Much Ado about ... Mulch

Texas Tech researchers dig into biodegradable mulch.

Each year more than a million feet of black plastic is used to cut back-breaking weeding costs in high-value crops like lettuce, strawberry and tomatoes. Now, Texas Tech University agriculture scientists are part of a national research team developing and testing biodegradable mulches that could provide an alternative to the pricey polyethylene plastic.

“Biodegradable mulches have the potential to break down naturally after one season without hand removal from the field,” said Jennifer Moore-Kucera, a Texas Tech assistant professor of soil and environmental microbiology. “But the big plus is that an alternative mulch could create a reduction in the waste stream of plastic headed for landfills.”

Spanning three states and five research institutions, the three-year USDA study is specifically examining whether experimental spunbond nonwovens fabrics and leading commercially-available biodegradable mulches are of similar quality to conventional black plastic in both protected and open field specialty crop production.

On the Texas leg of the project Kucera and her graduate students, along with Russ Wallace, a Texas AgriLife vegetable specialist, are examining how biodegradable mulch impacts the health and quality of soil. Under the best of circumstances, biodegradable mulch should leave no toxic residue in the soil and, ideally, would improve soil quality and decrease soil-borne plant diseases.

Kucera is assessing the impact of mulch biodegradation on soil and root systems using tomatoes grown outdoors and inside what’s known as a high tunnel, a plastic-covered, framed structure similar to a greenhouse but without heat or electricity.

Nationally, the interdisciplinary team includes biosystem engineers, textile scientists and agricultural specialists in economics, horticulture, weed science, plant pathology, sociology and soil microbiology. Institutions involved include Texas Tech, Washington State University, Texas A&M University, University of Tennessee and the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service.

The researchers note there’s a potential to expand the biodegradable mulch research to other types of plastic beyond agriculture. Today, only a small percentage of all plastics used are agricultural. There are many other potential opportunities for this technology; plastic bags being just one example. The $2 million project is funded by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture’s Specialty Crop Research Initiative.

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CONTACT: Jennifer Moore-Kucera, assistant professor, Department of Plant and Soil Science, Texas Tech University, (806) 742-0116 or