How to grow apples – the wrong way!

Pretty much everything about our new heritage apple orchard is “wrong”— at least in the world of large-scale commercial apple growing.

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Katie and Merv planting the new heritage apple orchard

As usual, we’re straddling two worlds—the modern world of commercial horticulture that tends to be focused on high production, export, and monoculture; and the slower, more old-fashioned world of small-scale organic farming that aims to meet the needs of the people and the community who support our farm, is responsive to the climate, and empowers other people to become self-sufficient in food production.

So, what are we doing wrong?

  1. Planting more than 60 varieties, including lots of heirloom and heritage varieties you’ve never heard of…

How many varieties of apples can you name? Most people know Pink Ladies, Fuji, maybe Gala or Granny Smith, but for many, that’s as far as it goes—after that it’s “red apples” or “green apples”. If you can name 10 varieties you’re doing really well.

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Katie selling organic apples at market

That’s largely because the number of varieties grown commercially (and therefore sold in supermarkets) has been steadily shrinking over the last few generations. And while there’s lots of research being done into new varieties, most will not end up in large-scale production, and it’s likely you’ll never hear of them.

Why has the number of varieties shrunk? As with every other area of food production, it’s a response to the commercialisation and globalisation of our food systems. For a variety to maintain its position on a supermarket shelf (and therefore on a modern farm) it has to meet certain criteria: it must be increasingly productive, withstand many months of cold storage with no loss of quality, have a long shelf life, be able to travel well, and be very consistent in appearance. And as farms get bigger and bigger, it’s just a lot more practical and cost-effective to grow 100 (or 1,000) hectares of the same variety.

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Sorting different varieties in the nursery

So, you might be surprised to hear that there are literally hundreds—and in fact thousands—of different apple varieties. When we were gathering the grafting wood to grow the trees for our new orchard, we had to make ourselves stop at 60 (it was VERY tempting to keep going). And we must admit, some of them were only included because they have such fantastic names—who could resist growing Geeveston Fanny or Peasgood Nonesuch? You can read the whole list here.

So, why are we swimming against the tide and planting exactly the opposite of a monoculture?

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A huge diversity of different varieties in the tree nursery

If the wild weather conditions (drought, flood, hail…) we’ve experienced over the last 12–15 years have taught us anything, it’s that diversity is our best bet of bringing home a crop every single year, regardless of the weather conditions. The variability between different varieties in things such as timing of flowering, harvest times, and resistance to diseases all increase the chance that when something bad happens it won’t affect all varieties to the same degree, and therefore we have a bigger chance that at least some of our varieties will safely reach maturity each year.

2. Planting on seedling rootstock 

You’ve probably heard of dwarfing rootstocks, right? Well, all modern apple orchards are planted on some type of dwarfing rootstock, from the MM111, which grows to about 80% the size of a seedling tree, down to the M26, which is only about 40% the size of a seedling tree.

 

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Merv (Katie’s dad) planting apple seeds

But not us! Nope, we’re planting our trees on seedling rootstock, which are trees grown straight from an apple seed, and are the biggest possible size an apple tree can become (in fact, this is what sets the benchmark standard of 100% that other rootstocks are measured against). In a modern orchard, this is crazy behaviour!

Seedling trees can get huge, which means they can be harder to prune, harder to thin, harder to pick, and pretty much everything has to be done up a ladder.

So, why are we apparently making life so much harder for ourselves? Well firstly, we’re pretty sure that by diligent pruning and careful management we can stop the trees from becoming too huge.

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Seedling apple rootstocks being transplanted in the nursery, ready to graft

But the main reason is that we’ve just been through the worst drought in living memory, and with the climate variability that has so quickly become a way of life for farmers, we’re anticipating the next drought any time soon. And what we observed was that while trees on dwarfing rootstocks really struggled, most of the remaining few trees in our district that are on seedling rootstock—even the ones that had no irrigation—survived the drought. Wow, they are one tough tree, which makes them the perfect tree for the future climate we should be preparing ourselves for if we want to maintain food security.

