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Selecting Ground Cover in Orchards and Vineyards

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When it comes to orchard and vineyard management, the pursuit of efficiency in combination with the principles of sustainably has become an art. Many practices have taken on multiple functions. No longer is the orchard or vineyard looked at as collection of separate, individual elements. Folks are becoming aware of the entire system and how each practice influences every other aspect of the orchard or vineyard. One such management method, the practice of planting ground cover or living mulch between rows, is becoming the norm in many situations. While there is no perfect floor management system or magic “do-all” ground cover, there are some plant species that will help increase efficiency while minimizing the negative issues associated with ground covers. 

The Benefits of Ground Cover in Orchards/Vineyards

There are many reasons why you should consider planting ground cover on the floor of your orchard or vineyard. The biggest reason is to reduce soil erosion. Without something to “knit” the soil together, you’ll soon end up with a muddy mess and a degraded soil void of nutrients. Machinery and equipment wheels also benefit from the added traction that ground cover provides. Ground covers also help suppress weeds which, if left to spread, quickly suck up vital moisture and choke out desirable plants. Other benefits include improved soil structure, improved water-holding capacity, added nitrogen, added organic matter and ability to attract beneficial insect pollinators. 

White Dutch Clover as a Living Mulch

ground cover between rows by jcookfisherOne popular ground cover, or “living mulch”, is white Dutch clover. White Dutch clover is a great choice for orchard/vineyard floors. It’s persistent and widely adaptable to a variety of regions. Its dense, spreading root system offers excellent erosion control and weed suppression. White clover rarely grows more than a foot tall and, once established, performs well in the shade of an orchard/vineyard. Bees and other pollinators love clover and are attracted to its honey-scented blossoms. Clover is tolerant of a wide range of soil types and prefers regular moisture. 

Nitrogen Fixing Attributes

But perhaps the biggest advantage to using white clover as a ground cover in orchards and vineyards is its ability to fix nitrogen. Clover is a great source of natural fertilizer thanks to the relationship it shares with the soil bacteria Rhizobium trifolii. This bacteria attaches itself to the root nodules of legumes such as clover and “fixes” atmospheric nitrogen into ammonium. In fact, a healthy stand of white clover can fix between 100-170 pounds of nitrogen per acre per year. This can be especially valuable in organic operations where synthetic fertilizers are not used. 

Perennial Grasses Such as Sheep Fescue

ground cover in vineyard by Southern Foodways AlliancePerennial grasses are also a good choice for orchard/vineyard floor management, especially when supplemental irrigation is not possible. Sheep fescue is particularly valuable. Thanks to its low-growing habit, dense fibrous root system and low water requirements, sheep fescue is able to suppress weeds while minimizing its impact on surrounding trees and vines. It can be left unmowed or cut short to provide a more turf-like look. These perennial grasses, such as sheep fescue, can also be partnered with white clover to create a dense, vigorous ground cover. 

There are many other types of legumes and grasses, both annual and perennial, which can be used as living mulch and ground cover in orchards and vineyards. To find out what works best for your area and needs, consult your local Cooperative Extension office or visit our Ask the Expert page.

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