Biodegradable Mulch: Your Next Production Tool?

Vegetable extension-research personnel from Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Iowa met on October 5, 2018 to discuss ongoing work and to plan follow-up activities … all toward helping improve short- and long-term farm success. Biodegradable mulch (BDM) was among the most talked-about topics. Dr. Annette Wszelaki of the Univ. of Tennessee led the BDM discussion and she provides comments for VegNet readers below. Also, note that Dr. Wszelaki will expand on these comments and summarize the large amount of research that her and other teams in various states have been doing with BDM, including on commercial farms, at the OPGMA-led Ohio Produce Network Meeting in Dublin, OH in January-2019. That presentation will be an excellent opportunity to gain a thorough update on BDM and its possible place in your toolbox.

Comments and Photos by Dr. Annette Wszelaki, Professor and Commercial Vegetable Extension Specialist, Univ. of Tennessee

Plastic mulches provide many advantages for vegetable production, such as weed and disease management, earliness of harvest, increased yield and quality, and moisture retention. However, plastic mulch use is not without disadvantages, including the cost, labor and environmental issues associated with plastic mulch disposal. Biodegradable mulches (BDMs) offer a potential alternative if they can provide similar advantages to plastic mulch without the disadvantages.

BDMs can look similar to traditional polyethylene mulch (i.e., stretchy and black or white-on-black) or in the form of paper (brown or black, sometimes with creping to give it stretch). They can be laid with a standard mulch layer. BDM’s are designed to cover the soil during the production season, and then begin to degrade as harvest nears. At the end of the season, BDM’s can be tilled directly into the soil. There they will degrade into carbon dioxide, water, and the bacteria and fungi that eat them. The degradation rate varies depending on environmental conditions, but by spring, most remnants will have disappeared.

At the University of Tennessee, we have been working with BDM’s on a variety of crops (tomatoes, pumpkins, and peppers) for 10 years. We have found comparable yields and quality to traditional plastic mulch with these crops, but not all biodegradable mulches and crop responses are equal!

Want to learn more about biodegradable mulches? Come to the session Could biodegradable mulches replace plastic in your production system? at the 2019 Ohio Produce Network in Dublin, January 16-17, 2019. In the meantime, please contact Annette Wszelaki (annettew@utk.edu or 865.974.8332) or visit www.biodegradablemulch.org for more information. Many thanks to Jenny Moore, Jeff Martin, the East TN Ag Research and Education Center Farm Crew, and many students along the way for their contributions to this project.

Figure 1. Creped paper biodegradable mulch just after field laying.

 

 

Figure 2. Stockpile of polyethylene plastic mulch on a Tennessee tomato farm.

Figure 3. Biodegradable plastic mulch in the newly planted pepper field.

Growing Spinach Over Winter Using Low Tunnels and Row Covers

Originally posted on the VegNet Newsletter, September 4, 2018, By Tim McDermott, OSU Extension Franklin County

Ohio is a FOUR season growing environment.  Winter is often under utilized by the backyard grower, community gardener and urban farmer  as viable production time.  Using inexpensive equipment with a little planning allows for production of spinach over the winter under row cover with surprising success.

Site selection and preparation is very important for over wintered crops.  These crops will be challenged by weather and sunlight issues.  Areas with shade from deciduous trees in the summer can often be used as an over wintered production location when the leaves fall.  Soil enriched with organic matter will hold on to water and nutrients better as both of those inputs are not easily added over the winter season.

Spinach is an excellent choice for over winter production as it is extremely cold hardy.  As the temperature decreases the plant increases the sugar content in its vasculature.  This essentially acts as an “anti-freeze” to protect the plant.  Growth is greatly slowed by temperature and lack of sunlight.  Growth will pick back up with the arrival of spring.  Seed can be difficult to source in fall if none is left from spring planting.  Make sure to plan to have extra seed for next fall’s crop.

