One of the joys (and constant distractions) of working outside in the orchard are all the fascinating insects that live in our fruit trees. It might be our work space, but it’s their home.
Our journey into organic farming has revealed a rich and incredibly diverse world of insects that thrive in fruit trees and soil, and we’ve come to appreciate many of those we previously thought of as pests; each one plays a part in an intricate web of life that is well beyond our understanding.
Our policy these days is not to kill any insects in fruit trees, unless we’re positive it’s doing more harm than good, and only if we’re sure we can be very selective and not damage anything else. The first rule of farming (at least here on our farm) is: “First, do no harm!”
Earwigs are a terrible pest in stone fruit (see what they do to apricots above, and peaches below!), but they also eat woolly aphids, which are a pest in apples, so we’ve decided we can live with them.
If you decide some of the insects you find in your fruit trees are foes, rather than friends, the trick is just to keep them out of the trees where they can do damage. (We devote a whole workshop to all the different tricks of the trade we’ve learnt over the years).
Pear and cherry slug are another ‘pest’ that can do terrible damage to…you guessed it…pear and cherry trees (and also plum trees, but pear, cherry and plum slug is really too much of a mouthful), and this year we were monitoring closely, getting ready to treat them, when a predator (some sort of bug, still unknown) came along and ate them all for us!
The lifecycle of most insects unfolds throughout the season in the same way our fruit trees do, so in early Spring, we often come across scenes like this…much to the consternation of many a wwoofer! (If you’ve never heard of wwoofers, it stands for Willing Workers On Organic farms…check out our wwoofer photo gallery.)
Many of the insects we see are ‘beneficial predators’, which means they eat the bugs that eat our fruit, so we love ’em!
Of course most insects are predators in some way, but we only call them ‘beneficial’ if their diet happens to suit us (as if we are the most important part of the ecosystem!)
Of course none of us would be able to eat fruit or vegetables without insects, because we rely on them to pollinate the flowers that produce the fruit…
The web of life is so complex that some insects ‘farm’ the others, to ensure a reliable food source. In the bottom left hand corner of this photo you’ll see one of the many ants that were busily moving and protecting this colony of aphids, so they could enjoy eating the sweet honey type substance the aphids exude.
And occasionally we get a little reminder that if we’re not careful, we’re not always at the top of the food chain!
Here’s a wild guess – if you’ve got your hand up because you love a Bramley, you’re either from the UK, or have close links to someone from the UK. Are we right?
Or maybe, you’re from somewhere else altogether, and you’ve learnt to love Bramleys for their own sake. Either way, Bramley apples have a large – and very dedicated – following!
Properly called a Bramley’s Seedling, they are definitely one of the most popular apples with Brits – they just go mad for them! It’s the variety we get the most inquiries about, presumably because they’re been a relatively common apple in England for a very long time. (And yes, we do grow them, but if you want to buy the fruit, you need to get your order in very early, because every single apple is usually pre-ordered before we even pick them!)
But what makes the Bramley so special?
To Aussies like us, brought up thinking that Granny Smith was the ultimate cooking apple, it was hard to see what all the fuss is about.
But we have to admit, now that we’ve grown them for about 8 years, and have got into the habit of using them as a cooker, we can definitely see the attraction.
Bramleys have a most romantic history. The mother of all Bramley trees was planted as a seed by a woman called Mary Ann Brailsford in Southwell, Nottinghamshire, at the start of the nineteenth century – which gives these apples a fairly impressive pedigree, and the right to be called a ‘heritage’ apple (though they still don’t compete with Snow apples, which are known to have originated in France in the 1600’s).
Anyway, the name Bramley came from the man that inherited that first tree, which according to The Apple Source Book, is still alive today, and despite having fallen over numerous times in the last 200 years, can still pick up to a ton of fruit each year!
Bramleys are as easy to grow as any other apple, one of their main features being that they are a triploid, which means they need to planted with two pollinators.
Triploid varieties produce sterile pollen, which won’t pollinate other varieties. Triploids are therefore usually planted with two other varieties that flower at the same time, which then fertilise each other as well as the triploid.
