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Sod mulch for apples

Apple root diagramI learned last week that the worst thing you can do to your soil biology is to grow grass under your fruit trees.  So I was surprised to read that Michael Phillips grows grasses in his orchard.  His technique, though, is nothing like the often-mowed lawns found in other orchards.

Michael uses gravel directly around the base of his trees to prevent any weed growth.  Outside this gravel circle, he mulches his young trees with rotten hay.  Once the trees have reached bearing age, though, the purchased mulch gives way to what he calls a sod mulch system.

Under these mature trees, grasses and broad-leaved weeds are allowed to grow outside the gravel ring until the petals fall from the apple flowers.  Then the groundcover plants are cut and the resulting hay is spread beneath the trees, shading out most of the plants it initially grew from.  The quickly rotting hay combines with compost to give the apple tree a quick boost of fertility, but the weeds are able to grow back through the next spring to create another year's mulch.

A 1923 study showed that this sod mulch system gave two to four times the yield compared to simply growing lawn beneath the apple trees.  On the other hand, some apple varieties responded slightly better to the surrounding soil being tilled and planted with a cover crop annually.  I like the direction I've been going in with comfrey under my fruit trees, but sod mulch would definitely be worth a shot if I was running an entire orchard and needed to mechanize the process.

This post is part of our Growing Organic Apples lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

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