Vineyard cover cropping practices have been refined in Mendocino
and Lake counties over the past 15 years. When organic and sustainable
winegrowing began in the late 1980s, many of the cover crop species
were selected from agronomic crop farming systems. While these were
well-suited for bringing life back into the soil, they
werent ideal species for a vineyard. Many were simply too
energy-intensive to farm; too vigorous, grew into the trellis, produced
too much biomass to manage easily, or produced too much nitrogen
in the soil.
Following multiple trials conducted by the author and cooperating
growers, we have identified a broad plant palette from
which to choose in addressing specific cultural issues in vineyards,
such as protection from soil erosion while building soil structure,
organic matter, and overall soil quality.
Cover crops are now recommended that better fit the architecture
of a vineyard and the farming system that growers find appropriate
for their vineyards.
In Mendocino and Lake counties, both conventional, sustainable,
and certified organic farming systems use cover crops. The differences
between cover crop farming practices in these systems are slight.
Organic winegrowers do not use any herbicides or synthetically processed
concentrated fertilizers. They rely on compost for nutrients. (Compost
also makes a significant contribution to the goal of building soil
carbon, as it contains fairly stable humus-like compounds.)
Under-vine weed control is done mostly with tillage tools. Both
winegrowing systems use many of the same cover crop species, managed
in similar ways.
This report will examine how organic wine growers select cover cropping
systems, and what techniques are used to grow and manage them in
North Coast vineyards.
Importance of cover crops
Cover crops are a tool to help winegrowers manage their soils in
They help to:
- PROTECT SOIL FROM EROSION: The foliage of cover crops reduces
the velocity of raindrops before they hit the soil surface, preventing
soil from splashing. This prevents slaking of soil aggregates
and sealing of the soil surface. (When this occurs, runoff increases,
along with soil erosion). The roots of the cover crops bind soil
particles together, improving soil structure and water penetration,
while preventing the soil particles from moving.
- REGULATE VINE GROWTH: Cover crops can be used to both invigorate
vines (augmenting soil nitrogen from nitrogen-fixing legumes)
and devigorate vines (root competition from non-legumes with the
vines for nutrients and water).
- IMPROVE SOIL FERTILITY: Besides increasing soil nitrogen, decomposed
cover crops increase the soil cation exchange capacity. Therefore,
the ability of a soil to hold and exchange nutrients increases.
Additionally, nutrients are often chelated into organic complexes,
and are more readily exchanged from these substrates than from
inorganic clay minerals. Since many organic growers also apply
compost, this also adds to the fertility of vineyard soils.
- IMPROVE SOIL STRUCTURE & WATER HOLDING CAPACITY: Initially,
cover crop roots help aggregate soils as fine roots penetrate
the soil profile (especially grasses). Cover crops with large
tap roots help to create macropores when the plants die, and a
void is left from the decomposing roots. These macropores greatly
assist the movement of air and water into the soil profile.
Soil organisms using the decomposing cover crops as a food source
create waxes and other sticky substances that hold the fine particles
into aggregates, lowering bulk density and improving soil tilth.
As organic matter increases in the soil, so does the soils
ability to hold water.
Physical improvement of the soil is important, because, large
root systems are very desirable in organic winegrowing. Since
soil nutrient concentrations may be lower than conventionally
farmed vineyards, and since many organic winegrowers prefer not
to irrigate, a root system that forages through a larger area
of the soil profile is more likely to provide what a vine needs.
Many organic winegrowers feel that relying more on the soil than
on a bag of soluble fertilizer applied through the drip system
to provide water and nutrients will be a better expression of
a vineyard sites terroir.
- ENHANCE BIOLOGICAL DIVERSITY IN THE ROOT ZONE: Organic matter
is a food source for macro- and micro-organisms. Many of these
organisms assist in recycling cover crops into the soil, while
improving soil physical qualities in the process. Particularly
noteworthy are increases in earthworm populations; they are a
good indicator of soil health and improved physical conditions.
Increased biological activity occurs in the soil after the incorporation
of organic matter from cover crops. Researchers have clearly shown
that these organisms can reduce damage from root pathogens by
inhibiting their growth and development.
- PROVIDE HABITAT FOR BENEFICIAL GENERALIST PREDATOR, PARASITOID
INSECTS & ARACHNIDS (SPIDERS & MITES): Since pest management
strategies in organic winegrowing emphasize reliance on nature
and the use of soft chemicals, it is important that
beneficial arthropods are abundant and in close proximity to the
vineyard to control harmful insects and mites.