Other triploid varieties include Mutsu, Gravenstein, Blenheim Orange, Jonagold, Ribston Pippin, Newtown Pippin, Roxbury Russet and Winesap.
Despite this disadvantage, triploids have several advantages over diploid (the more common type of apple), including producing large vigorous trees, large fruit, having good natural disease resistance, and being quite resilient in difficult conditions.
That’s why Bramley apples have adapted so well to Australian conditions (at least they have at our place!)
Because we’re certified organic and don’t use any pesticides or chemicals, we try to plant varieties that have higher natural resistance to pests and diseases, and the Bramley grows a strong healthy tree that’s quite resistant to black spot (apple scab).
If you’re planning to plant a Bramley, other varieties that flower at about the same time (and can therefore be used as a pollinator) include Gravenstein, Gala, Cox’s Orange Pippin, Golden Delicious, Fuji and Jonathon.
The Bramley is a large irregular shaped apple. They start out sort of reddish, as you can see in the photo below.
You need to thin your crop every year (which means taking some of the fruit off when it’s tiny), because Bramleys really grow quite huge, and need a lot of room to grow. If you leave them to grow in bunches they can push each other off the branch, or end up smaller than they would otherwise. Pests also love to hide in the spaces between bunches of apples, so it’s much better to leave them hanging singly. We normally do our apple thinning in November, and try to get it all finished by the middle of December.
When ripe, Bramleys have a greenish yellow skin with a red flush and stripes. The flesh is firm and yellowish, and is very acid, one of the characteristics that makes it prized as a cooking apple. The other is the fact that when cooked, Bramleys collapse into a mush of delicious apple-ness, making them perfect for fluffy apple pies.
Like all fruit trees, it’s a good idea to protect the crop from the birds and any other predators that might like to have a munch on them (for us that’s kangaroos, but luckily they are easily deterred by nets). If you’re going to net your Bramley tree, put the nets on just after thinning, and leave them in place until you pick.
Though Bramleys are famous for being a very tart apple, they will keep getting sweeter if you leave them on the tree after they’re ripe. They’ll gradually go a bit more yellow, and get a redder stripe on the skin, and can even end up ripe enough to eat raw – as long as you like your eating apples pretty sharp!
At this time of year, we get a lot of inquiries about whether we sell Bramley trees. Yes you can buy fruit trees from us each year, but unfortunately there are no Bramley trees on the list this year. Sorry.
But the good news is we’re just about to start growing some in our tree nursery, so we’ll have them for sale…not next winter, it takes longer than that to grow them from scratch, but the winter after, definitely (well, as definite as anything ever is in farming!).
We love telling the story about how we became organic, so here’s part three. (Click here if you want to have a look at part one or part two of this series. We also told you about the organic certification process here.) Learning how to grow fruit organically has been our passion for years now, but boy, did we make some mistakes in the early days (and still do, we’re proud to say—we reckon making mistakes is key to learning how to grow fruit really well!).
However, there’s no need for everyone to make the same mistakes we did, so here’s a list of all the things we wish we’d done differently. One of the problems for us (still is, really), is that we didn’t have much of a peer group. I mean, we were always part of the local fruit growers association (Katie was secretary for years), but a lot of the reason that group got together was to go to an information session put on by one of the chemical companies spruiking for business in the district. We weren’t quite speaking the same language, if you get our drift! Sure, we all grow fruit, but we sort of come at it from different angles.
Anyway, we didn’t have any peers or mentors when we started to grow fruit organically; someone with experience, who had been there before and could tell us what to do, and how to avoid all the worst mistakes. And so that’s at the top of the list of “How to Grow Fruit the Organic Way”, which could also be called “How to Avoid all the Mistakes that Hugh and Katie Made”.
1. Find a mentor
We’ve been very lucky in finding mentors in fruit growing, but they’ve all used chemicals to grow fruit. A lot of experienced growers have been really generous with their time over the years, in teaching us about different tree training systems, varieties, rootstocks, marketing and all sorts of other useful things. But none of them were organic.
There just aren’t any certified organic fruit growers in our district, and because the organic certification system in Australia is quite fragmented, with 7 different organisations that provide organic certification, we’ve met very few in other areas.
