Date of Award:

2016

Document Type:

Dissertation

Degree Name:

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Department:

Plants, Soils, and Climate

Advisor/Chair:

Jennifer Reeve

Abstract

Fruit growers in Utah and other areas across the Intermountain West are faced with growing production challenges stemming from declining soil quality and water resources. Population growth presents challenges in terms of the cost and availability of land, but also presents opportunities in the form of new marketing options such as organic fruit. Few certified organic fruit orchards are operating in Utah currently, which is attributed to a lack of locally tested and adapted organic management practices. An organic peach orchard trial evaluated the effectiveness of different organic management approaches to enhance soil quality and conserve water without compromise to fruit tree growth and fertility. Two tree-row treatments: ‘straw mulch' (Triticum aestivum L.) and ‘living mulch’ (Lobularia maritima (L.) Desv.) were tested in combination with two alleyway groundcovers: ‘grass’ (Festuca rubra L. with Lolium perenne L.) and a legume, ‘Birdsfoot trefoil’ (Lotus corniculatus L.). The novel systems were compared with industry standards, tillage and weed fabric tree-rows with grass alleyways. Trefoil alleyway biomass deposited into tree-rows contributed an estimated 6.24 kg biomass and 0.21 kg total N/tree annually. Trefoil treatments had higher levels of organic carbon (C) and nitrogen (N), inorganic N, microbial biomass and enzyme activities, suggesting trefoil alleyways enhanced soil nutrient cycling, as well as C and N reserves in comparison to grass and tillage treatments. A functional gene array analysis was conducted to describe the mechanisms, microbial functional composition and diversity underlying the observed soil processes, however few differences were detected in soil community structure between soils under different orchard floor management.

Significantly lower leaf δ15N in trees grown with trefoil compared to grass, and an association between root biomass, diameter and trunk cross-sectional area (TCSA) suggests nitrogen sources derived from the trefoil groundcover contributed to improved fruit tree vigor. Few differences resulted among orchard treatments for water use (mm/week). Trends indicated slightly higher water use in trefoil over grass, but not enough to offset observed soil quality and tree growth benefits. These findings suggest, trefoil alleyways may provide ecological benefits such as improved soil quality and efficient nutrient cycling, without substantial increases in water use.

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