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At the HRC, we laid down a 1.1 millimeter thick black plastic mulch with a tractor and mulch layer. The soil has to be in very good condition before laying the mulch down (fine, small particles, not big clods). A very level field is also helpful. The mulch layer lays a line of drip tape down the center of the bed, and then the plastic over the top of it while creating trenches on the sides of the plastic. Discs in the back of the mulch layer then push soil onto the sides of the plastic to keep it snug and secure. Planting transplants into plastic mulch involves checking for the drip tape and then poking or burning a hole into the plastic (cutting is not advised as it will begin a tear that will continue). For the melons which were planted in peat pots, we used a bulb planter to create a hole in the plastic and open a space in the soil for the transplant.

Plastic mulch layer implement
Black plastic mulch in the field

Black plastic mulch aids in warming the soil earlier, retains moisture, and decreases weed pressure, all of which contribute to higher yields, especially for warm season crops like tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, and melons.

The use of plastic mulches does create waste, so there is indeed a question of sustainability. There is currently research being done into biodegradable and more natural “plastics” as well as aspen mulch mats, etc. We will undoubtedly see more advances in this field in the years to come. Another difficulty is that when a grower is lucky enough to have rainy growing season like we did in 2004, they must still water the beds under plastic.

Other Sources of Information About PlasticultureA major source of research involving plasticulture is the Penn State University Center for Plasticulture. Several of the Specialty Crops Grower Grants have investigated the use of plasticulture including Using Row Covers and Plasticulture to Produce Earlier Harvest and Greater Yields, and Growing Seedless Watermelon in the Arkansas Valley.

Planting transplants into plastic
Melons grown on plasticulture
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