Apple Growing

Cultivation And Cover Cropping

In its broad sense cultivation is the treatment of the soil. Thus understood orchard cultivation includes the sod mulch system as well as the stirring of the soil with various implements. In its more common and restricted meaning, however, cultivation is the stirring

of the soil about plants to encourage growth and productivity. To have the apple tree in sod was once the commonly accepted method of orchard treatment--a method of neglect and of "letting well enough alone." With the advent of more scientific apple culture the stirring of the soil has come to be the more popular method. But within the last few years an improved modification of the old sod method, known as the sod "mulch" system, has attracted much attention because of the success with which a few men have practiced it. For a correct understanding of these practices and of the relative desirability of these systems we must again turn to underlying principles and purposes. It may be said on first thought that tillage is a practice contrary to nature. But it accomplishes what nature does in another way. Tillage has been practiced on other crops than trees for so long that we think of it almost as a custom. There are, however, scientific and practical reasons for tillage. THE EFFECTS OF TILLAGE on the soil are three fold, physical, chemical, and increasing of water holding capacity. Tillage affects the soil physically by fining and deepening it, thus increasing the feeding area of roots, and by bringing about the more free admission of air warms and dries the soil, thus reducing extremes of temperature and moisture. Chemical activities are augmented by tillage in setting free plant food, promoting nutrification, hastening the decomposition of organic matter, and the extending of these agencies to greater depth. Tillage conserves moisture by increasing the water holding capacity of the soil and by checking evaporation. Of all these things which tillage accomplishes in a soil, two should be especially emphasized for the apple orchard, namely, soil moisture and soil texture. That moisture is a very important consideration in the apple orchard the effects of our frequent droughts are ample evidence. The amount of rainfall in the Eastern States when it is properly distributed is fully sufficient for the needs of an apple tree. By enlarging the reservoir or water holding capacity of the soil and by preventing the loss of water by evaporation, an excess of rainfall in the spring may be held for later distribution and use. As a rule, the improvement of a poor soil texture is as effective as the supplying of plant food and much cheaper. The latter is of no consequence unless the plant can use it. Scientists tell us that there is an abundance of plant food in most soils. The problem is to make it available. Plant food must be in solution and in the form of a film moisture surrounding the smallest soil particles in order to be available to the fine plant rootlets which seek it. Good tillage supplies these conditions. Can they be obtained equally well in another way? It is claimed by the advocates of the sod mulch system of orchard culture that it also supplies these conditions. Humus or decayed vegetable matter holds moisture. Grass or other mulch decaying in the soil increases its humus content and hence its water holding capacity. By forming a mulch over the soil evaporation may be checked to some extent, although probably not as effectively in a practical way, as by cultivation. If there is a good grass sod in the orchard, moisture and plant food made available by that moisture are utilized, and if the grass is allowed to go back into the soil it continues to furnish these elements to the tree. But there is a rapid evaporation of moisture from the surface of the leaves of grass. In fact, grass may well serve to remove an excess of moisture in wet seasons, or from wet lands. Laying aside theoretical considerations, let us see what practical experience teaches on this subject. We have the accurate data on a large number of western New York orchards showing the results of cultivation and other methods of soil management. These data are overwhelmingly in the favor of cultivation. In Wayne County the average yield of orchards tilled for five years or more was 271 bushels per acre, as compared with 200 bushels per acre for those in sod five years or more but otherwise well cared for,--an increase of thirty-five per cent. in favor of good tillage. In Orleans County, under the same conditions, the increase in yield due to cultivation was forty-five per cent. and in Niagara County it was twenty-two per cent. Records were made on hundreds of orchards and the results should be given great weight in determining the system to be practiced, as intelligent consideration of trustworthy records is to be encouraged. These results were obtained in one region under its conditions and it is quite possible, although not probable, that other conditions might give different results. There are, however, special conditions as will be pointed out later, under which the sod mulch method might be more advisable than tillage. It is cheaper, makes a cleaner cover for the drop fruit, avoids the damage from tillage implements to which tilled trees are liable, and can be practiced on lands too steep to till. It often happens, too, that it fits into the scheme of management on a general farm better than the more intensive and specialized system of cultivation. And it must be remembered that we are dealing with this question from the point of view of the home farm rather than of the commercial orchardist. So that where the sod mulch gives equally good results it would be preferred under these conditions.

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