Weeds in spring

Spring weeds under the almond trees
Spring weeds under the almond trees

With spring underway, weeds (or understorey plants as we prefer to call them), are starting to grow, which means the plants that grow under your fruit trees are likely to start looking out of control pretty soon.

One of the major ways that organic orchards and gardens differ from those that use chemicals like herbicides is that we appreciate the many benefits that weeds can provide.

Great biodiversity of plants around a young apple tree

Great biodiversity of plants around a young apple tree

Unfortunately in most orchards (and in many gardens, judging by the amount of weedkiller sold in garden centres) it’s routine to use herbicides to kill every weed in sight. This is a terrible pity, as it can do quite a bit of damage to the ecosystem (not to mention the now well known risks to human health).

On farms this is because monoculture systems that rely on artificial inputs like fertilisers see growing anything other than the target crop as a disadvantage. In gardens it’s often simply a case of misinformation, or the desire for a “tidy” garden.

We reckon killing weeds completely misses the point of creating a complex and diverse habitat, and ignores the many environmental benefits of weeds: they shade the ground, they provide crucial habitat and food for the soil microbes that are so important for fertility for our trees, and they take carbon out of the air and pump it into the soil, just to name a few.

Orchard pigs loving some attention
Orchard pigs loving some attention

If you have animals at your place, weeds can also be a wonderful source of feed, in exchange for which the animals will fertilise your soil, eat pests, and possibly even provide you with other benefits like eggs or meat (if you’re not vegetarian).

Geese in the orchard
Geese in the orchard

However, there can be a downside to having weeds in the orchard – they use water and nutrients, they may provide habitat for insect pests, and they make handy ‘ladders’ into the trees for crawling insects like earwigs and garden weevils.

Like most things in gardening and farming, deciding how to manage your weeds and understorey plants is a matter of weighing up the pros and cons.

We reckon the pros of weeds by far outweigh the cons, but to get the maximum benefit from them we like to keep them short and don’t let them go to seed.

This means they stay active in terms of pumping carbon into the soil, they use less water, and it’s provides a much nicer environment to work around the trees if the weeds are short.

Mowed grass under the almond trees
Mowed grass under the almond trees

So, here’s our top three tips for managing the weeds and understorey plants under your fruit trees in spring:

  1. Keep them short: We mow the grass in the orchard with the slasher pulled behind the tractor. It works well, but the downside is it uses diesel fuel. If you have access to pigs, geese or chickens they can do the job for you at no cost, otherwise mow the weeds with a mower or hand scythe before they get too long.  
  2. Grow something useful. We aim for a mix of grasses (for maximum organic matter), legumes (for nitrogen fixation from the atmosphere) and herbs (for the different nutrients they ‘mine’ from the soil). Vegies and culinary herbs are other obvious choices. You may already have useful plants growing among the weeds that naturally occur, but if you’re not sure if you do, or how to recognise them, you may find the short courses Learn to Love Your Weeds or Weed Therapy useful.
  3. Don’t give pests an advantage. Don’t let understorey plants become a ladder for pests to get into your tree, or an un-managed host habitat forr pests like grasshoppers.
Rutherglen bugs taking advantage of long grass for a habitat
Rutherglen bugs taking advantage of long grass for a habitat

To mulch or not to mulch?

Our fruit growing study tour of the USA got us thinking about mulch, as we saw a number of different approaches to it in our travels.

An apple tree mulched with woodchips at the Maine Heritage Orchard
An apple tree mulched with woodchips at the Maine Heritage Orchard

Of course it wasn’t hard to find orchards where the weeds have been completely sprayed out with herbicide, and mulch isn’t needed because there’s no plants left.

Yuk! Don’t do that!

The chemicals are bad for your health, the weeds grow back and need spraying again ($ straight from your pocket to the chemical companies), but worst of all – it’s really bad for the soil and kills the natural fertility system that trees need to get their nutrients (more $ straight from your pocket to the fertiliser company).

So what to do? Should you just let the weeds grow? Won’t they compete with the trees?

For young trees this is somewhat true – it’s definitely helpful to keep the weeds (or you could call them precious understory biodiversity plants) down while the tree’s roots are getting established, and we saw this in action at the Maine Heritage Orchard in Unity, Maine.

This orchard was planted not that many years ago on the site of a disused gravel pit, so major soil building and remediation has been the order of the day.

Hardwood chips have been extensively used, not only to mulch the trees when they were planted, but also to build paths, build soil more generally, and as an ongoing weed suppression tool even as the trees mature.

