Bugs on fruit trees

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In an organic orchard, having lots of bugs and spiders around is a great sign that you’re doing something right. Here’s a few photos of some of the myriad species we find in our orchards.

Traditionally, bugs on fruit trees have a bad name, because they might be eating the fruit or damaging the trees, and of course some of them do. That’s why chemical orchards spray insecticides – to kill off the insects that are damaging the crop, like codling moth, pear and cherry slug, earwigs, light brown apple moth and aphids, just to name a few.

earwig and earwig damage on castlebrite apricot

Unfortunately, the chemicals also kill bugs that are doing the much more important job of controlling the insects that do the damage! The end result? You’ve removed all the predators that kill the bad bugs, leaving plenty of opportunity for the bugs you don’t want to get out of control.

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One of the principles we farm by is diversity – in all things! It’s a basic permaculture principle, to minimise risks and create a more resilient system. So for example, we have more than one water source (dam, soil storage and irrigation channel), we have more than one market (wholesale, farmers markets and online), and we grow as many different types of fruit as possible (90 varieties so far, and still adding).

In the natural world this principle holds even more true. Rather than try to control nature (talk about fighting a losing battle!), we do everything we can to encourage biodiversity, and let them sort it out themselves.

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That might seem like a very relaxed approach, but it’s based on a few scientific facts.

spider eggs in Angelina

For a start, trees that are growing in healthy soil that provides them with complete nutrition are less likely to attract the sort of bugs that like to eat fruit – amazing but true! All we have to do is keep providing the conditions that favour healthy soil microbes, ie lots of organic matter (from a diverse range of sources), enough water, oxygen (ie make sure the soil isn’t compacted), good plant cover, and recharge the soil every now and then with a dose of microbes, to make sure the populations are thriving and diverse.

butterfly on grapefruit tree

Insect communities have evolved together over millions of years, and have highly sophisticated and complex ways of interacting and keeping each other in check. While we know a lot about pest insects and predators, there’s much more we don’t know, and we risk upsetting the natural balance every time we interfere.

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On our farm we mostly take a physical, and very specific, approach to prevention of pest and disease damage. This sticky tape around the trunk of cherry trees is a great way of stopping earwigs eating the cherries (it also works really well in stopping garden weevils eating nectarines). We use something called pheromone mating disruption to prevent codling moths breeding in our orchard – it’s doesn’t kill them or interfere with the food chain, but it keeps them out of our apples!

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So the first rule of preventing pests and diseases on your fruit trees is – DON’T PANIC! Be still and watch for a while, try to figure out what’s going on, and assess whether they are actually doing any damage to your trees or fruit before you come up with a plan of action. Our first responsibility as gardeners is to do no damage to the environment, and that includes our beautiful bugs!

spined predatory shield bug

Weed database – part two

We’re finally fulfilling our long held wish to build a thorough list of all the weeds on our farm, today we bring you part two.

We figure it’s going to add to our botanical knowledge, which can only help us be better farmers.

A ‘weed’ is defined as a plant growing in the wrong place, but we don’t really think of them as weeds, actually, we like to appreciate them all as individual plants.  We like to call them understorey plants (ie the plants that grow under our fruit trees), and the more we learn about them, the more we’re in awe of the amazing role they play in the environment.

We love your input – this is a living database that we’ll keep adding to. In part one we covered:
Marshmallow
Plantain
Capeweed
and we got some great feedback that a use for capeweed we’d missed was as a pollen source for bees.  Sure is!

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This week we’re starting with one of our favourite plants in the orchard:

Clover

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Common types

White clover (photo), strawberry clover, red clover, subterranean clover, suckling clover, balansa clover, arrowleaf

Botanical name

Trifolium sp (many varieties)

About

Usually found in lawns, open areas, and (with any luck), under your fruit trees! Different varieties appear in either spring, summer or autumn.

Identification

Typical three-lobed leaf, often with white crescent shaped markings on the leaves. Spreading habit. The flower stalks are longer than the leaf stalks, so the flowers stick up above the leaves.

Indicator of…

Clover is an indicator plant for phytotoxic ambient levels of ozone, which means if ozone levels are too high in the air, clover leaves show visible signs of damage.

Usefulness in the garden

Clovers are legumes, which means they’re nitrogen-fixing: they take nitrogen from the air and put it in the soil, which is very useful for other plants, which all need nitrogen as one of their main building blocks!