Cover crops can provide habitat and food for beneficial insects
at different stages of their life cycle. They also provide habitat
for prey, such as aphids, mites, caterpillars, and other creatures.
Research entomologists have a difficult time understanding the
dynamics of pest and prey relationships in the cover crop, and
their effects on grapevine canopies. Regardless, growers report
experiences of reduced leafhopper and mite problems when cover
crops are planted in lieu of conventional insecticide applications.
- PROVIDE FIRM FOOTING FOR HARVEST & CULTURAL OPERATIONS:
When no-till, sod-forming cover crops are planted, the resulting
firmer footing makes vineyard operations during wet weather more
feasible. This can enable harvest, pruning, and spraying during
- IMPROVE AIR & WATER QUALITY: Water quality laws are being
increasingly enforced, and vineyard water runoff needs to be free
of silt and excess nutrients. Cover crops help to prevent erosion.
Nitrogen formed by legumes is less mobile than soluble nitrogen
fertilizers. Cover crops assimilate free nutrients in the soil,
and stabilize them during periods of high rainfall. During the
dry periods of the year, cover crops help reduce dust, improving
air quality. This also helps to reduce the problem of mite infestations,
which intensify under dusty conditions.
cropping farming systems
Choosing a cover cropping farming system will depend on the relative
vigor of the site; water availability in the soil; viticultural
objectives (increasing or decreasing vegetative growth); and pest
management objectives for insect, mite, and weed control. Following
are discussions of several different approaches.
Annually tilled and seeded: The majority of growers using this system
choose it to conserve moisture in their vineyards. Cover crops are
planted in the fall, allowed to grow until some point in the spring
when the ground can be easily cultivated, and then mowed and tilled
into the soil. This operation is often timed when the cover crop
is flowering, as it will decompose easily at this stage. This system
is best suited for relatively flat vineyards in which soil erosion
is not a serious hazard.
Cover crop species typically used in this system include annual
small grains (barley, oats, triticale), winter peas, common vetch,
bell beans, daikon radish, Persian clover, and other annuals that
grow well during the cool months.
In upland areas prone to soil erosion, where water is not available
for irrigation of either the vines or the cover crop, it is highly
recommended to use straw mulching or compost overs (coarse
particles between one and two inches in size) to minimize the loss
of soil from the vineyard while waiting for the cover crop to start
growing in the fall.
This farming system is tillage-intensive, and soil is exposed to
sunlight during the summer. Loss of soil structure and organic matter
occurs if tillage is excessive. Regardless, many growers using this
system believe it allows them to grow very high quality fruit without
irrigation or concentrated fertilizer applications.
Many people like the looks of cultivated vineyards, and this often
is the method of choice near expensive and attractive winery facilities
(particularly in Napa Valley).
Non-tillage vineyard floor management with
annual cover crop species
In a no-till system with annual cover crops, the vineyards are tilled
initially and seeded with species that will reseed themselves on
an annual basis. Thereafter, the vineyards are mowed in spring and
early summer. Tillage is restricted to only beneath the vines. Subterranean
clovers, rose clovers, crimson clover, red clover, berseem clover,
bur medic, bolansa clover, and Persian clover are all suited for
this farming system. Grasses that can be used include Blando brome
and Zorro fescue.
Another no-till approach is planting annual cover crops that are
not self-reseeding, such as oats, barley, peas and vetch, with a
no-till drill. This approach is useful when tillage could cause
erosion, and it is desirable to keep tillage to a minimum. Usually,
seeding is done just before fall rains. The cover crop is simply
mowed and left to lie on the soil surface.
vineyard floor management with perennial species
Perennial species are most commonly used in vineyards planted on
fertile sites. Many of the perennial grasses are very competitive
with grape vine roots, and will have a devigorating effect on the
vineyard. This may be desirable if the vineyard is seriously out
of vegetative balance.
There is a range of cover crops that vary from being slight to very
competitive. The fine fescues (hard fescue, creeping red fescue,
and sheep fescue) are the least competitive, grow very short, and
Turf selections of perennial rye grass and tall fescue are intermediate
in their competitiveness. They have fairly low stature, and require
mowing only once or twice per year.
