The low down on (actually) accessing the N from nitrogen fixing plants???

Discussion in 'Planting, growing, nurturing Plants' started by Infinity, Nov 16, 2015.

  1. Infinity

    Infinity New Member

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    I am trying to get my head around the productive use of nitrogen fixing plants as an actual N source in a orchard or food forest setting.

    I see a lot of talk about planting nitrogen fixing trees to do this, and I buy into this notion as an indirect source of N (from fallen leaves, chop n drop, etc), but have some reservations about the N in the root nodules actually becoming available before the plant actually dies.

    I've seen examples where orchards (Miracle farms ) are planting NF trees interspersed with fruit trees, but fail to see how this provides any direct N to the orchard.

    Do the roots die back enough to release nitrogen in the roots when the tree is heavily coppiced?


    All the reading i have done about nitrogen fixing cover crops indicates that the N in the root nodules become available only when the plant has either dies, has been killed or gets incorporated. I've read several research papers on the use of clover as a perennial ground cover in orchards, but that it had negligible or no impact on plant growth, trunk diameter etc. other than as mulch when when mowed.

    Is there any way to access the nitrogen from perennial ground covers short of incorporating them? Or do the ground covers need to be annuals that die overwinter? Would prefer a no till solution if one exists.

    Any first hand experience or references on the subject would be immensely appreciated.

    Thanks
     
  2. songbird

    songbird Senior Member

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    in all cases i'd just assume that any N fixing plant is going to do for itself what it can and then the few community plants around it may take some extra, but i would not count on it for much as compared to what happens when you chop and drop. in that case you can count the N fixed by the plant which is in the leaves as some kind of food eventually for any plants which it is used to mulch. of course how much depends upon factors like how much worm activity there is and moisture and temperature.

    the simulated grazing of N fixing plants does cause some root die back and then the worms will break down what they get to, both the chopped back parts and the roots, but again i'd count the chopped portion as the main contributor.

    i've been using chopped legumes as my main extra N source for some years now and it's working well. not all garden plants need that much extra so i pick the few heavy feeders for the first crop and then rotate other garden veggies through the area. also, i use some of what i chop to feed the worm farm. the worms eventually get back to the gardens.

    in an orchard setting, i'd not want a single cover crop as diversity of habitat will help keep more different kinds of critters around. i much more want a viable and resilient web of bugs and bug eaters.
     
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  3. DC Brown

    DC Brown Junior Member

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    Hi Infinity

    I do not have references in front of me, nor the inclination to work out where in my crackpot filing system they might be...

    From what I've read, nitrogen from a leguminous plant, as a living plant, will only benefit other plants within 15 cm of the legumes rhizosphere. The rise in soil nitrogen for adjacent plants might be attributed to soil food web cycling, where root grazers/parasites of the higher N legumes contribute to a higher total N pool in the immediately adjacent soil.

    Fixing N however, requires P. Much of this P is derived from mycorrhizal fungi which may directly degrade rock or ally themselves with phosphate solubilising bacteria. These fungi form networks across plant species and the transportation (trade) of N occurs. The rate and extent of which is largely unknown. This does however provide a pathway for N from legumes to a much wider periphery than 15 cm. But how much? How significant?

    Any orchard studies utilising chemical fertilisers will undoubtedly see negligible results from legumes. As soil N rises, nodulation decreases. As soil P and N rise, mycorrhizal formation decreases. Fungicides may be devastating to soil communities, as are many other biocides. Science is stacked with studies using all sorts of products that harm the environment while stating 'truths' about sustainable farming. I am a scientist myself, it's not all bad ;)

    As Songbird suggests, a mixed crop is better suited to an orchard, with plants for pollinators, parasitoids, deep tap rooting plants for mineral acquisition, and the N-fixers... Of the N-fixers, you are not obliged to pick one. You could incorporate trees that also act as shelter belts, fodder, fuel wood, habitat etc. You could find legumes that die off in winter, and others that die off in summer. Get self seeding annuals and the system will take it from there, the frequency and persistence of these plants over time will be determined by the soils need for them.

