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Home HortScience Growing No-till Tomatoes: Less Plastic, More Rye
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AUBURN, AL—Although the use of cover crops has become a vital part of no-till systems for growing row crops in the southern United States, the method has not been widely adopted for use in vegetable production. Cover crop use has been proven to improve soil properties, conserve soil water, reduce surface runoff, and recycle nutrients, but factors such as the lack of specialized equipment needed to manage tall cover crops and the region’s strong tradition of plowing and discing soil have slowed adoption of cover crops for growing vegetables.

Ted Kornecki and Francisco Arriaga from the Unites States Department of Agriculture–Agricultural Research Service (USDA–ARS) undertook a 4-year study designed to evaluate the effects of rye and crimson cover crops on tomatoes when compared with plastic mulch. They also tested three subsoiler shanks attached to the transplanter. The study was conducted during the 2005–2008 growing seasons at the Northern Alabama Horticultural Research Station in Cullman; results were published in HortScience.

In the Fall of 2004, 2005, 2006, and 2007, the cover crops cereal rye and crimson were planted using a no-till drill. Tomato plants were transplanted in the middle of May 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2008. Three subsoil shank treatments—no shank, slim shank, and wide shank—were attached to the modified transplanter to alleviate soil compaction while transplanting tomato plants for each cover crop treatment. All treatments were compared with control plots with no cover crops using plastic mulch, a typical practice for tomato production in Alabama.

According to Kornecki and Arriaga, tomatoes planted into plastic mulch cover produced higher total yield and number of fruit per plant during one season in the study. In another season of severe drought, tomatoes planted into rye residue (without shank) produced significantly higher total and marketable yield when compared to the plastic mulch control and clover. The findings indicated that the rye cover crop was better for conserving soil water for tomato use. Crimson clover did not fare as well as rye: tomato yield in clover treatments was lower across all years of the study when compared to rye and plastic treatments. The scientists added that cover crops and shank treatments did not affect percentage of marketable tomato yield compared with total tomato yield.

Data showed that maximum soil temperature under clover was higher than that under rye in all four years of the study. "It appears that higher temperature and lower clover biomass production lead to incomplete soil cover, resulting in more weed pressure and lower water availability that affected tomato yield," the authors concluded.

The research showed that rye cover crops can provide a feasible alternative to plastic mulch for tomatoes, giving producers another "green" option for no-till operations.


The complete study and abstract are available on the ASHS HortScience electronic journal web site:

Founded in 1903, the American Society for Horticultural Science (ASHS) is the largest organization dedicated to advancing all facets of horticultural research, education, and application. More information at


Original Article:

Impact of Different Cover Crops and Types of Transplanter Mounted Subsoiler Shanks on Tomato Yield
Ted S. Kornecki and Francisco J. Arriaga
HortScience 46:715–720. [Abstract][Full Text][PDF]

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