How to grow organic berries

A bunch of berries starting to ripen up
Berries starting to ripen up

We had the pleasure this week of visiting Sunny Creek Organic berry farm in Gippsland, and spent a happy afternoon touring the farm and picking berry farmer Phil’s brain.

Not that we’re planning to start a berry farm!

But we’ve grown raspberries before and know what a successful, in-demand and high-value crop they are, and we think berries would be a perfect add-on to the mix we’ve got going here at the Harcourt Organic Farming Co-op.

Green berries not yet ready to pick
Green raspberries not yet ready to pick

So we were very interested to see how the experienced folk at Sunny Creek have overcome some of the problems we ran into with the berries, and boy, did we learn a lot in one short afternoon!

First, berries need sun-protection or they get sunburned. We thought this only happened on super-hot days with a scorching hot north wind, but in fact it can happen at much lower temperatures. Interestingly, it can also take weeks for the damage to show up, which maybe explains why in our few short years of berry growing we didn’t always realise when sun damage had occurred.

Netting and shade cloth over a berry patch
Netting and shade cloth over the berry patch

The good news though is that this problem is almost completely alleviated with shade protection (like shade cloth). So, lesson 1—include shade cloth covers in the design from the get-go!

Another topic we were interested in was disease control. One of the big problems we encountered when we grew raspberries was Phytophthora (a fungal root-rot disease), so we were particularly interested in solutions, and we came away with a much better understanding.

Strawberry with Botrytis fungal disease
Strawberry with Botrytis fungal disease

For example, we discovered that raspberries are prone to a raspberry-specific strain of Phytophthora. This means that a patch of ground where we used to grow peach trees that were affected by Phytophthora may be more suitable for raspberry growing than we previously thought—hooray!

We also learned that:

  • Some varieties of raspberries are more resistant to Phytopthora than others;
  • Brambles don’t get it at all;
  • Mounding the soil helps;
  • One of the biggest risks of infection is from the public!
The pick-your-own farm map at Sunny Creek Berry Farm
The pick-your-own farm map at Sunny Creek Berry Farm

We also learned about nutrition, seasonal care, pruning, variety selection, running the pick-your-own operation, marketing, and value-adding!

Field trips to fellow farmers are one of the fastest and most useful ways to learn new things about farming in a short space of time. We know from experience how busy farming life is, and so are incredibly appreciative when farmers like Phil give so generously of their time to share their knowledge and expertise.

So next time you’re over Trafalgar South way, pop into Sunny Creek Farm and pick some amazing organic berries and tell Phil Hugh and Katie sent you!

And if you’re interested in starting a berry enterprise in central Vic and joining the Harcourt Organic Farming Co-op, please find out more here and get in touch!

Noticed any brown rot this summer?

Nectarine with brown rot infection
Nectarine showing signs of Brown rot

One of the diseases it’s important to monitor at this time of the year is Brown rot. In our part of the world (in southern Australia), our typically hot, dry conditions have not favoured the disease much this year, but we’ve still noticed an occasional piece of fruit with it, as you can see.

If you’ve had a rainy fruit season, you’re at a much higher risk of a Brown rot outbreak. It particularly loves warm, wet weather.

It’s important to pick any fruit that show symptoms, and dispose of it well away from the tree – put in the compost, feed to animals, or cook (after you cut off the bad bits, of course!).

Peaches with brown rot ready to be cut up and cooked

The infection can quickly spread (especially in rainy weather), so monitoring your trees once a week, and removing infected fruit, gives the remaining fruit the best chance of staying healthy. 

Brown rot spreading from one piece of fruit to another in a bunch of president plums

Even in organic gardens and farms, it’s possible to take preventive action to minimise the risk of diseases like Brown rot.

Hygiene (e.g. removing fruit as described above) is one of the most important, but you should also aim to keep a ‘cover’ spray of one of the safe organic fungicides on your trees at all times.

If you only have a few trees to manage, you can quickly and simply do this job with a simple sprayer, as Hugh is demonstrating here. With more trees to manage, you may want a more mechanised set-up.

There are so many spray systems to suit every size of garden or farm, but it can be really hard to figure out which spray system will suit you best, and what’s the best balance between budget and value.

It’s not worth spending hundreds (or thousands) of dollars on a system that’s too big and sophisticated for your needs. On the other hand, you may be able to save yourself many, many hours (and therefore $$) by investing in a system that will do the job you need quickly and efficiently.

It depends on a few things — how many trees you have, your topography (i.e. how steep your block is), what equipment you have available, and your goals for your fruit trees. If you’re hoping to sell some of your fruit, for example, you really need to make sure you can spray quickly, and easily, as often as you need to. We’ve demystified the whole topic in our short online course Choose the Right Spray Gear.

Time to Bud…

It comes around so quick. Amidst the busy-ness of summer harvest time we somehow find time to kneel among our beautiful seedling root stock nursery and imagine the varieties they will one day be. It’s a little bit Frankenstein, a little bit God, to change the destiny of these wee trees and transform them into the varieties of juicy, tasty fruit we want them to be. But that’s how it works. If we let the trees that we’ve grown from seed or cutting grow to maturity, sure they will fruit, but the fruit will likely be small, not very tasty or both! In the case of citrus and plum seedlings, they will most likely be extremely spiky too! 

That’s where summer budding comes in. By budding we can add one or more know varieties of fruit cultivar to the seedling rootstock. That’s where the Frankenstein thing comes in. You have to have a surgeon’s precision (and ideally over 50 year’s experience like Merv) to cut the fine incisions in the bark of the rootstock trunk (which by now is about the thickness of your index finger), just big enough for the bud to slide in and get taped on. Once the sap starts to flow and join the new bud onto the original rootstock tree then we have success, but if our cuts are a bit outta whack, the bud a bit big or dry, or the season too late then we have to wait again until spring to graft and try again.

February is the ideal time for budding. The rootstock trees are as big as they’re going to get (more or less) and the sap is still flowing, so happy unions between bud and tree can happen. Once the trees start to slow down for autumn and their winter hibernation, then the bark wont ‘lift’ anymore to receive a bud. This week, we (Merv, Katie and Sas) started our summer budding on the peaches. With freshly sharpened knives in hand we budded about 150 trees of all sorts of varieties of peach and nectarine. The rootstock trees we’ve grown from seed we saved out of last year’s bottling adventures. If the buds are successful, the trees should be ready to plant out in winter 2020.

It’s not the most glamorous or elegant activity, spending hours on your elbows and knees carefully slicing open small trees. But it is so incredibly interesting to see how the trees grow and learn about all the different varieties and experiment with different techniques, such as multi-buds on single trees. If we’re creating monsters, at least they’re edible monsters!!!

Grow well