    A no till chop and drop of a good cover crop mix is a significant soil building event provided more plants are immediately adjacent/planted/coming through. Bare soil = bad! Soil humus (and by default soil fertility) is not made up of plant residues as is popularly believed. It is for the most part the residues of soil microbes: bacteria, archaea and fungi. This is why without the soil food web organic matter is largely lost, burnt out within a few seasons. The soil food web IS the humus source and organic matter, plants fuel this web with carbon. We feed the web, the web feeds the plants and makes humus. When microbes and fungi are present and flourishing on plant/animal products, predators arrive and their wastes release plant foods and recalcitrant portions that may become soil humus. In early stages of 'refurbishing' a soil, I recommend chop and drop, provided as I've stressed, new plants are available. Creating a lot of rich biomass for free, this is where legumes can be really significant to the big picture, as part of a mixed crop. Bringing animals in to do the chop and drop for you is ideal, provided they're not compacting the land they save a lot of work. Less work is always good. Over time the soil is returned to fertility, and attention to 'N' and 'P' can be relaxed. We come from an N and P paradigm, x amount per acre... it's difficult to take a leap of faith, especially where bills need to be paid. But really - N from legumes, P from fungi (and animals). Nature shares resources throughout entire ecosystems, animals and fungi are the distribution networks.

    I, and some friends have used oats lupins and mustard providing a mineral rich mulch with more longevity as a mulch cover than a straight legume crop. What are your local farmers using? When you chop and drop you provide long and short term N to the soil. The rhizosphere breaks down to join the soil food web, the tops (mulch) slowly break down at the (damp) soil/mulch interface. Worm (fertiliser factories) activity increases dramatically and the distribution of nutrients is subsequently increased. The most dramatic increase is in the top ten cm of soil, where many fruit trees feed, and which is now protected by mulch.

    Don't try work out how to feed and protect plants, it's desert-making madness. Feed and protect soil, fertility and plant health will follow.
     
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  4. 9anda1f

    9anda1f Administrator Staff Member

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    Excellent post DC, thank you. Follows directly with what I learned from Elaine Ingham's Soil Food Web course.
     
  5. DC Brown

    DC Brown Junior Member

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    Thank you Bill. I'd like to hear Elaine's course content, but only so much time, and money.

    And I'm a book lover (tree hater?) :D I just love me a good collection of textbooks.

    Back to the nitrogen, and my insistence on having plant populations present. Plants, as we know, are using solar energy to send carbohydrates to their root systems, some 40% of total carbon captured by plants is fated to feed the soil food web - it's that important to plants, and plants are that important to the soil food web. But there's more going on than just the soil food web.

    When volcanic, glacial or tectonic activity create a bare rock palate, the first arrivals are microscopic. Cyanobacteria are natures perfect pioneer. Small enough to be carried by wind, water and other life forms, and having both photosynthetic and nitrogen fixing capability, the atmospheric C and N required to kickstart life into gear 'arrives' with them. Where environments are too harsh they may appear partnered with fungi (lichens), which release acidic enzymes to begin the breakdown of bare rock. Their byproducts then fuel more life, and their biomass even more. And so the soil building begins. But cyanobacteria can only capture carbon on exposed surfaces, and ground is relatively 1 dimensional. It is a very slow process.

    Plants bring a 3rd dimension - both below and above ground. The potential above ground surface area for carbon capture is multiplied significantly. So is the potential colonisation of beneficial organisms, including cyanobacteria. The canopy epiphytes in the amazon accrue approximately 30% of the total N captured in the system. Bacteria and fungi live in and on the surfaces of plants in huge abundance, so that rainfall through plants is significantly higher in nutrients than that which falls on bare ground, it's not just the dust washing off.

    Chop and drop doesn't mimic nature very well, but without animals integrated into the system it does a fair job, albeit slower. Animals wastes are very high in microbial content (and by proxy N). Through grazing, animals shunt plant material along the pathway to desirable microbial by-products (plant foods and humus) far more rapidly. Provided the grazing activity leaves plant cover and easy regrowth/succession - very useful to trees in the system.

    Although a bit off track from legumes, I hope this helps paint a wider picture of N in an ecosystem. Bill Mollison speaks of 30-40 good legume trees per acre as doing a sufficient job of N capture, doesn't seem too many when you consider all the other roles they play. If a grower went for 30 and used legumes as part of the ground cover, I'd say they'd have N covered. These trees don't have to be spaced evenly. One might set up a shelter belt or two so that leaves blew into your property from the predominant winds, and fodder/mulch/wood can be harvested when appropriate.
     
