Is rain good for fruit?

A lemon covered in raindrops
A lemon covered in raindrops

As a fruit grower, lying in bed listening to rain on the roof can bring up a wide range of emotions, both good and bad. In our typical dry summers most people welcome rain when it comes, so it never seems appropriate for us to express concern about the damage it can do to fruit. However, it hasn’t rained for a while, so this week we reflect on the question – “Is rain good for fruit?”

Like everything in farming, the answer is complicated, and depends on lots of different variables, so let’s break it down a bit.

1. Trees like rain better than irrigation waterup to a point! As a gardener, you’ve probably noticed how “perky” your garden looks just after rain. One of the reasons (apart from the leaves being cleaner) is because the rain carries dissolved nitrogen which is easily absorbed by the plants, giving them a nutritional boost. Too much rain, however, and the soil can become waterlogged, creating anaerobic conditions, which actually stops the plants’ roots being able to take up nitrogen! The other advantages of trees receiving their water from rainfall (rather than irrigation) are that the entire root system gets water (rather than just at the point of water delivery), and if you’ve been keeping your garden on rations due to dry conditions, they just love the opportunity to get their fill of water for a change!

A fungal disease outbreak on an apricot
A fungal disease outbreak on an apricot

2. Rain can trigger fungal disease. One of the biggest pest and disease risks in an organic farm (or garden) is fungal disease, and nearly all fungal diseases are triggered by wet conditions (at the right temperature). In general terms, the more rain, the more fungal disease. This risk is highest at the beginning of the season (i.e., at flowering time in spring), and then gradually decreases as the season progresses. During autumn, if the summer has been generally dry and there is not much fungal disease around, the risk of a new fungal outbreak is relatively low.

Cherries that have cracked in the rain
Cherries that have cracked in the rain

3. Rain can cause physical damage to fruit. This is very specific to the type (and even variety) of fruit. For example cherries are particularly vulnerable to splitting from the rain, and some varieties of apricots also split easily. Hardier fruit like apples and pears, however, rarely experience physical damage from rain.

An apricot with a severe crack caused by rain
An apricot with a severe crack caused by rain

4. “Hard” rain can damage all fruit. Storms that bring rain often also bring hail, and that can be completely devastating to all fruit. Hailstorms are very random and localised, so it”s pretty much the luck of the draw with this one, though if you live in a hail-prone area, netting can definitely be your saviour. All fruit are vulnerable to hail damage, including apples, pears, plums and quinces.

5. Rain is good for the landscape. When you’re trying to grow food in an arid landscape (as we are), the general impact of rain (as long as there’s not too much, or too quickly) is generally FABULOUS! It fills water storages, keeps the bush alive, helps to sustain our farming communities, and helps backyard fruit growers maintain their own food security. We love it….except…. when there’s too much! If rain becomes flooding and the soil becomes saturated for too long, it can lead to ALL sorts of problems! Anaerobic soil conditions, trees dying, waterborne soil disease, nutrient leaching, dams breaking their banks, and the list goes on. We’ve seen it before when the drought broke in 2010/11.

A rainy morning and green grass
A rainy morning and green grass

6. Rain is good for mental health. It’s a generalisation, of course, but very often rain can be a huge relief to farmers and others in the community, especially if it is relieving the pressures of trying to farm in a dry landscape, though as you can probably see from our list, it totally depends on the amount of rain, and the context!

Poppy lapping up a puddle
Poppy lapping up a puddle

Regardless of the timing of rain within the fruit season, it’s important to make sure your soil can act as a big “water storage tank” when it rains. As well as building really healthy soil (which is good for both water storage and drainage in your soil), techniques like swales and keyline (covered in this short course) can make a huge difference to how well your soil will store rainfall.

Almond harvest time

Green almonds pre-harvest before the husks have opened
Green almonds pre-harvest before the husks have opened

Apart from all the fruits that are grown commercially in the orchards on our farm, we also have a pretty big garden, with a wide variety of fruit and nut trees, including 8 almonds (2 each of 4 different varieties) under net.

We’re big fans of nut trees in gardens, particularly if you’re trying to build a permaculture (which stands for “permanent agriculture”) system. We’ve written about them before here and you can find out more about how to create a permaculture system here.

Almonds ready to harvest - the husks have opened and started to dry
Almonds ready to harvest – the husks have opened and started to dry

You can tell when they’re ripe because the husks open up, as you can see above, exposing the shell underneath (and the almond nut is inside the shell).

This week we started picking them, because some of them had started opening up. The other indication they’re ready is that some are on the ground, but we don’t want too many on the ground because in past years we’ve found they’re a pain to find in the grass, because we usually let it grow quite long underneath the almond trees.

