By: Amy Grant
It may seem incongruous to marry plastic use with gardening, but plasticulture production is a multi-billion dollar industry, utilized worldwide with impressive increases in yield. What is plasticulture and how can you apply plasticulture methods to the home garden? Read on to learn more.
Plasticulture is the use of lightweight plastic or mulch to cover the seed bed in order to control the soil temperature, retain moisture, and retard weeds and insect invaders. Plasticulture also refers to row covers and greenhouses.
Basically, plasticulture practices double or triple the efficiency of the garden while allowing the gardener to harvest weeks earlier than usual. The initial costs of using plasticulture in the garden are definitely an investment, and management of the system may take some time to get down, but it is well worth the effort.
Plasticulture practices involve the use of plastic mulch along with a drip irrigation system via a network of plastic tubing placed beneath the mulch, often in conjunction with raised beds. Using plasticulture in the garden warms the soil, which in turn leads to earlier seedling emergence and lessens the need for a long growing season. This is especially true for commercial gardeners growing such crops as strawberries, tomatoes and cantaloupes, which can then go to market earlier than with previous conventional growing methods.
While plasticulture benefits the commercial farmer, this method yields fabulous results for the home gardener as well. Here are the basics on how to get started:
More comprehensive instructions on how to implement plasticulture practices in your garden are available in detail on the Internet. The process can be very simple or extremely complex depending upon the size of the area, crops grown and for what purpose, as well as the amount of energy you wish to apply to the maintenance of the area.
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Growing strawberries as an annual crop on black plastic requires a different weed management strategy than the perennial matted row strawberries. Weeds that have hard seed coats, such as vetch and clover, emerge for long periods of time and can establish in the row. They emerge in late fall or spring, grow under the plastic for a period of time, and emerge from any holes in the plastic.
With the loss of methyl bromide, alternative methods for weed control will be needed. Possible options include application of preemergence herbicides to the preformed bed before laying the plastic, postemergence herbicide(s) applied over the top of the strawberry crop, and hand removal.
When strawberries are planted year after year in the same field, an increase in weeds that are not controlled by the current weed management program should be expected. Rotation into different fields can prevent increases in persistent weeds. Avoid fields that have been previously treated with herbicides that have potential to persist and cause damage to strawberries. Information on crops that can be planted after herbicide use can be found on the herbicide label.
Three areas where weeds can easily establish in strawberries grown on plastic are as follows:
The following herbicides are registered for use in strawberries.
Annual broadleaf weeds including henbit, chickweed species, cutleaf eveningprimrose
Annual grasses and broadleaf weeds
There are several key advantages to the Southeastern plasticulture method of producing strawberries. The fall planting allows a full harvest to be reaped in only seven or eight months. Spring-planted strawberries require a full year of non-production growth prior to the first full harvest. The density of strawberry plants is also much greater. It is not uncommon for 17,500 strawberry plants per acre to be planted in this method. The resultant yield of Southeastern plasticulture strawberries is 15,000 and 25,000 pounds of strawberries per acre.
However, such plantings are not put into the ground without significant investment on the part of the strawberry farmer. The specialized equipment that allows the method is not cheap (click the link below in the conclusion to see the equipment in action), and purchasing that many strawberry plants runs up a tab, even when bought wholesale. There are also maintenance and protection costs to make sure there is a full crop to harvest.
Black plastic mulch sheeting has been in use since the 1950s. It is the most popular and least expensive of the many colored mulches available.
This mulch has carbon added to “create” the black color. The dark or black color makes it very good for weed control and suppression and allows little or no light to pass.
It also warms the soil very well throughout the growing season. This is especially true if a great deal of the plastic is in direct contact with the soil.
Leadership of the Extension IPM Program in North Carolina is provided by an IPM Coordinator (designated by the Director of the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service), an established Advisory Board, and working groups. Dr. Danesha Seth Carley, the current IPM Coordinator, accepted the NC IPM coordinator position in 2013.
The Extension IPM Coordinator involves faculty and staff from North Carolina State University and North Carolina A&T State University in IPM activities across the state, communicates program successes, and maintains stakeholder input via the Advisory Board and the IPM portal, as well as multiple training sessions and meetings.
The Advisory Board provides advice to the Extension IPM Coordinator regarding the direction of the IPM program in the state. It is composed of a wide variety of IPM stakeholders, including North Carolina State University and North Carolina A&T State University faculty, non-governmental agencies, environmentalists, North Carolina Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services personnel, farmers and agricultural consultants.