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By: Melissa Miller and Tim Motis
Published: 2014-04-20

Edn issue 123 thumbnail 0

EDN 122 highlighted multi-purpose cowpea varieties with spreading vines that cover the soil. Below is an ECHO research update from South Africa relating our experience so far with a spreading cowpea variety intercropped with maize grown in a Foundations for Farming (FFF) system.

“Living carpet” and “green manure/cover crop”—these are terms used to describe the practice of maintaining a plant-based mulch to protect and enhance the soil. But why bother to intercrop maize with a legume if the maize plants will shade the ground soon enough? First, plant growth is influenced by soil temperature. Maize, for example, has optimal root growth between 23-25°C. Soil temperatures above 26°C restrict root and shoot growth of maize seedlings. In the warm tropics, therefore, the cooling effect of an early-season “living carpet” would be beneficial to maize. Secondly, leaf litter from the legume crop decomposes over time, resulting in an organic mulch layer that conserves soil moisture and enhances nutrient retention and microbial life. Legume rotations are now being widely promoted throughout Africa in attempt to reverse the rapid decline of biological activity and soil organic matter. Lastly, cowpea grown with maize helps suppress weeds and provides the farmer with a food source before maize harvest.