Long grass under the trees can hamper the harvest!
Long grass under the trees can hamper the harvest!

This year we learned from previous year’s pain, and cut the grass a few weeks before harvest, which made the process much easier!

After we’ve picked, we remove the husks before we store the nuts, and then we shell them as we need them through the year as they stay much fresher in the shell.

Mowed grass under almond trees makes it easier to find the fallen nuts
Mowed grass under almond trees makes it easier to find the fallen nuts

Now that the trees are mature, 8 trees supply us with enough nuts for eating all year, plus we grind some into meal and use them in cooking as well.

Our small almond block is planted in 2 rows, with 2 trees each of 4 different varieties. Like so many other well-meaning but vague gardeners, we lost the tags, so we don’t know which variety is which! (This is one of the things we caution against in our Grow Great Fruit program — so do as we say, not as we do!)

Variety 1 in our almond block

Normally we pick the whole crop together, but this year we’ve kept the different varieties separate, and will attempt to identify them. As you can see from the photos of the first 3 varieties we’ve picked, they’re all quite different. Variety 1 has a very papery shell (which suggests it might be Canadian Papershell).

Variety 2 in our almond block

We planted pollinisers together, so variety 2 must be either Ne Plus Ultra, Mission or IXL. Ne Plus Ultra has very large kernels, and as you can see from the photo (the sunnies are there to give a size comparison between varieties), #2 is much smaller than #1, so that rules out Ne Plus Ultra. It’s more likely to be Mission, which yields relatively small kernels. Other options include Johnsons Prolific or IXL.

Variety 3 in our almond block

Varieties #3 and #4 were also pollinisers for each other, so the likelihood is that they are Brandes Jordan and Chellaston, but we have no idea which is which! Oh well, they’re all delicious, so it doesn’t really matter, though it’s going to leave me forever curious…

A beautiful almond flower at sunset
A beautiful almond flower at sunset

Planning for productivity

Autumn is a great time to review the process for planning your home garden to get maximum productivity over as long a period as possible.

A great crop of healthy organic Kieffer pears
A great crop of healthy organic Kieffer pears

We harvest fresh fruit from our orchard for 6 months (from late spring to late autumn), and it’s easy to replicate this at home.

Wonderfully diverse autumn harvest from a Grow Great Fruit member's garden
Wonderfully diverse autumn harvest from a Grow Great Fruit member’s garden

We also aim to have as much variety as possible every week, for two very important reasons. The first is to give some protection against the inevitable challenges that mother nature throws at us that might damage or diminish the crop, and the seconds is to provide as much nutrition as possible in our diet.

It’s a pretty simple planning process:

  1. For each fruit type (e.g., apples, pears, peaches) choose early, mid-season, and late varieties;
  2. Map out the likely harvest dates of each variety in a calendar;
  3. You’ll then be able to see how many varieties you are likely to be harvesting each week over the season;
  4. Adjust to suit your family, your climate, and your preferences (number of trees, amount of water available, etc).

When choosing the actual varieties, try to include some of the lesser known heritage varieties, like the very rare Kieffer pears in the photo above, or the hard-to-find Fragar heritage white peaches in the photo below.

A seasonal basket of mixed vegetables from our garden
Rare heritage white-flesh Fragar peaches

This can sometimes help to extend the season, but more importantly helps to provide more variety in your diet and biodiversity in your garden. It also helps to preserve some of these heritage varieties that might otherwise disappear.

Mixed orchard trees including peaches, nectarines, plums and apricots
Mixed orchard trees including peaches, nectarines, plums and apricots

We grow at least 140 different varieties of fruit on the farm, and that’s just in the orchard, not including citrus, figs, berries etc. in the garden. We’re also constantly on the lookout for, and adding, new varieties.

Mixed box of apple and pear varieties
Mixed box of apple and pear varieties

That means that between late spring and late autumn there’s normally at least two, and up to 15 or more different varieties of fruit available to eat fresh from the tree every week.

Most modern agriculture is heading more and more towards monoculture, whereas the system we’ve developed here on the farm is all about polyculture, variety, and biodiversity. It’s based on many of the same principles as the permaculture system.

A seasonal basket of mixed vegetables from our garden

It’s worked well for us for nearly two decades, ensuring we’ve harvested a constant supply of fruit every year throughout droughts, floods, bird plagues and disease outbreaks as well as a wide range of vegetables and nuts from the garden.

That’s why this principle is the very basis of the Grow Great Fruit system that we teach, to help home growers replicate exactly the same system in your own garden and achieve true fruit security.