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Sophia Piper

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Evaluation of Plant Growth in Intercrop and Monocultural Systems

Everything existing in nature is essentially a series of energy and resource trades. The sun

radiates energy into the Earth’s atmosphere and the Earth emits energy back into space. Nutrients

necessary for life are constantly being recycled between organisms as they go through their life

cycles—living, procreating, and dying. In essence, organisms are giving and taking resources

from their abiotic environment and from other organisms, making them dependent upon each

other for survival and creating complex connections between organisms. Wherein if too many

organisms (connections) disappear, the entire structure of an ecosystem can collapse. This is the

reason why biodiversity is important: it prevents too many links from disappearing and allows

more opportunity for nutrient trade-offs between interacting organisms within an ecosystem.

From a human standpoint, biodiversity is crucial for our entire way of life. First and

foremost, without biodiversity, resources necessary for survival – including oxygen, nitrogen,

and water – would be severely limited. Secondly, many countries, particularly lesser developed

countries located in the tropics, depend on biodiversity to support their tourist-based economy.

Should the rainforests or coral reefs disappear, tourists would cease to visit, thus thrusting these

countries into further poverty (Cresswell & Murphy). Finally, biodiversity benefits farming,

which is necessary for both physical and economic survival.

According to the U.S. Census (2018), the human population is nearing 7.5 billion people

(U.S. and world). Feeding such a population of people requires innovation that maximizes crop

yield and eliminates factors that might cause a decrease in yield. It makes sense to grow more of

the same crops in the same place, since it is easier and more economical to harvest. But within
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fields of the same crop, there is very limited genetic diversity, making the crops susceptible to

pathogens and other pests which can wipe out the entire crop (​Fu, 2015)​. Also, these crops are

competing for the same nutrients within the ground and ultimately rendering the soil infertile.

There are a few solutions that farmers use to control this issue, such as: crop rotations,

intercropping, the use of pesticides and fertilizers to protect the crop and provide nutrients, as

well as genetically-engineered crops resistant to pests and pesticides. Many of these techniques

are ancient, while others are relatively recent, dating back to World War II. There is an issue

with fertilizers and pesticides, as they runoff into aquatic ecosystems and leach into

groundwaters (​Davies, Reed, & O'Brian, 2001)​. This can have deleterious consequences on

surrounding organisms​. There is also some popular concern about the health impacts of

genetically-modified crops.

Potential health and environmental concerns regarding pesticides has prompted an

expansion of organic farming, which puts an emphasis on increasing crop yield using farming

methods with minimal environmental impacts and taking advantage of the renewable resources

already located in the environment (Martin, 2009). Intercropping is one method by which

organic farmers can optimize crop yield without expending the resources in the soil. Farmers

plant two different crops with different nutrient requirements next to each other (e.g. soy and

wheat). Because there is crop diversity, the plants will not have to compete for resources as much

as they would if monocropped, ultimately allowing them to grow stronger and healthier. There is

also some evidence that shows that intercropped farmland has a higher resistance to pests

(Naheem, et al., 2016).

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The goal of this experiment is to investigate whether diverse (mixed) plants grow better

than monoculture plants. Since there is evidence showing the benefits of intercropping, I

hypothesize that diversity increases growth and productivity. Given this hypothesis, I predict that

diversified plants (​Phaseolus vulgaris​, ​Raphanus sativus​, and ​Pinus taeda​ planted together) will

grow taller and have a shorter, less branched out root system than monoculture plants (each

individual species planted separately), which will have a shorter shoot, but will have a deeper

and more branched out root system, because the plants will need to seek out resources to

compete with each other. In addition, species in a monoculture will grow wider leaves than

species in an intercrop, as plants in a monoculture will be more inclined to compete for sunlight.


Plant Selection.​ ​My group and I used red kidney beans, radishes, and loblolly pine for the


Red Kidney Beans.​ Red kidney beans are a phenotypic variation of ​Phaseolus vulgaris,​ or

the common bean. It is an herbaceous, annual, dry-fruit bearing plant that is thought to

have originated in Peru 8,000 years ago, but has since then been cultivated all over the

United States and distributed around the world. ​P. vulgaris​ can grow as either a bush or a

twining vine. Both forms have oval-diamond shaped leaves and grow white, yellow, or

red flowers that eventually form long pods that can be up to 15 cm long (Corteau, n.d.).

​ adishes (​Raphanus sativus​) have been selected by humans for their large,
Radishes. R

edible taproot. It is an annual or biennial flowering plant characterized by its “rosette of

leaves”, large oval-shaped and pinnate-lobed basal leaves, and flowering stem that can
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reach up to 2.5 ft tall (Hilty, 2017). It also prefers loam soil and germinates quickly

during the spring and summer (Hilty, 2017).

​ he loblolly pine (​Pinus taeda)​ is a coniferous tree that ranges throughout

Loblolly Pine. T

the southeastern United States. It is characterized by plated/scaly bark, yellow-green

needles in bundles of three, and orangish banana-shaped cones. It grows rapidly and can

become as tall as 110 ft and thrives best in sandy/loamy soil (Carey, 1992; Loblolly pine,


Experimental Design.​ We filled twelve plant inserts (about 2 inches x 2.5 inches x 2 inches)

with about 10 milliliters of topsoil. We numbered and seeded the inserts according to Table 1.