Clover has a taproot, which can be as long as 1m, so it’s great at bringing nutrients from deep in the soil up to the topsoil, particularly phosphorus. It’s also a beneficial insect attractor. Because it’s often very vigorous, and has a low, spreading habit, it can help to smother other weeds out.

Some clovers are perennial (white clover, sub-clover) others are annuals. They can spread either by self-seeding, or by rooting at nodules on their stems.

Some clovers are spring and summer active, while some are more active in the winter.

Food uses

Eat leaves – raw or cooked (steamed or boiled), before flowers appear.

Eat flowers – raw, cooked, dried for tea or flower

Eat roots – dried, then cooked

The leaves and flowers are high in iron, vitamin C, and many other minerals and vitamins. Think of it as a dark green vegetable – it’s as healthy as spinach, and is much sweeter than many of the other wild greens. Also quite high in protein.

Recipe

Stir fry lightly with onion, garlic and a little butter, salt and pepper.

Medicinal uses

Brew two tablespoons of leaves in a cup of boiling water as an expectorant if you have a cold. The tea can also help with liver and blood disorders. It’s so full of minerals and vitamins, it’s a fantastic tonic.

Haresfoot clover

Another type of clover, Haresfoot is worthy of an entry of its own just because it looks different enough that you’re left wondering…is it really a clover? Well yes, it is, with many of the same properties, but a couple of interesting differences.

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haresfoot clover flowersIt's not quite flowering season for haresfoot clover at our place yet, so thanks to Wikipedia for this photo (all the others are ours).

Here’s a photo with the white and haresfoot clovers together, so you can see the difference in the leaves…the lighter green leaves are white clover, the smaller darker leaves are haresfoot.

clover and haresfoot

Other common names

Rabbitfoot clover, stone clover, oldfield clover

Botanical name (family)

Trifolium arvense (Fabaceae)

Identification

Habit  – a small erect annual herb, 10-40cm tall.

Flower – furry egg shaped clusters that are easy to recognise, flowers from mid-spring to late summer.

Leaves – typical clover like leaf, but much narrower than other clovers, ie they are longer than they are wide

Method of spread – seed

Fruit – a small pod containing a single seed

(Similar to narrow-leaf clover, but narrow-leaf has longer, much skinnier leaves, and the flower heads are 2-3 times as long.)

Indicator of…

Tends to grow in dry sandy soils, both acidic and alkaline, and is often found at the edge of paddocks, in wastelands and in unirrigated paddocks, but will also survive happily with irrigation.

Usefulness in the garden

It’s a legume, therefore a nitrogen fixer. It has a relationship with a special type of nitrogen-fixing bacteria that live in its roots. They take nitrogen from the atmosphere and store it in the soil, where it’s available for other plants (including your fruit trees) to use!

Has a taproot, and is a dynamic accumulator of phosphorus.

Self-seeding annual, makes a great groundcover plant in spring and early summer, particularly in low fertility soil.

 

Dock

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Other common names

Curled dock, broad leafed dock, fiddle dock

Botanical name (family)

Rumex sp (many varieties)

About

Native of Europe and south-western Asia, there are many different species, some are annual and some perennial.

Identification

Leaves of all dock species are edible and hairless.

Curled dock has large leaves (often over 20cm long), which are usually wavy-edged. The flowers are on tall, erect stems, and are densely clustered in rings around the stems. The fruit are rounded, with a rounded swelling on them.

Fiddle dock has leaves at the base of the plant that are narrow at the middle (fiddle-shaped), and each cluster of flowers has a small leaf at the base.  It has lots of branches.

Slender dock is an Australian native species of dock that has thinner leaves and fewer branches, and the flowering stems are leafless.

Wiry dock is another Australian native species that is a tumbleweed! It is very wiry and much branched, so when it breaks off at the base it forms a ball shape that is blown about by the wind.

Indicator of…

Often indicative of moist to wet ground with poor drainage, and at least intermittent waterlogging. Freshwater swamps and marshes are common habitats. Not associated with saline environments.

Usefulness in the garden

Most dock species have a long taproot, and are dynamic accumulator of calcium, potassium and phosphorus, which means they ‘mine’ those minerals in the soil, and makes them available for other plants.

Food uses

All the varieties of dock you can find growing wild are edible. You can eat leaves, flowers and young stems (but not too much at once – see warnings). You can eat dock either raw or cooked, and use the leaves in salads, herbal teas and stir fries.

