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low maintenance orchard groundcover suggestions

 
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Hi all,
I have about 1/2 acre orchard planted with a large verity of fruit trees and vines in central valley California zone 9a. This will be year 4 for the orchard. There are also 20 15yo walnut trees on the north side of the orchard. I have turf grass in between rows and silage plastic in the tree rows for weed control. I have pop up sprinklers every 8' in the center of the grass lanes and drip tubing under the plastic for the trees.
I attempted to emulate Stefan Sobkowiak's permaculture orchard.

I am a busy business owner and new dad to two boys under 2yo, plus I garden about 8000sqft of annual veggies- needless to say I don't get to spend as much time on the orchard as i would like...

My main issue is that the plastic is falling apart and allowing weeds through. I would like to remove all plastic and replace with a groundcover that will not girdle the trees, but will thrive in my climate. I would definitely prefer a mix of species. Id like to maintain the grass lanes with my mower and not maintain the tree lanes, so nothing that grows more then 2-3' tall and nothing that spreads too aggressively.

I was thinking about mixing a bunch of seed and doing a broadcast in the tree rows.

Does anyone have experience with a project like this or have suggestions for species that I should include in my seed mix? Suggestions in management practices in general?
Screenshot-2024-04-05-143445.png
aerial photo of orchard
 
pollinator
Posts: 289
Location: Grow zone 10b. Southern California,close to the Mexican boarder
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We are using a wildflower lawn alternative from American Meadows. You can pick where you live and what the conditions are, on their website and they will give you options of mixes and single seeds that will work for your needs and are native to your location too. I spread them out about 3 weeks ago and they are all slowly coming up now.
 
pollinator
Posts: 167
Location: Colrain, MA, USA
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To Nick Van Horn:

A great 2 hour chestnut orchard establishment video by Tom Wahl suggested that vigorous pasture/meadow plants would harmfully compete with the chestnut trees, and suggested a mix of white dutch clover and specified lawn grasses [ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PAf1lUrqSq4&t=2s&pp=ygUSY2hlc3RudXQgZXN0YWJsaXNo ].

This reminded me of a presentation years ago by Jackson Madnick, a member of: https://www.pearlspremium.com/ . The presenter explained that the grasses and plants in this mix establish very slowly, discouraging the unknowing; grow slowly, thus needing less mowing, and withstand drought and hardship well, with their deep roots.

I wonder if Pearl's premium or similar slow-growing groundcover mixs would partner well with the chestnut trees that fascinate me. And since chestnuts tolerate acid soils well, perhaps an acid-tolerate low-growing N-fixing and P-accessing lupin would compliment chestnuts well.

Hope this helps,

Brian
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You might consider orchard grass.  It grows in “cool season “. I am guessing that would be from first rain in the fall through late spring for you.  It’s a perennial but grows more as a clump than spreading by runner.

In western Colorado where we have snowy winter and hot summer, it grows in the spring and fall.  In the summer it is green and if irrigated it still doesn’t grow.  You can get mowing rarely and strategically.  You can bale the cut grass or leave it in place.  Strategic mowing will build the soil by feeding the soil food web.

If you aren’t familiar with the idea of strategic mowing… the main thing is to not cut too much of the plant off.  Leave a third of the plan so that it still has decent photosynthesis ability.  Cutting off the top of the plant stimulates the root exudates.  

If you mix in comfrey (not the one that spreads by seed) it can be mowed too.  I think some alfalfa would also be good in your orchard, it’s another deep rooted perennial that feeds the soil and adds nitrogen.

I don’t agree with the idea that deep rooted ground cover plants necessarily take nutrients away from the fruit trees.

Chickens would be in heaven in your orchard!

I had an ancient productive apricot orchard.  I let the fruit tree ripen, then preserved a lot, as well as sold the tree ripe fruit which many people are SO thankful for.  Most orchards pick “hard ripe” or green ripe, for shipping and storage.  The bright flavors of tree ripened fruit are hard to find.  A lot of fruit ended up on the ground.  The chickens loved the fallen fruit… they also loved grazing the grass.  My dairy goats loved their turn in the orchard too, but I had to fence them away from trunks and low limbs.

Green Cover Seed is expert at making custom cover crop blends …. They design the mix based on the orchardist’s goals and priorities

https://greencover.com/

I’ve heard the owner speak at soil health conferences several times.  They are a tremendous resource, quite knowledgeable about an astonishing number of plants!

Good luck!  And have fun.

 
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How about sweet potato.  According to google it's perennial in zone 9.  It would provide a creeping vine ground cover and an extra harvest if you want to dig some of them up.
 
