Frost and fruit trees

The question of frost and fruit trees often comes up when people are deciding which fruit trees to order for their garden, so we thought we’d clarify the issue this week, particularly as we’ve had the first few frosty mornings here on the farm.

A frost near the apricot orchard
A frost near the apricot orchard

Winter frosts are not a problem – in fact most deciduous fruit trees need a certain predetermined number of hours of cold each year to help them set fruit (this is called chill factor, and is a separate issue to frost – find out more about both chill factor and frost in this online short course).

Frost is only a problem for your trees in spring, and only if there’s a frost when the trees are flowering, or when the fruit is tiny just after flowering.

Spring frosts while trees are flowering can sometimes cause damage
Spring frosts while trees are flowering can sometimes cause damage

The hierarchy of frost-sensitive fruit trees is that almonds and apricots are most frost sensitive, then cherries, peaches and nectarines, apples, plums, and pears, in that order.

That doesn’t mean that apples, plums and pears don’t get frost damage though, they can. This is a photo of a typical ‘frost ring’ on a tiny pear – damage caused by a frost when the tree was flowering.

A frost ring on a pear
A frost ring on a pear

If you get bad frosts and don’t have a way to protect your trees in spring, then your apricot trees are likely to not bear fruit very often because the flowers will be burnt off by the frost.

This means they then put all their energy into growing wood instead of fruit, and you can end up with a very big tree!

A very large apricot tree
A very large apricot tree

So what can you do?

First, it’s important to know how frosty your place is, and where are the most vulnerable spots, so the next time you have a frosty morning, head outside nice and early in the dressing gown and gumboots, and really have a look at exactly where the frost is lying.

Then, try to match the trees you’d like to grow to the available micro-climates (saving the least frost-affected spots for the most frost-vulnerable trees).

Next, think about how you can create or enhance the microclimates
with plantings or infrastructure to create protected pockets.

Other things you can do include:

  1. Planting the most sensitive fruit trees in pots so you can shift them to protected spots in spring;
  2. Use frost cloth (or even old sheets) when frost is threatened (but remember to take it off again the next morning).
Frost on the soil
Frost on the soil

When you consider all the options available to you, it’s really surprising just how much you can do to provide the right habitat for lots of different fruit trees, even if they’re a bit outside their normal comfort zone.

This tamarillo tree is a great example – it’s absolutely thrived in a climate that is supposedly far too cold for it, by planting it in a sheltered spot right next to our shed wall.

A fast-growing tamarillo tree protected from frost by planting next to the shed
A fast-growing tamarillo tree protected from frost by planting next to the shed

Consequences of netting

Most decision in farming (and gardening) involve weighing up the pros and cons, and this even applies to netting. You’d think it would be a no-brainer – put on the net and save the fruit, right?

Well here’s one of the downsides, which becomes obvious when you take the drape nets off.

A peach tree bent from the weight of the net
A peach tree bent from the weight of the net

It’s a great lesson in why it’s best to remove the nets as soon as you’ve picked the fruit, and while the trees still have leaves on them.

This is a 4 year old peach tree, which grew very well this year and yielded a lovely crop of peaches.

It was netted it in plenty of time to save the fruit from the birds, and what should have happened next was the removal of the nets. But, things got busy, it never quite got to the top of the ‘to do’ list, and you can see the consequence in the photo above.

Abi and Hugh removing nets - in winter!
Abi and Hugh removing nets – in winter!

All the growing tips (or “leaders”) at the top of each limb have grown bent over. If they’ve been held down by the net for too long while they’re flexible and growing strongly, they may have permanently taken on that bent shape and won’t spring back into shape.

There are two things we can take from this:

  1. It’s not difficult to correct – some careful pruning at the top of the limbs will usually remove most of the bend and this will help the limbs continue their growth in a mostly straight line next year.
  2. Notice how easy it is to influence the way a tree grows, so if you’re aiming for a particular shape of tree (espalier, for example), it’s not difficult to encourage the tree to grow the way you want it to. Find out more about how to create espaliers, vases, and other fruit tree forms in Pruning by Numbers: A Guide to Pruning Deciduous Fruit Trees.