Pasture selections of perennial rye grass, tall fescue, and orchard
grass are the most competitive, and can have a tremendous impact
on vineyard vigor. They should be planted on only the most vigorous
sites with deep soils.
These grasses may also be used in parts of the vineyard that are
prone to erosion, or places where it is desirable to reduce dust.
Seasonal waterways, vineyard roads that arent heavily trafficked,
turn-around areas, staging areas, or other places where the soil
needs to be protected are potential sites for these grasses.
There is a good case for including perennial legumes in a sward
of grasses, as they will supply nitrogen for the grasses. Unfortunately,
they may also attract rodents such as voles and gophers, which can
damage grapevines. Despite this potential problem, many growers
also include white clover, strawberry clover, alsike clover, and
birdsfoot trefoil in a perennial mix. These species provide not
only nitrogen for the grasses, but also habitat for generalist predator
and parasitoid insects.
Some growers have had success planting perennial grasses alone,
and then,after two or three seasons, planting annual legumes into
the sward. If the annual legumes and perennial grasses are initially
planted together, the legumes will shade the grasses out, and a
poor stand of perennial grasses is likely to occur in the sward.
California native grasses can also be used as cover crops. Favorites
include pine blue grass, mokulemne, and molate red fescue as less
competitive species; and California brome, meadow barley, and blue
wild rye as more competitive choices. Seed is expensive for these
grasses, and they are not as competitive with weeds in some cases
as other pasture grass species used as cover crops.
It is important to let these grasses flower late in the spring,
in order for them to accumulate carbohydrates in their root systems,
which improves their persistence and competitiveness with weeds.
Tilled and no-till farming systems
Some growers use different farming systems in alternate tractor
rows to moderate vigor, incorporate compost, provide diverse habitat,
or for aesthetic reasons. One system commonly employed uses a no-till
approach of self-reseeding annuals for three years in alternate
tractor rows, with annually planted and plowed down cover crops
in other tractor rows.
After three years, the planting systems are switched to alternate
tractor rows. Perennial species are also used in this way. In most
cases, this approach is used on more vigorous sites not prone to
Cover crop rotation
Over time, cover crops can develop pests and pathogens that make
it difficult to reseed the same species year after year. That is
one reason why mixes are planted, as the effect of planting the
same species annually seems less pronounced when a mixture of diverse
species are used.
Sometimes, growers will use completely different species from year
to year, such as mustards or radishes, followed by legumes, which
are then followed by annual grains. Other growers take the approach
of mixing all three together simultaneously, believing that there
is an adjustment in species composition in the sward to the particular
seasons growing conditions.
Cultural practices for cover crops
Cover crop seed should be purchased from dealers who sell quality
seed that has been tested for viability and is free from weed species.
Under organic certification laws, growers are obliged to attempt
to source organically grown seed. Unfortunately, this is nearly
impossible for many of the small seeded cover crops, which are not
even grown in the U.S. You are required to document in writing for
your certification records that you attempted to purchase organic
seed, even though conventionally grown cover crop seed can be used
in organically-certified vineyards.
Being agronomic crops, most cover crop species grow best when planted
in a well-prepared seed bed with adequate fertility. Usually, this
requires two diskings, harrowing, and firming the soil with a ring
roller or cultipacker prior to seeding. If the ground is somewhat
compacted, it may be necessary to shallowly rip the area to be planted
to a depth of about 12 inches with a tool bar and shanks, especially
where wheel traffic occurs in tractor rows.
Seeding can be done with several different implements. For small
areas, hand broadcast spreaders (belly grinders) can
be used. Tractor-mounted broadcast spreaders are also used for larger
areas, but are not very precise. Seed drills are the best choice
when expensive seed is being planted and accurate placement is required.
Most seed drills use two soil-cutting blades called coulters, which
are set at acute angles to each other. These cut a slit in the soil,
with seed metered from a box above them, falling through tubes that
open between the coulters. Small wheels are located behind the coulters
to pack the soil firmly after the seed is deposited. Another alternative
is a ring roller attached to the seed drill that firms the soil
Slit seeders can also be used for no-till seeding. These utilize
a device similar to a rototiller, except that the cutting blades
are flat, and not bent at right angles like the bolo tines typically
used on a rototiller. The seed box is mounted above the tiller,
and seed is directed into the slits, packed by a ring roller mounted
on the seeder. This seeder works best with cover crop species that
have considerable seedling vigor.
