Advancing living mulch in plasticulture vegetables

Project Overview

Project Type: Partnership
Funds awarded in 2014: $15,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2015
Region: Northeast
State: New York
Project Leader:
Judson Reid
Cornell Vegetable Program

Annual Reports


  • Agronomic: barley, rye
  • Vegetables: onions, peppers


  • Crop Production: cover crops, intercropping
  • Education and Training: demonstration, extension, farmer to farmer, on-farm/ranch research, participatory research, workshop
  • Energy: energy conservation/efficiency
  • Farm Business Management: budgets/cost and returns
  • Natural Resources/Environment: soil stabilization
  • Pest Management: allelopathy, competition, integrated pest management, mulches - living, mulching - plastic, mulching - vegetative, weed ecology
  • Production Systems: organic agriculture
  • Soil Management: green manures, organic matter, soil quality/health

    Proposal abstract:

    Replacing bare row middles with living mulch will reduce herbicides and labor while improving harvest conditions on Northeast vegetable farms. This project will evaluate and demonstrate cover crops (living mulch) between rows of plastic mulched vegetables. The project team has conducted several years of related research and seeks funding to advance the knowledge base of the promising technique involving winter grains and clover sown in spring.


    Farmers need this information as herbicides and cultivation challenge sustainability. Herbicides represent an exposure hazard to farmers, consumers and the environment; particularly aquatic wildlife. As most Northeast vegetable farms are diversified, herbicides also represent a management challenge- no single herbicide solution exists across the wide range of crops. Cultivation represents additional labor and decreases organic matter.


    Hosting trials on two commercial farms, we’ll evaluate living mulch in a ‘real-world’ setting and generate scientific data. One of farm will host a demonstration meeting to be attended by 50 farmers for peer-to-peer learning. Data to be collected includes weed biomass, percent living mulch ground cover, yield and nutrient levels. Farmers will provide qualitative data on management aspects of the system. Both streams of information will be synthesized into formal presentations to be shared with 300 farmers at events such as the Empire State Producers Expo and similar winter meetings. Results will also be shared via the Cornell Vegetable Program website, YouTube Channel and Twitter accounts. Two articles will be developed for the VegEdge newsletter, reaching over 850 people in 28 NY counties and 4 states.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    To demonstrate and refine this alternative management strategy, we will conduct 2 on-farm demonstration trials with cooperating farmers. The trials will include replicated plots of peppers and onions grown with uniform treatment applications at each trial location.


    Treatments will include rye, barley; combinations these winter grains with Dutch white clover, cultivation (on an non-herbicide farm) and herbicides (only on the cooperating conventional farm). Treatment response variables to be measured include marketable yield as measured by fruit number and weight, fresh weight of weeds, crop disease severity, plant height (onions only), vegetable crop petiole nutrient levels, insect damage incidence, percent soil cover, and crop management information (relayed from cooperating farmers).


    The cooperating farms will fit soil and lay plastic per existing farm practice. Within the field four 100 linear-foot sections of plastic-mulched row will be measured and flagged. Prior to transplanting, living mulch treatments will be hand-sown in rows perpendicular to vegetable rows at recommended rates for cover crop production, except for rows to receive herbicide or cultivation treatment. Farmers will record application date, rate and apply any chemical treatment in compliance with all applicable Worker Protection Standards and label requirements. Onions will be transplanted (plugs or bare-root) in mid-April and peppers in late-May to early June. Trellis, drip irrigation and fertilization will be carried-out to grower standards by cooperating farmers. Within each of the treatment areas (mulches, cultivation and herbicide) a minimum of four 10 plant blocks of peppers, or 4 ten linear-foot blocks for onions will be flagged for data collection, with onion subsamples of 10 random plants. From onion block plant height in cm will be collected a minimum of 4 times per season; 10 plants per block.

