Nitrogen Fixation using clover cover crop: The Invisible Alchemy of Agriculture

What is Nitrogen Fixation and how can it help?

In the intricate tapestry of nature, where life and growth interweave, nitrogen fixation emerges as a silent yet pivotal player. Like an invisible alchemy, this biological process plays a crucial role in sustaining life on Earth. In this exploration, we’ll unravel the mysteries of nitrogen fixation, understand what it is, and how plants utilize it, and explore some examples.

So what is Nitrogen Fixation?

Nitrogen, an essential element for the building blocks of life, comprises a significant portion of Earth’s atmosphere. However, in its gaseous form (N2), nitrogen is notoriously inert (deficient in active properties) and unavailable for most living organisms. Nitrogen fixation a natural process that transforms gaseous nitrogen into a form that plants can absorb and utilize.

This happens primarily due to nitrogen-fixing bacteria, which possess a unique ability to break the strong bond between nitrogen atoms, converting N2 into ammonia (NH3) or related compounds. These bacteria forge a symbiotic relationship with plants, creating a dynamic dance of give-and-take essential for the fertility of soils.

How Plants Use Nitrogen Fixation:

The aforementioned bacteria form associations with plant roots, establishing symbiotic relationships that benefit both parties. The two most common types of nitrogen-fixing symbioses are rhizobium-legume and actinomycete-Frankia associations. White dutch clover, a legume, is widely used as one of the most successful cover crops in agriculture due to its ability to cultivate this symbiotic relationship.

In an article published in 2013 titled “Nitrogen fixation and the transfer in grass-clover leys under organic and conventional cropping systems” (1) Researchers set out to study the effectiveness of organic and conventionally cropped grass-clover leys, by studying a 30 year old field experiment for 2 years specifically. In both years, results between the systems used varied little in the amount of absorbed nitrogen (83% vs 91%), and some interesting potassium and phosphorus findings were confirmed (Click here to learn more about the 3 fertilizer types <backlink to corresponding article>), but the thing that excited me most was that 51% of the TOTAL Nitrogen transferred into nearby grasses via the soil came from Nitrogen Fixing white dutch clover.

In the rhizobium-legume relationship, bacteria of the genus Rhizobium colonize the roots of leguminous plants such as peas, beans, and clover. These bacteria induce the formation of specialized structures called nodules on the plant roots. Inside these nodules, nitrogen fixation occurs, and the plants receive a vital nitrogen supply in exchange for providing the bacteria with sugars and other nutrients.

Nitrogen release:

When the white clover plants die or shed leaves, the nitrogen stored in their tissues is released back into the soil. This process, known as mineralization, makes the nitrogen available for other plants in the vicinity. Consequently, the presence of clover can enrich the soil with nitrogen, benefiting surrounding vegetation.

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Examples of Nitrogen-Fixing Prowess:

  1. White Dutch Clover
  2. Red Clover
  3. Alders
  4. …Peas!

To Conclude!

Nitrogen fixation exemplifies the interconnectedness of Earth’s ecosystems. From the humble legume to the towering alder tree, the collaborative dance between plants and nitrogen-fixing bacteria sustains the delicate balance of nature. As we continue to explore the wonders of our natural world, understanding and appreciating the profound impact of nitrogen fixation becomes paramount in our journey toward sustainable and resilient agriculture.

  1. Oberson, Astrid & Frossard, Emmanuel & Buehlmann, Cornelia & Mayer, Jochen & Mäder, Paul & Lüscher, Andreas. (2013). Nitrogen fixation and transfer in grass-clover leys under organic and conventional cropping systems. Plant and Soil. 371. 10.1007/s11104-013-1666-4.

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