We planted all red kidney beans about an inch and a half deep into the soil, radishes about half

an inch, and loblolly pine a quarter inch (Grant, n.d.; Radishes, n.d.; Porterfield, 2006).. Seeds

were separated by about one inch in all inserts. All of the plants were kept in a greenhouse under

the same conditions and watered weekly with 50 mL of tap water.

Table 1: Insert seeding chart

Insert numbers Red kidney beans per Radish seeds per Loblolly pine seeds
insert insert per insert

1-3 3 0 0

4-6 0 3 0

7-9 0 0 3

10-12 1 1 1

Data Collection​ We measured plant height, root length, plant mass, and leaf width to determine

plant growth.
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Germination of Seeds

​ ll of the radish seeds germinated.

Radishes. A

Red kidney beans. ​One out of twelve red kidney bean seeds planted in the monocultures did not

germinate. One out of four red kidney bean seeds planted in mixtures did not germinate.

Ungerminated seeds are included in data analysis for all measurements except leaf width.

Loblolly pine. ​None of the loblolly pine seeds germinated and are therefore excluded from the

data analysis.

Shoot Height

​ e found no significant difference in the shoot height of radish plants in monocultures

Radishes. W

than in mixtures (F = 0.697, P = 0.438).

Red kidney beans. ​We found no significant difference between the shoot heights of red kidney

bean plants grown in monocultures compared to mixtures (F = 0.515, P = 0.500).

Figure 1: Comparison of shoot height in monoculture and mixtures for radish plants and red kidney bean plants.
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Root Length

​ e found no significant difference between root length in radishes grown in

Radishes. W

monocultures compared to those grown in mixtures (F = 2.01, P = 0.201).

Red kidney beans. ​We found no significant difference between root length in red kidney bean

plants grown in monocultures compared to those grown in mixtures (F = .000861, P = 0.978)

Loblolly pine.​ None of the loblolly pine seeds germinated.

Figure 2: Comparison in root length in monocultures and mixtures for radishes and red kidney beans.

Plant Mass

​ e found no significant difference between the plant masses of radishes grown in

Radishes. W

monocultures and those grown in mixtures (F = 1.04, P = 0.348).

Red kidney beans. ​We found no significant difference between the plant masses of radishes

grown in monocultures compared to mixtures (F = 0.264, P = 0.626).

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Figure 3: Comparison between plant mass in monocultures and mixtures for radishes and red kidney beans.

Leaf Width

Radishes.​ We found no significant difference between leaf width in radishes grown in

monocultures and in those grown in mixtures (F = 0.917, P = 0.375).

Red kidney beans.​ On average, individual red kidney bean plants grew wider leaves in a mixture

than in a monoculture (F = 12.5, P = 0.0167).

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Figure 4: Comparison between leaf width in monocultures and mixtures for radishes and red kidney beans.


As indicated in the results, there were no significant differences between shoot height,

root length, and mass of monoculture-grown plants and mixture-grown plants for either the

radishes or the red kidney beans. There was, however, a significant difference between the leaf

width of red kidney beans grown in a mixture versus a monoculture. For this reason, only one of

the results support the hypothesis that plants grown in a mixture would grow better than those in

a monoculture.

The leaf width of kidney beans in the mixture was greater than in the monoculture

(Figure 4). This may have occurred due to competition within an insert, which prompted the

plants to grow larger leaves in order to compete for sunlight.

It is also worth mentioning that the shoot heights and masses of radishes grown both in a

monoculture and in a mixture were very similar, which could indicate that the radishes do not
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grow any better in a mixture than in a monoculture (Figure 1, Figure 3). This trend was also

evident between monoculture and mixed red kidney beans.

While there was little difference between plants of the same species, it is evident that the

red kidney beans consistently grew both taller, heavier, and had longer roots than the radishes.

This could result from competition for space within the inserts, wherein the red kidney beans

outcompeted the radishes (Figure 2).

Ideally, the intercropped plants should eliminate the need for two (or three) species to

compete for resources, as they would likely consume different nutrients to survive. This would

allow all species to grow better than they would in a monoculture system. Perhaps the red kidney

beans and radishes need the same resources, which would place them in the same competitive

situation as in a monoculture. Matched against each other, red kidney bean may have been a

stronger competitor than the radish because of a better ability to attain and consume resources,

which would lead to better growth. In future experiments, plant species should be chosen based

on their nutrient consumption to mediate this issue.

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Carey, Jennifer H. 1992. Pinus taeda. In: Fire Effects Information System, [Online]. U.S.

Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire

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and Applied Genetics,​ ​128(​ 11), 2131-2142.

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Grebenstein, E. (2013, April 19). Escape of the invasives: Top six invasive plant species in the

United States. ​Smithsonian Insider​. Retrieved from

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Porterfield, D. (2006). ​Growing loblolly pines from seed in pots​. Oklahoma Forestry Services.

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