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Jeremy S. Cowan, Debra A. Inglis and Carol A. Miles

Three potentially biodegradable plastic mulch products, Mater-bi®-based black film (BioAgri), experimental polyhydroxyalkanoate film (Crown 1), and experimental spunbonded polylactic acid fabric (SB-PLA-11), were evaluated over two broccoli (Brassica oleracea var. italica) growing seasons to determine deterioration before and after soil incorporation. Pretillage mulch deterioration was evaluated in both growing seasons by rating the percent visual deterioration (PVD). Crown 1 had the greatest PVD throughout the study (P ≤ 0.05) and BioAgri also had significant pretillage deterioration. SB-PLA-11 showed no appreciable deterioration based on PVD (<1.3%) in either growing season. Postincorporation mulch deterioration was measured for 13 months after rototilling at the end of the first growing season. The average fragment area of all mulch products decreased over time after soil incorporation. The number of postincorporation mulch fragments initially increased for all mulch products, with Crown 1 and BioAgri reaching maximum fragment counts 132 and 299 days after incorporation, respectively. As the number of fragments declined, the average area of fragments did not change, suggesting that a threshold fragment size may exist at which biodegradation accelerates. At the end of the study period, 397 days after soil incorporation, Crown 1 and BioAgri had deteriorated 100% and 65%, respectively; whereas SB-PLA-11 showed very little deterioration.

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Carol Miles, Russ Wallace, Annette Wszelaki, Jeffrey Martin, Jeremy Cowan, Tom Walters and Debra Inglis

Four potentially biodegradable mulch products (BioAgri, BioTelo, WeedGuardPlus, and SB-PLA-10) were evaluated during 2010 in three contrasting regions of the United States (Knoxville, TN; Lubbock, TX; and Mount Vernon, WA) and compared with black plastic mulch and a no-mulch control for durability, weed control, and impact on tomato yield in high tunnel and open field production systems. WeedGuardPlus, BioTelo, and BioAgri had the greatest number of rips, tears, and holes (RTH) and percent visually observed deterioration (PVD) at all three sites (P ≤ 0.05), and values were greater in the open field than high tunnels, likely as a result of high winds and greater solar radiation and rainfall. SB-PLA-10 showed essentially no deterioration at all three sites and was equivalent to black plastic in both high tunnels and the open field. Weed growth at the sites did not differ in high tunnels as compared with the open field (P > 0.05). Weed growth at Knoxville and Mount Vernon was greatest under SB-PLA-10 (P ≤ 0.02), likely as a result of the white, translucent nature of this test product. Tomato yield was greater in the high tunnels than open field at all three sites (P ≤ 0.03), except for total fruit weight at Knoxville (P ≤ 0.53). Total number of tomato fruit and total fruit weight were lowest for bare ground at both Knoxville (150 × 104 fruit/ha and 29 t·ha−1; P ≤ 0.04) and Mount Vernon (44 × 104 fruit/ha and 11 t·ha−1; P ≤ 0.008). At Knoxville, the other mulch treatments were statistically equivalent, whereas at Mount Vernon, BioAgri had among the highest yields (66 × 104 fruit/ha and 16 t·ha−1). There were no differences in tomato yield resulting from mulch type at Lubbock.

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Jeremy S. Cowan, Arnold M. Saxton, Hang Liu, Karen K. Leonas, Debra Inglis and Carol A. Miles

