Water management is a key production practice in sweet cherry. Impact and MS are the major orchard irrigation systems in the United States (Fereres et al., 2003). These sprinkler irrigation systems wet the entire ground surface by providing water to both the tree row areas and between-row grass alleys at a relatively high rate. Because of increasing energy prices in recent years, higher production costs and lower grower profitability have been observed with these systems (Bryla et al., 2005). Furthermore, the traditional irrigation systems are not favorable for fruit storability (Bryla et al., 2003). Increased water shortages likely occur in many arid areas where orchards exist or will be planted. Thus, alternate irrigation systems with higher water use efficiency potentials are needed for orchard crops.
Drip irrigation systems are potential alternative irrigation systems to the traditional sprinkler irrigation systems (Shock et al., 2007). Drip irrigation is usually more efficient in water use than sprinkler irrigation since it provides water to only the tree row areas with no water applied to the between-row grass alleys and irrigates at a much lower rate of flow and pressure (Afolayan et al., 2007). However, limited information is available about the transitional influences of switching from sprinkler irrigation to drip irrigation on water use, growth, and productivity of sweet cherry or other orchard trees. Instead, irrigation studies have primarily focused on newly planted orchards developed using one irrigation system (Neilsen et al., 2001).
It has been documented that wetting only 20% to 50% of the root zone volume of producing mango trees (Mangifera indica) is adequate to optimize yield, assuming sufficient water is available to meet the evapotranspiration requirements during critical periods of fruit development (Spreer et al., 2009). Water use efficiency of sweet cherry may also be enhanced with increased water stress. Dehghanisanij et al. (2007) found no significant yield reductions of cherry trees associated with lowering crop evapotranspiration from 100% to 75%.
Additionally, water management is found to be linked to fruit quality and storability. For instance, physiological disorders including fruit cracking and fruit quality of sweet cherries are affected by irrigation regime (Engin et al., 2009). Excessive water application can cause sweet cherry surface pitting (Patten et al., 1983), which heavily influences fruit storage, marketing, and pricing.
Ground management is another key production practice in tree fruit production affecting water use efficiency. Effective ground management can control weeds, conserve soil moisture, improve soil water infiltration and nutrient retention, enhance fruit quality, improve soil structure, and prevent soil erosion (Merwin et al., 1996; Sirrine et al., 2008). For decades, herbicide application in tree row areas along with grass alleys between tree rows has been used as the standard ground management practice in the United States (Shribbs and Skroch, 1986). This system provides a vegetation-free zone within the tree rows to minimize weed competition with trees for water and nutrients while maintaining soil structure in the alleys (Parker and Hull, 1993). Although in-row herbicide application in orchards is effective for weed control and reducing water use, it may adversely affect soil ecosystems and the environment, such as reducing soil microbial activities and elevating water contamination (Merwin et al., 1996). Furthermore, soil organic matter and organisms in orchard row areas may decrease because of lack of actively growing cover in these middle areas. All these suggest that alternate in-row ground management systems need to be developed.
Using crop straw to cover these middle row areas beneath orchard trees is emerging as a possible water-saving alternative to the traditional practice of herbicide-controlled bare middles (Forge et al., 2003; Merwin et al., 1994). A long-term field experiment on apple (Malus ×domestica) concluded that trunk cross-sectional area and fruit yield of apple were enhanced because of in-row organic mulching compared with bare middles (Forge et al., 2003). Water availability, organic matter, water infiltration, saturated hydraulic conductivity, and temperatures of soil are also improved by organic mulching (Merwin et al., 1994). In addition, the leaching and runoff of nitrate–N and benomyl fungicide have been shown to be reduced because of organic mulching (Merwin et al., 1996). All these results imply that orchard productivity and soil quality can be improved with organic mulching.
Soil microbial communities in orchard soils have so far been poorly documented although they are crucial to various soil processes including organic matter decomposition, nitrogen transformation, etc. Soil microbial communities differed significantly depending on ground management practices in a 10-year apple trial (Laurent et al., 2008). Soil treated with preemergence residual herbicides had the fewest culturable bacteria, while soil under mowed-sod treatment had the largest population of culturable fungi; at the same time, some pests such as root-lesion nematode (Pratylenchus sp.) were greater in mowed-sod than other ground management practices (Laurent et al., 2008).
The primary objective of this study was to evaluate the impacts of switching from MS to DD and shifting from NC to ST on soil quality, irrigation water consumption, leaf nutrition, fruit yield, quality, and storability of sweet cherries.
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