    Disease severity ratings for peppers will be calculated using a visual ordinal scale of 0-9 for each block, a minimum of 4 times over the course of the growing season, beginning in late June. Diseases may include Bacterial Leaf Spot or Phytothphora. Weed biomass (measured by fresh weight) from 4 randomly selected 1 sq ft sections of row middle will be measured 4 times per growing season.  Yield per 10 plant block of peppers will be calculated as number and total weight of marketable fruit per block at each harvest for the length of the growing season. For onions yield data will be collected as weight and grade per 10’ block. Total labor required for the cultivation treatment will be tracked by farmers and team technicians. Three tissue analyses of foliage from each treatment will be performed to measure nutrient competition from the row-middles. Percent ground cover by living mulch will be calculated in each treatment block at two different timings throughout the growing season.


    At the conclusion of harvest, all treatment response data will be tabulated, and data analysis will be conducted an analysis of variance (ANOVA) and treatment means will be separated using an LSD test with a p-value Non-quantitative management data will be solicited by team technicians from cooperating farmers. This input will include impacts such as mowing, improved harvest conditions, changes in tillage requirements or other field-level management data.


    Time frame

    Responsible parties


    Contact cooperating farmers to discuss field plans for Spring of 2014

    September-October 2013



    Field prep: tillage, bed formation, drip tape

    April-May 2014

    Hoover in Yates and Stoltzfus in Seneca Counties (NY)

    Reid and Hill will be in regular contact with farmers to be sure progress in on schedule.


    April-May 2014

    Hoover and Stoltzfus

    Reid and Hill will make themselves available to assist if the farmers desire help.

    Seed living mulch treatments

    April-May 2014

    Reid and Buck in collaboration with farmers

    These dates will be dependent on field and farm conditions

    Establishment of 4 blocks per treatment within 100 linear feet

    May 2014

    Tech TBD (onions)

    N. Hoover (peppers)


    Data collection: crop height, disease incidence, insect incidence, crop yield, labor input, foliar samples

    June-October 2014

    Tech-onion height and yield; disease and insect incidence on onion, foliar samples of both pepper and onions.


    Reid- labor input, tomato disease and insect incidence.



    On-farm demonstration meeting

    Late July to Mid-August

    Technician and cooperating farmer will present, Parr will publicize

    Location will depend on which of the two sites offers the best demonstration, as well as dates that work for the farm

    Updates posted to CVP Webpage, Social Media and printed in VegEdge


    Reid and Parr


    Data entry and statistical analysis


    Reid and Tech

    Depends on final harvest date.

    Winter presentations

    November 2014-March 2015


    Empire State Fruit and Veg Expo, Finger Lakes Produce Auction and other meetings as needed

    Complete final reporting requirements

    Spring 2015



    • Farmer trials/demonstration sites: Two farms will host participatory on-farm trials demonstrating living mulches. These farmers will participate and observe the impact of our treatments on their cropping systems. This will be a powerful strategy for adoption diffusion. Additionally they will receive written documentation of results specific to their farm to validate their involvement in the project.
    • On-site grower field day: A minimum of 50 farmers will be targeted for engagement in peer-based learning by attending a field meeting. Data will be shared, but just as importantly; farmer experience will be highlighted. Meeting notices will be made in newsletter, in addition to direct mailings from CVP database.
    • Conference and grower meeting presentations: Quantitative and qualitative data from the two farms farms will be synthesized in presentation given at winter events such as statewide grower Expos, produce auction meetings and others. This allows the project team to interact with a large group of people and present a synthesis of findings from multiple farms. The project team is active in organizing several of these meetings including the Empire Producer’s Expo, which draws over 1000 attendees annually.
    • Extension newsletter articles: Project findings will be printed twice within the project duration in Veg Edge, a newsletter of the Cornell Vegetable Program that reaches over 850 people in 28 NY counties and 4 states. This outreach venue will be important to reaching other educators and researchers in the region.
    • Online resources: Updates of the project’s progress will be posted to the Cornell Vegetable Program’s webpage as an on demand resource, along with the team’s YouTube Channel and Twitter feed.

    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.