Don’t get us wrong, we’ve met lots of fantastic organic farmers over the years, and are lucky enough to call some of them friends now, and it’s wonderful to have a peer group on that level, because we really do have lots in common. But none of them grow fruit. So we still don’t have anyone we can call or visit and say, “how did you manage your curly leaf/brown rot/grasshopper infestation….(or whatever)….this year?”
This is one of the reasons we started the Grow Great Fruit Program for home fruit growers, because it’s exactly the sort of info we were looking for – but couldn’t find – when we started to grow fruit without chemicals. (And also, it’s been a great way to build a peer group around us of people who love to grow fruit!)
2. Improve your soil before you go cold turkey from fertilisers
What we know now is that everything—yes, everything—depends on the quality of your soil when you want to grow fruit (or anything, really). Who knew? (not us, clearly!)
We sort of knew about the importance of soil, at least in theory, as we started to do courses with wonderful scientists like Elaine Ingham, Arden Andersen and Martin Staapper, where we learnt mountains of useful info about soil microbes, compost tea and soil health. But without anyone to advise us, we didn’t realise just how long it would take, or how much work it would be, to build our soil from its very damaged and depleted condition that we started in, to the point where we had restored a natural fertility system.
The mistake we made was to go cold turkey on the artificial fertilisers, before we’d restored the health of the soil. And that just left our poor fruit trees stranded! There were no microbes to speak of to provide their nutrition (only pathogenic disease-causing microbes that made them sick), so when we stopped giving them the artificial fertilisers they’d been relying on, they basically had nowhere to go for the nutrition they needed!
[In case you don’t know what we’re talking about here, “natural fertility” means the nutrition needed to grow fruit comes from healthy soil microbes, which break down organic matter in the soil into a form of nutrients that allows the trees to absorb them. It’s a healthy, sustainable system that’s been around since Adam was a boy. Modern chemical farms however use artificial fertilisers that provide the nutrition in a form the plants can take up directly – it’s sort of like hydroponics in soil. Unfortunately, the artificial fertilisers kill the soil microbes that are needed in a natural system.]
So anyway, guess what happened? Our fruit trees stopped growing! The fact that our epiphany about natural soil fertility and the decision to stop using artificial fertilisers coincided with the beginning of a long drought certainly didn’t help. Which leads us on to the next major mistake you can avoid.
The key message for you, if you want to learn how to grow fruit organically at home?
Start working on your soil first, before you completely get rid of artificial fertilisers. In fact, there are ways you can phase out fertilisers slowly, while you build up your soil microbes. If you’re trying to grow fruit in soil that has previously had lots of chemicals and artificial fertilisers (like we are), it’s important to learn about all this stuff first.
3. Give your tree enough water, at key times!
So, when we started learning to grow fruit without chemicals, we’d gone cold turkey on the artificial fertilisers, and we were also facing a drought. The mistakes we made were:
(a) not knowing the key times to use the small amount of water we had to get the most benefit (turns out it’s in spring, and just before harvest), and
(b) trying to grow too much fruit with too little water—we would have been better to use the water to grow a small amount of fruit on a few trees, and let the rest of the trees put the small amount of water available to them into growth, rather than fruit.
4. Keep your crop separate from the local wildlife
If you’re going to try to grow fruit in the same habitat as birds, kangaroos, rabbits and moose (do moose eat fruit?), then guess what? They’re going to try to eat this delicious, available new food source.
We’ve lost our entire apple and pear crop on more than one occasion to birds…including just last season, so this one has taken a while to really sink in! Why do we resist doing what it takes to protect the crop? Because it’s a nuisance, and expensive, and time-consuming. But you know what? It’s not nearly as expensive as not picking a single apple! We’ve finally learned this lesson, and now have enough net to cover most of our fruit trees next season, including all the apples and pears!
If you’re just getting started with learning how to grow fruit, then take our advice, and put the protection in place first. Good fences, and a decent netting system are both crucial to getting a yield.
There you have it—the main mistakes we’ve made. Hopefully you’ll be able to get started with your fruit growing right from the get go, without having to make the same mistakes as us. Though for your own sake, we hope you make your fair share of your own mistakes, because that’s how you learn, all the very best lessons you need to know!