3. Not fumigating our soil or killing the weeds

Standard practice in commercial orchards is to fumigate the soil before planting new trees. This is a process where chemicals are pumped into the soil to sterilise it, particularly to kill any root-eating nematodes or other pathogens that might have built up in the soil which would cause replant disease in the new trees. New trees are normally also “supported” by killing any weeds growing under them with herbicides to reduce competition for water and nutrients, and by the addition of various artificial fertilisers.

 

Nuh. Not us. We’re not doing any of those things.

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Clover is a great plant to include in the green manure crop because it’s a nitrogen fixer

Don’t get us wrong, we also want to support our new trees as much as possible, reduce competition, and make sure we don’t get replant disease. We’re just going about it a completely different way, which inevitably is slower, more expensive, and more time consuming to put in place.

For a start, we’re relying on building healthy soil to make sure we don’t get replant disease. The best defense against root-eating nematodes is nematode-eating nematodes, so we inoculate the soil with them and make sure we provide the right soil conditions to keep them happy.

Second, we work consistently to build a strong natural fertility system to make sure the soil contains all the macro and micro nutrients that the trees will need, and that we have plenty of bacteria and fungi present to transform them into a plant-available form.

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Using organic oaten straw as mulch

Third, we reduce competition from weeds by mulching our trees for the first couple of years and, as the mulch breaks down, encouraging a wide biodiversity of plants to grow under the trees, thereby providing a multitude of benefits, from taking nitrogen from the air and putting it into the soil to providing habitat for beneficial predator insects.

Just because we lean towards the “old” way of doing things doesn’t mean we’re not interested in being as modern, efficient, and productive as possible. In our new block we’ll be participating in some ground-breaking research to test different types of mulch and different types of groundcover to see which system can achieve the best results as quickly and cheaply as possible.

We actually believe that by doing all these things “wrong” we’ll be able to demonstrate in the long run how much more sustainable, ecologically viable, and less reliant on artificial inputs our organic orchard will be.

Wish us luck!

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The new heritage apple block taking shape

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How to Grow Heritage and Heirloom Apples

planting-cherriesFinally, we’re ready to start planting our new apple orchard. It’s replacing the old cherry orchard, which died in the big floods of 2010/11 – you can read the sad story of how we lost 1,000 beautiful cherry trees here.

young-apples-gala-295x221The really exciting thing about our new orchard (apart from getting a previously productive area of the farm back into production after a few years fallow), is the incredible diversity of more than 60 varieties that we’re planting.

Why so many varieties? Well it fits with our bigger farm and business strategy in a number of ways:

  1. We’re on a mission to teach as many people as possible how to grow their own organic food and become self-sufficient for food, and our new orchard is going to be a great teaching resource.
  2. We aim for diversity (as opposed to monoculture) in every aspect of our farming operations. We’ve learned the hard way that it’s our best protection against the risks of farming!
  3. Since we decided to open our farm shop last year, we’re keen to extend our season and the number of varieties we grow so we can keep the shop open for longer, offer more opportunities for people to pick their own fruit, and educate people about heritage and heirloom varieties.
  4. It will give us more variety on the table, and a longer season at the Farmers Markets we attend.

A farm is also a community, so we want to thank a few important people who have helped us get this new venture off the ground:

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Keith in his amazing nursery garden

Keith Robertson, from the Creswick Garden Club
Keith has the most amazing collection of more than 700 apple varieties in his suburban backyard in Creswick. He was generous enough to allow us to follow him around for a wonderful day gathering scion wood to graft the trees we’re about to plant. We had to stop at 60, or Keith would cheerfully have given us all 700! However, he dutifully followed our brief that we wanted varieties that (a) he knew something about, e.g. whether they’re for eating, cider, cooking etc.; (b) will have some commercial appeal; and (c) extend our season – either by being earlier or later than existing varieties in our orchard.

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Merv at home in the tree nursery

Merv Carr (Katie’s Dad)
Despite having theoretically retired many years ago, Merv still manages the farm’s tree nursery, growing several thousand trees each year, including all the trees we plant in the orchard. Though they’re not certified organic, growing our own trees means that we can be confident they’ve been grown without any GMOs. We treasure Merv’s involvement and the chance to learn his fabulous skills. Plus, the fact that he grows all our trees for us saves us thousands of dollars every year!

