Optimizing between-bed management strategies in plasticulture vegetables for improved crop production and soil health

Project Overview

Project Type: Graduate Student
Funds awarded in 2017: $12,000.00
Projected End Date: 05/01/2019
Grant Recipient: Michigan State University
Region: North Central
State: Michigan
Graduate Student:
Faculty Advisor:
Dr. Zachary Hayden
Horticulture, Michigan State University


  • Agronomic: annual ryegrass, clovers, rye
  • Vegetables: peppers, summer squash


  • Crop Production: alley cropping, catch crops, continuous cropping, cover crops, cropping systems, multiple cropping, nutrient cycling
  • Education and Training: decision support system
  • Soil Management: green manures, organic matter, soil microbiology, soil quality/health

    Proposal abstract:

    The use of plastic mulch (PM) is common for warm-season vegetable production in the North Central Region. While PM offers excellent weed control in-row, weed management in the between bed area (referred to as “inter- bed” hereafter) remains a challenge.  For organic growers particularly, weedy inter-beds can be a problem because organic herbicides are expensive and ineffective. As an alternative, organic farmers employ a variety of strategies to manage this area including cultivation, mowing weeds, dead mulches, and less commonly, living mulches (cover crops).  Leaving the inter-bed ground bare, as in cultivation, leaves the soil highly susceptible to erosion and nutrient leaching due to aggressive runoff induced by the impervious surface of PM. Alternatives that keep the soil covered are of great interest to growers. The objective of this study is to obtain a systems-level understanding of a range of inter-bed weed management practices as they relate to weed suppression, nitrogen retention, soil health as indicated by microbial biomass and functional diversity, crop yield and quality, labor requirements, and production cost. A two-year organic field trial (2017-2018) will be established at a research farm in southwest Michigan to evaluate both in season and cumulative impacts of inter-bed management strategies. Treatments will include a cultivated control, mowed weeds, rye/vetch dead mulch, rye living mulch, rye/white clover living mulch, and annual ryegrass living mulch. These management strategies are representative of current practices (cultivation, mowing, dead mulching) and living mulch treatments that are less commonly used but of great interest to growers.  On-farm demonstrations will also be established with grower collaborators in the second year of this study to gain a better understanding of the management challenges and benefits farmers experience when implementing alternatives to cultivation for weed and soil management in PM systems. Results will be communicated to scientific and farmer communities through publications in peer-reviewed journals and online extension outlets, and through presentations at scientific and grower conferences. Outcomes will include a better understanding among vegetable growers of the impacts of inter-bed management strategies on crop, soil, and environmental health leading to the adoption of management practices that ensure farm and environmental sustainability.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    The goal of this project is to evaluate the systems-level effects of different between-bed management strategies for vegetables grown on PM. The results from this study will provide detailed information regarding the functioning of individual parts and the system as a whole which will help farmers make informed inter-bed management decisions in PM systems to improve crop production, soil health, and environmental sustainability.

    We anticipate the current study will result in the following outcomes:

    Learning Outcomes:

    • Vegetable farmers will have a greater awareness of alternatives to cultivation for weed and soil management between PM beds.
    • Vegetable farmers, extension educators, and researchers will have a better understanding of how different inter- bed management practices in PM production influence system-level functioning.

    Action Outcomes:

    • Vegetable farmers will be empowered to try alternative inter-bed management strategies and evaluate them in the context of their specific production system.
    • Vegetable farmers will make weed management decisions between PM beds which will improve soil health and reduce nutrient leaching.
    • Researchers and extension educators will make well-rounded recommendations regarding inter-bed weed management in PM systems.

    Environment/Production Outcomes

    • Vegetable farmers will have the potential of greater profits as a result of reduced weeding costs, improved fruit quality, greater nutrient retention, and preservation and building of healthy soils.
    • Environmental sustainability will be achieved through potential reductions in nutrient leaching and soil runoff.
    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.