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Orchard and Vineyard Ground Covering Methods

Covering the ground beneath our crops with grassy cover serves as an essential method. Here's a step-by-step process for implementation.

by BioGrow

The ground covering (or groundcovering) is an agronomic technique widely used in organic agriculture. It is used in both orchards and organic vineyards. Essentially, it involves covering the ground occupied by the main crop with grassy coverage, controlled through periodic mowing. The biomass resulting from this is left on the ground and serves several functions. In this article, we try to understand the advantages of this technique compared to traditional soil treatments.

Additionally, we illustrate the most used and efficient herbaceous species for the success of this technique.

The advantages of ground covering

In traditional agriculture, ground covering is used to preserve heavily sloped terrains from erosion caused by atmospheric agents. Water and wind in cultivated lands often cause significant soil losses. Ground covering protects against erosion thanks to the root system of the herbaceous species, which acts as a soil binder. Through this practice, soil losses can be reduced by up to 95% compared to cultivated lands. Apart from this classic function, ground covering in organic agriculture presents numerous other advantages. These include plant vigor, water stagnation reduction, increased biodiversity, economic savings, and more. Let’s take a detailed look at these advantages.

Increase and conservation of organic matter

The mowing of herbaceous species is left on the ground, constituting both a layer of natural mulch and organic fertilization. This is fundamentally important for balanced plant nutrition. The grass cover also improves the transfer of phosphorus and potassium into the deeper soil layers. This is facilitated by the organic matter released during the cyclic renewal of roots. Initially, we have organic nutrition in the superficial layers. Over time, this reaches deeper layers. When the grass cover is stabilized, and thus the ground covering is permanent, the need for classic organic fertilization is reduced.

Improvement of soil structure

The increase in organic matter leads to better soil aggregation and, simultaneously, improves soil porosity. This translates into increased water absorption capacity and greater aeration of the deeper layers. Consequently, there is more water and air for the roots, enabling healthy plant growth.

Increase in load-bearing capacity

Compared to frequently cultivated land, groundcovering improves the load-bearing capacity, i.e., the ability to support the passage of agricultural machinery. This can be very advantageous during harvest, especially in extensive vineyards and orchards.

Economic savings

Another advantage of ground covering is the absence of cultivation. This naturally results in evident economic and environmental savings. Agricultural diesel fuel pollutes and is increasingly costly. Not to mention the cost of the many hours of work that non-covered land would require.

Increased biodiversity

The permanent vegetation due to ground covering promotes the presence of fauna, that is, insects. These can be useful (bees, ladybugs, natural predators) but also parasites. Over time, thanks to high biodiversity, a natural balance is created, reducing the need for human intervention in crop defense.

Control of plant vigor

Competition between the grassy covering and the main crops naturally controls plant vigor. This results in fewer pruning interventions. Reduced vigor also decreases the presence of diseases favored by excessive vegetative growth.

Reduced water stagnation

As we’ve seen discussing the main fruit tree crops (cherry, pomegranate, peach, almond, walnut, mulberry, lemon, fig, persimmon, loquat, hazelnut etc.), water stagnation is one of the main problems to address. Ground covering reduces this issue, improving both water absorption and excess water drainage.

Disadvantages of ground covering

The main problem due to permanent ground covering can be water competition between the lawn and tree plants. This situation can be problematic, especially in arid lands and in the absence of irrigation water. For this reason, total permanent ground covering is carried out only under conditions of high risk of soil erosion and only in excellent water availability conditions. If water is limited, it is best to opt for temporary ground covering, namely cover crops, or partial permanent ground covering. In the latter case, leaving non-covered areas is sufficient (i.e., normal cultivation practices are enough).
Another issue that ground covering can cause is an increase in the risk of frost. In covered lands, the ground temperature tends to be lower than in cultivated ones.

Natural and artificial groundcovering

Vineyard groundcovering

Ground covering can be natural or artificial. In the former case, it is achieved by allowing flora to grow without human intervention. Costs are low, but the final result is not always good. This is because it takes about 2-3 years to obtain dense coverage, which sometimes lacks the desired characteristics. Artificial ground covering, on the other hand, involves the direct sowing of a mixture of different species. Herbaceous species with heterogeneous characteristics are sown, usually 4-5 species of grasses, with varying percentages of legumes. With this ground covering, a grass carpet with good resistance to trampling is obtained quickly. Moreover, the cover has decent competitiveness against weeds (and not against the main crop) and good longevity.

Sowing period and seed material

Ground covering is sown at different times of the year. The most favorable periods are from mid-September to late October and from late January to mid-March. After a final superficial soil treatment, it is broadcast seeded, with the seed being pressed down to a depth of 1-2 cm using a rake or roller. For successful results, it’s essential to choose low-growing varieties that are not tall forage grasses. The average amount of seed required is 50 kg per hectare. Naturally, seeds with adequate organic certification must be used.

Managing ground covering

Ground covering in orchad

Ground covering needs to be managed correctly by mowing at the right time. As we’ve seen, mowing allows the release of essential nutrients for plants. If the cut grass is immature, rapid mineralization occurs, leading to a loss of organic fertilization potential. When the grass has reached the right maturity, stable humus formation is encouraged. This increases nutrient absorption by the soil. The best time for the first mowing is immediately after flowering. For a second cut, at least 15 days should pass.

Main Herbaceous Species Used for Ground Covering

Here are the characteristics of the main herbaceous species typically used for ground covering.

  • Lolium perenne. Also known as English ryegrass, this grass ensures quick soil coverage, suppressing weeds rapidly and stabilizing sloping surfaces. It has a short lifespan (2-3 years). Over time, it gives way to more aggressive species like fescues. It has low cold and drought resistance but responds well to moist conditions.
  • Festuca arundinacea. A highly productive grass but water-demanding. It thrives in irrigated and fertile soils, where it’s useful for curbing plant vigor. It has excellent longevity and provides abundant clippings and good support.
  • Festuca ovina. A slow-establishing grass more suitable for dry soils than others.
  • Poa pratensis. A grass with a slow establishment period that fills gaps left by other species. It has high trampling resistance and a long lifespan. It has low water and nutritional requirements and doesn’t compete significantly with main tree species.
  • Festuca rubra. This grass establishes more slowly but eventually prevails due to its longer lifespan, up to 10 years. It’s small-sized and requires fewer clippings. It shows low competition with primary tree crops and has excellent cold resistance but less tolerance to drought.
  • Trifolium repens. It’s the classic white clover, hence a leguminous plant. Ground covering with this plant significantly enhances soil fertility and structure. Its deep root system contributes nitrogen to the soil. It adapts well to clayey and calcareous soils, is highly productive, and durable.

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