Cover Crops in the Home Orchard

Cover Crops in the Home Orchard


This article will present to you the advantages and disadvantages of using cover crops such as grasses and perennials in your home orchard.

Grass Cover

The use of a permanent cover crops such as orchard grass and white clover in a home orchard promotes the development of good soil structure, prevents soil erosion, facilitates the penetration and percolation of moisture into the soil, reduces the need for additional nitrogen (nitrogen–fixation ability of clover), significantly reduces or eliminates the use of herbicide inputs, can improve fruit colour and taste, and results in earlier hardening-off due to less vigour in the tree.  In areas that the fireblight disease is very prevalent, the use of permanent cover crops is essential.  The competition between the permanent grass and the fruit tree becomes intense and the fruit tree responds by growing a significant amount less than if the field was cultivated.  The incidence of fireblight does decrease proportionally with the reduction of growth rate from the fruit tree.

The main disadvantages of using a permanent grass cover over keeping the soil devoid of vegetation are nitrogen needs are greater (if a percentage of clover is not used), moisture content in the soil is less during a period of drought, the mouse damage can be much greater than in a cultivated orchard and the permanent grass orchards provide habitat for pesky insects such as the plum curculio and apple maggot.

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There are some ways you can overcome the disadvantages of permanent grass cover.
  • Both the nitrogen and moisture problems can be solved by mulching with compost. It is compost that releases fertilizer over a long period of time, retains moisture and promotes the establishment of micro-organisms that help make some important elements found in the soil available to the tree roots.  Compost should be applied at the drip line of the tree to help increase the fruit yield.
  • The mouse damage can be eliminated by using the white plastic trunk wraps.  It is important the vegetation is cut short before the snowfall so that there is very little residual food left for rodents.
  • The insect problem can be greatly reduced through an intensive sanitation program (picking up and disposing of dropped fruit).


Perennial Cover

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The planting of perennials such as goldenrod, rhubarb, daylilies and monarda as a cover crop between the trees in the row is becoming more popular. These perennials and many more are available from Bylands. The perennials attract beneficial insects that will in turn control some of the pests, control the weeds growing in between the trees and create diversity and beauty in the usual apple tree monoculture. The rhubarb serves both as another food supply and its large leaves help smother many of the competing weeds. The planting of legumes such as lupines, alfalfa, clover and soybeans help improve the soil by fixing nitrogen that is readily available to the trees. The deeply rooted alfalfa and clover can draw elements from the lower parts of the soil that are normally unavailable to the tree roots. It is important to plant only a few plants of alfalfa and clover since they are very aggressive and can quickly take over the site.

The establishment of cover crops in your orchard is a greater investment in time than keeping the soil “black” using cultivating tools such as a hoe and a roto-tiller. However, the promotion towards healthier trees, better fruit quality and creation of a diverse ecosystem makes this endeavour rewarding and worthwhile.

Happy Gardening!

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Photo Credit via Houzz