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cover cropping for new orchard section?

Posted by Molly DellaRoman 
cover cropping for new orchard section?
September 17, 2020 05:55PM
Hi all,
We are working on expanding our existing orchard. We weren't here for the initial planting of the understory way back in the 80's, but we have a chance now to "control" that in a new section that we're working on. We battled the shrubby forested area in 2018 and 2019 with brush hogging and weed whipping. This year we have had pigs rooting all season and hand pulling and tractor pulling of roots. It still needs more work and we were thinking about tilling and cover cropping for 2021. Any one done this and have suggestions for what to use? My inclination is clover but maybe go straight to some kind of grass?
Thanks for any advice!

5 Star Nursery and Orchard
Zone 5, Brooklin, ME
Re: cover cropping for new orchard section?
October 11, 2020 07:30PM
We feel your pain. Our orchard was planted in an old wheat/corn/tobacco field, so not even a chance to just let natives proliferate in an existing pasture. My mother planted a gorgeous orchard floor of shady red fescue . . . then she let me move my pastured chickens in, and I ruined everything. We're talking 200 chickens, so lots of bald dust bath spots, lots of large burnt patches from a huge chicken tractor that probably needed to be moved twice a day to have any chance of working well in an orchard. Long story short, the high nitrogen coupled with razed patches added up to all sorts of weeds, primarily pigweed amaranth and morning glory vines, to my eternal shame, getting a toehold. In those days, my mother was taking care of the orchard herself and mowing got out of control often and things went to seed while she was busy untangling the morning glories lashing the young trees completely horizontal on the ground . . . so my little weed patches eventually grew to become 10 acres of undesirable orchard floor.

Eight years or so later, things are getting better. The trees are bigger so even if they are overtaken by vines, the risk isn't as great, but it's still a regrettable mess that we'll be dealing with for years, and since it's harder to mow completely under large trees, to some extent, controlling the issue has been compounded. Blackberry vines and native roses have become entrenched in certain areas, often hugging the tree trunk and growing straight up, where they are very difficult to get to and extract. We are trying to mulch with hay wherever we can to help with weed suppression and tree nutrition. It's not perfect, and it's a lot of work, but perhaps that's something else for you to consider in your scenario. I just posted a more detailed explanation of our hay mulch practices in another topic in this HON section about understory management, if you're interested. It concerns cash cropping in that hay mulch, as well, which provides further weed suppression.

Good luck!

Brittany Kordick

Kordick Family Farm
Westfield, NC
Zone 7a
Re: cover cropping for new orchard section?
October 26, 2020 06:26PM
Thanks again for your thoughtful response. We actually were thinking about running chickens through the areas the pigs didn't do a fantastic job, so we will thinking very carefully now!

5 Star Nursery and Orchard
Zone 5, Brooklin, ME
Re: cover cropping for new orchard section?
October 27, 2020 04:43AM
I'm in the process of replanting an orchard and also have the opportunity to take a little extra time to build soil health. This is what I've done so far (I've referenced Michael's books to get started): fall 2019 I removed existing trees and planted a cover crop of winter rye; spring 2020 planted the first of two rounds of buckwheat; summer 2020 planted second round of buckwheat; late summer planted a cover crop mix (oats, peas, and radish) that will winter kill. Next year I will be planting spring wheat, tilling it under, and finally planting a pasture/forage mix in the late summer that will become my orchard floor. I also had a soil test done toward the start of this summer and plan to incorporate the recommendations early next year. It's been exciting to implement a plan with intention from the very beginning.
Re: cover cropping for new orchard section?
January 15, 2021 08:35PM
We slaughtered the pigs at the end of November and seriously contemplated getting in there with the rototiller to get down some cover crop seed but I just didn't have the heart...seems like since that area was previously shrubby that there may be some fungi that we want to preserve. Instead, we went after it with a broadfork until the ground froze. It was rough, slow going, but I think we made the right choice. I still wish there was cover crop seed on there to protect it from the winter rains, but the timing just didn't work with when the pigs left. We're finding some nice soil - once the enormous root systems and rocks are gone - and will get cover crop seed done this spring plus a few trees to start just so we can monitor this new soil. By 2022 we hope to have all fruit trees that we want in and then start planning for inter and alley cropping. Got some suggestions from some one with experience for fruit and nuts that work well and don't and have a few experiments up our sleeves, too!

