Reduced tillage and cover crops also can help produce healthier crops.
Tomatoes are susceptible to early blight, but a ground cover can delay the onset of the disease and minimize its severity, Moore says. It also helps reduce erosion.
The process helps prevent soilborne diseases, such as buckeye rot, Meyers adds, and can reduce injury from heat stress and prevent sunburn.
A drawback of reduced-tillage is that your tomatoes will mature later because they lack the warmth provided by the black plastic, Moore says. Weed control also is more difficult with no-till.
Strip-till programs provide warmer soil than no-till, but not to the extent that plastic mulch provides, Johnson says.
On the plus side, a reduced-tillage system helps extend the season for anyone who grows for local farmers markets, Meyers says.
The lack of availability of no-till transplanters is another drawback that sometimes discourages growers from adopting reduced-till systems, says Steve Groff, owner of Cedar Meadow Farm in Holtwood, Pa. Like Moore, Groff built his own transplanter.
Cover crops matter
Don’t overlook the role of the cover crop.
“Cover crops are as much of an integrated part of your production system as the crops that you’re growing,” Johnson says.
Research released by Autar Mattoo at Beltsville in 2009 shows that “planting tomatoes in fields of killed and rolled hairy vetch, which serves as a mulch, activates some of the metabolic pathways and genes that make tomato plants more vigorous—and their fruit more tasty and nutritious,” according to the center’s website.
Groff, who now grows tomatoes in high tunnels and greenhouses to ensure consistent quality, previously used a reduced-tillage system with a cover crop comprising hairy vetch, cereal rye and a couple pounds of Tillage Radish, which he planted in early fall. The radishes decompose, creating winter kill, and rye and vetch grow in spring.
The day of the transplanting or even a couple of weeks before, he would knock down the vetch and rye with a roller. Then, with the no-till vegetable transplanter he designed, Groff would plant the tomatoes into the rolled-down cover crop.
Moore uses a cover crop of sudex—a sorghum-sudangrass hybrid—in the summer and winter rye in late fall. And Meyers says he always uses a cereal rye cover crop because it is easier to time the burndown and easier to use strip-tillage machines in.