Cover crop management in growing horticultural produce has attracted attention for reducing soil erosion and limiting the input of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Hairy vetch (Vicia villosa Roth.), one of the cover crops, exhibits desirable attributes such as high N fixing ability, biomass quality, adaptability to low temperatures, resistance to pests, and fitness in vegetable production, particularly in rotation with tomatoes. The interactions between the cover crop mulch and the tomato plant in the field plots result in delayed leaf senescence and increased disease tolerance. The mechanisms underlying these interactions are largely unknown. Limits in pursuing these studies year-round in the field—growing season and complexity and variability of the field environment—could be circumvented if the observed responses of tomato plants to hairy vetch mulch in the field could be reproduced under greenhouse conditions. We have tested tomato plants for two years in the greenhouse using soil residues brought from field plots where respective cover crops had been previously grown. Treatments were a) bare soil from a fallow, weed-free field plot, b) soil from a field plot that had been planted into a rye cover crop, and c) soil from a field plot that had been planted into a hairy vetch cover crop. Pots with soil from the rye or vetch field plots were further topped with rye or vetch residues, respectively, after transplanting the tomato plants. Additional N was applied to 50% of the plants in each treatment. In the greenhouse, cover crop residue-supplemented tomatoes exhibited high vigor, higher marketable yield and delayed senescence compared to those grown in bare soil. All treatments responded favorably to additional N from commercial fertilizers. Delayed leaf senescence correlated with the accumulation of rubisco large subunit and chitinase, two proteins central to photosynthesis and pathogenesis, respectively. This study shows that the responses of tomato plants to cover crops seen in the field can be mimicked under greenhouse conditions.
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