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Improving pumpkin production with conservation soil management

April 27, 2022  By Fruit & Vegetable

In addition to the value of harvested pumpkins for commercial use (canned pumpkin, produce departments, etc.), pumpkins are also a staple crop in agri-tourism operations. In Kansas alone, there were 409 farms registered in 2020. Agri-tourism enterprises have been shown to benefit communities by connecting consumers with agriculture and help preserve farmland in rural and peri-urban areas.

Vegetable crop production typically involves smaller acreages than agronomic/field crop production. However, farmers often rely on intensive soil cultivation to prepare the seedbed for planting and helps manage weeds.

A green, pumpkin seedling growing surrounded by cover crops.

A pumpkin seedling growing surrounded by cover crops. Research at Kansas State University studied the effects of various cover crop systems in pumpkin production. Photo courtesy of DeAnn R. Presley.

Over time, extensive tillage can have negative effects on soil structure and microbial properties. Researchers in Kansas recently published a paper in the Soil Science Society of America Journal examining conservation practices for pumpkin production.


According to researcher Peter Tomlinson, “no-till production methods have been widely adopted by agronomic (field corn, soybean, wheat, etc.) growers throughout the United States. However, no-till practices for vegetable production in the central United States are relatively rare. Mid-Atlantic states, such as Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Maryland, have adopted no-till practices for pumpkin and other large-seeded vegetable crops.”

The study compared growing pumpkins in a biannual tilled control system with annual tilled systems that used cover crops. “This project is designed to compare systems, rather than individual effects of cover crops or tillage,” Tomlinson wrote. The authors reported the effects of a three-year project on dynamic soil properties.

The annual systems used cover crops that were terminated before planting the pumpkins. The team studied cereal rye and oat alone, as well as cereal rye in combination with other cover crops. The researchers performed the study over three growing seasons at two sites – eastern and south-central Kansas. Both sites have humid climates with warm summers and loam-type soils.

At both sites, soil health was assessed at two key times: plots were sampled two to three weeks after pumpkin planting and immediately after pumpkin harvest.

Total soil aggregation and the presence of very large aggregates were the main physical soil properties improved by the use of conservation management systems in this study. Soil aggregates are small particles of soil held together with a glue-like substance, usually due to microbial activity, which help in soil stability, making it less prone to wind and water erosion.

“Adding cover crops and reducing tillage in a pumpkin production system can cause a measurable change in soil aggregation in a short period of time – two years in this study,” Tomlinson wrote.

“There were few instances where the species or mixture of species influenced the results,” he continued. “Rather, the presence of cover crops in the conservation systems appears to have a more dominant role. The significance of this work is that it demonstrated there can be measurable changes in some dynamic soil properties in the short term (two years). This is within a system that involves a reduction in tillage operations and the addition of cover crops.”

“We conclude that the use of less tillage and a cover crop in a conservation system is generally beneficial as compared to a conventional system. This study illustrates the potential for improving some soil health parameters in as little as two years,” says Tomlinson. Future research will focus on how the implementation of conservation system across a range of agricultural systems and time scales effect dynamic soil properties.”

Funding for this research was provided by NRCS Conservation Innovation Grant.

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