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Hairy Vetch Mulch System Moves to Poland

By Tara Weaver
May 14, 1997

Hairy vetch is being auditioned in Poland as a natural mulch for growing vegetables--a system developed by a plant physiologist with USDA’s Agricultural Research Service.

Hairy vetch offers a number of advantages as a mulch for tomatoes and other summer vegetables. Since the vetch is a legume, it is capable of “fixing” nitrogen from the atmosphere, transforming nitrogen in the air into a form the plants can use for growth. This reduces the need for commercial nitrogen fertilizer--good news for the environment.

The legume-mulch also increases yields, boosts the soil’s organic matter, reduces the need for pesticides--by crowding out weeds--and stops soil erosion by providing a protective cover for the soil surface. Traditional farming practices that include plowing and chemical applications do not offer any of these advantages.

In collaboration with the ARS scientist, a researcher at the Entomology and Plant Protection Techniques Laboratory at Skierniewicie (pronounced “scare-na-vich-ee”), Poland, is evaluating hairy vetch and other cover crops for adaptability to Poland’s chilly climate. The scientists also want to find out whether the natural-mulch system can help overcome other problems faced by Polish farmers, such as limited rainfall and contamination of surface and groundwater by chemical fertilizers, manures and pesticides.

Field studies are under way on Polish farms to compare the effectiveness of the legume- mulch system with traditional Polish farming practices. One study focuses on growing tomatoes and cabbage using hairy vetch, crimson clover and rye cover crops. Another study is evaluating soybeans and blackeyed beans as cover crops in no-till production of cabbage and cauliflower. Information from these studies will be useful in development of affordable, environmentally friendly vegetable production systems for small Polish farmers.

Scientific contact: Aref A. Abdul-Baki, ARS Vegetable Laboratory, Beltsville, Md., phone (301) 504-5057, fax (301) 504-5555, Stanislaw Kotlinski, Entomology and Plant Protection Techniques Laboratory, Skierniewicie, Poland, phone 48-46-33-2947,