Put your fruit trees to bed before winter

This week, we’re noticing that the leaves are just starting to change colour on some of the fruit trees at our place, so we’re focusing on things you can do in the garden to help your fruit trees get ready for winter.

The farm's starting to get that 'autumn' feel (thanks to Penny Kothe for this beautiful shot)
The farm’s starting to get that ‘autumn’ feel (thanks to Penny Kothe for this beautiful shot)

One of the most important things to think about is nutrition. It might seem a bit counter-intuitive to be feeding the trees just as they’re about to go to sleep for the year, but it’s really just a case of ‘topping up’.

It's never the wrong time to apply compost under your fruit trees
It’s never the wrong time to apply compost under your fruit trees

In fact, your trees have already started the process of storing nutrients in their buds, bark, and roots (that’s why the leaves have started to change colour), and this nutrition is what they will draw on next spring when they wake up and start flowering.

The beautiful yellows, oranges and browns of autumn starting to appear in pear leaves
The beautiful yellows, oranges and browns of autumn starting to appear in pear leaves

Flowering is the first thing most fruit trees do in spring (except apples and pears, which produce leaves first), and this happens before their roots have really started to function very much, so the stored nutrition is absolutely crucial to good flowering, and good flowering is crucial to good fruit set.

Good flowering in spring relies on the tree receiving enough nutrition the previous autumn
Good flowering in spring relies on the tree receiving enough nutrition the previous autumn

In the natural farming system that we follow and teach, we don’t use artificial fertilisers (which can easily cause more harm than good) but instead rely on the natural fertility system of having a diversity of organic matter and nutrients in the soil, and then making sure we have lots of healthy soil microbes present to convert the nutrients into a plant-available form.

When we talk about nutrition, we’re really talking about feeding the microbes, so they can feed our trees.

So, what to give them? Compost is always great, as is well-rotted manure. If you have a worm farm, worm castings or worm juice provide an excellent, and fast, nutrient boost for the microbes.

Hugh with his pet worms - some of the most useful workers on the farm (thanks to Biomi Photo for this beautiful shot)
Hugh with his pet worms – some of the most useful workers on the farm (thanks to Biomi Photo for this shot)

Liquid seaweed and liquid fish are also great (available from garden centres under various brand names), or if you want to save money, make a batch of compost tea (brewed compost) or compost extract (which is just compost soaked in water to make it go further).

And if you want to drill down a bit more into the Natural Fertility System and how to set it up in your garden, spend a little time learning more about the amazing world of microbes in the online short course Soil Biology and the Soil Food Web

Renewing the nursery with green manure

It might seem a bit late to be putting in a spring green manure, but better late than never, right?

Sas figured out what seed we would need and how much, and I ordered it, and we were hoping it would arrive before all the lovely rain, but alas I was a bit late getting the order in, and we missed the boat.

The rain came and went, and the weather  seems to have settled into being consistently hot and dry now, but our soil desperately needs some love and attention, so we decided to go ahead and plant it anyway and rely on irrigation rather than rainfall to make sure it grows.

Here’s what’s in the green manure mix:

  • buckwheat
  • mung bean
  • French white millet
  • kidney bean

To make the seed easier to spread, Sas put it all in a bucket that was half full of clean sand…

and gave it a really good mix…

before spreading it. The area had previously been dug up with the rotary hoe and raked, and then Sas used the back of the rake to make a series of ridges down the rows to catch the seed as she distributed it. This method makes it a bit easier to lightly rake the soil back over the seed.

So, why a green manure? The nursery has three separate patches on the farm, and because of the nature of how a nursery works, each patch can stay in production for up to three years. But also, each year we need somewhere to plant seed and cuttings to grow new rootstocks.

To stop the soil becoming more and more depleted, we need to put some organic matter back into it, because the only input we routinely use is a bit of compost.

Unlike the orchard where ground cover is encouraged, the nursery is kept free of weeds to reduce competition for the baby trees, so it’s really important to keep the soil fertile by adding extra organic matter.

A green manure is the perfect way to do it—even if mid-summer is not the perfect time! Our seed mix included mung beans to add nitrogen to the soil and build organic matter, buckwheat for fast growing bulk and phosphorus accumulation,  French millet because it’s a fast-growing grass that combines well with legumes, and kidney bean because it’s another nitrogen fixing legume.

Luckily we have the benefit of an irrigation system already in place, so we’ll use a bit of water to get the seeds up and established, before we turn them back into the soil to work their magic in autumn, ready for planting next winter.

Keep your worms happy in a heatwave

Do you have a worm farm?

Worms are wonderful workers and are the best (and cheapest) way to produce quantities of fabulous organic fertiliser for your trees, but like all workers, they’ll give you their best if they have excellent working conditions.

Throughout summer, but particularly in a heat wave, it’s really important to give them some extra care and attention. Climate change means that summer conditions are likely to become more extreme (and in fact we’ve already noticed this happening here on the farm), so here’s our top 4 tips for keeping your worms happy in a heat wave:

  1. Keep your worm farm as cool as possible. Worms don’t like extremes of temperature – either heat or cold. It’s also best if you can put your worm farm somewhere where the temperature stays relatively constant and doesn’t fluctuate too much – a cellar is ideal, but a garage or even laundry (depending on size of farm) is also good.
  2. Make sure the worm farm is not in direct sun, as worms also don’t like direct light.
  3. Cover the top layer of your worm farm with something to help keep the moisture in and the hot dry air out. Newspaper, cardboard, old carpet or underfelt (woollen) can all be given a good soak and then placed directly on the surface of your worm farm – it’ll make a huge difference. (Just be careful with old underfelt as sometimes it had been treated with insecticide.)
  4. Keep your worm farm moist. This is probably the main reason worm farms fail. There should always be a bit of moisture dripping out of the bottom, or if you grab a handful you should be able to wring a couple of drips out.

If you follow these tips there’s no reason why your worms won’t happily keep devouring your kitchen scraps and other organic waste right through the hottest weather.

Have a look at Give Worms a Warm Welcome to find out more about how to reap incredible benefits from these powerhouse workers in your garden.