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Traditional and cover crop-derived mulches enhance soil ecosystem services in apple orchards

Webber, S. M., Bailey, A. P., Huxley, T., Potts, S. G. ORCID: and Lukac, M. ORCID: (2022) Traditional and cover crop-derived mulches enhance soil ecosystem services in apple orchards. Applied Soil Ecology, 178. 104569. ISSN 0929-1393

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To link to this item DOI: 10.1016/j.apsoil.2022.104569


Organic mulches are a traditional method of groundcover management in temperate commercial orchards, now largely replaced by herbicides and synthetic fertilisers. As a potential contribution to improving orchard sustainability, we hypothesised that the addition of organic mulches would: (H1) improve soil fertility and lead to greater tree growth and yields; (H2) support a larger and more biologically active community of soil organisms, assessed as increased soil respiration and greater earthworm numbers and biomass; and (H3) increase leaf litter decomposition and burial, potentially reducing the risk of apple scab disease (Venturia inaequalis). Cuttings from two legume-based cover crop mixtures grown in the alleyway spaces between tree rows and two traditional mulch materials, straw and compost, were trialled alongside a bare soil business-as-usual control for two years, using a randomized complete block design in a conventionally managed commercial ‘Gala’ apple orchard in the UK. Compared to the control, the compost mulch significantly increased both soil carbon and nitrogen by over 50 %. The straw mulch effectively suppressed weeds by about 90 % and increased soil moisture by about 5 %. Cover crop cuttings increased moisture levels and increased earthworm numbers and mass by 1.7 and 1.8 times greater respectively in the double-rate ‘legume-grass’ cuttings treatment. Increasing the quantity of cover crop cuttings produced more positive effects; the cumulative addition of cuttings can benefit several soil-derived ecosystem services. This study took place in a commercial apple orchard, the findings may therefore be applicable to other orchard and row-grown perennial crops.

Item Type:Article
Divisions:Life Sciences > School of Agriculture, Policy and Development > Department of Sustainable Land Management > Centre for Agri-environmental Research (CAER)
ID Code:105817


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