The important work of becoming a fruit tree parent

Proud parents picking up new fruit trees

It’s tree pick-up week, and as people have been coming to the farm to collect their fruit trees the days have been full of conversations about their plans for their gardens and orchards, explaining different tree training systems and giving mini-pruning lessons, explaining the merits of different fruit varieties, and providing impromptu planting demos.

When they feel ready and armed with all the right info, we help them load up their trees and wave them off as they go home to get planting. It’s a little like sending new parents home with their babies, and as I imagine midwives must feel when they say goodbye to a young family, I’m simultaneously delighted to see them start their journey together, and slightly nervous about how they’ll manage, particularly if they’re first-time parents.

Trees waiting to be picked up and taken to their new homes

Of course, trees and babies are completely different cases, because babies are the most precious thing in the world and must be kept alive at all cost, but it doesn’t really matter if a tree dies from neglect or mistreatment, it’s just a few bucks down the drain and you start again, right?

Strictly speaking that’s true, but actually, there’s a little more at stake. You see, I know something more…I know what it feels like to nurture a fruit tree all the way through to maturity and harvest, and it’s almost indescribably satisfying.

Rhonda bravely pruning her brand new tree for the first time

It starts with planting it out in the right spot in the garden and giving it the first (terrifying) pruning.

Then you’re responsible for protecting it from pests that might damage it and making sure it has healthy soil and enough water.

You nervously watch it grow and then bloom, are awed by the miracle of pollination and seeing fading flowers falling off to reveal tiny fruit.

You protect the fruit from pests and diseases, and then … finally … harvest the most delicious fruit you’ve ever tasted in your life, because you grew it yourself.

Over years the trees grow, your skill grows, and your confidence that you can protect your precious crop against all the hazards and dangers that threaten it will grow too. And it needs to, because this is important work. You’re providing nutritious organic food for your family for the whole year, not just summer. You’re saving money in the family budget. You’re giving your kids irreplaceable memories of picking fruit straight from the tree. You need to get results every year, not just the years you’re “lucky”.

And when it works and you bring in the harvest, you feel on top of the world because you know you’ve joined the ranks of one of the most important groups in society—the food providers, those salt-of-the earth types who have the seemingly magical ability to coax delicious food from a little dirt, sunshine and hard work. You’re a farmer.

I know all this because this has been my journey over the last 20 years.  Yes, as with raising children, there’s pain along the way as you make mistakes and things go wrong, but I know the joy that lies ahead for you, and while admittedly it’s nowhere near as special as bringing a whole new human into the world, I’ve done that too so can say with the voice of experience that your fruit trees are not going to give you nearly as many sleepless nights!

Carr’s Heritage Fruit Tree Nursery

Carr’s Heritage Fruit Tree Nursery

There’s a fresh patch of hoed ground in the Nursery. Merv fired the tractor up a few weeks back to start preparing the ground for our next rotation in the heritage nursery. We’ve been growing on the same two areas for a couple of years now and its time to rest the soil in that patch. With three distinct growing areas we can rotate year to year, making sure the resting soil gets some loving in the form of a green manure crop to revitalize the life in the soil.

Things definitely wind back a little in the nursery in winter.  The rush of the late summer budding is over and now is the time to collect and grow our rootstocks for the next year’s buds.  We’re collecting up apple, pear, peach and quince seeds to sow, and plum cuttings to ‘heel in’. We might even try some fig cuttings and another round of citrus seed.

Merv is still teaching me how to tell which buds have ‘taken’ (successfully struck). But I still look at the nearly naked trees in the nursery and cross my fingers that the budding we did in late summer will be successful because to my untrained eye I can’t believe they’ve really taken until I can see the new growth in Spring!

With Katie’s complex coding system involving coloured pipe cleaners, the three of us did some multi-bud experiments in late summer. We budded up to five different varieties of plum, apricot or both onto individual plum rootstocks. We don’t really know what they’ll do or how they’ll grow, but that’s the beauty of experimenting with fruit trees! If they work, each multi-budded tree will be able to cross-pollinate itself and reduce the amount of space needed to grow multiple varieties of fruit. Perfect for small backyards. Since plums are generally hardy and prolific they are great to experiment in this way with, not to mention you can bud apricots onto plum rootstock too!

The next flurry of activity will be to plant out all the seeds and cuttings. But for now we’re just getting ready for that.

Sas

Spring Fever

Cherries, one of the earliest crops we pick
Cherries, one of the earliest crops we pick

Our new orchard intern Ant will be starting in a couple of weeks – and we’re super excited! But we’re very conscious that he will have missed all of spring, which is the ‘engine room’ of the fruit season, when most of the important stuff that determines how the season will turn out happens.

Along with the intensive training we’ll be providing Ant, we want him to get a good understanding of what each season on the farm is like, to help him with his planning. So while it’s very fresh in our mind, we thought it a great time to sum up what spring on a busy organic orchard looks like. (All these jobs need to be done whether you have 6 trees or 6,000, so hopefully this list should be useful for everyone with fruit trees!)

