Intensive rainfall during summer causes substantial nutrient leaching in a subtropical region, where most vegetable lands lay fallow during this period. Also, an excessive amount of irrigation water supplied during the winter vegetable growing season leads to soil nutrient loss, which greatly impacts vegetable yields, especially in soils that possess a low capacity to retain soil water and nutrients. A 2-year field experiment was carried out to evaluate the effects of various summer cover crops and irrigation rates on tomato yields and quality, and on soil fertility in a subtropical region of Florida. The cover crops were sunn hemp [Crotalaria juncea (L.) `Tropic Sun'], cowpea [Vigna unguiculata (L.) Walp, `Iron Clay'], velvetbean [Mucuna deeringiana (Bort.) Merr.], and sorghum sudangrass [Sorghum bicolor × S. bicolor var. sudanense (Piper) Stapf.], with a weed-free fallow as a control. The cover crops were planted during late Spring 2001 and 2002, incorporated into the soil in the fall, and tomatoes [Lycopersicon esculentum (Mill.) `Sanibel'] were grown on raised beds during Winter 2001–02 and 2002–03, respectively. Irrigation in various treatments was controlled when tensiometer readings reached –5, –10, –20, or –30 kPa. The cover crops produced from 5.2 to 12.5 Mg·ha–1 of above ground dry biomass and 48 to 356 Mg·ha–1 of N during 2001–02 and from 3.6 to 9.7 Mg·ha–1 of dry biomass and 35 to 277 kg·ha–1 of N during 2002–03. The highest N contribution was made by sunn hemp and the lowest by sorghum sudangrass. Based on 2-year data, tomato marketable yields were increased from 14% to 27% (p ≤ 0.05) by growing cover crops, and the greatest increase occurred in the sunn hemp treatment followed by the cowpea treatment. Irrigation at –10, –20, and –30 kPa significantly improved marketable yields by 14%, 12%, and 25% (p ≤ 0.05) for 2001–02, and 18%, 31%, and 34% (p ≤ 0.05) for 2002–03, respectively, compared to yields at the commonly applied rate, –5 kPa (control). Irrigation at –30 kPa used about 85% less water than at –5 kPa. Yields of extra-large fruit in the sunn hemp and cowpea treatments from the first harvest in both years averaged 12.6 to 15.2 Mg·ha–1, and they were significantly higher than yields in the fallow treatment (10.2 to 11.3 Mg·ha–1). Likewise at –30 kPa yields of extra-large fruit from the first harvest for both years were 13.0 to 15.3 Mg·ha–1 compared to 9.8 to 10.7 Mg·ha–1 at –5 kPa. Soil NO3-N and total N contents in sunn hemp and cowpea treatments were significantly higher than those in fallow. The results indicate that growing legume summer cover crops in a subtropical region, especially sunn hemp and cowpea, and reducing irrigation rates are valuable approaches to conserve soil nutrients and water, and to improve soil fertility and tomato yields and quality.
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