Nutrient recycling during the decomposition of apple leaves (Malus domestica) and mowed grasses in an orchard
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Each year, significant fractions of nutrients absorbed by trees and orchard grasses, return to the soil by abscised leaves and mowed biomass. Using litter bag technique and labelled (15N) litter, we assessed the decay dynamics and the related nutrient releases in a mature, drip irrigated, apple (Malus domestica) orchard located in the Eastern Po Valley (Italy) on a silty clay loam soil. Litter bags containing abscised apple leaves were placed in December 2001 on the soil surface and collected over a 2-year period, while the decomposition of perennial ryegrass was studied over a 6-month period from May 2002. The dynamics of mass and C losses from decomposing apple leaves fitted to a single exponential decay model. At 1 year from their placement, about 50% of original mass was lost, while and additional 20% was not recovered in the second year. Initial C losses were not accompanied by degradation of cellulose which started only in the spring of the year after their placement on the soil. Along with the decomposition process, the remaining litter was progressively enriched in lignin-like compounds. Net N and S immobilization occurred during the winter–spring period and net release of these nutrients occurred only in the second year. Ryegrass lost about half their mass and original N content after 6 weeks and most of sward derived N was recovered in the underneath soil volume. Both apple and ryegrass released most their initial K content during the period of decomposition. The knowledge of the dynamics of nutrient release on the orchard floor will be useful for predicting nutrient availability for tree uptake and therefore for managing amounts and dynamics of nutrient supply.