Learn to Love Your Weeds

We’re on a mission to help you think differently about your weeds.

plantain
Plantain

Every time we talk about weeds during a workshop, there’s always a few people that are very resistant to the idea that we should welcome—and dare we say it, even encourage—weeds under our fruit trees.

First let’s have a think about what a weed really is. In most cases what we really mean is a plant that got there by itself, i.e., we didn’t plant it. Even for experienced gardeners, it can be difficult (almost impossible) to know all the plants in your garden, and when we don’t know what a plant is, many of us have a slightly unfortunate tendency to take the approach of “if in doubt, rip it out.”

Yorkshire fog grass
Yorkshire fog grass

Actually, no plants are intrinsically “bad”, even the ones that have characteristics that make them unpleasant to have around (Gorse, anyone?) or possibly dangerous to an ecosystem (think wild blackberries in the Australian bush). But even blackberries are valued in their native England, where they form natural fences and barriers along many a country lane, and are valued for their fruit. So really, a weed is just a plant that we have decided is in the wrong place.

Many plants we think of as weeds are also herbs, which the Oxford Dictionary defines as “any plant with leaves, seeds or flowers used for flavouring, food, medicine or perfume.” They also have other uses such as stock feed, dyes and cosmetics. Suddenly, weeds start to look useful!

Onion grass in pear block
Mixed weeds in the orchard

From a biological farming point of view, we also prefer to having living plants under our fruit trees (as opposed to bare soil, or even to mulch), for a long list of reasons: they keep the ground cooler, provide habitat for soil microbes on their roots, provide organic matter for microbes and earthworms to eat, pump carbon into the soil, attract predator insects, and fix nitrogen – just to name a few!

So, with that very long list of positives in mind, it suddenly becomes much easier to find reasons to love each and every one of the plants in your garden, regardless of whether you think of them as a “weed” or not.

Marshmallow
Marshmallow & Capeweed

Learning the name of a plant is the next step to appreciating its attributes, and deciding whether or not deserves a place in your garden.

But it can be overwhelming, because there are literally thousands of plants that are commonly found in gardens and backyards. So, take it one step at a time. In the Grow Great Fruit program we look at one new weed every couple of weeks and go in-depth into its properties, how to identify it, and all its potential uses. It’s a neverending (and endlessly fascinating) topic, but these are some of the ones we’ve covered so far:

  • Great Mullein
  • Gorse
  • Marshmallow
  • Cleavers
  • Plantain
  • Capeweed
  • Yorkshire fog grass
  • Oxalis
  • Wild radish
  • Knotgrass
  • Borage
  • Dandelion
  • Tansy
  • Ivy leaf speedwell
  • Blackberry
  • Fumitory
  • Catsear
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Harvesting wild blackberries

How to Grow Pears

We love pears. They’re a much maligned type of fruit, probably because it’s so hard to buy good, ripe pears, but we reckon they’re a top tree in the garden, and pretty easy to grow organically. Here’s our top 10 reasons why you need a pear tree in your garden:

Reason 1: There are at least 15 varieties of pears and nashis easily available, which ripen from mid January right through until early April. This means they can help to extend the fresh fruit season in your garden.

Reason 2: Pears don’t get too many bugs or diseases. The four most common problems experienced by pears are:

  • Black spot, a common fungal disease that is worse in wet years, but very preventable with organic fungicides applied at the right time
black spot pears
Black spot damage on pears
  • squashed-pear-slug-213x380
    squashing a Pear and cherry slug

    Pear and cherry slug can be a nuisance some years, and if left uncontrolled can severely damage or kill a young tree (but they’re also easy to control on young trees). On mature trees they can make the tree look ugly, but don’t affect the fruit and don’t do too much harm really. They have quite a few predators, and numbers tend to self-regulate as long as you’re not killing the good bugs with indiscriminate pesticide use.

  • pear leaf blister mite1
    Pear leaf blister mite damage

    Pear blister mite. Harder to control because the mites live inside the leaves, but again, they don’t really do too much damage, though they can make the tree look ugly if you’ve got a bad case. Doesn’t affect the fruit.

  • Birds! Like every other fruit tree you grow, if you want to pick fruit, you need to net them to prevent bird damage.

