Foam mulch promising for weed control on vegetables

Foam mulch promising for weed control on vegetables

By Debra Levey Larson, U of I College of ACES Media/Communications Specialist

URBANA—Al Morgan of Clinton, Ill. holds the patent on a foam mulch that he hopes will become an alternative to herbicides for vegetable farmers and black plastic for organic farmers. He received a grant from the USDA Small Business program and approached researchers at the University of Illinois to test the product and provide an unbiased evaluation.

“The foam kind of looks like shaving cream,” said John Masiunas, U of I professor in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences who tested the product. The mulch is made of degradable natural polymers, and the fibers are common cellulose materials like crushed seed hulls, corncobs and cotton.

Masiunas explained that the foam is sprayed onto the rows of tomatoes, basil or pumpkins and in a couple of hours, it dries down to a mat. “Usually it’s gray,” said Masiunas, “but the color depends on what it’s made from. In one of our treatments, the foam Morgan used was made from old blue jeans, so it was blue in color.” U of I researchers experimented with a variety of colors of the foam including black and red because the color of the plant’s environment can impact its growth. For example, reflective silver mulch has been shown to reduce aphid populations, said Masiunas.

“The mulch is easy to apply and weeds can’t grow through it,” he said. “And since it’s made of plant residue and other natural materials, when it biodegrades, it doesn’t harm the soil.” Since it biodegrades, foam mulch doesn’t have to be removed like the black plastic used in vegetable farming, so it’s better for the environment. Masiunas said that using paper products as a mulch isn’t new but they biodegrade too fast. The foam mulch works better because it persists for the whole growing season.

The down side is that farmers would need special equipment to spread the mulch. Unfortunately it can’t be applied with standard farm equipment. They would need a big hose and a tank. Right now, Masinuas believes that due to the cost and special equipment needed to spread the mulch, it could most likely be used on small scale in home gardens, landscaping and organic vegetable farms.

The project was funded by a USDA Small Business grant.

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