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A new way to grow tomatoes.

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A New Way To Grow Tomatoes

A new way of growing tomatoes bears good news for both growers and the environment. "Plant mulches are the key to our success," says Aref A. Abdul-Baki, a plant physiologist with USDA's Agricultural Research Service. "We used hairy vetch instead of the traditional black polyethylene mulch in two separate tomato plantings this year. We got some amazing results."

Hairy vetch mulching increased yield by about 138 percent and reduced insect infestation to the point where it was hardly a problem, Abdul-Baki says. An added bonus: No tillage and less fertilizer, herbicides, and pesticides.

Unlike plastic, plant mulches add organic matter to the soil and increase its water-holding capacity. Also, vetch is a legume that adds nitrogen, thereby reducing the amount of fertilizer needed.

He says that growers typically use black plastic mulch to improve yield and to promote early crop maturity. However, polyethylene material doesn't degrade, so it must be removed and disposed of each season--an expensive, labor-intensive practice and one more problem for landfills.

Tomato plants growing in vetch plots were greener and bigger than plants in plots where plastic, paper, or no mulches were used.

Yields from plants grown under the vetch mulch averaged more than 45 tons per acre, trailed by 35 tons for plastic mulch and 34 tons for paper. Control plots with no mulch at all averaged 19 tons per acre.

Last fall in experimental tomato field plots at the ARS Vegetable Laboratory in Beltsville, Maryland, Abdul-Baki and colleague John Teasdale planted hairy vetch, a fairly common legume used as ground cover, on prepared beds. They mowed the vetch to about an inch high in the spring, then immediately planted tomatoes in the plots without turning up the soil or disturbing it at all.

"Immediately after planting, it was hard to distinguish the green tomato plants from the cuttings of freshly mown vetch," says Abdul-Baki. But within a few days the cuttings dried, forming a heavy, brown matted covering.

"This matted residue suppressed early-season weeds, eliminating the need for preplant herbicides," adds Teasdale, a plant physiologist in the ARS Weed Science Laboratory at Beltsville. A chemical was used only for those weeds that emerged later in the season.

Weeds were stifled by other mulches, but paper mulch didn't allow much water to pass through to aid the plants. However, unlike plastic, it prevents heat buildup under the mulch.

As for insects, Abdul-Baki says, "A surprise was the absence of Colorado potato beetles." This reduced the amount of pesticides needed. The Colorado potato beetle is a major problem for tomatoes during the first month after field planting.

Infestation by the beetle was severe in adjacent plots where plastic and paper mulches were used.

Abdul-Baki plans to pull up the test tomato plants, roots and all, at the end of the growing season, and remove them from the field for mulching and recycling. The beds will not be disturbed.

He will reseed with hairy vetch in the fall, mow in the spring, and transplant tomatoes without tillage.

Once the technique is refined, Abdul-Baki thinks it might work for other vegetable crops.

PHOTO : Plant physiologist Aref Abdul-Baki evaluates vetch mulch thickness and effectiveness in reducing soil temperature and water loss.

PHOTO : Healthier, more vigorous, more productive tomato plants result from a mowed-vetch system (above). Plants below were conventionally grown.
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Author:Stanley, Doris
Publication:Agricultural Research
Date:Oct 1, 1991
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