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

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.

Control your weeds…or not?

We love weeds! Weeds, or understorey plants as we prefer to call them, provide lots of environmental benefits – they shade the ground, provide habitat and food for the bees and soil microbes that are so important for fertility for our trees, and take carbon out of the air and pump it into the soil. And that’s just the beginning of the list of wonderful things about them!

However, there’s also a downside to having weeds under your fruit trees. They use water and nutrients, and they provide habitat and ‘ladders’ into the trees for earwigs and garden weevils. And some weeds are definitely preferable to others, so it pays to make sure you’ve got the right ones. Like most things in gardening and farming, deciding what to do is usually a matter of weighing up the pros and cons.

We reckon the pros of weeds by far outweigh the cons, but to get maximum benefit from them we like to not let them get too long, and try not to let them go to seed. This means they stay active in terms of pumping carbon into the soil, it reduces the amount of water they use, and it’s much more pleasant to work around the trees, but it also means that one of our big jobs in spring and summer is keeping up with the slashing!

We don’t like to to cut the grass too short, and that helps the plants stay in their growing phase too. On a home garden scale, it’s probably easier to use a whipper snipper…

It's important to whipper snip around any trees that will be taped
It’s important to whipper snip around any trees that will be taped

…or best of all, use some animals to eat the grass, and then you get the extra benefit of them turning all that lovely juicy grass into lovely juicy natural fertiliser!

Read more about how to create Natural Fertility for Fruit Trees (within your budget!)