So, are heritage and heirloom apples grown any differently to modern apples? Well it’s a funny thing (and a long story), but partly as a result of deciding to go down the road of preserving heirloom and heritage varieties, we’ve also decided to revert to a more old-fashioned way of growing as well, and in the process have ended up doing almost everything “wrong” according to modern orchard practice – but that’s a story for another day!

So, without further ado, here’s a list of some of the varieties we’ll have in the new orchard (this is not an exhaustive list, because despite our best intentions to stop at 60 we already have new varieties coming on in the tree nursery). We look forward to introducing you to them in about 3 years!

Common Apple Variety
Akane
Fuji
Gala
Golden Delicious
Granny Smith
Jonafree
Jonagold
Jonathan
Pink Lady
Red Braeburn
Red delicious
Rosy Glow
Sundowner
Lady William
Cider Apple Variety
Bulmers
Chataignier
De Bouterville
Improved Foxwhelp
Kingston Black
Michelin
Yarlington Mill
Heritage/Heirloom Apple Variety
Caville Vlanc D’Hiver
Cleopatra
Court Pendu Plat
Cox’s Orange Pippin
Dayton
Dorset Golden
Dougherty
Dunn’s Seedling
Ein Schemer
Empire
Five Crown
Geeveston Fanny
Gravenstein
Irish Peach
James Grieve
Anna
Blenheim Orange Ex-Normandy = Woodstock Pippin
Bonza
Brabrant Bellefleur
Bramley
King of Pippin
Lord Derby
Lord Lambourne
Menagerie
Mt Alexander
Mutsu
Peasgood Nonesuch
Ribston Pippin
Richer Red
Rome Beauty
Snow
Spartan
Stayman’s Winesap
Striped Beefer
Sturmer Pippin
Tasman Pride
Twenty Ounce
Worcester Permaine

What should my fruit trees look like in spring?

As new fruit growers get to know their fruit trees, they’re often unsure what’s ‘normal’ in the different seasons – that was certainly the case for us as we learned our trade! Gradually we’ve learned by experience what to look for at different seasons to tell us what’s going on in the trees and the soil, so we know whether we’re on the right track. This year, it looks like we are!

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This heritage Goldmine nectarine is showing excellent growth in early spring.

We’re pretty happy with how all our orchards are looking at the moment. Our farm was pretty knocked about by the drought (like so many others) and the flood that followed, which led to a number of disease issues and even some tree deaths.

But this year the orchards are looking vital and healthy, and any trees that have experienced problems in the last couple of years are recovering well.

Most trees have a good crop, and even better, have put out good spring growth, which is one the main signs we look for to tell us that the tree is happy and the soil is doing its job.

What to look for

If you’re looking at your fruit tree and wondering if it’s looking the way it should, firstly look at the leaves – they should be big, a bright green colour (though the growing tips will often be orange, red or pink), and nice and shiny, like the healthy looking leaves on this plum tree.plum-leaves-healthy

This early in the season there shouldn’t been too many holes or blemishes on the leaves (though they often accumulate a lot of damage by the end of summer) and they should be looking pretty sparkly.

Depending on where you live, the flowering will have finished on most fruit trees, and you should be able to see small fruit forming, like this Bramley apple tree.

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The other main thing to look for early in spring is whether any of the leaf buds are starting to extend into new shoots. The ability of the tree to grow this new wood each year is key to the ongoing health of the tree. Here’s a few examples of new shoots on different types of fruit trees:

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New shoot on peach tree
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The numerous orange growing tips on this healthy young plum tree show how healthy it is.
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A vigorous 30cm new shoot on a pear tree.

Crop load

Mid to late spring is also the time when you start to get an idea of how much fruit your trees will bear this year (we call this the ‘crop load’). Here’s how our trees are looking at the moment.

Apples

Most varieties have set a good crop, the only exception being Golden Delicious. Gala are quite light, but will still pick a lot more than last year. Gravensteins, Bramley, Cox’s Orange Pippin, Snow, Fuji, Pink Lady, Granny Smith and Jonathon all look good. Having lost most of the apples and pears to birds the last two years, the key to our success this year will be to get our newly acquired netting out over the trees and secured nice and early in the season.