As we move from winter to spring, the way we prioritise our jobs gradually shifts from those jobs that are good for the trees (and next year’s fruit) in the longer term, like compost and fertiliser, to what’s most crucial for looking after this year’s fruit (short-term) like netting, taping and thinning. Once the fruit is ripe and ready for picking, top of the list every day is, what needs picking today?

It looks like a big list and it can certainly feel overwhelming while you’re in the middle of it,  but as long as you’re prepared for the fact that spring needs your full-time attention it’s all quite doable – though wherever possible it’s great to lighten the load by having friends or volunteers to help out, and in our case employing people where necessary, to make sure the jobs all get done.

Spraying
Hugh wearing appropriate Personal Safety Equipment (even though we use organic fungicides, you can't be too careful!)
Hugh wearing appropriate Personal Safety Equipment (even though we use organic fungicides, you can’t be too careful!)

This one starts way back in August, when we have to start monitoring for the first signs of budswell in the peaches and nectarines, and from then on we’re monitoring regularly for two things (the trees as they flower, and the weather) to make sure all trees have an organic fungicide on at the right time.

Depending on which trees need to be sprayed, this job can take anything from 2  hours to all day, and depending on the weather, it might need doing a couple of times a week, or not for weeks!

Weed control
It's important to whipper snip around any trees that will be taped
It’s important to whipper-snip around any trees that will be taped

With spring comes rain and warmth, and the grass starts growing. This is basically a good thing because all these lovely annuals start pumping carbon into the soil, but we can’t let the weeds get too long around the trees, so it means we need to start slashing – and keep slashing regularly, right through summer until the grass slows down. It’s mostly a tractor job (until we introduce some animals into the orchards), with some back-up work with the whipper-snipper around any young trees.

Taping
Hana and Helle (awesome volunteers) helping to tape the nectarines
Hana and Helle (awesome volunteers) helping to tape the nectarines

This job is simple and quick (just putting a bit of double-sided tape around the trunk of the tree. It only takes a couple of minutes per tree), but its one of the most important jobs we do for trees where the main fruit-eating pest are earwigs and garden weevils (cherries and nectarines in particular). One of the tricks we’ve learned over the years—don’t put it off! It’s really good to get this job done nice and early, before the earwigs are in the tree, because if you put the tape on after they’re in the tree then you’re trapping them up there! It’s also a sticky job, so it’s definitely worth gathering a couple of buddies, getting hold of some disposable gloves, and going for it!

Irrigation system
It's important to test all the drippers at the start of the season
It’s important to test all the drippers at the start of the season

Watering itself needs to start happening as soon as the weather is warm enough and the soil dry enough to warrant it, which will be different each year (but was in mid-spring for us this year). But before that, there’s lots of little maintenance jobs that can practically be done in late winter, so you get them out of the way before spring craziness happens—checking the pump, checking and cleaning out all the filters, flushing out the irrigation lines in each orchard, and then turning the system on and checking every dripper. Admittedly, this is a job that’s much more pleasant to do in warm weather (yep, you’re gonna get wet…), but from a time-management point of view, the earlier the better!

Thinning
Thinning in the mixed block
Thinning in the mixed block

Thinning is one of those jobs that you can’t start until the fruit is big enough, but as soon as you start it should have been finished yesterday (before the fruit gets too big)! Luckily this job is also quite spread out, because there’s usually time to finish thinning the apricots by the time the peaches and nectarines are ready, and then we move onto the plums, the apples and the pears. It’s a big job because most trees need thinning (except cherries) and each tree can take a long time. It’s definitely one job where many hands make light work. Here on the farm this is one of the main jobs we employ people to help with each year.

Netting

There’s not much point doing all these other jobs if then we let the birds eat the fruit (and they will, they always do!). So, as soon as the thinning and taping is done, it’s time to get the nets on.

Netting is another team effort. For us this means one person to drive the tractor forward to drape the net down over the row of trees, and two to hold the sides of the net to spread it out over the trees. Then we all help with tying the net down so the birds can’t get in underneath. Again, this job doesn’t take very long (only about 1/2 hour per row, plus the setting up time of getting the equipment and finding the right nets!).

Feeding the microbes
Putting compost tea into the irrigation system
Putting compost tea into the irrigation system

In early spring the trees get their energy from the nutrient they stored in their bark, roots and buds the previous season, but as soon as that runs out they need to be able to quickly access whatever they need from the soil via their roots, which means we need to make sure the soil microbes are active and well fed, so they can feed the trees. Compost tea (to top up the microbe populations), microbe foods (mainly liquid fish and kelp), organic matter (compost), and any manure we might get hold of—any or all of these are applied from early spring onwards, and we keep this going right through the growing and fruiting season.  Compost tea is great because it is a liquid and so can be injected straight into the irrigation lines. (On a backyard scale it’s an easy knapsack job.)

Picking, packing and selling

So, after all that, it’s kind of a relief when the fruit starts ripening, the cricket season starts (providing perfect packing shed easy listening) and the rhythm morphs into a more steady summer pace of picking, packing and selling all that delicious organic fruit we’ve been nurturing!