Planting  needs to be completed prior to Mid-October in most years to allow for decent germination and root growth.  Follow the weather prediction models carefully as this can affect timing of planting by several weeks in either direction.

Prior to planting:

  • Remove any prior season plant material
  • Amend the bed with compost and fertilizer based on prior season crop use
  • Observe crop rotation
  • Create a seed bed to ensure adequate germination

 

 

Row cover was applied immediately after planting.  This may or may not need to be done depending on location and security.  This row cover was applied as the location will be checked infrequently and deer pressure is a constant concern.  Row cover is fairly effective at preventing this predator.

 

Germination of spinach seed typically takes about 7-10 days.  Water as needed to maintain enough moisture for good germination.

 

 

If the weather allows, the row cover can be carefully lifted off,  making sure not to drop soil or debris onto the leaves, to inspect the planting.

 

 

Carefully monitor the weather predictions so that you know when to add or remove additional layers of row cover.  The ten day weather prediction showed that the weather would drop from a high in the 50’s to lows in the teens.

 

A second layer of frost blanket was added to ensure that the micro-climate under the row cover would be adequate to protect the spinach plants.  Spinach is extremely cold hardy and will make it through intense cold with proper protection in most cases.  Deep cold may terminate less cold hardy crops like lettuce if the temperatures drop very low for any period of time.

 

 

Extreme cold, wind, ice and snow were experienced over the end of December 2017 and through the beginning of 2018.  Snow is actually helpful to over wintered plantings, providing an extra layer of insulation.

 

Picture taken on January 16th. Note that the video shown next was taken approximately one week later showing the extremes that are common in Ohio weather. Removing the row cover inappropriately, even for a short time, can interfere with the micro-climate under the row cover and cause damage to the spinach plants.

 

As the weather allows, once temperatures have risen to at least the 40’s or higher, the row cover can be lifted to inspect the plantings and take a small to moderate harvest.  Make sure to replace the row cover with enough time to allow the temperature under the cover to rise prior to any over night cold periods.

 

 

Growth will be rapid once spring warmth and sunlight return.  The grower will be able to take many harvests during warm days at any point after February in most cases.

 

 

As long as harvest is taken before flowering and temperatures have not risen too high, harvest can continue.  A large volume of spinach can be harvested from a small area using this method.

Managing Cucurbit Powdery Mildew

By Sally Miller, Plant Pathologist OARDC, Originally posted on July 26, 2018 on the VegNet Newsletter

Powdery mildew arrived this week on squash, pumpkins and other cucurbits throughout Ohio. It is a little late – we often see it by early- to mid-July.  The fungus that causes cucurbit powdery mildew does not overwinter in Ohio, so the disease does not appear until spores arrive on wind currents from warmer growing areas.  This fungus is an unusual plant pathogen in that it is inhibited by free water – so frequent rains may delay powdery mildew’s appearance, at least to a notable level.  Signs of infection are small circular powdery growths (mycelium and spores of the pathogen) on either side of the leaf. These spots enlarge and can eventually cover most of the leaf surface and kill the leaves.  Stems and leaf petioles are also susceptible, but the disease is not observed on fruit.  In pumpkins, powdery mildew may also attack the “handles”, which can be further damaged by secondary pathogens.

 

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Summer Season Extension Using Shade Fabric for Cool Weather Crops

By: Tim McDermott, Franklin County Extension Educator, Orginially posted on August 2, 2018 in the VegNet Newsletter

 

Season Extension is when a vegetable, herb or fruit is grown outside its normal growing season using protection from the elements in some way.  While it is most commonly used over the winter to take advantage of Ohio’s four seasons of growing, it is also applicable in summer when growing vegetables that prefer cooler weather.  A part of the community garden plot opened up after cucurbit production decreased from cucumber beetle damage and bacterial wilt.