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Location: Washington, zone 8B, gravelly sandy loam, PH 4.8, 40 in/yr, warm dry summer - wet cool winter
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Maybe crimson clover.  It's an annual but reseeds well, can be contained by mowing around the edges and is a nitrogen fixer.  
 
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I am not going to recommend a specific plant, because the orcharding I've done was large scale and it, all, had grass for ground cover.  What I will do is offer warnings that may or may not apply, depending on where the orchard is located.

One year, my associate insisted it would be ideal to let nature run its course and not mow the orchard.  I told him I had no real idea why orchardists spend millions a year, around here, mowing their orchards, aside from that it kept the grass from interfering with irrigation and made thinning, pruning and picking far easier, so more efficient.  Anyway, that there must be a good reason hands spent their entire summers just mowing.

When spring came, we learned one of the major reasons for at least keeping the grass down around the trees.  In our small orchard, mice girdled 150 of the trees.  The grass kept the snow off the ground and made for a great mouse empire.

All that said, we grew about five acres of spelt, which we bagged ourselves, using the processing plants sewing machines.  While there, I noticed bins of graded seeds. Things like mustard greens, kale and so on. It was all going to feed pigs, and they told me I could take all I wanted. I filled a few jars figuring we have lots of weeds anyway, so many of them might as well be something we could harvest [along side the lambs quarter, mullen and so on].

That was fine on the fringes of the orchard, because taller plants were not as big a problem to irrigating, picking and so on there.
 
Brian Cady
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Are deer an issue there? Here in New England now they are:

https://northernwoodlands.org/articles/article/effects-deer-forest-ecosystems

Brian
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Some grasses, particularly deep rooted grasses absolutely compete with trees for nutrients . I’ve read several studies about it. I used to have a big chart that listed dozens of plants and gave then letter grade rankings for their ability to help or hinder tree growth (studies were specifically for black walnut).

My dad also has planted about 5000 pecan trees… meanwhile he is also using these fields for hay and has them full of fescue…. The trees have grown very very slowly. I’ve tried to explain to him why… but he isn’t exactly receptive to understanding that he spent the last 8 years making this problem himself.

Anyhow, nitrogen fixers are nice ground cover as they can aid in your trees growth. Hairy Vetch is a top choice.
 
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I use comfrey, candy cane mint, and buckwheat. Covered with a light layer of woodchips to cover the bare spots. I still have some grass come up but the mint does most of it.
 
pollinator
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Location: zone 4b, sandy, Continental D
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Welcome to Permies, Nick!. Indeed, I can only imagine how busy you can be with so many trees and little ones too!.
So you want something that is perennial in your zone but is not too aggressive and does not require too much maintenance. There are a few options:
1/ You could crop it with something short, as long as the area has to be maintained short anyway.
https://www.trueleafmarket.com/products/no-till-forage-friendly-cover-crop-mix?variant=40868492181619&gad_source=1&gclid=Cj0KCQjwiMmwBhDmARIsABeQ7xQ4_KiteGz7RU__KmJzyCJu4DbPfXy4JZ6PNHTLEj_4vQIYeq2SeIgaAvPeEALw_wcB
This is no till, forage friendly: Millet, lentils, whole oats, cowpeas, fenugreek, daikon, brown flax, turnip and mustard. Personally, the mustard is one I would not want: Beekeepers would hate you: The honey hardens in the hive, so it has to be removed as soon as possible!
2/ Perennial white Dutch clover is always great and being a legume, it would be good for trees and pollinating bees.
https://www.amazon.com/Outsidepride-White-Dutch-Clover-Seed/dp/B00164SA88/ref=asc_df_B00164SA88/?tag=hyprod-20&linkCode=df0&hvadid=193139379506&hvpos=&hvnetw=g&hvrand=11922589617329544434&hvpone=&hvptwo=&hvqmt=&hvdev=c&hvdvcmdl=&hvlocint=&hvlocphy=9019192&hvtargid=pla-308159033402&mcid=09a9b6f0ae20310b9a67eef80d071c61&gclid=Cj0KCQjwiMmwBhDmARIsABeQ7xTO5Vs7Zn-xFfJViHoND6MpgXYxE42MzT-71KuA72V9RTAgUlyVJIgaAsMfEALw_wcB&th=1
Although they say it is "perennial", after 2-3 years, it has to be renewed.
3/If you just want to keep it clean with a minimum of effort, this last option is a good one. You would just have to make sure that your soil will be a good match but:
https://www.americanmeadows.com/product/grass-and-groundcover-seeds/low-work-and-water-dwarf-fescue-grass-seed?utm_source=google&utm_medium=cpc&utm_campaign=GSN%20-%20Items%20-%20AMI%7CTop%20Seller%7CGrass%20and%20Groundcover%20Seeds&gad_source=1&gclid=Cj0KCQjwiMmwBhDmARIsABeQ7xSg0TviIvt3xql0WsVqVa_bQq4jbUIXKRbYsFevhSNIQALjlC3eUUwaAmspEALw_wcB
and American meadows a a pretty good company, to boot.
Since I am in zone 4b, and quite sandy, I observe "no mow May" and I need to go only once or twice with the mower. I just let Mother Nature grow whatever she wants [but I remove mustard without any mercy!
Let us know what you do.
 