According to Wikipedia, broad leaved dock used to be called butter dock because its large leaves were used to wrap and conserve butter.

Medicinal uses

Dock root has powerful medicinal properties, and contains lots of iron. It’s a blood purifier and body cleanser, and is reputed to help heal scrofula, leprosy, tumours and swellings! On a very practical note, if you put dock leaves in a blender with water and apply to itchy skin, it will apparently provide instant relief. It can also be used to cure mouth infections in the gums and root canals. In traditional Austrian medicine, Rumex alpinus leaves and roots have been used internally to treat viral infections.

Warnings

Leaves contain oxalic acid, so don’t eat a huge quantity at one time.

That’s 6 done, only a couple of hundred to go! This is a BIG project…

 

 

 

Eeek – hail!

Yesterday it hailed just down the road from our farm, luckily not at our place, but too close for comfort! And there’s more predicted today, and for later in the week. Eeek!!

Hail is a fruit growers’ nightmare. It can do untold damage to fruit in a short space of time, and has been responsible for the ‘wipe-out’ of whole crops many times before. Here’s what our neighbour’s place looked like after a hailstorm a few years ago.

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and this is how big the hail stones were right outside our door in a storm last year…just like little rocks, being hurled out of the sky onto our fruit. No wonder we worry, right?

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Here’s a selection of some hail-damaged apples at maturity, to give you an idea of how bad it can be…

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Hmm, not very attractive. But there’s no sense complaining, or worrying, is there? It’s one of those things we have no control over. Or…do we?

Here’s what some apples looked like just after a hail storm. You can see the little marks on them, that grow into the bigger deformities as the apple grows.

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Being an organic farm, we do all our thinning by hand (as opposed to the chemicals used on chemical orchards to do the same job). It costs us more in labour to thin by hand, but apart from the benefits to the environment (and our health!) of not using the chemicals, it also lets us manage hail (or other) damage by choosing the most damaged ones to remove. This way we can at least produce the least damaged crop as possible.

Because of the very unpredictable nature of growing fruit, we have a Risk Management Strategy (it’s so important, it even has its own capitals!). We reckon that we might not have any control over the weather, but we’ve got plenty of control over how we plan before the bad stuff happens, and how we respond, after the bad stuff happens.

For us, risk management is all about diversity. We reckon the more diverse our farm is, in every possible way, the more we can spread the risk.

So, for example, we grow 7 types of fruit (cherries, apricots, peaches, nectarines, plums, apples and pears), and more than 90 varieties, and we add more varieties every year. In all our years of growing, through every dire weather event we’ve experienced (drought, hail, flood, bird plagues, a fire at the local coolstores, heat waves, incessant rain, storms, grasshopper plagues…do you need us to go on?) we have NEVER been completely wiped out. Some years we’ve lost all the apricots, or all the plums, or most of the apples and a few pears and some of the peaches…but never everything all at once.

Because we grow many different types of fruit, they are all at different stages of development in spring, and will therefore be affected differently by any given weather event (except something catastrophic, like fire). If we do get a hail storm this week, the apricots will be really vulnerable because a lot of them are already thinned, they are already quite large, and they are pretty exposed because the leaf cover develops after the fruit. The apples, on the other hand, are still flowering and therefore very protected, and the pears are tiny, and would be hard to hit with a hail stone, and they both have good leaf cover!

If we go back to the hail damaged apples from a few years ago, when we managed to turn a severely damaged crop into a moderately damaged crop by hand thinning, next we had to decide how and where to sell the fruit. We were obviously not going to get fantastic prices if we sent less than perfect fruit to the wholesale market, but we didn’t have to take much of a cut by selling them at Farmers Markets, because we could explain to our customers in person why there’s a mark on the skin, and how it barely affects the quality of the fruit under the skin. Farmers Markets also give us a good chance to sell our second grade fruit at a reasonable price, because we have lots of customers who appreciate a bargain!

We also have an online market, and because we can accurately describe the fruit, we can get a fair price for each grade of  fruit, because people know exactly what they’re getting! Diversity of markets is a blessing in situations like this!

We’ve learned the hard way that we can’t control the weather, but in the end we’re grateful, because it has meant we’ve had to get real about managing our risk, and these days we feel a bit more secure, knowing we’re doing everything we can to take matters into our own hands! (But we’d still rather we didn’t have a hail storm, so keep your fingers crossed for us…)