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Sam E. Wortman, Ignatius Kadoma and Michael D. Crandall

Polyethylene mulch use is common in vegetable production, but disposal of mulch is problematic for growers and of significant environmental concern. Biodegradable fabrics and plastic films are compostable and can be incorporated into the soil at the end of the growing season, but questions remain about the durability, performance, and rate of decomposition of these products after soil incorporation. Three trials were conducted in field and high tunnel cucumber (Cucumis sativus) cropping systems to compare performance and decomposition after use among two bioplastic films and four experimental spunbond, nonwoven biofabrics. Soil temperature and moisture, mulch durability and deterioration, weed suppression, and crop yield data were collected in each growing season. All biomulches were soil incorporated after the growing season and recovered up to 11 months after incorporation to estimate relative rates of decomposition. One bioplastic film increased field soil temperature by 2 °C in 2013, but temperatures under the biofabrics were not different from bare soil. Bioplastics and biofabrics increased soil moisture relative to bare soil. Bioplastic films were less durable and deteriorated sooner than biofabrics, especially in the field environment (as early as 34 days after transplanting). All biomulches suppressed weed emergence relative to bare soil, but weeds were visibly growing beneath the most translucent biofabric. Marketable yield of cucumber was trending highest in the most durable and opaque biofabric (1827 g·m−2), but was not significantly different from weed-free bare soil (1251 g·m−2). Relative rate of mulch decomposition up to 11 months after soil incorporation was not different among bioplastic and biofabric products. Results suggest that the tested biofabrics will be most useful to growers when soil warming is not necessary (e.g., warm climates), but moisture conservation and weed control are critical (e.g., organic cropping systems). Moreover, biofabrics are permeable and may be useful to growers dependent on sprinkler irrigation or rainfall to meet crop water demands.

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Emily E. Braun, Sarah Taylor Lovell, Mohammad Babadoost, Frank Forcella, Sharon Clay, Daniel Humburg and Sam E. Wortman

Weeds are a top management concern among organic vegetable growers. Abrasive weeding is a nonchemical tactic using air-propelled abrasive grit to destroy weed seedlings within crop rows. Many grit types are effective, but if organic fertilizers are used, this could integrate weed and nutrient management in a single field pass. Our objective was to quantify the effects of abrasive grit and mulch type on weed suppression, disease severity, soil nitrogen availability, and yield of pepper (Capsicum annuum L. ‘Carmen’). A 2-year experiment was conducted in organic red sweet pepper at Urbana, IL, with four replicates of five abrasive grit treatments (walnut shell grits, soybean meal fertilizer, composted turkey litter fertilizer, a weedy control, and a weed-free control) and four mulch treatments (straw mulch, bioplastic film, polyethylene plastic film, and a bare soil control). Abrasive weeding, regardless of grit type, paired with bioplastic or polyethylene plastic mulch reduced in-row weed density (67 and 87%, respectively) and biomass (81 and 84%); however there was no significant benefit when paired with straw mulch or bare ground. Despite the addition of 6 to 34 kg N/ha/yr through the application of soybean meal and composted turkey litter grits, simulated plant N uptake was most influenced by mulch composition (e.g., plastic vs. straw) and weed abundance. Nitrogen immobilization in straw mulch plots reduced leaf greenness, plant height, and yield. Bacterial spot (Xanthomonas campestris pv. Vesicatoria) was confirmed on peppers in both years, but abrasive weeding did not increase severity of the disease. Pepper yield was always greatest in the weed-free control and lowest in straw mulch and bare soil, but the combination of abrasive weeding (regardless of grit type) and bioplastic or polyethylene plastic mulch increased marketable yield by 47% and 21%, respectively, compared with the weedy control. Overall, results demonstrate that when abrasive weeding is paired with bioplastic or polyethylene mulch, growers can concurrently suppress weeds and increase crop N uptake for greater yields.