Cover crops can be one component of orchard floor management, but are not a “system” alone. Cover crops are important in maintaining soil structure, encouraging water infiltration, reducing erosion, reducing mud and dust, and maintaining an acceptable driving surface for equipment. A good cover crop can be established with grasses, broadleaf plants such as legumes, or both, although a uniform plant stand is often easier to manage than one made up of multiple crop species. A cover crop should establish itself quickly and thereafter should not require much maintenance. It should be chosen and managed so that competition with trees is minimal.
Grasses are the most common cover crops in orchards. Many different grasses and grass mixtures are available, so orchardists can choose what is best suited to each particular situation. Several low growing perennial rye grasses are available and allow easy orchard access even when headed out.
Legumes can be used as alleyway cover crops to grow additional nitrogen in the orchard. Mowing and discharging the nitrogen-rich plant material in the tree row effectively bands the nitrogen next to the tree roots. Plant adaptability to the Intermountain West climate greatly influences the legumes that can be considered. Alleyway-grown alfalfa has been shown to produce 50 pounds of nitrogen per acre in an orchard system. A drawback to this type of system is the lack of control over the timing of nitrogen availability. If the nitrogen becomes available late in the season, then this could create a flush of shoot growth that would delay hardening off of the orchard tree and increase susceptibility to early winter injury. Considerations on the time of mowing could appropriately add the nitrogen according to tree needs, and limit potential negative effects. Alfalfa does not hold up well to wheel traffic, and is not shade tolerant enough to persist in older orchards.
Intermountain Tree Fruit Production Guide