Reason 3: They’re easy to prune. Most pear varieties are ‘spur-bearers’, which means they produce fruit on 2 year old wood (and older), in the form of short fruit-bearing shoots known as spurs. Some varieties (e.g. Josephines) produce fruit on the end of longer shoots, and they are known as ‘tip-bearers’.  Once you’ve figured out which type you have, you’re half way to knowing how to prune them! The difference really is in how you treat the laterals – in spur-bearing varieties, they should be shortened back by about 1/3 to encourage the development of new side shoots and spurs. In tip-bearing varieties, it’s important not to shorten the laterals, because that’s where the fruit grows.

pear in hand
A perfect pear

Reason 4: Most pears don’t need to be ripened on the tree. In fact, unlike other deciduous fruit, most pear varieties (except some of the early season ones) won’t ripen properly on the tree, but need cold storage for 2–6 weeks, followed by a period of ripening out of the fridge. Pears ripen from the inside, and ripening them on the tree leads to both poor texture—either grainy or mushy—as well as poor keeping qualities. How long do you need to leave them in the fridge before you ripen them on the bench? It’s a bit different for each variety, but here’s some guidelines for the more common varieties:

  1. Beurre Bosc – don’t need cold storage
  2. Packham’s Triumph – need 1 month
  3. Winter Nelis – need 1 month
  4. D’Anjou – need 2 months

Reason 5: Pears can tolerate quite boggy ground, and in fact will often thrive in conditions that would make other fruit trees sulk (or worse – die!) This makes them a handy tree to pop in those difficult, hard-to-drain spots in the garden.

Reason 6: It’s easy to grow your own pear trees. Gather seed in autumn, store it in damp sand over winter and plant out in spring. Most of the seed will grow, so choose the biggest and strongest seedlings and discard the rest. Now you have your rootstocks. In late summer, you can graft a bud of your desired variety onto the rootstock (a technique called ‘budding’). In spring cut back to the bud, and over summer it should grow and form your new tree. Voila! The following winter you’ll have a brand new pear tree to plant in your garden – for free!

Reason 7: It’s easy to grow your own dwarf pear trees! Follow the same process as above, but use quince seed instead of pear to grow your rootstock. Then when you graft your pear variety onto the rootstock it will grow into a much smaller tree – very handy for short gardeners (or if you’re trying to squish a lot of fruit trees into a small space!).

frost-ring-small-pear-480x431
Frost ring on small pear.

Reason 8: Pears are relatively frost-hardy – not completely, but because they flower so late they are much less likely to succumb to the spring frosts that can be so devastating to apricots and stone fruit, which makes them the best choice for the frosty spots in your garden. Having said that if a really heavy frost is forecast while they’re flowering they may still benefit from throwing some frost cloth (or even an old sheet) over them to prevent this sort of damage.

packham-pear-blossom-450x253
Pear trees have stunning white blossom

Reason 9: They are beautiful trees which look great all year, with their stunning white flowers in spring, their large, dark green glossy leaves in summer and a beautiful display of colour in autumn.

Reason 10: Pears are delicious, and once properly ripened are not only great to eat fresh, but lend themselves to a multitude of preserving techniques – bottled, spiced, chutney, dried and pickled, to name a few!

So, that’s we love pears: they’re beautiful, they’re delicious and they’re easy to grow!

growth-pear-tree

Insects in fruit trees – friends or foes?

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.

ladybirds in fruit trees
Ladybirds are great fun to watch in the orchard!

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!”

earwig damage to apricot
A European earwig with the typical damage they do to apricots. Definitely a pest…but are they always?

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.

earwigs-in-peach-295x221
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!pear and cherry slug

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.)

baby spiders in fruit tree
Thousands of baby spiders are not an uncommon sight in our fruit trees, and they are one of our best defence systems against bugs!

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!)

spider eating a fly in peach tree
We’ve witnessed many fights between spiders and other bugs in fruit trees – and the spider always wins!

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…

bee on apricot blossom
European honeybees are just one of the insects that pollinate fruit blossoms, like these gorgeous apricot flowers

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.

aphids and ants in peaches and nectarines

And occasionally we get a little reminder that if we’re not careful, we’re not always at the top of the food chain!

baby brown snake