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Cover cropping strategies prior to orchard planting

Posted by Clair Kauffman 
Cover cropping strategies prior to orchard planting
December 17, 2012 07:56AM
I would be interested in hearing about your favorite succesion of cover crops prior to orchard planting. In addition to your thoughts on preferred crops, succession, timing, etc., be sure to note what type of soil you have and if your approach has relevance to orchard replant issues.

Currently, we alternate a time or two between rape seed and sorghum sudan grass, sometimes leasing the land for a summer corn crop. If we are concerned about replant disease, we might do an additional year of rape.

We have had good success with this approach, although I have a hunch there are other options/considerations that would be to our benefit.

Clair Kauffman
Zone 6b, Lancaster, Pennsylvania
Re: Cover cropping strategies prior to orchard planting
September 20, 2015 09:38AM
I would also be interested to hear about this.

We are clearing a monocrop pine copse for a new orchard. This is reclaimed Maine pasture land, meaning on top of the fact that it was a pine forest, the soil is naturally acidic. The topsoil is extremely thin, and as Will Bonsall (who lives a couple of towns away) describes it, digging in this region is really an exercise in quarrying — a 10-lb stone here, a foot away, a 20-lb stone, and so on. The drainage in this spot is pretty good but it is flanked on one side by a brook and on the other by a wet area that floods in the spring and in the rest of the year is covered by ferns and mixed deciduous/conifers. So the water table is high but I think we're OK in the area where the pines are now coming down. The pines had excluded all light so the floor is mostly bare, covered with pine needles and a little grass and moss here and there. In general we have both patches of clay and areas of sandy loam and they tend to be pretty close to each other, in a patchwork. Right now we're cutting down the pines and the immediate plan is to rake up the pine needles and if there's time, lay down some red clover for overwintering. We don't plan to have heavy equipment come in to pull out the pine roots.

In the spring, we plan to lay down deciduous wood ashes to neutralize the pH. Now, we could lay down a combination of red clover and oilseed radish, which would help the drainage and give us some cover. But frankly, we need to build soil. I have read that oats/field peas/vetch builds the soil fastest and frankly right now I don't know if the existing soil has the fertility to support that. I have thought of using alsike clover to get some greenery established. There is also the option of laying down areas of ramial mulch here and there and building the tilth gradually as that decomposes. So these are various options, and I wonder if anyone else has some good ideas.

Shelah Horvitz
Savage Cider Orchards
Zone 4b
Weld, ME



Edited 2 time(s). Last edit at 09/20/2015 09:44AM by Shelah Horvitz.
Re: Cover cropping strategies prior to orchard planting
September 20, 2015 10:39AM
Likely your soils have more fertility than you're giving them credit for. Did you take any soil samples? If not, you should. They will identify any "nutritional" holes on the site. Outside of that, you will still need to build fertility on the new site to one degree or another. Given the time of year, there isn't a lot of time to plant anything now, though winter rye and peas will/can be planted to provide some winter cover ahead of next spring. And if you feel there is enough time, the oilseed radish (daikon) can provide the fall cover crops with fertility into the deep winter. Depending on when you're planning on planting trees, I prefer to start in the spring with sudan grass just for pure biomass and it will out compete weeds. Midsummer mow it down and you can begin with your summer cover crops (vetch/mustard/peas/etc). Then in early September plant perennial rye/oats + clover + buckwheat to go into winter (2016-17). Then by the time you plant in the spring of 2017 you'll have built up the soil to a point that trees should establish very nicely. Even if your intent is to plant in the spring of 2016, you can still use this rotation in the row middles to build up the soil. Don't forget the mulch/compost + microbial sprays/inoculants to active the soil biology so all the decomposing soil detritus is available to the cover crops + trees.

Mike Biltonen, Know Your Roots
Zone 5b in New York
Re: Cover cropping strategies prior to orchard planting
September 20, 2015 11:31AM
*Very* interesting. Thank you, I will try this!
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