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Catch crop mixtures have higher potential for nutrient carry-over than pure stands under changing environments (2022.0)

Heuermann D., Gentsch N., Guggenberger G., Reinhold-Hurek B., Schweneker D., Feuerstein U., Heuermann M., Groß J., Kümmerer R., Bauer B., von Wirén N.

European Journal of Agronomy, 136 (), 126504



Winter catch crops are grown to scavenge nutrients over a period of unfavorable growth conditions and to conserve nutrients for subsequent release to the following main crop. Since environmental conditions have a strong impact on the growth and nutrient capture in roots and shoots of individual catch crop species, we anticipated that mixtures will be more durable and efficient in nutrient capture due to compensatory effects among component species. We tested this hypothesis and determined the nitrogen and phosphorus accumulation in the shoots and roots of four catch crop species grown in pure vs. mixed stands at two sites for two or three years. Element concentrations were determined in the root and shoot biomass of each species and used to calculate the nutrient pool fixed in the root or shoot biomass. A qPCR-based technique was applied to quantify the root biomass of individual species based on species-specific DNA sequences. Despite considerable variation across environments, the overall plant biomass of white mustard (Sinapis alba), lacy phacelia (Phacelia tanacetifolia) and bristle oat (Avena strigosa) was similar and higher than that of Egyptian clover (Trifolium alexandrinum). While pure stands varied 6- to 24-fold in shoot biomass depending on environmental conditions, the variation was only ~3-fold for catch crop mixtures, with less pronounced variation in the root biomass. In general, the root biomass was comparable to the shoot biomass in each species. Roots contributed 26–46% of the nitrogen and 36–48% of the phosphorus to the total accumulation of these nutrients in the catch crop biomass, thus emphasizing the importance of plant roots as belowground nutrient pool for potential carry-over of nutrients to the subsequent crop. Although the mixture was mostly dominated by two of the four species, namely mustard and phacelia, it captured similar or even larger amounts of nutrients than the best-performing pure stand under any growth condition. This was the case for shoot- and for root-bound nutrients. Our results indicate that catch crop mixtures have higher durability than pure cultures to environmental variations. The amount of nitrogen captured by the mixture meets the average postharvest nitrogen that is left over by a wide range of cash crops, thus emphasizing that catch crop mixtures represent an efficient nutrient management tool in crop rotations.