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  6. Bryant RedHawk

    Bryant RedHawk Junior Member

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    Great post DC. we use a combination of mycorrhizal fungi and legumes in our orchard. The way we do this is to first inoculate the fruit tree roots at the drip line with the fungi. We give this inoculation about 3 months before we introduce the legumes just outside the drip line of the trees. Soil analysis shows that by using this two phase approach we do get an increase of available N, P and even some elevation in K right at the place of the tree roots where nutrient uptake occurs. We also tried this method for the first time with our tomato plants that were grown in straw bales, but it is to early in this test to be able to state that the same uptake increase occurs.

    Asnikiye Heca is blessed by wakantanka to have many different species of mycorrhizal fungi growing in our land. All we have to do is harvest some and then place it where we want it to grow. Where we have done this we see greater moisture holding of the soil, greater fertility of the soil and more availability of the nutrients to the desired plants and trees.

    Our Hogs are doing a great job of turning our soil and enriching it with their manure. The pasture we have them on now is far more nutrient rich than it was three months ago when we started this part of our homesteading adventure.
     
    Last edited: Nov 17, 2015
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  7. Flatland

    Flatland Member

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    i know a lot of the vineyards and orchards around my neck of the woods plant rows of broad beans between their plants for nitrogen. That maybe more use to you than clover. You will get a load of beans and while your orchard gets nitrogen. I assume any beans would do the trick. Just thinking of legumes that are of use to you as well as the trees.
     
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  8. Infinity

    Infinity New Member

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    Wow, thank you all for the wonderful feedback. Its more than I honestly hoped for.

    D.C., references or not , that was exactly the type of explanation I was hoping to stimulate with this thread. If you ever stumble across those refs, I would be indebted if you could share them.

    In the orchard we are setting up we are planning on a tree sequence that would include a nitrogen fixing tree or shrub, every 3rd to 5th tree, using them as pest and disease partitions as well as hopeful N sources. So the 15cm radius makes them viable N sources as their roots should be intermingling with the fruit trees intimately within a few years. We are planting into what used to be a dairy farmers hay field, so there is already a diverse ground cover of various clover and vetches along with an array of grasses. Our intention is to leave this in place in the aisles, either as a chop n drop or to be used as a rotted straw mulch under the trees.

    The idea of sowing some self seeding annual legumes appeals to me, as does the idea of alley cropping and secondary vegetable crop.

    I'm not sure how robust our mycorrhizal sub story is at present, but we aren't planning the use of any fungicides, hoping to rely primarily on fostering competitive colonization via compost teas instead if possible. We plan to use a mycorrhizal root dip on the trees when planting next spring and fall.

    Bryant, I had not heard much about inoculating the soil before. It sounds as though you've been very calculating in your approach. What are the advantages of inoculating the soil vs the seed directly? Is the 3 months interval to allow the mycorrhizi to propagate first?

    Thanks again
     
  9. Bryant RedHawk

    Bryant RedHawk Junior Member

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    Seed inoculation is the best method, but if you are planting a tree from a nursery (as we are doing in our orchard right now) obviously you can't use that method.
    We tried using inoculant water to water in the newly planted trees and did have some success with that method but often we found that the inoculation didn't take for what ever reason. I then started inoculating by watering the drip line after the tree was in the ground and settled in. Spot coring of the drip line showed the mycorrhizae thriving and attaching to the hair roots like I wanted. Now I water in with a B-12 solution which encourages new root growth and when the tree shows me it is sending out new roots I water the area those new roots are pushing into with the inoculate and off we go. I wait three months so there is good establishment of the fungi/root interaction before planting the legumes so both can benefit from the filaments interactions. I also have started using Sea-90 (1/2 cup per tree, spread all around at the drip line) to provide micro nutrients. This has resulted in stronger tree growth and higher disease and pest resistance than we had prior to using this product.

    When I have extra inoculant solution I use it on pasture or to help along the white oak and hickory trees on our land. I also use it in the garden beds. At this point in our development most of the cleared land has mycorrhizae growing in the soil. Next year I plan to start a mushroom operation so I can use specific species to improve the benefits to the land and harvest the fruits for our tummies and production of more inoculant solutions.
     
