Bugs on fruit trees

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In an organic orchard, having lots of bugs and spiders around is a great sign that you’re doing something right. Here’s a few photos of some of the myriad species we find in our orchards.

Traditionally, bugs on fruit trees have a bad name, because they might be eating the fruit or damaging the trees, and of course some of them do. That’s why chemical orchards spray insecticides – to kill off the insects that are damaging the crop, like codling moth, pear and cherry slug, earwigs, light brown apple moth and aphids, just to name a few.

earwig and earwig damage on castlebrite apricot

Unfortunately, the chemicals also kill bugs that are doing the much more important job of controlling the insects that do the damage! The end result? You’ve removed all the predators that kill the bad bugs, leaving plenty of opportunity for the bugs you don’t want to get out of control.

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One of the principles we farm by is diversity – in all things! It’s a basic permaculture principle, to minimise risks and create a more resilient system. So for example, we have more than one water source (dam, soil storage and irrigation channel), we have more than one market (wholesale, farmers markets and online), and we grow as many different types of fruit as possible (90 varieties so far, and still adding).

In the natural world this principle holds even more true. Rather than try to control nature (talk about fighting a losing battle!), we do everything we can to encourage biodiversity, and let them sort it out themselves.

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That might seem like a very relaxed approach, but it’s based on a few scientific facts.

spider eggs in Angelina

For a start, trees that are growing in healthy soil that provides them with complete nutrition are less likely to attract the sort of bugs that like to eat fruit – amazing but true! All we have to do is keep providing the conditions that favour healthy soil microbes, ie lots of organic matter (from a diverse range of sources), enough water, oxygen (ie make sure the soil isn’t compacted), good plant cover, and recharge the soil every now and then with a dose of microbes, to make sure the populations are thriving and diverse.

butterfly on grapefruit tree

Insect communities have evolved together over millions of years, and have highly sophisticated and complex ways of interacting and keeping each other in check. While we know a lot about pest insects and predators, there’s much more we don’t know, and we risk upsetting the natural balance every time we interfere.

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On our farm we mostly take a physical, and very specific, approach to prevention of pest and disease damage. This sticky tape around the trunk of cherry trees is a great way of stopping earwigs eating the cherries (it also works really well in stopping garden weevils eating nectarines). We use something called pheromone mating disruption to prevent codling moths breeding in our orchard – it’s doesn’t kill them or interfere with the food chain, but it keeps them out of our apples!

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So the first rule of preventing pests and diseases on your fruit trees is – DON’T PANIC! Be still and watch for a while, try to figure out what’s going on, and assess whether they are actually doing any damage to your trees or fruit before you come up with a plan of action. Our first responsibility as gardeners is to do no damage to the environment, and that includes our beautiful bugs!

spined predatory shield bug

Eeek – hail!

Yesterday it hailed just down the road from our farm, luckily not at our place, but too close for comfort! And there’s more predicted today, and for later in the week. Eeek!!

Hail is a fruit growers’ nightmare. It can do untold damage to fruit in a short space of time, and has been responsible for the ‘wipe-out’ of whole crops many times before. Here’s what our neighbour’s place looked like after a hailstorm a few years ago.

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and this is how big the hail stones were right outside our door in a storm last year…just like little rocks, being hurled out of the sky onto our fruit. No wonder we worry, right?

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Here’s a selection of some hail-damaged apples at maturity, to give you an idea of how bad it can be…

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Hmm, not very attractive. But there’s no sense complaining, or worrying, is there? It’s one of those things we have no control over. Or…do we?

Here’s what some apples looked like just after a hail storm. You can see the little marks on them, that grow into the bigger deformities as the apple grows.

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Being an organic farm, we do all our thinning by hand (as opposed to the chemicals used on chemical orchards to do the same job). It costs us more in labour to thin by hand, but apart from the benefits to the environment (and our health!) of not using the chemicals, it also lets us manage hail (or other) damage by choosing the most damaged ones to remove. This way we can at least produce the least damaged crop as possible.

Because of the very unpredictable nature of growing fruit, we have a Risk Management Strategy (it’s so important, it even has its own capitals!). We reckon that we might not have any control over the weather, but we’ve got plenty of control over how we plan before the bad stuff happens, and how we respond, after the bad stuff happens.

For us, risk management is all about diversity. We reckon the more diverse our farm is, in every possible way, the more we can spread the risk.

So, for example, we grow 7 types of fruit (cherries, apricots, peaches, nectarines, plums, apples and pears), and more than 90 varieties, and we add more varieties every year. In all our years of growing, through every dire weather event we’ve experienced (drought, hail, flood, bird plagues, a fire at the local coolstores, heat waves, incessant rain, storms, grasshopper plagues…do you need us to go on?) we have NEVER been completely wiped out. Some years we’ve lost all the apricots, or all the plums, or most of the apples and a few pears and some of the peaches…but never everything all at once.

Because we grow many different types of fruit, they are all at different stages of development in spring, and will therefore be affected differently by any given weather event (except something catastrophic, like fire). If we do get a hail storm this week, the apricots will be really vulnerable because a lot of them are already thinned, they are already quite large, and they are pretty exposed because the leaf cover develops after the fruit. The apples, on the other hand, are still flowering and therefore very protected, and the pears are tiny, and would be hard to hit with a hail stone, and they both have good leaf cover!

If we go back to the hail damaged apples from a few years ago, when we managed to turn a severely damaged crop into a moderately damaged crop by hand thinning, next we had to decide how and where to sell the fruit. We were obviously not going to get fantastic prices if we sent less than perfect fruit to the wholesale market, but we didn’t have to take much of a cut by selling them at Farmers Markets, because we could explain to our customers in person why there’s a mark on the skin, and how it barely affects the quality of the fruit under the skin. Farmers Markets also give us a good chance to sell our second grade fruit at a reasonable price, because we have lots of customers who appreciate a bargain!

We also have an online market, and because we can accurately describe the fruit, we can get a fair price for each grade of  fruit, because people know exactly what they’re getting! Diversity of markets is a blessing in situations like this!

We’ve learned the hard way that we can’t control the weather, but in the end we’re grateful, because it has meant we’ve had to get real about managing our risk, and these days we feel a bit more secure, knowing we’re doing everything we can to take matters into our own hands! (But we’d still rather we didn’t have a hail storm, so keep your fingers crossed for us…)

Getting to know your apples

We often extol the benefits of keeping a fruit tree diary, to get to know your trees better. We think it’s so important that our Monthly Growing Program members get a Fruit Tree Diary when they join the program!

This can be really helpful if you are trying to diagnose a problem with your trees, for example an apple tree that doesn’t set fruit might not have a polliniser that flowers at the same time nearby.

So in the interests of showing you what we mean, here’s what our apple varieties look like at the beginning of October.

Golden delicious, at balloon blossom stage.

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Jonathan, a bit more advanced than Goldens…

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Granny Smith is just past full bloom. You can see there are a few flowers where the petals have already fallen off (called shuck fall). Granny Smith is a great polliniser for lots of other varieties, but only if they flower at the same time! You can see there are still a few flowers not open yet, but within a few days this variety will be past its prime.

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Pink Lady, almost at full bloom

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Gravenstein are just starting to swell. This stage is called ‘early pink bud’.

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Bramley are slightly later, this is pink bud…

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Cox’s Orange Pippin are at about the same stage as Bramley, just waking up!

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Snow apples are significantly more advanced, at full bloom.

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