Cover Crops Bring HLB Recovery

Ernie NeffCover Crops, HLB Management

Ed James uses cover crops in his grove to improve production.

About eight years ago, Ed James had given up on a grove that was ravaged by HLB in the Howey-in-the-Hills area. “I had abandoned the grove,” he says. “I was going to fix the soil to plant alternative crops. And when I started fixing the soil with cover crops, the trees turned around and started producing again.”

On Nov. 15, a University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) Soil Health Field Day attracted about 40 to his grove. Attendees saw how well the grove has recovered from HLB and heard from several UF/IFAS researchers invited by commercial fruit production Extension agent Juanita Popenoe.

“It (the grove) had gone to zero production,” James recalls. “A lot of it I’d pushed out. It’s producing pretty good now, about 300 boxes an acre if you take out the resets.”

James says the keys to rehabilitating the grove after the ravages of HLB included “rebuilding the soil health and the cover cropping and focusing on a really healthy soil.” Another key he cites was getting more organic matter in the topsoil. In his case, he says, he fixed the soil “and the trees fixed themselves.”

The cover crop provides “virtually 100 percent of the nitrogen” in the grove, James says. He does apply potassium and some other elements. He says the grove is “a lot more financially sustainable” because of the fertilization money he saves.

James uses about a dozen different annuals as cover crops, including legumes, brassicas, broadleaves and grasses.

“You can’t go cold turkey” from applying fertilizer to utilizing only cover crops for nitrogen, James says. “You have to ease into it, but it’s far more affordable than buying the fertilizer.”

“It’s not for everybody,” James says of his grove program. “It’s a little out of the box, but it works great in my case.” He adds that “there’s a learning curve” to managing a grove the way he does. “There’s a lot more to it” than just planting cover crops, he says. “For me, it’s not only profitable again growing citrus; it’s fun.”

Read more about his efforts and hear an interview with James:   

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About the Author

Ernie Neff

Senior Correspondent at Large