5 Star Nursery and Orchard
Zone 5, Brooklin, ME
Re: cover cropping for new orchard section?
May 28, 2021 11:42AM
My main regret so far is that as did not take the extra year for the cover cropping in our community orchard that Jacob and virtually every orchard reference we have described. We did till in a couple of tons of bark mulch,though, as well as a couple years worth of sod, before planting an oats and peas cover with a prairie mix I posted about in Establishing a Diverse Understory.

We also used pigs to help clear our homestead orchard and were disappointed with how much they compacted the soil, maybe a lower stocking rate would have helped, but the orchard plan was only 1/8 acre and we didn’t want one lonely pig. We did plant some radish to try and mitigate this, but I feel like we’ve been paying for it ever since and six years later the soil is only just now beginning to recover, I think more cover cropping could have helped there also, and I would like to hear how things go for you. Good luck!


SW Wisconsin zone 5a/4b
Homestead/community orchard
2ish acres with half planted in 2018-2019 with heritage apples, alternating b118, antonovka, and seedling roots
Second half planted 2021-22 with plums, cherries, apricot, peach, pears, etc...
SE slope, trees are planted in contoured berms
Native prairie species for all ground cover
Re: cover cropping for new orchard section?
August 21, 2021 11:14PM
I'm just starting the process of improving a long-neglected field for a future orchard section. This summer, had a bunch of largish tree stumps removed and planned to sow a sequence of covers over the next couple years. But the work done to pull out the stumps left the ground too uneven for simply plowing and building beds. So now I'm trying to figure out the best way to even the grade before I can begin planting.

Best I can tell, the right tool for the job is a tow-behind box blade with hydraulic toplink and scarifiers. I'll have to rent a bigger tractor, though. I'm small-scale enough to get by with a walk-behind. Anyone have any experience with completing this type of job?

Then, once leveled, my plan is to plow 8' wide beds across the hillside, double-dig them amended with compost, and start sowing a succession of buckwheat all next summer, followed by a fall/winter cover, TBD.

My other question is what to plant in the aisles? I could throw down some fescue seeds and let them compete with the weeds fighting to re-establish themselves. Then, keeping the aisles mowed should result in grass-covered lanes for moving equipment up and down rows.

But is there a benefit to planting the whole field with a succession of green manures/covers before demarcating planting beds? I wonder and haven't yet been able to track down a source that specifically addresses this question. If you have any thoughts, they'd be much appreciated.


Craig Bickle
Hap Woods
Zone 6a
East-Central Ohio
Re: cover cropping for new orchard section?
February 15, 2022 10:12PM
Have some updates on our understory cover cropping experiments this year. The area that we were able to broad fork in the fall on 2020 was quite nice to start planting into this past spring. We got a nice stand of peas and oats going. We were able to get 1 standard size and 5 semi-standard trees planted in mounds in that section. The mounds had compost, seaweed, and soil amendments. Seeing as we had lovely new soil and the trees aren't throwing any shade yet, we grew potatoes and alliums in the pathways. We plan on installing raspberries in the alleyway this spring and cranberries and lingonberries on the outskirts. Figure we have at least a decade before shade becomes an issue and by then the raspberries will be past their prime. We also hope to get some mushroom beds set up in the understory as well this year. The rest of the area will receive a cover crop mix.

We kept working the main section that did not get broad forked in the fall of 2020. We experimented with buckwheat in one section and annual rye in another after the roots and rocks were out. The section that had buckwheat is what we will plant in this spring. Planning on installing haskaps in the alleyways in that section and some more annual crops. We will continue to play with cover crops in the other sections that won't be planted into this year.

5 Star Nursery and Orchard
Zone 5, Brooklin, ME
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