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Companion cropping for organic field vegetables (OF0181)

Wolfe, M. S. and Cormack, W. F. (2002) Companion cropping for organic field vegetables (OF0181). ADAS, Terrington.

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Online at: http://www2.defra.gov.uk/research/Project_Data/More.asp?I=OF0181

Summary

Typical organic crop rotations are extensive with at least one year in four as a fertility building crop. However, the economic viability of organic systems may be compromised by having 75% or less of the farm productive at one time, limited further by the absence of the Arable Area Payments Scheme, particularly Set-aside, for vegetable crops. In addition, the system gives rise to a high fertility/low fertility sequence which is inefficient in terms of nutrient management (particularly nitrogen). To try to address this, the use of permanent beds of companion crop grown alongside the vegetable crops has been developed under various conditions around the world and is perceived as a possible alternative in organic husbandry. Companion crops also have the potential to reduce the impact of pests and weeds. A potential disadvantage of companion crops is competition with crop plants for space, light, water and nutrients. The companion crop, therefore, is likely to have to be mown or grazed to control competition and encourage nutrient transfer. On the positive side, companion crops have the potential to reduce the impact of pests, and weeds. The challenge is, therefore, to develop appropriate crop layouts and machinery to balance these interactions and result in profitable crop production.
Project OF0181 was delivered with Elm Farm Research Centre and was guided by a Steering Group. The core of the project was the further development and evaluation of a seven-crop companion crop system initially developed by Professor Martin Wolfe at Wakelyns Agroforesty, Fressingfield, Suffolk, a Soil Association registered organic farm. The system was based on 1.5 m beds, with three 20 cm vegetable rows alternating with 30 cm leguminous companion strips. Within each bed, there was a seven-course crop rotation: potatoes, alliums, Umbellifers, spring oats, legumes, brassicas and spring wheat. To establish and manage this system, Martin Wolfe and his co-workers (P. J. & M. J. Wards) had by spring 1999 developed a range of purpose-built machinery including a strip rotavator, 3 row precision seed drill, straight tine or L-blade strip cultivator with/without discs, rotary strip mower, strip irrigator and a strip compost spreader.
Two large experiments were established at Wakelyns in spring 1999; it was planned that these be continued for the full three years of the project. One experiment compared a factorial combination of a) three companion crops: white clover, vetch and nil, b) companion crop mowings left to fall, or deflected onto the vegetable rows, and c) the presence or absence of added composted manure. A second experiment compared factorial combinations of winter cover crops of rye and vetch grown in the vegetable rows with additional approved inputs of phosphorus and potassium. All seven crops were grown but assessments were made only on brassicas, alliums and carrots.
Conclusions
Companion cropping has the potential to improve economic viability, and pest, disease and annual weed control in organic cropping systems, particularly in field vegetables which are not supported by the Arable Area Payment Scheme. However, in practice, in project OF0181 these benefits were not realised:
• Grass weeds were favoured and were difficult to control once established.
• There were problems with seedbed preparation and crop establishment; these may be less on lighter soils.
• Some crop species were better suited to companion cropping. In 2000 and 2001, there was:
- a high yield in both years from beetroot, spinach, chard and kale;
- a high yield in one year from Brassicas (some cabbage, swede, turnip), endive, lettuce, parsley and parsnip;
- a low yield in both years from Allium crops (leeks, onions), Brassica (sprouts, some cabbage, calabrese), carrots, celeriac, broad and dwarf beans.
• Clover used soil available nitrogen in preference to fixed nitrogen, starving less competitive crops such as alliums of the nutrient and resulting in very low yields.
• Even with reliable yields, companion cropping in the form tested may only be suited to small-scale labour-intensive production.
A system with greater spatial separation of companion and vegetable crops, with vegetables and companion crops grown alone in separate beds or strips, may give the reported benefits of companion cropping with less competition and be practical for large scale production.


EPrint Type:Report
Keywords:companion plants, vegetables, crop nutrition, pest control, weed management, intercropping, rotations, machinery, interspecific competition, economics, knowledge transfer, nitrogen transfer, computer modelling
Subjects: Crop husbandry > Crop health, quality, protection
Soil > Nutrient turnover
Crop husbandry > Crop combinations and interactions
Farming Systems > Buildings and machinery
Crop husbandry > Production systems > Vegetables
Knowledge management > Education, extension and communication > Technology transfer
Farming Systems > Farm economics
Research affiliation: UK > Organic Research Centre (ORC) - Elm Farm
UK > ADAS
UK > Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA)
Deposited By: Defra, R&D Organic Programme
ID Code:8074
Deposited On:07 Apr 2006
Last Modified:12 Apr 2010 07:33
Document Language:English
Status:Published
Refereed:Not peer-reviewed

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