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Alyssa R. Tarrant, Daniel C. Brainard, and Zachary D. Hayden

Growing a cover crop living mulch between plastic-mulched beds may reduce soil erosion while providing other agroecosystem services. However, information regarding the relative differences among living mulch species to maximize services and minimize competition for nutrients and water in adjacent plastic-mulched beds is limited. A 2-year experiment in Michigan evaluated nine living mulch species for biomass production, in-season weed suppression, and potential for cash crop competition. Species included three warm season grasses {Italian ryegrass [Lolium perenne L. ssp. multiflorum (Lam.) Husnot], teff [Eragrostis tef (Zuccagni) Trotter, and sudangrass [Sorghum bicolor (L.) Moench ssp. drummondii (Nees ex Steud.) de Wet & Harlan]}; three cool season grasses [barley (Hordeum vulgare L.), rye (Secale cereale L.), and wheat (Triticum aestivum L.)]; and three clover species grown in combination with rye {Dutch white clover (Trifolium repens L.), New Zealand white clover (T. repens L.) and yellow blossom sweet clover [Melilotus officinalis (L.) Lam.]}. Although all living mulch treatments significantly reduced in-season weed biomass relative to the weedy control in 2018, weeds were generally a dominant component of total biomass in all living mulch treatments other than teff. Weed biomass was negatively correlated with living mulch biomass, and teff exhibited both the greatest biomass and weed suppression in both years. However, despite spatial and physical separation, all living mulches demonstrated the potential to compete with a cash crop by reducing soil inorganic nitrogen and moisture levels in adjacent plastic mulch–covered beds. Growers interested in integrating living mulches into plasticulture systems must consider desired benefits such as enhanced weed suppression, soil quality, and harvesting conditions alongside potential risks to cash crop yields.