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Hi nick
When I studied my PDC in UK with Patrick Whitefield we stayed on a farm which produced bottled apple juice. The orchard fruit trees were inter planted with comfrey, creating wonderful ground cover but also as was explained to us, the comfrey pulled up minerals from deeper than the apple tree roots and the plant could be cut back three to four times a year with
The nutrient rich leaves left in place to decompose and feed the fruit trees. Obviously you also have the medicinal and edible properties of comfrey as a benefit for us humans as well
 
Nick Van Horn
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Lots of great suggestions, thank you!
I was not aware of the cover crop mix websites, I think that is a great idea.
I do rotational work with my chickens with a chick Shaw, they do love it Vw the stationary coop they used to be in.
I have a couple flats of sweet potato slips, I will definitely put them in!

I will do more research on how deeply rooted the grasses I chose are before implementing them.

I concur on NOT letting nature choose the plants, as I have a TON of noxious weeds here. (Im surrounded by flood irrigated walnut orchards)

Thanks for the great ideas, keep them coming!
 
Thekla McDaniels
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Glad you are getting a clearer picture of the path forward for your orchard.  It won’t be long before your little ones will be running through your orchard.

I don’t know what kind of soil you have.  I have pictured you in California’s rich Central Valley.  Is your soil silt or clay?  If it’s heavy soil and compacted, I second the suggestion of radishes.  Daikon radish is a long radish.  The radish penetrates heavy and or compacted soil… I don’t think they would be a detriment to your orchard.  

There’s a frequently held belief that fruit trees have a shallow root system.  This could be an artifact of many things… a compaction layer, being a grafted tree, past practices on the soil, frequent vehicular traffic, car, truck, tractor, cattle (miserly and frequent surface irrigation doesn’t encourage deep roots or deep soil)

In my orchard my priorities were to encourage deep roots (infrequent and very deep irrigation). No fertilizers.  Vibrant soil food web.

As you move further into this process, you might want to check for a compaction layer.  A T shaped smooth metal probe about 5/8 inch diameter with a sharpened tip would be handy for this.

This current research phase you’re in may be the biggest factor in getting the orchard you want!  How do I know?  I have skipped it more than once😄
 
pollinator
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Here's one to read.

Some of the folks he worked with ran a variety of animals under the trees and there are other ideas.

https://archive.org/details/TreeCrops-J.RussellSmith
 
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Location: SE France
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Helloooo, salut,

Flowering quince in front of me and an orchestra of blackbirds serenading the cooling air as the day draws to an end.

Ground cover - it all happened intuitively or perhaps it just happened.
Will I shred the wood lying around or leave it to rot down? Bear with me, please.
I followed various permie threads about to chip or not to chip, so I did both.
The branches are ground cover and provide shelter not just for rodents and birds.

The woodchip has introduced favourable conditions for loads of wild strawberries, fantastic ground cover, already flowering.
The strawberries are under trees, in shade, in grassy areas where I mow paths for easier mobility in full sun.
The plants just arrived, nothing to do with me.
The initial effort of chipping has paid off handsomely.

Comfrey and borage are also very happy here, as is ground ivy, violette etc etc. some I’ll harvest and some chop and drop,
Is it Mr Sobkowiak? Yes it is, just checked the name. In a dvd of his about orchard maintenance, he suggested mowing one side at a time, so short one side with the cut left in situ and the other side providing some shade. Alternate mowing.

Best wishes and blessings for a fabulous healthy week
M-H

 
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I'm also a fan of Stefan Sobkowiak - he was a guest instructor in my PDC.

I can't really speak to what may grow well for you, but I do like to think of things in terms of guilds.  What will grow for you that will be useful?  What will be low maintenance?  What would bring you happiness / joy?  Do you already have a mix of nitrogen-fixing plants in the orchard?

