Olive groves are undergoing a marked change in the way that inter-row land is managed. The current regulation and recommendation encourages the implementation of plant cover, mainly to improve soil fertility and reduce erosion. However, there is no quantitative information on the dynamics and pools of soil organic carbon (SOC) fractions of different protection levels of the plant-residue-derived organic carbon (OC). This study was conducted to provide a range of annual OC inputs in commercial olive oil groves under natural plant cover, to assess the influence of the annual application of aboveground plant cover residues on unprotected and physically, chemically and biochemically protected SOC. In addition, we tested the carbon saturation hypothesis under plant cover. Ten olive oil orchards under plant cover management (PC), together with five comparable bare soil olive oil orchards (NPC) were selected and annual aboveground natural plant residues and SOC pools were sampled and quantified. Annual aboveground plant cover biomass and OC production in PC olive orchards averaged 1.48 t dry-weight (DW) ha-1 and 0.56 t C DW ha-1, respectively with a great variability among sites (coefficient of variation of about 100 %). SOC concentration in PC orchards was, on average, 2.8 (0 - 5 cm soil) and 2.0 (5 - 15 cm) times higher than in bare soils of NPC, and the pool of protected SOC in the top 15 cm was 2.1 times higher in the PC (17.9 mg C g- ndard deviation) compared to NPC (8.5 mg C golive orchards. Linear or saturation type relationships between each SOC fraction and total SOC content for the range of SOC of the commercial olive oil orchards were statistically indistinguishable, and thus linear models to predict SOC accumulation due to plant cover in olive orchards are suitable, at least for the studied range of SOC. Overall, at regional scale where olive oil groves represent a very high proportion of the agricultural land, the use of plant cover appears to be a promising practice that promotes protection of the SOC, thus improving SOC sequestration.
- soil organic carbon
- soil organic carbon fractions
- plant cover
- olive orchards