Apricots

Most varieties have a medium to heavy crop, though Castlebrite were very light in one block (see below). In the house block where we have two rows of most vareities, our pruning strategy last year was to cut one row back hard to start bringing the height down. As we expected, the row that was pruned hard has much less fruit on it (through a combination of losing fruit buds to the hard pruning, and shocking the trees into growth as opposed to fruit production). However we’re happy to see that the heavily pruned trees are responding well with growth throughout the tree, not just at the tops of the trees.

Pears

Nearly every variety has set a good crop, though both Josephines and Nashi are on the light side. Trees have responded really well to the harsh pruning we gave them this winter, putting out a lot of their new growth nice and low in the tree where we want it, rather than up high where it prevents us netting the trees!

Peaches and nectarines

Our new orchard (planted in 2010) will pick a healthy crop this year, which means all of the 18 varieties of peaches, and 7 varieties of nectarines we grow should be well represented at markets. Several of these (for example Wiggins, Peacherine, Stark Earliglo and Redhaven)  haven’t yet yielded a marketable crop from these 3 or 4 year old trees, so we’re really looking forward to getting to know them.

Plums

Nearly every variety of plum has a good crop this year, the only exception being the European plums (President and Angelina) in the Plum Block. Luckily the Angelina trees in another orchard have set heavily, so we’ll still have plenty to sell over summer. We’re particularly happy to see most of the trees in the Plum Block, which are carrying phytophthora as well as other fungal diseases, are growing really well, and have large, shiny green leaves. Again, this is a really good indication to us that the soil is doing what it should, and has an active soil microbe network that is providing the right conditions for the tree to grow well. We’re also happy to see varieties like Amber Jewel, Satsuma and Ruby Blood all carrying strong crops, as each of these varieties has been a shy-bearer over the last couple of years.

Cherries

Our only disaster so far this year (we’d be completely shocked if there wasn’t one!) is the massive losses in the 90 cherry trees we planted in the new cherry block. We planted the bulk of the block last year, and most trees are growing well, but about two thirds of the the three new rows we planted this year have died. Having ruled out all the obvious things like the trees getting too dry, a problem in the soil, rootstocks, the trees drying out when planted etc etc, we’ve narrowed it down to a dodgy smelling fish emulsion we added to the dipping water we used to innoculate the roots of the trees when we planted them. It’s a pity we can’t prove this theory one way or the other, it’s much easier to learn from our mistakes when we can categorically establish what the mistake was!

Pests and diseases

Some of the main pests and diseases might already have made their presence felt. Here’s a few things we’ve noticed…

Aphids

We’ve seen a minor aphid outbreak in the peaches – really just a few odd limbs here and there, not enough to cause much damage, and just enough to attract the many predators that will clear this pest up for us.

aphids and predators
aphids and predators

Phytophthora

This root rot disease took hold in a lot of our peach and nectarine trees after the flood, and we lost many trees and a lot of limbs. This winter we pruned out all the dead wood, and we’re happy to see most trees that have shown sypmptoms in the past have started the season well and are putting on new growth – an excellent sign that the ‘good’ fungi in the soil are thriving and outcompeting the phytophthora.  We’ve still had a little dieback, and some trees are so badly damaged that even though they’re trying valiantly to recover, we may have to pull them out and start again in that spot with a different type of tree.

Earwigs

There’s already quite a bit of earwig damage in the nectarines, which led to a rapid change of plan to temporarily abandon the thinning and scramble to get all the banding of the trees finished to keep the earwigs out of the trees. They’re an easy pest to prevent, as long as the banding is done early enough before they’ve already taken up residence. Next year we’ll be changing our routine to get the banding done much earlier, before we even start thinning. We’ve also made a modification this year to do the banding much higher in the tree, of individual limbs rather than around the trunk. This will help to prevent earwigs getting at the fruit by using the grass to bypass the tape.

Blossom blight

The House block experienced moderate blossom blight in some varieties this year, despite looking early in the season as if there was none! Rainy conditions at the wrong time led to this minor outbreak, which reduced the size of the crop in the Castlebrite. Luckily our other main apricot orchard had almost no blossom blight (thank heavens yet again for microclimates!!), and between the two orchards we have a good crop of every variety including Castlebrite.

So there you have it, the 2014/15 season spring update! Hope your fruit trees are bringing you lots of joy.