Plant Density Recommendations and Plant Nutrient Status for High Tunnel Tomatoes in Virginia

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Open-field tomatoes in Virginia are traditionally planted in a single row with 2 ft (0.60 m) of in-row spacing, resulting in a plant density of 4356 plants per acre (10,890 plants/ha). However, there has been increasing interest among small and medium-sized farmers in high tunnel production. In order to be profitable, farmers must maximize their yield per unit area and take advantage of the potential benefits of producing under high tunnels. A common approach under greenhouse conditions is to increase the planting density to enhance yield per area. However, high tunnel farmers often extrapolate open-field practices to their high tunnels as they believe both systems are closer related together than to greenhouse production. In those cases, high tunnel farmers could potentially be neglecting yield increases due to their planting density selection. Additionally, irrigation and fertilization management (fertigation) under high tunnels tend to be more efficient than open-field systems, as the frequency of application is increased with a lower volume per application. A higher efficiency of fertigation could alter plant yield responses, especially under traditional planting-density systems. Hence, this study aimed to identify the effect of high planting density on high tunnel tomatoes and their nutrient status on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. The experiment was established on a completely randomized block design with four replications, with 20 ft (6.09 m) experimental plots. We evaluated the combination of two in-row distances and single and double planting rows, with treatments consisting of 2 ft of in-row distance in a single row (4356 plants/acre—current open-field recommendation), 1.5 ft (0.45 m) of in-row distance in a single row (5808 plants/acre [14,520 plants/ha]), 2 ft of in-row distance in a double row (8712 plants/acre [21,780 plants/ha]), and 1.5 ft of in-row distance in a double row (11,616 plants/acre [29,040 plants/ha]). Summer-grown tomatoes produced on the Eastern Shore of Virginia under high tunnel conditions should be planted with 2 ft of in-row spacing and with a single row of plants per planting bed. Increasing the plant density or modifying the current recommended plant distribution could result in yield losses per plant between 32% and 46% and substantial increases in production costs compared with the traditional planting density. Throughout all treatments, tomato plants did not show deficient nutrient status. We hypothesized that irrigation water and pollination were the limiting factors that promoted a decrease in yield per plant for the high-density treatments.

Torres-Quezada, E.; Gandini-Taveras, R.J. Plant Density Recommendations and Plant Nutrient Status for High Tunnel Tomatoes in Virginia. Horticulturae 2023, 9, 1063.