Planning for new Orchard - Cover Crops?

jcoenenSeptember 21, 2013

I recently purchased 15 acres of land and plan to build a house on it and use the rest of the land to grow fruit trees/bushes. Right now it is covered in soy beans which will be harvested by the farmer renting the land and I will be left with a blank slate of bare soil. The soil is a mix of silt loam that is very good farmland and the other half is loamy fine sand which is not as good though at least from the crops grown on it this year I do not see a noticeable difference. The land had been pasture for a number of years up until recently so there is a chance the soil has actually been improved over the county soil description. I plan to get some soil tests as soon as we close on the property to see where things stand.

My question is I plan to plant a cover crop in the spring to prevent soil eroison and possibly control any native weeds I may not want to establish themselves on the property. I am a new when it comes to raising fruit trees/bushes/farming so with building a house next spring and doing my homework and planning my orchard I am doubtful I will be planting too many trees/bushes (Apples,Pears,Peaches,Cherries,Blueberries,etc) next year and either way I will be starting small. Which means a majority of my land will not be planted for a number of years.

I am looking for advice on what best to plant on the land that will improve the soil and be beneificial to have around while I establish my orchard or at a minimum not impossible to get rid of if needed. I would like to have some kind of perennial cover crop as like I said it will take a while for me to get going so I am looking at this as a multi-year project, but want to make sure I don't plant something that will be a pain to deal with in the future once my orchard is established. I plan on buying a tractor and would be able to mow whatever cover I have. I am guessing a variety or mixture of crops would be best. I am on the border of Zone 4/5. Any advice would be greatly appreciated

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A couple thoughts, Buffalo grass is a good place holder until you plant then will be low maintenance in the orchard. Alfalfa is my other thought depending on your time frame for this. It fixes nitrogen in the soil and is a one time plant then 2 harvests per year. Although once you plant trees in an area your spacing won't allow room for alfalfa harvest. I don't know how well you would like it in your orchard, it does get tall. If I remember right alfalfa is good for 7 years after planting, and potentially longer depending on what starts to creep in as the alfalfa gets weaker. I guess a 3rd idea, I bought "Pearls premium" lawn grass seed because it never gets very tall and I hate to mow. It would serve the same roll as buffalo grass.

    Bookmark   September 21, 2013 at 11:58PM
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THere is one thing: Many of those "native/naturalized weeds" are some of the best cover crops! Also, in theory there are no native weeds, just plants that we dont want in the yard.. For some people that can be oak trees!

First off are clovers - White and red. Cold hardy, attracts bees and parasitic wasps (beneficial). They have massive roots for soil retention. You can make tea from them as well. They are also a nitrogen fixing plant which aids other plants.

Dandelion - Thats right, dendelion. One of the earliest flowers here, so it attracts insects first thing. You can make butter wine and eat the young leaves like lettuce. The best thing is the fact their tap root goes so deep it collects minerals from hardpan and sub soil. They basically aerate your soil while putting minerals and nutients on the soil surface. The thing is they will eventually be ut competed wiehn your soil profile is filled and undisturbed.

Strawberry - How can you get any better then a ground cover plant that fruits? Strawberries are native to much of the US (F vesca) and make great ground covers. The varieties that produce runners will ensure that you really dont have to do too much to get them to spread. Strawberries have roots that can go 10 feet into good soil.

Lupine - These guys are awesome plants. They fix atmospheric nitrogen (like almost every legume), are native, hardy, produce massive root systems and have some of the best flowers in the garden. Bees LOVE these guys along with a plethora of beneficial insects. You usually see them in ditches but they are not limited to moist soil.

THere are also a few shrubs that will work with coppocing ( basically cutting them down by half or more in early summer). The one that comes to mind for up here are caregana AKA siberian pea shrub. Hardy, can take being cut down to the ground and regrowing can be used as fodder as well. Once summer comes unto ful swing and these guys are floweriing you cut them down to what ever height you decide and lay down the cut material around the trees as mulch. These fix nitrogen as well. They can also be hacked down every year and still survive for 20 - 50 years.

You should also use some annual cover crops like vetch. Any pea will do this as well. The same with beans. At the end of the season after you harvest, in the first few years of establishing the yard, these should be dug into the soil, and then use a cold season grain planted on top to be cut in the spring.

Alfalfa is great as well... Perrennial, large roots, hardy and fixes nitrogen....

Interplanted in all of this should be flowers. I hated flowers when I first started gardening but the more i put in the more insects arrive. The flowers will attract beneficial insects to aid in pest control and pollination. These can be short native shrubs like some rose species (which also have hips you can eat and cook with). Things like flax, poppy, herbs (rosemary parsley, mints, oregano, lemon balm etc), native and non native lily and iris, black eyed suzan, coreopsis..... at this point the list is endless and should be done to personal taste!

Some perennial grasses will work as well. The thing is in terms of cover crops the trick is diversity. Diversity can protect and build your soil and help protect your plants from stress therefore disease and infestation. I personally advise against only lawn. It causes its own problems. You want a variety of root depths to ensure proper soil retention. Only grass is generally one level of root structure. The higher the diversity of plants and trees, the more root structure therefore the greater soil retention.

    Bookmark   September 22, 2013 at 9:01AM
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fruitnut Z7 4500ft SW TX

I'm glad you recognize the need to start small. Your soil and site may not even be suitable for anything more than a home orchard. When you start talking 15 acres of orchard there is huge expense and a steep and long learning curve.

Few people realize that in areas like PA, MI, and NC the successful orchards are all in very small areas with the very best soils and climatic conditions. Most of those areas are on high ground with deep soils. The good soils on bottom land are too frost prone.

I'd think you'd do better with something like tall fescue and clover mix. But my real recommendation is that you need professional help from the local extension service.

This post was edited by fruitnut on Sun, Sep 22, 13 at 10:20

    Bookmark   September 22, 2013 at 9:15AM
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