Peach growers in the Southeastern United States are vexed in dealing with root-knot nematodes that can severely stunt peach tree growth.

Traditionally, growers have fumigated peach orchard soils prior to planting and then used a nematode-resistant rootstock.

But in recent years, growers have faced tough times that have made it difficult to afford preplant fumigants, such as Telone II or Vapam, and many growers also have difficulty with fumigating at the recommended time of year because of conflicts with managing other crops.

At a peach growers’ meeting a few years ago, the question was raised as to whether a preplant ground-cover crop could be used to control nematodes instead of fumigation.

Agricultural Research Service plant pathologists Andy Nyczepir at the Southeastern Fruit and Tree Nut Research Laboratory in Byron, Ga., and Susan Meyer at the Nematology Laboratory in Beltsville, Md., set out to find the answer. Their results were published in the Journal of Nematology in 2010.

“In Georgia, rotation with coastal bermudagrass, which can also be harvested for hay, is recommended for control of Meloidogyne, or root-knot nematode,” says Nyczepir. “Another potential ground-cover rotation crop for nematode management is tall fescue grass.” Tall fescue is the most widely grown perennial, cool-season, turf and forage grass species, and it is well adapted in the area between the temperate northeastern and subtropical Southeastern United States.

In their greenhouse studies, Nyczepir and Meyer investigated four tall fescue varieties, three of which were infected with fungal endophytes that live within the plant — typically between its cells—but do not cause disease in it.