The functionality of biodegradable mulch can be evaluated in agricultural field settings by visually assessing mulch intactness over time (a measure of deterioration), but it is unclear if mulch deterioration is indicative of mulch degradation as measured by mechanical properties (like breaking force and elongation). This 3-year study (2010–12) examined mulch percent visual deterioration (PVD) during the summer growing season in open-field and high tunnel production systems, and compared these to mulch mechanical properties at mulch installation (12–30 May), midseason (22 July–9 Aug.), and season end (6–25 Oct.), to determine if the field-based measures reliably predict degradation as revealed by changes in mulch mechanical properties. Four different types of biodegradable mulches [two plastic film mulches marketed as biodegradable (BioAgri and BioTelo); one fully biodegradable paper mulch (WeedGuardPlus); and, one experimental spunbonded plastic mulch designed to biodegrade (SBPLA)] were evaluated against a standard nonbiodegradable polyethylene (PE) mulch where tomato (Solanum lycopersicum L. cv. Celebrity) was planted as the model crop. Each year for the 3 years, PVD increased earlier for WeedGuardPlus than the other mulches in both the high tunnel and open field, and WeedGuardPlus had the greatest PVD in both high tunnels and the open field (6% and 48%, respectively). Mechanical strength of WeedGuardPlus also declined by the end of the season both in the high tunnel (up to 46% reduction) and in the open field (up to 81% reduction). PVD of BioAgri and BioTelo reached a maximum of 3% in the high tunnel and 28% in the open field by the end of the season. Mechanical strength of BioAgri and BioTelo did not change over the course of the season in either the open field or high tunnel, even though the ability of these mulches to elongate or stretch declined 89% in the open field and 82% in the high tunnel. SBPLA and PE mulches did not show a change in PVD or mechanical properties in either the high tunnel or the open field. Overall, PVD was three to six times greater by midseason in the open field than in the high tunnels. Although there were significant relationships between visual assessments and various mechanical properties for each mulch except SBPLA, the relationships differed for each mulch when evaluated separately and had coefficients of determination (R 2) below 30%. Furthermore, PVD overestimated mechanical deterioration of BioAgri and BioTelo. Results of this study indicate that mulch visual assessments may reflect general trends in changes in certain mechanical properties of the mulch; however, visual assessment and mechanical properties provide different information on deterioration. Each should be used as needed, but not as a substitute for each other.

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Russell W. Wallace, Annette L. Wszelaki, Carol A. Miles, Jeremy S. Cowan, Jeffrey Martin, Jonathan Roozen, Babette Gundersen and Debra A. Inglis

Field studies were conducted during 2010 and 2011 in Knoxville, TN; Lubbock, TX; and Mount Vernon, WA; to compare high tunnel and open-field organic production systems for season extension and adverse climate protection on lettuce (Lactuca sativa) yield and quality. The climates of these locations are diverse and can be typified as hot and humid (Knoxville), hot and dry (Lubbock), and cool and humid (Mount Vernon). In both years, 6-week-old lettuce seedlings of ‘New Red Fire’ and ‘Green Star’ (leafy type), ‘Adriana’ and ‘Ermosa’ (butterhead type), and ‘Coastal Star’ and ‘Jericho’ (romaine type) were transplanted in the late winter or early spring into subplots covered with black plastic and grown to maturity (43 to 65 days). Lettuce harvest in Knoxville occurred at 50 to 62 days after transplanting (DAT), with open-field lettuce harvested an average of 9 days earlier compared with high tunnel plots both years (P > 0.0001). The earlier than anticipated harvests in the open-field in Knoxville in 2010 were due to lettuce bolting. In Lubbock, high tunnel lettuce was harvested an average 16 days earlier in 2010 compared with open-field lettuce (P > 0.0001), while in 2011, high temperatures and bolting required that open-field lettuce be harvested 4 days earlier than lettuce grown in high tunnels. On average, lettuce cultivars at Mount Vernon matured and were harvested 56 to 61 DAT in 2010 and 54 to 64 DAT in 2011 with no significant differences between high tunnel and open-field production systems. Total and marketable yields at Mount Vernon and Lubbock averaged across cultivars were comparable in both high tunnel and open-field plots. At Knoxville, although total yields were significantly higher (P > 0.0062) in high tunnels than open-field plots, incidence of insect, disease, and physiological damage in high tunnel plots reduced lettuce quality and marketable yield (P > 0.0002). Lettuce head length:diameter ratio (LDR) averaged across cultivars was equal between high tunnel and the open field at all three locations. High tunnel production systems offer greater control of environments suitable for lettuce production, especially in climates like Knoxville and Lubbock where later-planted open-field systems may be more susceptible to temperature swings that may affect lettuce quality. These results suggest that although high tunnel culture alone may influence lettuce yield and quality, regional climates likely play a critical role in determining the impact of these two production systems on marketable lettuce yields.