  10. DC Brown

    DC Brown Junior Member

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    I have watched NZ native trees (Kowhai) without N-fixers struggle and nearly die, (insect attacks, fungal leaf problems, no draught tolerance, the works) in previously chemically gardened land for almost seven years before the microbes arrived naturally. You could tell when the bacteria and the fungi finally arrived, everything around it up to the dripline was suddenly green. Dramatic change from the dead zone in the shade before it. So yes, I'm a big fan of innoculants, and self produced is obviously ideal.

    Working on a model of primordia formation of saprobic fungi right now, for kicks. :)

    https://www.jstor.org/stable/2260106?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

    The above has an abstract with some throughfall nutrient figures. I do not agree the nitrogen becomes unavailable when it hits the forest floor. 30 years ago they were still referring to the soil microbiota as a 'black box'.
     
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  11. Bryant RedHawk

    Bryant RedHawk Junior Member

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    I'm with you DC, there is a large problem with "main stream science" and that is that they forget to pay closer attention to observation than to their theory.

    We have gardens now producing for two extra months (past the time other peoples gardens are dead) these are the same garden spaces that two years ago would produce little past the first blooming period. I have used fertile teas, mycorrhizae and other fungi along with compost and mulch to bring these beds to their current level of fertility. I have observed that what works best on our homestead is to begin with enrichment of the soil with compost then add bacteria through teas then inoculate with the fungi. This mimics mother earth's methods but with a shorter time frame for arriving at the desired end. Our soil has gone from reddish, powdery, non water holding stuff to dark brown or even black friable that stays moist for three weeks past a rain in 90+ heat with 100% sun. I think we are becoming the farm I want, all natural, poison free, produce intensive with long season productivity. It has taken three years to get to where we are now soil wise. I still have lots to work on but the progress is good.

    One of the teas I make use of is created by using leaf fall, rotted wood fall, animal manures, these are stacked in a 10' long 6" diameter pipe which is then filled with collected rain water and left to sit for a minimum of seven days before the pipe is drained of liquid and refilled. The supinate is then diluted 10:1 and used to water plants or areas ready for planting. This either introduces bacteria or activates already present bacteria because it ends up an area with heavy worm activity about a week after treatment.
     
    Last edited: Nov 19, 2015
  12. DC Brown

    DC Brown Junior Member

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    It makes me happy to read your posts Bryant.

    Succession is a very important aspect of gardens that many tend to overlook - as the science of succession is typically about plants, and this occurs in time frames beyond our life span. But microbial succession also takes place, and where we encourage these helpers we may accelerate conditions for plant succession substantially. To my thinking, the fastest way to do so is to do exactly as you have been doing. Compost, mulching, inoculants.

    The popular scientific belief that soils take centuries to millennia to form - perhaps on bare rock.... But where we have top-soil, albeit in bad condition, we can move things along very fast as we have anchorage for plants and the large microbial communities that come with them. Ensuring we have the microbes with our plants, nature steps in and our job becomes much easier.

    I'm very keen on plant pathology too. I watch a lot of of plants die out of fascination for the processes and organisms involved. I've watched pole stands of manuka thinned by saprobic fungi right where they stand. The fungi is present but it's not antagonistic till the trees need it to be. There is much we have yet to understand - these facultative organisms are rarely recorded as dual purpose unless their affects are noted in-vitro. We hear of pathogens and diseases wiping out entire crops and we get phobic. Some of the worst pathogens affecting NZ crops today can be substantially diluted merely by adding compost (competition and more). Imagine if one were to remove all the cides and salts, and add even more compost, one might derive a healthy environment within a landscape of sick orchards, and if you visit NZ permaculture sites you'll find evidence - some of our worst affected export species growing without problems.

    Climate change is our biggest threat now. My only real answer to that is - diversity, diversity, diversity!

    And of course, getting your water and energy systems off-grid wherever possible.
     
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  13. Bryant RedHawk

    Bryant RedHawk Junior Member

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    DC, we must be thinking the same. I have a hardwood forest and have found it fascinating to watch the different saprobic fungi do their work. Our healthy trees are unaffected but once something happens to make the tree conditions just right, they start doing their decomposition thing and fruits start popping up in the damaged or diseased parts of the tree. I have even watched the fungi stop when they run into healthy wood on a branch they are working away on. The first time I observed this behavior was last year, we have an older hickory that some branches died on. In two months those branches were sprouting Jew's ears in a neat line from the die back point all the way to the terminal end of the branch. at the die back point there was a complete ring of these fruits. Just this week we had a huge storm come in and the branches I had been watching decompose are now laying on the floor. These snapped right at the healthy wood point, I am going to try and get up in that tree to take some samples to run through my FID equipped GC to see what compound differences are there. I am trying to talk my wife into letting me buy a good microscope but it may have to wait until we have the homestead completed, she wants a real house pronto. Good luck with your research!
     
