Lettuce (Lactuca sativa L.) is a popular crop for spring and fall high tunnels among direct-market vegetable producers. Common practices include the use of compost as a soil amendment, and reliance on cultivation for weed control. This study examined the impacts of using compost as a surface mulch to control weeds in spring and fall romaine lettuce, with data collected on soil temperature, weed suppression, and lettuce yields. Costs of all inputs, including labor, were tracked to assess economic feasibility of using mulch. Compost mulch was compared with bare ground with cultivation across four cultivars of romaine lettuce: Ridgeline, Coastal Star, Green Forest, and Shushan. In the fall experiment, mulching increased average soil temperature by 1 °C and canopy cover, leaf area index (LAI), and fresh and dry weights were significantly higher in mulched plots. Mulching decreased daily variation in soil temperature in the spring experiment but had no effect on average soil temperature. Canopy cover, LAI, and fresh and dry weights were not significantly affected by mulching in the spring experiment. Compost mulch affected all cultivars similarly in both experiments, with no significant interaction effects. Yields were greater and leaves were larger in the spring experiment than in the fall for all cultivars. Fresh weight yields in the spring experiment averaged 3.22 kg·m−2 and heads had a LAI of 7.9 as compared with 1.02 kg·m−2 and 1.6 for the fall experiment. Dry matter content (DMC) was significantly higher in the fall lettuce (113 g·kg−1) than in the spring lettuce (43 g·kg−1). Cultivar rank order was consistent across experiments, with ‘Ridgeline’ having the best performance and ‘Green Forest’ the worst. ‘Coastal Star’ and ‘Shoshone’ were intermediate and very similar to each other. Although the use of compost as a mulch increased yields of all cultivars in the fall experiment, only the top cultivar, Ridgeline, produced enough additional yield to offset the increased costs of the compost mulch used in this study. The use of a less-expensive compost or a higher retail price for romaine lettuce would have made the economics more favorable for the other cultivars.
Rahmatallah Gheshm and Rebecca Nelson Brown
Rahmatallah Gheshm and Rebecca Nelson Brown
Romaine lettuce (Lactuca sativa) is the most popular leafy vegetable in the United States. Organic and synthetic mulch materials are applied by farmers to reduce their weeding expenditures, manage soil temperatures, and increase the yield and quality of their crops. This study examined the impacts of using black polyethylene, compost, and shredded leaves as surface mulches in spring open field romaine lettuce by using data regarding the soil temperature, lettuce growth, and yield parameters. Mulch treatments were compared to determine effects on soil temperature, lettuce growth rates, leaf area index (LAI), yield, and plant size. Experiments were conducted in 2017 and 2019. Soil temperatures were slightly (but significantly) warmer in 2019, the plants grew more rapidly, and LAI, yield, and plant size were all significantly greater than they were in 2017. Mean soil temperatures were 18.0 and 18.9 °C in black polyethylene mulched plots, 17.7 and 18.5 °C in compost, 17.5 and 17.0 °C in bare ground, and 16.9 and 17.3 °C in shredded leaf plots in 2017 and 2019, respectively. Changes in canopy size presented a similar trend over the growing season for all treatments; shredded leaf and bare ground treatments on all measuring dates had the smallest canopy size, and compost and black polyethylene mulches had the largest canopy sizes. Black polyethylene and compost mulches had the highest LAI and yields in both years. In 2017, the bare ground treatment was similar to black polyethylene and compost mulch treatments for both parameters, and all three treatments were significantly greater than the shredded leaf mulch treatment. In 2019, the bare ground treatment was similar to the shredded leaf mulch treatment and significantly lower than the black polyethylene and compost mulch treatments. In 2017, black polyethylene and compost mulches had LAI of 7.67 and 7.37 and yields of 6.38 and 6.68 kg·m−2, respectively. Bare ground had an LAI of 7.16 and yielded 5.94 kg·m−2. Shredded leaf mulch plots had the lowest LAI (5.94) and yield (4.96 kg·m−2). In 2019, the bare ground treatment had an LAI of 7.5 and yielded 7.6 kg·m−2. Black polyethylene and compost mulches increased LAI by 1.7. Yield increased by 2.8 kg·m−2 with black polyethylene mulch and by 2.4 kg·m−2 with compost mulch. Shredded leaf mulch produced LAI and yield similar to but slightly lower than bare ground. Dry weight, plant height, and head diameter in bare ground and shredded leaf mulch treatments were significantly smaller than in black polyethylene and compost mulch treatments. The cultivar rank order was consistent across treatments in both years; ‘Ridgeline’ grew significantly faster than ‘Coastal Star’, and plants were significantly larger at harvest. Black polyethylene suppresses weeds and increases soil temperatures, thereby enhancing yields of spring-to-summer romaine lettuce under southern New England conditions. Compost mulch has similar effects on yields. Shredded leaf mulch is effective at suppressing weeds but decreases soil temperatures and yields.