Vegetable and fruit consumption patterns in the United States indicate that most people need to eat far more fruits and vegetables to meet the current nutritional guidelines for a healthy diet. Following these guidelines would require more than doubling the harvested acreage for fruits and vegetables and could have serious environmental implications if unsustainable production practices were used. This situation will likely intensify with population growth and climate change. To answer the title question (can we grow organic or conventional vegetables sustainably without cover crops?), this paper focuses on the high-input, tillage-intensive vegetable production practices in the Salinas Valley of California, a region often called “the Salad Bowl of America.” This region has a serious problem of nitrate contamination of the groundwater that occurred as the agricultural systems here shifted from agronomic to high-value horticultural crops [primarily vegetables and strawberries (Fragaria ×ananassa)] over the past several decades. This raises questions about the sustainability of past and current vegetable production practices and indicates the need for a radical paradigm shift in nutrient management. Cover cropping is well recognized as a “best management practice” in vegetable production systems, but is still relatively uncommon in many of the most important vegetable production regions in the United States, including the Salinas Valley. It is argued that cover crops are an essential part of sustainable vegetable production because they provide a complex suite of unique ecosystem services during fallow periods that complement best management practices during cash crop periods. The reasons that cover crops are uncommon here are discussed and three alternative cover cropping strategies are described to potentially increase adoption of cover cropping in vegetable rotations. These strategies are focused on reducing residue management challenges and include a novel strategy to extract the juice from nitrogen-rich, immature cover crops for use as a liquid organic fertilizer in subsequent cash crops.
Many important herbs [e.g., mint (Mentha sp.), thyme (Thymus sp.)], underused and nutritious vegetables [e.g., purslane (Portulaca oleracea), amaranth (Amaranthus tricolor)], and important biological control plants [e.g., sweet alyssum (Lobularia maritima)] have small seeds (≤ 1.5-mm long) that are difficult to plant with raw (i.e., nonpelleted) seed using existing seeders. A novel tool known as the slide hammer (SH) seeder was developed for the precise seeding of raw seeds of small-seeded plants. The SH seeder is a jab-type planter made primarily from electrical conduit tubing and other materials that are inexpensive and readily available in a hardware store or on the Internet. The interchangeable seed hopper is made from a plastic snap cap vial that has one or more holes of varying diameter depending on the desired seeding rate and seed size. Seed forms a “bridge” above the hole in the vial until they are dislodged from the force of the SH that discharges seeds to fall to the soil. Detailed plans are provided for how to make and use the SH seeder. The fabrication time is 2 to 4 hours with a material cost of ≈$32. I determined the seed vial hole specifications for the precise seeding of a variety of small-seeded plants, including chives (Allium schoenoprasum), chinese chives (Allium tuberosum), basil (Ocimum basilicum), grain amaranth (Amaranthus sp.), sweet alyssum, purslane, creeping thyme (Thymus serpyllum), and spearmint (Mentha spicata) that ranged in size from ≈200 to 11,000 seeds per gram. The diameter of the hole that was suitable for discharging the seed from the vial was always larger than the average seed length, and the ratio of hole diameter to seed length ranged from 1.07 to 1.62. Seeding rate uniformity evaluations were conducted for these species using vials with one vs. two holes and showed that the seeding rate was higher by an average of 58% to 173% from a vial with two holes compared with one hole. For most plant species evaluated, the SH seeder was able to dispense as few as one to three seeds consistently. Seed discharge increased somewhat with increasing SH weight for all species evaluated. The SH seeder can be useful for interplanting sweet alyssum as an insectary plant for aphid (Aphidoidea) control between existing plants of organic lettuce (Lactuca sativa), and for intercropping cultivars of purslane as a novel vegetable in between transplanted organic broccoli (Brassica oleracea Italica group) plants. This novel seeding tool has many potential uses for direct, hand seeding in vegetable and herb production systems and in weed research trials. The seeder could be automated and made with a variety of alternative materials.