Florida is the second largest fresh-market cabbage producer in the United States, with an annual value close to $50 million (FDACS, 2014). Florida cabbage is produced during the fall and winter months (Boswell and Jones, 1941; Strandberg and White, 1979) to capture high market prices when other regions are unable to produce. Growing during this season positions Florida producers at risk of experiencing adverse weather conditions. Fall and winter months are characterized by wide variations in air temperature and potential nutrient losses from heavy rainfall events. Seepage irrigation (subirrigation) with broadcast fertilizer application dominates the cabbage industry in Florida, adding to the potential for nutrient loss. Seepage has low irrigation efficiency because it requires significant water withdrawals from surface or groundwater sources to maintain a high water table to irrigate the crop (Dukes et al., 2010). This type of production system facilitates off-site movement of soluble nutrients. Continued state population growth, recent droughts, saltwater intrusion, uncertainties associated with climate, and water conservation regulations have prompted growers to seek alternative production practices that conserve water, reduce the risk of nutrient losses, and allow for an increase in production. In addition, the need for more efficient use of water and fertilizers will only continue to gain importance as the demand and cost for these inputs increase (Cordell et al., 2009; Marella, 2014).
The current commercial production practices for cabbage under seepage irrigation relies on bare ground hills spaced 1 m apart with an in-row plant spacing of 20 cm, which results in ≈48,438 plants/ha. A preliminary evaluation conducted in commercial cabbage fields in northeast Florida, showed that 30% of the planted population were not harvested since the cabbage heads failed to reach marketable size or were of poor quality. In vegetable production systems, plasticulture offers potential to stabilize yield by reducing the negative effects of adverse weather conditions and maximizing production per area over traditional unmulched soils (Lament, 1993).
Plasticulture cabbage production combines drip irrigation, plastic mulch, and injected liquid fertilizers (fertigation) and allows the use of higher cabbage plant populations as compared with seepage irrigation. Plasticulture has been extensively used in commercial production of high-value horticultural crops such as tomato (Solanum lycopersicum), bell pepper (Capsicum annuum), strawberry (Fragaria ×ananassa), and melon (Cucumis melo) since the 1970s (Locascio, 2005). However, it has not been widely adopted for commercial fresh-market cabbage production in the United States since information is lacking on practical management and economic feasibility of plasticulture cabbage production, although it has shown potential in India (Singh, 1978; Tiwari et al., 2003). Higher cabbage plant populations achieved through the use of plasticulture has the potential for increased yield by increasing the number of marketable cabbage heads per area and by reducing the number of nonmarketable heads left in the field. Previous studies in Florida have been conducted to examine the effects of plant populations ranging from 24,600 to 123,000 plants/ha on cabbage head characteristics and marketable yield using bare ground (White and Forbes, 1976), strip mulched (Stoffella and Fleming, 1990), and full mulched beds (Csizinszky and Schuster, 1985). These previous studies demonstrated that there is potential for increased yields at higher plant populations but there is a limit, at which point head weight decreases (White and Forbes, 1976), and the variability between heads is increased (Stoffella and Flemming, 1990). With plasticulture, there is also the potential to reuse the plastic mulch and drip tape for an additional vegetable crop (Lament, 1993; Orzolek, 1996), whereby depreciation of the initial cost of material over two crops could reduce the risk of implementing this technology.
The high population plasticulture cabbage production system described in this paper was conceptualized through the cooperation of northeast Florida cabbage growers, researchers, and extension specialists at the University of Florida to incorporate as much of the traditional equipment, field layout, and management strategies as possible with the addition of plasticulture technology. This new system was evaluated for potential use with the understanding that in-row plant spacing and planting date can affect cabbage head weight, head density, head shape, and marketable yield (Csizinszky and Schuster, 1985; McKeown et al., 2010; Radovich et al., 2004; Stoffella and Flemming, 1990; White and Forbes, 1976). The objectives of this study were to determine the optimum cabbage plant population and plant arrangement that maximizes marketable yield per area for a high cabbage population plasticulture system.
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