Potential uncovered for biodegradable fabrics

Horticultural fabrics derived from waste or biodegradable materials show "good potential for under certain growing conditions", the American Society for Horticultural Science has concluded.

Horticultural fabrics: study covered field performance - image: Yuko Hara
Horticultural fabrics: study covered field performance - image: Yuko Hara

"The use of polyethylene mulch is a common practice in vegetable production, but environmental issues related to the disposal of petroleum- based plastic mulches have producers looking for alternatives," it said.

A study it commissioned compared the field performance, durability and decomposition properties of four experimental non-woven biofabrics with two commercially available bioplastic mulch films and a bare soil control. The scientists measured the covers' impact on soil moisture, soil temperature, crop yield and weed emergence in polytunnel cucumber production as well as the materials' durability and ability to later decompose when incorporated into the soil.

The bioplastics and biofabrics increased soil moisture relative to bare soil. Bioplastic films were less durable and deteriorated sooner than biofabrics, especially in the field environment. All bio-mulches suppressed weed emergence relative to bare soil, but weeds were visibly growing beneath the most translucent biofabric. Marketable yield of cucumber trended highest in the most durable and opaque biofabric but was not significantly different from weed-free bare soil.

They also found no difference in the relative rate of decomposition up to 11 months after soil incorporation. "This is the first study to demonstrate significant soil decomposition of biofabric mulch before 12 months after soil incorporation," said the researchers.

"Slow decomposition is one factor that has limited widespread adoption of bio-mulches in vegetable production. However, this study demonstrates potential progress toward a renewable product that will provide growers with the desirable agricultural benefits of mulch without the potentially deleterious effects of residue accumulation in the soil over time."

They added: "The permeability of biofabrics may appeal to growers without drip irrigation who rely on rainfall or sprinkler irrigation to meet crop water demands." The report was published in the journal HortTechnology.

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