Providing enough water to our crops is the one thing we stress about more often than almost anything else.
We joke that we worry about drought when there is nothing we can actually do about it. Actually, we can, if we want to.
There is a lot we can do about providing a crop with a season-long water supply in the soil reservoir.
We forget that water infiltration and percolation are two very different things. There is no correlation between the quantity of water that falls on an acre of soil, the amount of that water that is held in the soil, and the amount of the held water that is actually available for plants to absorb. Some soils can deliver almost 100% of the annual rainfall to the crop as available water during the growing season, and other soils may deliver less than 40%. This explains why we have drought-stressed crops in regions that receive 30 inches of annual rainfall.
In this post last week I asked for your thoughts what might be contributing this green island effect underneath the trees in this photo I took while driving through California a few years ago.
I received a lot of responses. Thank you to all who shared your thoughts!
The most common response referenced the capacity of oak trees as dynamic accumulators and the contribution of leaf litter to the soil with its associated nutrient content and biological stimulation.
Other proposed possible answers included:
Shade from sunlight and heat
Moisture drip from the canopy, fog/dew accumulation
Slowing rainfall and increasing infiltration
Livestock concentrating under the shade
Protection from freezing
Nitrogen contribution of higher organic matter/leaf residue
Fertility contribution from nuts/mast crop
Root system pattern
Tree root exudates
Deep tree roots pulling up water
Different grass species, growing at different times
Most probably some combination of the above
My guess is that some of these factors are unlikely to be significant contributors in this local context, though they may be in other environments. Shade seems unlikely because the direction from the tree canopy is not uniform. There is no livestock grazing in this landscape (sadly), and freezing protection seems improbable given that it is central California.
The good news is, we don’t need to speculate what all might be going on. Thank you to Jeff Herrick and Leslie Roche for sharing references that point us in the right direction.
Blue oaks create islands of enhanced soil quality and fertility beneath their canopy. The quality of soil beneath the oak canopy is considerably better than that of the grasslands adjacent to the trees. We found evidence of improved soil quality under blue oaks for physical, chemical and biological soil properties. The type of vegetation (oak versus annual grasses) has a much stronger influence on soil organic matter and nutrient pools than does soil parent material. Removal of oak trees results in a rapid deterioration of soil quality with the majority of the loss occurring within 10 to 20 years after tree removal.
The article is interesting reading in its description of how oak trees contribute to soil fertility.
This observation and discussion raises lots of interesting questions, but the most obvious one is, “What are we missing by not including oak and other tree species in our agricultural landscapes?”