SEEDING & IRRIGATION SEASONS
Cover crops are usually planted in the fall, and rely on fall rains
to begin germination. In cooler, shorter growing season areas, many
vineyards are equipped with overhead sprinkler systems for frost
protection. It is very helpful to seed early, and then irrigate
the vineyard with an inch of water from late September to mid-October
to start the germination process. Small seeded cover crops and perennial
species definitely benefit from early seeding and irrigation to
start germination. If rains dont come immediately, additional
water may be required.
Perennial species can also be seeded in the spring, at the same
time that warm season summer cover crops are seeded. Late April
and early May are when these covers can be planted. In many respects,
it isnt the best time to seed perennials, as they need moist
soil conditions to develop an extensive root system, which is more
likely to occur with fall seeding. For perennial species, mowing
will be needed to reduce competition from annual summer weeds. Irrigation
will benefit both types of cover crops.
Cover crops need specific nutrients to grow well. Many organic growers
use compost, which in most cases will adequately provide what the
cover crops need. Compost made from a mixture of animal manure and
grape pomace (50:50 mix) normally has enough NPK to get the cover
crops off to a good start. Rates vary, but most growers will start
with one or two tons per acre applied annually. In subsequent seasons,
less material will be used.
In the North Coast, legumes respond well to applications of rock
phosphorus one season, physically incorporated into the soil, followed
by liming the next season. Applications should be made based on
soil tests to ensure that the proper quantity of materials are applied.
Popcorn sulfur is needed in some high rainfall areas, specifically
for the legumes.
SPRING TIME MOWING
Most cover crop species benefit from spring time mowing, as it can
eliminate shading from faster growing weed species, and promote
tillering, or expansion of the plants crowns. For low-stature
cover crops, this should be done just before they transition from
the winter dormant/basal rosette stage into mature growth and flowering.
On the North Coast, this usually occurs in early March, about the
same time that prunings are being shredded. It is usually done in
the same equipment pass.
Large stature annual cover crops are often clipped at bud break
(removing anything growing above 18 inches) to reduce frost hazard
for emerging vine growth. Tall cover crop swards are not desirable
at this time, as they can impede air movement and increase the tendency
of young shoots to freeze or develop Botrytis shoot tip rot.
If the vineyard is going to be disked, the maximum addition of nitrogen
from legumes occurs when the legumes are incorporated into the soil
as they are blooming. Many growers will first shred the cover crop
with a mower, and then disk it in. This will also improve decomposition
rates, as smaller crop residues decompose faster than large ones.
Timing is very important, as the soil must still be moist enough
to easily till-in the crop. Maximum nitrogen release occurs about
three weeks after incorporation, assuming that the soil remains
Additional tillage may be required to fully incorporate all residues,
usually in tillage operations spaced about 10 days apart. A final
pass is often made with a ring roller to pack the soil firmly so
that it is easy to walk on, and looks attractive.
LATE SPRING & SUMMER MOWING
Self-reseeding annual cover crops are mowed in late spring and early
summer after seed-set in order to minimize dry residual growth that
might be flammable, and also to mow down summer weeds. For perennial
cover crops, several mowings might be required to keep the foliage
from growing excessively tall.
If California native grasses are used, there are some advantages
to letting the plants flower in June and then mowing them. Even
though there can be large amounts of foliage present, this approach
allows the grasses to accumulate more carbohydrates in their root
systems, so they survive summer dormancy better than if they are
Cover cropping is an important component in organic winegrowing
systems. Growers enjoy numerous choices in species and farming systems.
Organic winegrowing does not limit any cover crop choices, since
the same crops are available as in conventional winegrowing systems.
Choosing a cover cropping system should be very site-specific. Growers
must consider their style of farming, yield and quality objectives,
and any other criteria that they consider important.
- Ingels, C., R. Bugg, G. McGourty, P. Christensen, 1998. Cover
Cropping In Vineyards A Growers Handbook UC ANR Publications
#3338, Oakland, California. 162 pages.
- McGourty, G. 1994 Cover crops for North Coast vineyards.
Practical Winery & Vineyard 15 (2): 815.
- Miller, P.R., W.L. Graves, W.A. Williams, B.A. Madson, 1989.
Cover Crops for California Agriculture. UC ANR Publications #21471