This season we are having one of the busiest, most productive fruit seasons we’ve had in years, and people keep asking us why….
The truth is, we’re not sure! It doesn’t come down to a single factor, but a perfect mix of everything going right, for once—and you don’t hear farmers say that very often! (I was going to write ‘perfect storm’, but despite the fact that we’ve had two major storms this year, we’ve escaped with no major damage.)
Considering that our new intern Ant joined us at the beginning of December (you can follow his new Facebook Page here), the fact that December and January have been among our busiest ever has been both good and bad.
It’s been a bit of a trial by fire for him—getting thrown immediately into the 6-day a week, 10-hour a day kind of craziness that is the fruit season—but on the other hand, at least he’s seen it at its peak, so he’ll know what to expect next year. If he’d started his fruit-growing journey in a quiet year (like we had last year) he wouldn’t have known what hit him next season!
Though a big part of this year’s success is just luck with the weather, it’s also partly the culmination of many years of hard work. We’ve had a replanting program for the last few years and many of those trees are finally coming into full production, we’ve been steadily working on improving the health of our soil, and we’ve been building up the on-farm biodiversity that’s so important to keeping pests and diseases in check.
Plus, we managed to get all the spring sprays on at just the right times, which is so important for preventing key diseases that can be devastating.
It’s incredibly satisfying knowing that we’re bequeathing a healthy, productive orchard to Ant when he takes over next year, and fingers crossed that he has an even BIGGER season in 2019!
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!
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.