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 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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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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