Living mulch cover crops for weed control in small-scale applications

Anne Pfeiffer, Erin Silva, Jed Colquhoun

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

18 Scopus citations


A primary challenge of managing vegetable production on a small land base is the maintenance and building of soil quality. Previous studies have demonstrated the benefits of cover crops for improved soil quality; however, small growers struggle to fit cover crops into rotations. Small-scale growers with limited available land are under significant pressure to maximize their saleable yield and often work to maximize output by using intensive cropping practices that may include both early and late season crops, thus limiting the typical shoulder season windows in which cover crops can be grown. In-season living mulches may be an effective strategy to provide small-scale growers the benefits of cover crops with less land commitment than cover crops used in typical rotations. However, research on living mulches is generally not suited to small-scale organic production systems due to the typical reliance on chemical herbicide to suppress mulches. An experiment was designed with the goal of evaluating living mulch systems for space-limited organic vegetable production. In a 2-year study, four living mulch crops (buckwheat (Fagopyrum esculentum), field pea (Pisum sativum), crimson clover (Trifolium incarnatum) and medium red clover (Trifolium pratense)) and a cultivated control with no mulch cover were planted in early spring each year. Snap beans (Phaseolus vulgaris var. Tavera), transplanted bell peppers (Capsicum annuum var. Revolution), and transplanted fall broccoli (Brassica oleracea var. Imperial) were then planted directly into living mulches. During each summer growing season, living mulches and weeds were mown between-rows and hand-weeded in-row approximately every 10-14 days as needed for management. Labor times for mowing and cultivation were found to be higher in all treatments relative to the cultivated control. An inverse relationship between living mulch biomass and weed biomass was observed, demonstrating that living mulches may contribute to weed suppression. However, lower vegetable yields were seen in the living mulch treatments, most likely due to resource competition among vegetables, living mulches and weeds. High pre-existing weed seedbank and drought conditions likely increased competition and contributed to reduced vegetable yield.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)309-317
Number of pages9
JournalRenewable Agriculture and Food Systems
Issue number4
StatePublished - Aug 1 2016


  • Brassica oleracea
  • Capsicum annuum
  • Fagopyrum esculentum
  • Phaseolus vulgaris
  • Pisum sativum
  • Trifolium incarnatum
  • Trifolium pratense
  • bell pepper
  • broccoli
  • buckwheat
  • cover crop
  • crimson clover
  • field pea
  • living mulch
  • medium red clover
  • snap bean
  • weed control


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