In the northeastern United States, common production systems for organic vegetable crops, such as MM and SS, often use environmentally costly polyethylene plastic mulches and insecticides that are expensive and only moderately effective (Pedersen and Godfrey, 2011). Research on the feasibility of adopting new ecologically based strategies, such as conservation tillage and the use of rowcovers, will aid growers in keeping up with rising consumer demand for local produce while maintaining or improving the environmental quality of their farms.
Plasticulture systems, or the use of polyethylene mulch on raised beds with drip irrigation, increase soil temperatures (Yaghi et al., 2013), eliminate the majority of in-row weed competition and result in increased yields compared with bare ground production systems (Berger et al., 2013). Despite these advantages, plastic disposal issues, costs of the materials and labor to install them, and the intensive tillage required for installation, which leads to increased rates of erosion (Hussain and Hamid, 2003; Jabro et al., 2011; Kyrikou and Briassoulis, 2007; Ruidisch et al., 2013) are all disadvantages to this system.
A possible alternative to plasticulture systems are strip tillage systems, which are a form of conservation tillage in which cover crop or previous cash crop residue is left on the soil surface between rows, while a narrow planting row is tilled. Strip tillage that uses cover crops reduces soil erosion (Alliaume et al., 2014; Zhou et al., 2009), increases soil moisture retention (Haramoto and Brainard, 2012), and leads to increased soil microbial populations (Schipanski et al., 2014) with less annual economic input (Archer and Reicosky, 2009) than traditional tillage systems. When compared with bare ground, using strip tillage for horticultural crops has resulted in higher yields of cabbage (Brassica oleracea var. capitata) and cucumber (Cucumis sativus) (Haramoto and Brainard, 2012; Wang and Ngouajio, 2008); however, lower yields have been observed with tomato (Solanum lycopersicum) and snapbean (Phaseolus vulgaris) (Alliaume et al., 2014; Bottenberg et al., 1999). It is also noteworthy that none of this research included plasticulture, the standard method of production for many vegetable crops.
Spunbonded polyethylene rowcover installed immediately after planting can suppress some key pest problems of cucurbits. For example, season-long suppression of bacterial wilt on MM, which is vectored by spotted and striped cucumber beetle, was suppressed by the early season use of rowcovers when populations of these beetles were high (Sánchez et al., 2015). Rowcovers also create beneficial microclimates resulting in increased yields of cucurbits such as butternut squash (Cucurbita moschata) and MM (Sánchez et al., 2015).
In these studies, plasticulture and strip tillage systems were compared with and without rowcovers, in two separate organically managed experiments: one on ‘Lioness’ SS and the other on ‘Athena’ MM. Both crops were grown in both seasons.
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