  14. DC Brown

    DC Brown Junior Member

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    Yes. Watching the fungi 'clean up' standing trees is fascinating, they leave the forest better off, instead of destroying it. That's not to say we're immune to pathogens, but within a widely diverse community we have a much better chance through increased competition and decreased real estate. A sick landscape, dressed in salts, is 'asking for it' ;) Hehehe.

    If you go hunting in the tree there will be a few organisms found, at least at the fungi/deadwood interface. Typically a bacteria (?? origin), an ascomycete that is not visible, and then a basidiomycete. The range of organisms provide a range of enzymes - a succession of enzymes... Stamets has noted he can get three basidiomycete species harvested off one batch of woody substrate. A 'succession of saprobes', if you will. (substrate is re-sterilised between species). When you consider these organisms cannot fix nitrogen nor carbon, you start getting a few clues as to what is utilising the nitrogen from throughfall.

    I find once a person has read and observed enough it is very easy to talk to them about complex ecology and various microbiological concepts. There's some instinctual content for sure. Nature of course loves to surprise us, and breaks most every rule we make concerning how things work, but we get a big picture and the details start to make sense.
     
  15. Bryant RedHawk

    Bryant RedHawk Junior Member

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    I have a pretty good background for the studies I am working on (Chemistry/ Biology/ Horticulture). Most of the organisms I work with on our land, come from our land (15 acres of hardwood forest). Currently I am developing 2 acres and the rest is being left alone, at the end point of development I think there will be 4 acres mostly developed.
     
  16. howdymr

    howdymr Junior Member

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    Here's a good illustration that helps provide insight into the challenges with nitrogen. Nitrogen from legumes is not readily accessible by plant roots. It must be "transformed" (or digested) three times (converted to ammonium then nitrites) to become the nitrates that the roots can take up for the benefit of the plant. Another testimony of the incredible work being done in healthy living soil.

    upload_2015-11-20_16-34-22.png
     
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  17. DC Brown

    DC Brown Junior Member

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  18. Flatland

    Flatland Member

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    All I know is that in my old vegie garden I would grow a patch of broad beans (my favorite vegie) and then after they died off the dead plants were used as a mulch for my tomatoes and whatever I grew in the old broad bean patch grew really well. Not scientific but it worked for me. Plan to do the same in the vegie patch that i am establishing where I am now .
     
  19. Bryant RedHawk

    Bryant RedHawk Junior Member

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    Very good observations Flatland. The ancestors did the same methodology, that is how they came up with the three sisters, certain plants complement others and by planting these in close proximity you are getting more benefit from the group than you would from a monoculture planting. While most folks think of the traditional corn, squash and beans, there are many other plants that can be used in the same space, giving the opportunity to harvest much more produce from a given number of square meters. I have one garden patch done in a loose spiral that contains squash, melons, peppers, strawberries, tomatoes and beans. I then have a ring of garlic and marigolds as an outside border. Everything works together and we get almost double the produce from this bed.

    Even our pastures are planted with a multitude of plants (currently around 15 different species) brassicas, grasses, legumes along with deep root vegetables like daikon and rape. The variety keeps the hogs happy and the soil building goes faster since we move them once a week to new grounds. They visit an area around every 12th week.
     
  20. songbird

    songbird Senior Member

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    if you study plant rotations of various kinds you can come up with long series of plantings which will use different types of nutrients from different layers in the soil so that a single round of amending may actually last four to six years. at present most of the gardens we grow veggies are set up for a three year rotation and so they get amended just the once before we plant our heaviest feeding crops and then after that they get rotated the next few years through other crops.


    that doesn't mean i won't bury any extra organic material in those gardens if i get extra, but with nearly 15 different veggie gardens it's not often i have extra worms/worm castings (plant food deluxe). even with such a long rotation i'm still seeing overall improvements in the garden soils (starting from depleted farmland subsoil grade clay with some sand).


    harvesting green manure is the other thing i do for some nutrient/nitrogen boosting and worm food supplementing.
     
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