I'd be thinking of things like nitrogen-fixer or nutrient accumulating plants, things that can be medicinal or edible, things that can do a good job covering the ground as mulch (something like rhubarb with its big leaves is one for my context), pollinator support plants (i.e. flowering), beneficial insect support (things that support parasitic wasps as example like yarrow), and so forth.  Are there some perennial herbs that would work for you (oregano, lavender, rosemary, thyme, etc.)

Are there some low berries that would grow where you are (like currants or gooseberries that should fit within your height restriction)?  

If you don't already have something in place, are you considering a juglone buffer?  That is, something that is juglone-tolerant or resistant that can grow between the walnuts and the rest of the orchard that may not be as happy with juglone?

I hope that helps the thinking process.  California's climate is so much different than ours.  Good luck.

I'm not a fan of plastic - it has its place where it is part of a more durable product, but all the packaging / thin films that break down irk me - so I'm happy to hear you're looking for healthier, longer term replacements.

 
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Nick, be careful of using meadow mixes, as they usually have California poppies in them, and as you probably know, it's illegal to remove them, even to put a driveway, they blow all over the place and eventually get everywhere.

As the other poster said, soil type is important.

As a long-term, long lasting cover, thick, thick wood chips, about 4 inches deep, does a great job.  There are websites online that can coordinate delivery, or ask around locally for maybe some less expensive source.  It might seem like a project, but it lasts way longer than it took to put into place, and really creates a rich fungi/bacterial environment.  It's also the fastest.  Saves water, and protects against high heat.  

Have you seen the Back To Eden videos on YouTube?

If you have gophers and clay soil, I don't know about sweet potatoes, but you can try.

Crimson clover, field peas, nitrogen fixers take extra water, and are temporary, but improve and protect the soil.  Trailing nasturtiums are fast, but also need water to get long and stay green.  They will turn brown before the end of the summer, but they reseed easily.



 
Thekla McDaniels
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There might be a little more to the laws about California poppies!

As a child we knew it was “against the law”, but I think now the laws apply to picking poppies on state and federal lands.. maybe county property too, but if you check thoroughly I think you’ll find it’s ok to do what you want regarding poppies on your own property.

If you want them….. you can probably go ahead, just do your own research.
 
Nick Van Horn
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More great ideas, thank you.
My soil is a sandy loam and is considered pretty fertile. I am surrounded by ag for many miles on all sides, everything from stone fruit and nut trees to row crop vegetables to table and raisin grapes and citrus. Pretty much everything short of tropical grows well here if you can get it to survive the 7-10 yearly (but very light) frosts and BLISTERING summer heat. It’s not uncommon to have multiple weeks of 110*+. Water is pretty darn important!

I do use wood chips in my gardens and flower beds as much as I can, but I can only get so much. Chip drop is usually not successful. If I could get a reliable source I would not have tried plastic.

I’m hesitant on some of the cover crop mixes because they say they won’t winter kill above zone 8, and I am zone 9. Does anyone have any experience allowing a cover crop to continue for years on end? Do things reseed well?

I have tried comfrey a couple of times but it is not very hardy in our heat. It does quite well in the winter and shoulder seasons though. I have only used the sterile version, not the kind that reseeds, although it may be safe to try considering it struggles/dies all together in summer?

Anyway, here are a couple of pictures to better illustrate. You can see two rows have plastic and the rest don’t. The middle row is the most overgrown now and I’m letting the chickens work on it before I clean it up.

Thanks all!
5983FB0A-9E9F-495B-9109-891FA97B4066.jpeg
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Lots of good ideas here. I especially want to endorse some of Marie-Helene's thoughts.  

I like to grow lots of large leafed plants; these cover the soil which prevents unwanted seeds from germinating and also helps stop grasses from sending in their rhizomes. These plants also provide mulch for bare areas, which can be utilized by simply chopping them down with a scythe, sickle or some mower. In my situation these include comfrey, rhubarb, horseradish and even strawberries. Squash could be a good option. These plants could be growing so aggressively in the row that there would be only enough space for one mower pass between the the rows to keep a pathway open. Of course, a little extra chip mulch would help in getting these established, especially the perennials. But if you mix in annuals like squash, they might partly eliminate the need for chips.

The Balkan Ecology Project has some good ideas. https://permies.com/w/balkan-ecology-project.  You may want to invest in some of their booklets.
 
I do some of my very best work in water. Like this tiny ad:
Work/trade opportunity in the beautiful sanda cruz mountains of california
https://permies.com/t/119378/work-trade-california
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