Was planted with zucchini and cucumbers from mid-May until late July

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Phytophthora Blight First 2018 Report in Ohio – Huron County

Originally posted in VegNet Newsletter, June 17,2018

Phytophthora blight was diagnosed last week in pepper plants from Huron County, Ohio.  This is several weeks earlier than we normally see Phytophthora blight in northern Ohio, but heavy rains and periods of high temperatures likely contributed to an early appearance of the disease.  Growers should scout both peppers and cucurbits for typical symptoms of Phytophthora blight  Phytophthora is a water mold that thrives under conditions of high moisture and high temperature. It produces motile spores (zoospores) that are attracted to plants, then form a structure that allows them to infect, and aggressively attack any type of plant tissue. Zoospores can be splashed onto leaves, stems and fruits during rain events and overhead irrigation. Phytophthora blight is often seen first in low spots or other poorly drained areas of production fields, but the disease also occurs on well-drained, even sandy soils if the environmental conditions are right.  An integrated, preventative program to manage Phytophthora blight is more effective than in-season rescue treatments with fungicides.  During the growing season, fungicide application is the main option for management of Phytophthora blight (see below). In small plantings prompt removal of diseased plants is also recommended.

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Current Vegetable Insect Concerns

Originally posted in the VegNet Newsletter, June 23,2018

As the earliest sweet corn plantings are in or approaching the silking stage, be aware that the corn earworm is present at some locations, as detected by pheromone traps that attract the adult moth. Although the number of moths beings caught is low, these small populations can concentrate on the few patches of early sweet corn, and can cause significant damage. Once the large acreage of field corn begins to silk, then the pest population will be spread out over a much larger area and the pest pressure on sweet corn is usually reduced. Trap counts can be found at this website: http://u.osu.edu/pestmanagement/

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Growing Vegetables in Straw Bales

By Craig LeHoullier- Originally posted in Gardeners Supply Company Website – April 25, 2018

Tomatoes growing in straw bales

CONSIDER the humble bale of straw. Think beyond its reputation as a Halloween decoration and picture it as a productive part of your garden. The concept is simple: As the straw begins to break down, it turns into a rich, compostable planter that’s ideal for growing vegetables.

Although the practice of gardening in straw bales dates back to ancient times, I learned of it only a decade ago during a chance encounter with a local straw-bale guru, Kent Rogers. When my publisher asked me to write about straw-bale gardening, I tested the techniques in my own gardens and was quite impressed with the results.

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Backyard Garden Guide

Originally posted April 2018 in Ohiomagazine.com

BY TERESA WOODARD | ILLUSTRATIONS BY JENNIFER KALIS

spring-gardening

Get Your Timing Right

Ohioans enjoy a reasonably long vegetable-gardening season, starting as early as March and stretching on through late November. But success has as much to do with when you plant as it does what you plant.

“Timing is key to making the most of the season,” says Brad Bergefurd, educator at the Ohio State University Extension office in Scioto County and the college’s South Centers research farm in Pike County. “Some vegetable plants like broccoli and cabbage need an early start, while others do better once the soil warms up.”

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Knox County Master Gardener Volunteers WANTED

Share your love of gardening while giving back to the community! 

Learn: Master Gardener trainees receive University level training in horticulture from The Ohio State University Extension in the areas of botany, soils, trees, flowers, lawns, fruits and vegetables, entomology, pest management, and diagnostic skills. Trainees complete a minimum of 40 hours of training.

Give: After training, new volunteers will work with each other in various activities in Knox County to complete 50 hours of service in the first year. Opportunities include: answering horticultural questions, educating local gardeners on plant selection and care, helping community members within the community gardens and more. There are numerous ways to be involved in the community and you can be a part of it!

Grow: Master Gardeners enjoy the social aspect of learning together, volunteering together, and helping other in out county.

Join: If you are interested in gardening, want to help your community grow, and want to learn more, the Ohio State University Master Gardener is for you!

For more information or to obtain an application contact Sabrina Schirtzinger at 740-397-0401 or schirtzinger.55@osu.edu.