That’s the silver lining in this particular cloud!

CSA – big thanks!

Gidday out there!

As I write this the correllas, galahs and cockatoos and cacophony of other birds, dogs, cows and who knows what else are banging around and the sun is on my face.  Its a perfect autumn day, the grass is growing and covering what was dust almost a month ago. The dust of green feels like a sigh of relief; and the ever hovering thought: ‘will it rain??’ diminishes slightly.  I am reminded just how quickly we can be turned to the present when it feels do-able, ok and not that it will all collapse and die if you don’t tend to it.  

This weather is also perfect planting out weather – we need to get everything we can in the ground before the earth cools down and hibernates for the winter.  We need everything to get its grow on NOW so we can harvest it throughout winter/spring. If we leave it too late the plants/ seedlings will sit there and not grow and take up precious space not doing anything…which might seem not such a worry but on our scale and with our intensiveness this is a factor we try to eliminate as much as possible.  If you can hear a thread of anxiety running through my words you’d be completely correct.  As much as I know we do as much as we can; and every year (remember we only get one crack a year at each season!) we improve – these windows of transition are still tricky for us to juggle! There’s days I feel in the flow and then there’s days I try so hard to get my head around it that I think I’m actually ridiculously unproductive which elevates any overwhelm I already have lurking in the background!! We have a massive to-do list that lives on a white board in the shed and is pretty much our brains combined into gung hoe…sometimes i find it helpful and at other times its just TOO MUCH! as pictured here 😉

Ah well…is life, no?  We’re never completely ‘all over it’ are we, and as I heard in a podcast interviewing Mary Oliver recently, she mentioned how important it is to leave space to accommodate chance… I do believe that if we so perfectly organise our lives there is no chance for the unknown and spontaneous, and indeed isn’t that what breathes life into our steps?

The magpies are swooping out of a big gum I sit and type under, they’re singing and uplifting the spirit.  As the seasons roll on by we see the transition – the garlic is all mulched its strong green leaves are poking out of its bed of straw…and in the same moment growth has slowed and it is harder to get the mass bulk we need for boxes, caterers, cafes and restaurants so there is a glimmer in the distance of Sas and me too slowing down.  We will finish our seasonal boxes in early June for a few months, (but still continue with wholesale) so we can bunker down with the season and take stock, regain energy needed for spring/summer/autumn.  We will start with the morning sun soon rather than meeting with the moon at the beginning and end of our days, yay!

As a celebration we are holding with Ant (from Tellurian Fruit Gardens) a casual farm tour and shared potluck dinner with members of our hybrid CSA box scheme on Saturday 8th June. We will be sending out invites to everyone who has eaten and travelled the seasons with us via the electronic mail – via mailchimp – so keep an eye out y’all – and often Mailchimp can go into junk or promotions folders – so please keep an eye out in these too, we don’t want anyone to think they haven’t been invited!!! There is a registration for the event (in the email you will receive!) so we can make sure we have enough seats, toilets, water and parking space so make sure you sign up if you’re intending on joining us 🙂

We are so grateful for those in our community who support us and what we’re aiming to do in building stronger, local food systems and building soil. We understand that it takes a certain amount of understanding and tweaking of what we mostly call ‘normal’ life to live in sync with the food we have available to us in each season as its so easy to not live this way.  So in celebration of you, and for for us to celebrate the earth and everything that comes from it, we would love to show you with a short tour where the food is grown and any questions you have, and then sit around a fire, or in the shed and do what people have done for millennia by celebrating with food, together. Pretty simple, but generally it’s what is the golden ticket we reckon. 

So with that, may you be enjoying these cooler days of green and red and brown and gold and be reminded of this wisdom so beautifully penned by Wendell Berry from his poem Rising : (bearing in mind man equals all peoples 🙂 

But if a man’s life 
continues in another man, 
then the flesh will rhyme 
its part in immortal song. 
By absence, he comes again. 

There is a kinship of the fields 
that gives to the living the breath 
of the dead. The earth 
opened in the spring, opens 
in all springs. Nameless, 
ancient, many lived, we reach 
through ages with the seed.

In peace, Mel (and Sas)