Aims: In temperate climates, cover crops are mainly used to reduce excess soil water and nutrient availability to grapevines, which otherwise could decrease grape quality. In Mediterranean climates, where water is a limiting factor, the use of cover crops is not as straightforward. However, in this scenario, summer senescent and self-seeding herbaceous cover crops could also help to decrease soil erosion as well as to reduce excessive early vegetative vigour, which could restrict grape water availability at later phenological stages. The aim of this experiment was to study the effects of particular cover crops in Mediterranean vineyards on grapevine vegetative growth, gas exchange, yield and grape quality.
Methods and results: The experiment was carried out over three consecutive years in an organic vineyard (cv. Manto Negro) in central Majorca, Spain. Three treatments (three cover cropping rows per treatment) were established: perennial grass and legume mixture (PM), no tillage, i.e., with permanent resident vegetation (NT), and traditional tillage or ploughed soil (TT). The grapevines were rain fed until veraison, and then drip irrigation was applied (30% potential evapotranspiration; ETP) until harvest. Plant water status was established according to a defined value of maximum daily leaf stomatal conductance (gs). Cover crops reduced total leaf area (LA), gs and grapevine vigour at early growth stages. gs and net photosynthesis (AN) were higher in cover crop treatments during the veraison and ripening stages, likely because of the reductions in LA. Intrinsic water use efficiency increased from flowering to veraison-maturity in all treatments. Yield was lower in the cover crop treatments (PM and NT) compared to TT for all years, but these differences were only significant in 2007. However, grape quality parameters slightly improved in the PM treatment.
Conclusion: The use of cover crops decreased LA, helping to avoid dramatic reductions of stomatal conductance in mid-summer, but decreased yield and only slightly increased grape quality.
Significance and impact of the study: This study showed that the use of specific cover crops in vineyards under Mediterranean climates helps to reduce vegetative vigour. Nevertheless, yield reduction and slight quality improvement suggest that cover crops should be adjusted in order to reduce competition for water and thus prevent these negative effects of water scarcity.
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