Production of fresh market vegetables in winter is an important industry in a tropical or subtropical region such as south Florida. Vegetables in this region are mainly grown either in very sandy or gravelly loam soil developed from limestone bedrocks with low soil fertility. The nutrients in these soils are prone to leaching through the coarse-textured soil profiles by heavy rainfall events that occur mainly during the rainy summer season. On average, more than 1000 mm of rain happens between June and October in this region (Wang et al., 2002). Such a heavy rainfall may cause intensive loss of leached fertilizers from farmland. As a consequence, the nutrient loss may lead to surface water eutrophication and threaten the adjacent natural ecosystems such as the Florida Everglades and Florida Bay (South Florida Water Management District, 2007). Therefore, it is important to develop a sustainable cropping system to improve agricultural production and the environment by effectively conserving soil and water in such a fragile region.
Composts of municipal solid wastes, including yard wastes, paper, cardboard, food waste, textiles, and so on, have shown high potential to improve soil fertility and production of various crops. For instance, the application of composts can significantly improve the yields of various vegetable crops, including tomato (Lycopersicon esculentum), bell pepper, broccoli (Brassica oleracea), sweet corn (Zea mays), eggplant (Solanum melongena), okra (Abelmoschus esculentus), cucumber (Cucumis sativus), snap bean (Phaseolus vulgaris), squash (Cucurbita moschata), and watermelon (Citrullus lanatus) (Maynard, 1995; Ozores-Hampton, et al., 1994; Wang et al., 2006, 2007). Composts have been recommended and authorized by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA, 1994) and by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (Goldstein, 1997) as a partial substitute for inorganic fertilizers in the production of these vegetable crops. Compost production is a growing industry because of population growth. In the state of Florida, ≈3.7 × 107 Mg of municipal solid wastes (MSW) is collected per year, which includes 4 × 106 Mg of yard waste, but only 37% of the yard waste is recycled (Florida Department of Environmental Protection, 2007). According to the U.S. EPA (1994), 30% to 60% of a community's MSW can be processed into compost. The U.S. agricultural industry is the largest consumer of compost and has the potential to consume 800 million m3 of compost per year. Such capacity is more than 10-fold the amount of MSW compost generated by the entire United States (Slivka et al., 1992; U.S. EPA, 1993). Soil incorporation of compost usually causes rapid mineralization of organic matter through microbial activities (Cambardella et al., 2003).
The benefits to agricultural soils from compost include increases in soil organic matter (Cortellini et al., 1996; Maynard, 1995), soil cation exchange capacity (Paino et al., 1996), soil water-holding capacity (Serria-Wittling et al., 1996; Turner et al., 1994), pH of acidic soils, soil microbial and enzymatic activity (Rothwell and Hortenstine, 1969), and reductions in soil bulk density (Turner et al., 1994). Because composts applied as an organic mulch on the soil surface are decomposed much more slowly than those incorporated into the soil, they can serve as a season-long mulch. They can also improve the water-holding capacity and reduce the bulk density of the soil in the upper part of the root zone (Wang et al., 2009).
Yield responses to the application of composts incorporated into the soil vary among crop species and with the quality of the compost. In most cases, crop yields respond positively to compost application (Stoffella and Li, 2001). The yields of snap bean and tomato increased by 22% and 38%, respectively, in response to incorporation of MSW compost (Maynard, 1995). However, under some circumstances, yield loss has been observed with compost-induced nitrogen (N) deficiency and phytotoxicity in peppers (Clark et al., 1995). Such phytotoxicity is considered to be caused mainly by compost immaturity with a high C:N ratio. High C:N ratio usually causes the immobilization of soil mineral N through competition between soil microorganisms and plants for the limited quantity of available N. N immobilization usually occurs when the soil microbial population draws N mostly from the soil inorganic pool rather than from decomposing soil organic matter and thereby induces crop N deficiency (Beloso et al., 1993; Duggan, 1973; Wang et al., 2007).
In addition to improving crop yields, some composts can suppress soilborne nematodes and plant pathogens (Bryan et al., 1997; Chellemi et al., 1992; Mannion et al., 1994; Wang et al., 2007). Such nematodes, particularly root-knot nematodes, and pathogens are a major concern in vegetable production, especially in tropical or subtropical regions where pest populations thrive year-round. Thus, the application of certain composts may serve as partial alternatives to soil fumigants to suppress weeds in vegetable production systems (Li et al., 2000; Stoffella and Li, 2001). The objectives of this research were to evaluate treatments, including the application of compost as an organic mulch with and without plastic mulch, soil fumigation with methyl bromide-chloropicrin, and use of herbicides, to study the following effects: 1) yield and quality responses of bell peppers; 2) the impact on soil fertility; and 3) the economic benefits in winter fresh market bell pepper production.
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