By Sarah Strauss
The recent rains are a good reminder that it’s time to start thinking about planting summer cover crops. Despite the name, cover crops are not plants that are harvested for profit. Instead, they are planted as an investment in soil health. Annual or perennial plants can be used as cover crops in citrus groves. But, if you want to plant annual cover crops, now is a good time to start planning.
One of the critical steps to ensure successful annual cover crop growth in a citrus grove is to time planting with the beginning of the rainy season. Cover crops in citrus generally do not receive fertilizers or irrigation, so make sure there’s rain to help germination right after you plant the seeds. In citrus groves, cover crops are often planted using seed drills or by broadcasting the seeds.
Planting mixes of annual legumes and non-legume cover crops can help increase the benefits to soil. Annual legume cover crops can provide nitrogen to the soil. Some of the annual legumes that have worked well in University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) trials include sunn hemp, cowpea and clovers. Mixing legumes with non-legume annual crops, such as millet, buckwheat and oats, provides more carbon for the soil, which also helps soil microbes and nutrient cycling.
Cover crops have many benefits, including reducing weed growth. But many of the benefits come from cover crop plant inputs to the soil. The compounds released from cover crop roots, along with the decomposition of the dead cover crops, provide resources for soil microbes. More resources for soil microbes can lead to more activity and different types of microbes, which can result in changes in soil nutrient availability.
UF/IFAS has several ongoing research projects to measure how cover crops are helping soil health in Florida citrus. Researchers have measured big changes in the number and type of microbes in soils with cover crops. While cover crops in citrus are generally only planted in the row middles, citrus roots are growing in the row middles, and changes to the microbes surrounding citrus roots in soils with cover crops have been measured.
For more details on cover crop research and other tips for planting cover crops, check out past articles on cover crops in Citrus Industry and a new article coming in the June issue.
Sarah Strauss is an assistant professor at the UF/IFAS Southwest Florida Research and Education Center in Immokalee.
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