulches may aid in controlling pest populations.  Of particular interest is a study mentioned in the prior section (SARE Project Number: LS01-127).  The study shows a combination of coated mulch and companion plants to be significantly beneficial in the control of cucumber beetles.  The University of Florida also performed a control vs 6 treatment study that included plastic mulch as a one of several controls for pests in that region with some success (ACCESSION NO: 0200846 SUBFILE: CRIS).  Our own preliminary research indicates a reduced loss of cucurbit seedlings on paper mulch.  However, we found no similar studies involving paper mulch.  It was our opinion that the paper mulch option will not be considered by most growers until research is undertaken to illustrate benefits in addition to a reduction in disposal costs to the environment and the farmer.

    The purpose of this study is to measure the relative success of paper mulch in controlling pest population in vine crops that are more susceptible to the previously named insects.

    Project objectives:

    Dependent variables include pest presence, plant loss, yield and farm resource use.

    Pest Presence:

    We focused on the presence of the three pests listed in the introduction (cucumber beetles, squash bug and vine borers).  Weekly observations were made on Mondays at three points during the day (morning, afternoon and evening), with an effort to make these observations at roughly the same time each day.  It was hypothesized that there would be reduced presence of the pests identified on the paper mulch.

    Plant Loss:

    Plant loss were recorded by actual counts and by photo records.  Plant loss rates were recorded only up to the point that plants begin to sprawl (vines over 2 feet long).  Typical plant sprawl makes plant loss recording difficult and prior experience has indicated that the majority of loss occurs in the first two weeks after transplant.  The focus of this study was on this period of plant development.

    Yield:

     Yield was measured at the point of harvest by maintaining records of fruit count and total fruit weight for each treatment/replication section.

    Farm Resource Use:

    Paper mulch has not gained much traction due to its higher cost per foot.  An analysis of farm resource use for comparison between treatment and control was kept in order to determine if paper mulch resulted in a net gain or loss in farm resources during this project.

    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.