Plastic mulch is commonly used by commercial producers of cucurbits because it increases soil temperature, reduces weed pressure, retains soil moisture, and increases earliness of harvest (Lamont, 2005). Compared with bare ground systems, black plastic mulch can increase yields of cucumber (Ibarra-Jiménez et al., 2004), muskmelon (Ibarra et al., 2001), and summer squash (Mahadeen, 2014). However, there are concerns about environmental sustainability due to the generation of plastic waste (Hemphill, 1993) and the disturbance to the soil from intensive tillage during installation. Bio- and photodegradable film mulches address the issue of waste, but they are expensive (Cirujeda et al., 2012), may not decompose at the proper time (Kasirajan and Ngouajio, 2012), and do not eliminate the need for intensive tillage. Tillage degrades soil structure (Magdoff and van Es, 2009; Peigné et al., 2007), thereby increasing susceptibility to compaction, and can decrease soil microbial biomass (Karlen et al., 2013), soil moisture (Hoyt et al., 1994), and earthworm diversity (Pelosi et al., 2014).
Cover crops are often used to build soil health by reducing soil erosion and increasing soil organic matter, but they must be managed so they do not compete with the main crop (Reberg-Horton et al., 2012; Snapp et al., 2005; Teasdale, 1996). One common approach is to incorporate the cover crop into the soil through tillage. This adds organic matter to the soil, but again, it leaves the soil vulnerable to erosion (Dickey et al., 1983) among its other potential negative consequences described earlier.
One way to end cover crops without tillage is to use a roller crimper, which is a tractor-mounted implement with a water-filled rolling drum, typically 3 to 4.5 m wide and having 0.6 m diameter that mechanically ends a cover crop by crimping the stems while leaving the root system and soil undisturbed (Parr et al., 2011). The rolled and crimped residue is then left intact on the soil surface to serve as biological mulch that can be used as an alternative to plastic mulch. This technique can be adapted to a strip tillage system by minimally disturbing one narrow strip for planting, leaving the mulch between rows undisturbed. Soils covered with heavy residue may be cooler than bare soil (Schonbeck and Evanylo, 1998), and residues on the surface can prevent weeds (Leavitt et al., 2011) and sustain soil moisture (Schonbeck and Evanylo, 1998). Reberg-Horton et al. (2012) also reported significant weed control using cover crop mulches; however, to achieve high levels of weed control it is imperative to obtain substantial cover crop biomass. Rolled cover crop systems can lead to yields equivalent to those of tilled, bare ground systems for pumpkin (Wyenandt et al., 2011), organic bell pepper (Delate, 2008), winter squash (Hoyt, 1999), and tomato (Hoyt, 1999). However, Leavitt et al. (2011) found that tomato, zucchini, and bell pepper in a no-till rolled cover crop system in Minnesota had lower yields than in a conventionally tilled system without cover crops, potentially due to the cool northern U.S. climate. These mixed results indicate the need for a technique to mitigate the potential yield loss when using a rolled cover crop system as opposed to bare ground.
Given the increased yields in plasticulture systems compared with bare ground, little work has been done comparing conventional management using plastic to systems that reduce tillage through low-disturbance alternatives such as strip tillage, especially in warm-season crops like cucurbits. One way to overcome the possible yield loss in a rolled cover crop system is to use rowcovers. Rowcovers can increase air temperature and soil temperature (Ibarra et al., 2001) and have been shown to increase yield of muskmelon (Cline et al., 2008), cucumber (Nair and Ngouajio, 2010), and watermelon (Soltani et al., 1995). By physically preventing insects from reaching young plants, rowcovers can prevent damage from insect feeding and reduce the spread of insect-transmitted pathogens like Erwinia tracheiphila (Saalau Rojas et al., 2011). This pathogen is spread by spotted and striped cucumber beetles (Diabrotica undecimpunctata and Acalymma vittatum) and causes cucurbit bacterial wilt, a devastating disease for cucurbit growers. Another important insect-transmitted disease, yellow vine decline, is caused by Serratia marcescens, a pathogen spread by squash bugs (Bruton et al., 2003).
We had two primary objectives: 1) determine if using rowcovers in a strip tillage system can produce equivalent summer squash yield to a plasticulture system and 2) evaluate differences in yellow squash growth and yield with or without spunbonded rowcovers and microclimate modifications that come along with rowcover use. We compared two production systems [conventional tillage with black plastic mulch (PL) and strip tillage into rolled cereal rye (ST)] with and without the use of rowcovers in organically and conventionally managed fields of summer squash. We evaluated these practices in two management systems (organic and conventional) due to the increased interest in using ST system by organic vegetable growers and growing number of conventional growers who have started valuing the importance of cover crops and view it as a tool to improve soil organic matter and a transitional tool to be more sustainable in their production. Conducting this research in both production systems allows for a wider impact over a large number of cucurbit growers.
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