Organic mulch effects on high tunnel lettuce in Southern New England

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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 surfacemulch to controlweeds 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 ºC 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 weightswere 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 kgm-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) thanin 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 compostmulch 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.

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