PICTURE: Apple trees in commercial orchards are grafted plants. The above-ground part of the desired apple tree is attached to a healthy root system. Here researcher Greg Peck harvests apple roots…. view More

Photo credit: Greg Peck

As the saying goes, an apple a day keeps the doctor away. But what is the key to growing a quality apple?

Apple trees need access to essential nutrients that come from the soil. However, the soil is very different from orchard to orchard.

Gregory Peck studies how sustainable orchards can improve the availability of nutrients. The research was recently published in the Journal of the Soil Science Society of America, a publication by the Soil Science Society of America.

Farmers are becoming increasingly aware of the environmental impact of various orchard management practices.

“Apple growers are interested in developing more sustainable nutrient management plans,” explains Peck. “They are asking for more information to improve soil health on their farms.”

A healthy floor depends on many factors. One of these factors is the microbial community that lives in the soil. The community is made up of bacteria, nematodes, and fungi. Some of these microbes convert nutrients in the soil into forms that apple trees can use.

In the soil, microbes and plant roots interact in beneficial partnerships. Plants like apple trees release fluid from their roots into the soil. These fluids serve as a food source for the microbial community. In return, the microbes can help the apple trees.

“Bacteria fulfill many functions in apple orchard soil,” says Peck. “They recycle nutrients, promote plant growth and even change plant metabolism.”

In this study, the team applied compost – like chicken litter and garden waste – to apple orchards.

Researchers found that adding compost increased the number of soil bacteria associated with recycling nutrients. The compost provides additional nutrition for the bacteria to thrive.

This larger microbial community means there are more nutrients available to the apple trees.

By spreading compost, farmers could reduce the amount of fertilizer needed to supply the apple trees with nutrients. That could help your wallet and the environment.

Some fertilizers come from non-renewable sources. Adding compost to a farm’s nutrient management plan reduces reliance on these sources. It also enables the sustainable use of materials that would otherwise be considered waste.

On a practical level, this research shows that farmers can successfully integrate compost with faster-release fertilizer sources.

“Although sustainable apple production is not defined by a single practice, we believe that this research contributes to the long-term goal of making farms more sustainable,” says Peck.

In the future, the team hopes to replicate this study in different regions with different soil properties. They also want to deepen the role of fungi in the microbial community of orchards.

“We can make great apples and apple growers can provide delicious, nutritious food to a large population,” added Peck.


Gregory Peck is a researcher at Cornell University. This work was supported by Cornell University – College of Agriculture and Life Science, Virginia Agricultural Council, Virginia Apple Research Program, Virginia Agricultural Experiment Station, and Virginia Tech – Department of Horticulture.

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