Sci Rep. 2023 Jan 13;13(1):721. doi: 10.1038/s41598-023-27915-7.
Increasing the use of cover crops (CCs) is a necessity in sustainable viticulture, although it might clash with possible excessive competition towards vines. Especially in a climate-change scenario, the latter feature should be minimized while maintaining ecosystem services. Aimed at identifying CCs for vineyard floor management, the trial characterized several species according to their evapotranspiration (ET) rates, root growth patterns, and soil aggregate stability potential. The study was performed in 2020 in Piacenza (Northern Italy) on 15 CC species grown in pots kept outdoor and classified as grasses (GR), legumes (LE) and creeping (CR). Together with bare soil (control), they were arranged in a complete randomized block design. CCs ET was assessed through a gravimetric method, starting before mowing and then repeated 2, 8, 17 and 25 days thereafter. Above-ground dry biomass (ADW), root length density (RLD), root dry weight (RDW) and root diameter class length (DCL) were measured, and mean weight diameter (MWD) was calculated within 0-20 cm depth. Before mowing, ET was the highest in LE (18.6 mm day-1) and the lowest in CR (8.1 mm day-1) the latter being even lower than the control (8.5 mm day-1). The high ET rates shown by LE were mainly related to very fast development after sowing, rather than to a higher transpiration per unit of leaf area. After mowing, the 15 species’ ET reduction (%) plotted vs leaf area index (LAI, m2 m-2) yielded a very close fit (R2 = 0.94), suggesting that (i) a linear decrease in water use is expected anytime starting with an initial LAI of 5-6, (ii) a saturation effect seems to be reached beyond this limit. Selection of cover crop species to be used in the vineyard was mainly based on diurnal and seasonal water use rates as well as dynamic and extent of root growth patterns. Among GR, Festuca ovina stood out as the one with the lowest ET due to its “dwarfing” characteristics, making it suitable for a permanent inter-row covering. CR species confirmed their potential for under-vine grassing, assuring rapid soil coverage, lowest ET rates, and shallow root colonization.