Strip-Till, Biological Strip-Till and No-Till Systems Using Cover Crops for Seedless Watermelon Production

Gordon Johnson, Extension Vegetable & Fruit Specialist;

Strip-Till, Biological Strip Till, and No-Till Systems Using Cover Crops for Seedless Watermelon Production

Seedless watermelons are the most important fresh market vegetable crop on the Delmarva Peninsula with over 5,000 acres grown annually on over 150 farms

Considerable production costs are incurred to grow seedless watermelons including transplants, plastic mulch, drip tape, irrigation (pumping), fertilizers, and pest control. Over 95% of seedless watermelons are grown on black plastic mulch in a tillage and input intensive system.

Current systems require several tillage operations prior to laying plastic. Heavy tillage reduces organic matter levels in the soil by increasing decomposition rates, destroys soil structure, and negatively affects soil health. Compacted areas between beds allow water to accumulate and can increase disease pressure in wet years as evident with the high amounts of Phytophthora fruit rot in watermelon fields on Delmarva in 2017.

Plastic mulch use adds extra cost to production, requires addition labor and time to apply, requires hand labor and machine use for removal, and must be disposed of in landfills. Degradable mulches are available and do offer another option for watermelons, however there is a high up-front cost in their use.

In a standard production system, over 130 lbs. of nitrogen are applied using inorganic nitrogen sources, another input cost (manufactured from fossil fuels), There are a minimum of 4 trips across the field with tillage and plastic laying equipment with associated fuel cost.

There is increased interest in no-till and strip till systems using killed cover crops for seedless watermelon production for later season plantings (late May and June) to reduce costs, reduce the risk of Phytophthora fruit rots, and maintain soil health. Another option is to transplant into barley stubble after harvest in June. These systems will not produce early watermelons but can improve the economics of later plantings.

No-till production of transplanted vegetable crops has been researched and demonstrated on-farm over the last two decades and no-till systems have been shown to be as productive as plasticulture based systems.

Research by Johnson and Taylor in Delaware in the 1990s showed the potential for no-till transplanting vegetable crops into rye cover, using a rolling corn stalk chopper to roll kill the rye (newer systems use a chevroned roller/crimper specifically designed to roll kill cover crops). Vegetables successfully grown with this method included pumpkins, cantaloupes, watermelon, tomatoes, and peppers. Additional studies looked at cover crop systems and no-till transplanting of vegetables into hairy vetch, crimson clover, hairy vetch-rye-crimson clover mix, and subterranean clover cover crops. This research showed that crops of squash could be grown with no additional nitrogen in killed legume covers.

Chevron bladed roller crimper for rolling cover crop prior to transplanting.

The University of Delaware conducted additional research evaluating no-till and biological strip till methods for seedless watermelon production. The goal was to reduce input costs while maintaining productivity, eliminate plastic mulch in production, maintain or improve soil organic matter and soil health, provide a portion of nitrogen fertilizer biologically, decrease fruit rots and other diseases, and decrease machine and labor costs.

Use of forage radish in a biological strip till system (winter killed forage radish strips with rye in between) was demonstrated for seedless watermelon and cantaloupe production at the University of Delaware in 2013. Additional research was conducted at the University of Delaware in 2014 with biological strip till using rye, hairy vetch, crimson clover and mixed systems with winter killed forage radish strips.

Biological Strip Till Systems in 2015
A one-acre plot was dedicated to this study. Cover crops were planted in early September 2014 for the 2015 study. A biological strip till system uses a one row strip of forage radish surrounded by the cover crop on either side. This is accomplished by blocking or dedicating seed meters in a drill. A diagram is shown below:


(C = Cover Crop. R = Forage Radish)

Cover crop combinations are given in the treatments below. The forage radish winter killed and deteriorated, leaving a strip with holes (the biological strip till). Cover crops were rolled using a roller crimper after rye headed but before anthesis and when full biomass was achieved with legumes. Additionally, non-selective and pre-emergence herbicides were applied after rolling. Seedless watermelons and pollinizer plants were set by hand. It has been shown that transplants can be set directly in the hole left by the forage radish that winter kills. Drip irrigation was used in both the plasticulture and biological strip till systems.

Treatments with the single row of tillage radish in the middle and cover crops on either side included:

1)       Roll killed rye

2)       Roll killed vetch

3)       Roll killed crimson clover

4)       Killed subterranean clover

5)       Roll killed rye-vetch

6)       Roll killed rye-crimson clover

7)       Black plastic mulch (control)

Results indicate that biological strip till systems, when planted later in the season, can be a viable alternative to plasticulture systems. The best cover/radish combination for weed management was the rye/crimson clover mix.

Yield of seedless watermelons in a biological strip till system by variety and cover crop, Georgetown, DE 2015

Tillage Based Strip Till
Tillage based strip till systems can also being used to grow seedless watemelons. In this system strips are tilled using a strip tillage implement with coulters or with mini rotavators. Transplants are set with a transplanter designed to go through some trash or that punches holes in the ground for the transplant.

Strip-till Implement

No-till for Seedless Watermelons
No-tilling into rolled cover crop or into barley stubble can also be successful with seedless watermelons. The key to success with this system is to have soils in good condition that will allow a no-till transplanter to function properly (cut a slot and then close around the transplant). To make this function, soils need to have a sufficient moisture level at transplanting.

All Systems
In each of these systems, addition of a legume cover crop such as hairy vetch or crimson clover can provide a portion of the nitrogen to grow the watermelon crop (credit 60-90 lbs of N/acre). Thick cover crop stands producing high amounts of biomass will serve as a mulch for weed control and will also serve to keep fruit off the ground, limiting fruit diseases. Good transplant to soil contact at planting is essential and equipment must be set up correctly to achieve this. Additional fertilizers can be applied before or at planting and can be sidedressed.

Strip-till and no-till production systems are adapted to overhead irrigation. Drip tape can be applied in strip till systems using properly modified equipment to place in the ground next to plants. Surface applied drip tape is not recommended.

The biggest challenge in each of these systems is weed management, especially in the row. Non-selective herbicides are used before transplanting along with a residual program. Other residuals can be applied between rows with a shielded sprayer. Post emergence applications are limited to grass materials or shielded applications. Irrigation is necessary to activate residual herbicides. See the 2018 Mid-Atlantic Commercial Vegetable Production Recommendations for specific guidance