American Journal of Alternative Agriculture


Understory cover crops in pecan orchards: Possible management systems

Robert L. Bugga1, Marianne Sarrantonioa2, James D. Dutchera3 and Sharad C. Phataka4

a1 Information Analyst, Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program, University of California, Davis, CA 95616, and was formerly Postdoctoral Fellow and Research Associate, University of Georgia Department of Entomology, Coastal Plain Experiment Station, P.O. Box 748, Tifton, GA 31793–0748.

a2 Coordinator of the Legume Program, Rodale Institute Research Center, 611 Siegfriedale Road, Kutztown, PA 19530.

a3 Associate Professor, University of Georgia Department of Entomology, Coastal Plain Experiment Station.

a4 Professor, University of Georgia Department of Horticulture, Coastal Plain Experiment Station.


Annual legumes and mixtures of annual legumes and grasses can perform several functions as understory cover crops in pecan orchards, such as providing nitrogenrich organic matter to improve soil fertility, or by sustaining lady beetles and other arthropods that may aid the biological control of pecan pests. Remaining questions concern selection of appropriate plant materials; whether to use cover crops singly or in mixtures; how to ensure reseeding as well as a substantial N contribution; whether, when, and how to use mowing and tillage; and fertilization options. Different considerations apply when dealing with cool- vs. warm-season cover crops. With minor adjustments, growers could adapt present cultural practices to include cool-season cover crops. These could be used throughout the orchard, by establishing appropriate self-reseeding species and avoiding both excessive mowing and indiscriminate placement of N-rich fertilizers. Within alleys, alternating 2-m strips of cool-season cover crops could be tilled in mid to late April or allowed to mature. The tilled strips would supply N to pecan trees immediately, whereas the adjoining untilled (remnant) strips could be mowed after seed is mature, to ensure dispersal of seed and reestablishment of cover crops over the entire alley. Cool-season annual legumes that die or are killed in late spring will probably furnish N and other nutrients at a suitable time, particularly in orchards with sprinkler irrigation. Warm-season cover crops, if desired, should be restricted to alleys to reduce possible competition with pecan. Alleys provide better illumination than do tree rows during periods when pecan trees are in leaf, and the tillage mentioned above will encourage emergence of warm-season cover crops. If these die or are killed in late summer or early fall, timing of N release may not be optimal, in the absence of adequate irrigation. Many options and tradeoffs need to be explored before choosing a cover-crop system. Attimes, several objectives may appear to conflict, and even delicately-managed mixtures of species may not fulfill all the desired functions.