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Red Plastic Could Bloom in Gardens This Year / January 16, 1998 / News from the USDA Agricultural Research Service

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Red mulch

Red Plastic Could Bloom in Gardens This Year

By Hank Becker
January 16, 1998

Spring seed catalogs now being mailed to gardeners all over the country have something new to offer: red plastic mulch to help "light up" their tomato yields.

Red plastic mulch reflects onto plants higher amounts of certain growth-enhancing light waves from sunlight. Developed and patented by scientists with the Agricultural Research Service and Clemson University, the mulch boosted tomato yields in research plots up to 20 percent, while conserving water and controlling weeds.

Burpee is listing red plastic mulch for the first time in its spring 1998 catalog. Other catalogs listing the mulch include Gardens Alive, Gardener's Supply, Harris Seed, Snow Pond Farm Supply and Territorial Seed.

The technology works for other fruits and vegetables including strawberries, beans and turnip greens, according to co-inventors Michael J. Kasperbauer and Patrick Hunt of ARS' Coastal Plains Soil, Water and Plant Research Laboratory, Florence, S.C.

In 3 years of ARS field tests, red mulch boosted tomato size and weight by increasing the plant's growth above the ground--especially in the fruit. The scientists say the mulch can improve strawberry flavor by changing the fruit's chemistry. A colleague working with Kasperbauer is currently analyzing strawberries for sugars and organic acids.

Sonoco Products, Inc., of Hartsville, S.C., licensed the ARS technology. The company plans to develop other colors of plastic mulches under the trademark SRM (short for Selective Reflective Mulch).

Ken-Bar, Inc., of Reading, Mass., a wholesale marketer of agricultural plastics, sells the red plastic mulch directly and through supply catalogs. Sonoco plans to get the mulch into major retail outlets by 1999.

The ARS scientists say their research has focused on two color components of reflected light to enhance plant growth--the percentage of blue and the ratio of far-red to red. Red mulch has a low blue component and a high far-red to red ratio.

Scientific contact: Michael J. Kasperbauer, ARS Coastal Plains Soil, Water and Plant Research Laboratory, Florence, SC, phone (803) 669-5203, fax (803) 669-6970, kasper@florence.ars.usda.gov.

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