The arrival on the market of various types of mulchers and chippers has boosted the use of pruning residues as plant cover among olive growers. In order to increase knowledge regarding the decomposition of these types of residues and their effect on soil fertility, an experiment was performed using different doses and sizes of pruning residues applied on the areas between the lines of olive trees in an organic olive grove.
Experiments were conducted over a period of two growing seasons (2009/10 and 2010/11). Treatments consisted of fine (⩽8 cm in diameter) and thick (>8 cm in diameter) pruning residues in the amounts indicated, I=2·65 kg/m2 fine; II=2·65 kg/m2 fine+1·12 kg/m2 thick; III=5·30 kg/m2 fine; IV=5·30 kg/m2 fine+2·24 kg/m2 thick; and a control without residues.
As regards the loss of biomass and nutrients during the decomposition of residues, two phases were observed. First, soluble compounds were degraded during a rapid initial phase, while in a second and slower phase, lignocellulosic compounds were decomposed. As a result, the pattern over time of nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K) release fitted a double exponential model better, regardless of the treatment considered, registering in most cases determination coefficients close to one.
The favourable results observed in terms of augmentation in N, P and K soil content following the application of pruning residues confirmed a greater improvement in soil fertility than the soil covered by spontaneous weeds, which is the option most frequently adopted by organic olive growers. The initial amount of pruning residues has influenced the amount of soil nutrients. Considering the entirety of the soil profile (0–40 cm) and the content of these elements in the soil, treatment III, which contained the largest amount of fine residues, was the most efficient in terms of improving soil fertility, recording increases in the concentration of N, P and K of 1805·4, 53·1 and 598·7 kg/ha, respectively. The most unfavourable results were recorded by treatment I, with increases of 480·9 kg/ha in the case of N and a decrease in P content with regard to the control sample. Treatment II increased K (recording 215·2 kg/ha) which was the least in comparison to the control sample.