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Biodegradable Plastic Mulch

Using black plastic mulch for growing fields of vegetable crops helps conserve moisture and suppresses weeds but it’s a pain to pull up at the end of the season. You also need a place to dispose it. Researchers at Iowa State University’s Horticulture Research Station are testing various types of biodegradable plastic mulch on pepper plants.

I was there in early August to learn more about the experiment. Ajay Nair is a vegetable extension specialist. He says they want to see how much of the biodegradable mulch is left and are also testing how it affects plant growth.

"So far, things look ok. You can see some subtle differences in the height and the greenness. We will be measuring some chlorophyll measurements, plant height, stem diameter to document more the science behind what’s actually happening," says Nair. "We have also buried sensors in there to see how much of a temperature rise do we get using these mulches as compared to the traditional white-on-black plastic mulch. Soil temperatures and other things we are constantly measuring."

You’ll pay about twice as much for biodegradable mulch compared to the regular plastic, but Nair says there are other cost savings and benefits.

"One, labor in the fall when all those high school kids have gone back to school, who is going to pull the plastic, right? That’s a challenge. And then, the landfill cost, and the environment-friendly thing," he says. "If you can show that you can just till it under, that’s better."

Nair says they don’t expect it will degrade completely, but it should be enough that it doesn’t hinder planting or other field operations in the spring.

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