June 1, 2021

The potential benefits of managed wildflower strips in apple and pear orchards on soil health

Written by: Max Davis.

A consciousness identifying the need for sustainable practices within agriculture can be traced back thousands of years. Ancient Romans were aware of the degenerative effects of continuous agricultural production on soil[1]. Today, modern agricultural systems are still linked with dwindling ecosystem services and processes, and declining biodiversity. Contemporary research approaches aim to identify the effects of increasing plant biodiversity in agricultural systems. Purposefully integrating diverse, non-target plant species to agroecosystems has been linked to enhanced soil processes and multiple benefits to physical, chemical, and biological soil health indicators[2].

My research investigates the potential benefits of managed wildflower strips in apple and pear orchards on soil health. Most of my time over Autumn/Winter was spent in the lab analysing samples, but a recent lifting of restrictions allowed me to undertake fieldwork for the second time in my project. Following on from a trip last September to collect samples to benchmark orchard soil health, I travelled down to Kent this April. The purpose of this trip was to collect soil cores for my next experiment. We sampled commercial orchard plots planted with and without wildflowers. Despite one of the sites not receiving any rainfall for six weeks, sampling was significantly easier than last autumn, much to our relief.

The soil cores are currently being used for an incubation experiment in which they will be put under drought stress. Trace gases (CO2, CH4, and N2O) will be collected at regular intervals to gauge the drought resilience of orchard soil under different management approaches. Additional cores have also been included in the experiment to determine the composition of the microbial communities before and after drought.

Looking forward to sharing my results with you going forward!

[1] Olson, L. (1945). Cato ’ s Views on the Farmer ’ s Obligation to the Land. Agricultural History, 19(3), 129–132.

[2] Faucon, M. P., Houben, D., & Lambers, H. (2017). Plant Functional Traits: Soil and Ecosystem Services. In Trends in Plant Science (Vol. 22, Issue 5, pp. 385–394). Elsevier Ltd.