Tomato (Lycopersicon esculentum Mill.) plants grown on polyethylene (PE) mulch in New York State frequently have more branches and increased mineral nutrient uptake and yield than plants not mulched. In four field experiments conducted on a silt loam soil, clear PE mulch stimulated root extension shortly after transplanting. One week after transplanting, roots were significantly longer for mulched than for unmulched plants in all four experiments, whereas aboveground dry matter differences did not become significant until 14 days after transplanting in two of four trials. Mulching increased branching, hastened flowering on basal branches, and increased concentration of major nutrients in the aboveground parts. In the field, stimulation of aboveground growth due to mulch might be brought about by warming of the stem by air escaping from the planting hole in the mulch. However, an experiment with black, white, or clear mulch, in which the planting hole was either left uncovered or covered with soil, showed no effect of hole closure on branching even though air temperature near the stem was increased when holes were left uncovered. The results taken together imply that the increased aboveground growth observed with mulching is a consequence of enhanced root growth and nutrient uptake.
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