Have you planted a green manure crop this year?

A few weeks ago we recommended planting a green manure crop as one of the fastest and easiest ways to improve your soil before you plant fruit trees. This week we’re showing you what the crop should be looking like by by now, and what to look for.

A green manure is a fast-growing crop of (usually) annual plants, and it’s one of the quickest ways to improve soil fertility and add organic matter to your soil.

The last couple of times we’ve planted new orchards, we’ve first put in a green manure crop before we’ve planted the fruit trees because we’re always aiming to increase the biodiversity under our fruit trees—it’s one of the best ways we can provide the right habitat for useful insects that help us keep the pests under control.

Sas planting a green manure crop in the nursery
Sas planting a green manure crop in the nursery

This year we planted a green manure in the block where we’ll be planting the new nursery in winter. The seed mix included grasses, legumes (nitrogen fixers) and herbs – grasses to add bulk organic matter to the soil, the legumes to add nitrogen, and the herbs to add a diverse mix of nutrients. If you’re not sure what seed to choose, you can check out our recommended plant lists (and even some suppliers of organic seed, if you’re in Australia) in this short course.

We’re always aiming to increase the biodiversity in our soil – it’s one of the best ways we can provide healthy soil to grow trees, as well as habitat for useful insects that help us keep the pests under control.

The more diversity you can get into your garden, the healthier your fruit trees (and all your other plants) will be. And if you’re growing your own food, you definitely want that food to be as healthy and nutrient rich as possible.

Clover starting to grow
Clover starting to grow

It’s always a good sign to see lots of clover seedlings coming up. We particularly like having clover because it’s a nitrogen fixer (taking nitrogen from the air and putting it in the soil where the trees can use it).

Clover is quite spreading and so out-competes less useful weeds, and it self-seeds so it will persist in the orchard for years.

Experience has shown us that even though we plough green manure crops back into the soil before we plant the trees, plenty of clover seedlings will still come up, and over time it will gradually spread throughout the orchard floor.

A bean plant in the green manure crop starting to grow
A bean plant in the green manure crop starting to grow

Before we plant the new nursery in July, we’ll be turning the crop in. We use a rotary hoe, or the disc behind the tractor, but in a home garden you can either turn it in with a shovel, or just mow it and leave it on the soil – it’s not quite as good, but the worms will eventually take that lovely organic matter underground for you.

Getting ready to plant a new tree
Getting ready to plant a new tree

One of the unfortunate consequences of using large macinery like a disc is that disturbing the soil so comprehensively provides the perfect environment for opportunistic weeds such as capeweed (below).

Beautiful but unpopular capeweed
Beautiful but unpopular capeweed

We appreciate all our weeds, and even the much-despised capeweed has many fine qualities, but it’s not the plant we prefer to see in the orchard, as it tends to out-compete more useful plants, without conferring the benefits of a nitrogen-fixer.

Just one word of warning – if you are going to turn in your green manure crop, try to leave at least a couple of weeks between doing so and planting your trees, because the rotting green material can become quite hot as it breaks down, and you don’t want to burn the roots of your baby trees!

So in a classic case of “do what we say, not what we do”, here’s our top 4 tips for looking after your soil when you plant your fruit trees:

  1. Plant a green manure crop
  2. Turn it into the soil at the site where you are going to plant a tree, preferably a few weeks before you plant
  3. Disturb the soil as little as possible when planting the tree
  4. Re-seed the area with preferred understorey plants.

4 thoughts on “Have you planted a green manure crop this year?”

  1. Hi, thanks so much for your awesome emails!
    Just a quick question; is it too late now to sow a green manure crop? It will be under existing mature fruit trees. I’m in the Wimmera (Victoria) area..

    Regards, Graeme.

    1. Hi Graeme, thanks for the vote of confidence, really glad you’re finding the info useful.

      No, it’s not too late to plant a green manure crop, especially under mature fruit trees, you just may not get a heap of growth before the cold of winter stops it growing, depending on what you plant. Choose either an autumn-specific green manure seed mix, or if you’re buying the seeds separately, look for ‘winter active’ plants to include.

  2. Hi guys ,loving ya work:) I have had to severely prune Avery old apple after many years of feral care( or lack of) should a green manure crop be planted in a circumstance as this, or will the comp for nutrients be too bad.
    Also I will be building a thermal greenhouse and wondered if you have come across anyone who has attempted fruit trees at central vic locations?
    In advance many thanks paula

    1. Hi Paula, glad you’re enjoying what we’re doing. It depends what’s already under the apple tree, but it never hurts to plant a green manure – they add more nutrient to the soil (and therefore make available for the tree) than they take away, so you can go ahead.

      Check out Trace and Ronnen at the Daylesford Longhouse – they’re building a massive and wonderful shed/indoor garden that includes fruit trees, well worth a look: https://daylesfordlonghouse.tumblr.com/tagged/about.

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