A tree in Michael Phillips' orchard which was mulched with woodchips when planted and has since been allowed to revert to natural understory
A tree in Michael Phillips’ orchard which was mulched with woodchips when planted and has since been allowed to revert to natural understory

We saw a different approach in Michael Phillips’ orchard in New Hampshire.

He also uses woodchips on young trees, but welcomes a wide diversity of understory plants as the trees grow, using mulch in a more ad hoc way.

There is widespread agreement that if you are going to mulch, hardwood woodchips are preferable.

This is because fruit trees prefer a fungally dominant soil, as we explain in our Soil Biology and the Soil Food Web short course.

Understanding the amazing world of soil microbes that are key to the Natural Fertility System will change the way you think about soil, fertiliser and mulch forever.

So, to mulch, or not to mulch?

After everything we’ve seen, we’re still in favour of mulching while the trees are young, and then transitioning to either a natural or cultivated understory – a “living mulch”!

Peaches and cream…

It’s happening! We are expanding our patch from 0.5 acres to 1.5 acres. Eek! We have been growing incrementally by design and out of necessity since we started over four years ago. Starting with 1/8 of an acre and then slowly taking on more land as time, finance and energy allowed. But seriously, an extra acre…? That’s a leap. 

Hugh and Oli gazing in awe at the Gung Hoe's new patch
Hugh and Oli gazing in awe at the Gung Hoe’s new patch

It will help us produce more veggies but also allow us to be more efficient by having large chunks of the land resting in green manures  and ready for the next season’s crop. Slowly over time we’re testing the boundaries of what size growing area is both viable and manageable, and this is the next step on that journey.

Sas getting her Daikon
Sas getting her Daikon

After the old orchard trees were ripped out, lovely Dave Griffiths, who Yeomans ploughed and worked his soil magic on our last patch, came and Yeomansed the new acre. He commented on how extremely compacted the ground was after decades of tractors driving up and down it and rows running down hill that carry water away rather than across the slope to sow and catch the water.  The Yeomans plough is designed in such a way that it deep rips the soil, opening it up and aerating it without turning it over and disrupting the soil structure. This helps let air and water into the soil .

Dave's Yeoman Plough
Dave’s Yeoman Plough

Since Dave’s plough went through, we’ve been rotary hoeing the soil to loosen it enough to get a crop of green manure sown into it while these lovely rains are coming. Progressively from December onwards we’re going to work with Tessa to put the cows on the green manure crop, eating, pooing, weeing and trampling it where we would normally use our bodies and walk behind tractor. It’s a bit of an experiment inspired by the Holistic Management(HM) course that we’ve been doing the last few months. Come January and February, the new patch (which we’ve called ‘Peaches and Cream’ because of its previous history as orchard and our use of the cows in it) will be ready for us to plant our autumn crops into. In theory!

Sas studying hard at the HM course
Sas studying hard at the HM course

One of the many things that has come out of the HM course we’ve been doing is that we have reviewed and written our Holistic Context for Gung Hoe. Part of this is like a ‘statement of purpose’ or ‘vision statement’ which we would like to share coz its helped us re-invigorate our focus and motivation to keep doing what we’re doing. Here it is:

“We nourish ourselves and our community with the life force of the food we grow. By daring to do things differently, we work with the elements to grow thriving, robust, diverse and joyful communities of living things.”

Like all vision statements, it isn’t worth the paper its written on unless you have the means and motivation to bring it into reality as well as continually reflecting on it adapting it as things change.  That’s what we’re pulling apart by creating our whole business holistic management plan. So stay tuned for more developments.

We’re also gearing up for our next season of veggie boxes. Mel has been madly plugging away at planning the crop rotations and numbers of crops that we need to grow in order to feed people well and consistently over the next 8 months. Sas takes that plan and numbers and turns it into the right number of babies in the hothouse to plant out at the right time. Part of our planning process for the next season is to do a little ten question feedback survey for all the people who have got veggie boxes off us before. This helps us review what has worked and what hasn’t and improve our boxes for the next round.

Maka investigating the new Gung Hoe "Peaches and Cream" block
Maka investigating the new Gung Hoe “Peaches and Cream” block

If you have five minutes and wouldn’t mind answering our veggie box feedback survey, that would be amazing! It really helps us do the best we can, to feed you!

That’s all for now. Who ever said that winter was the quiet time in farming!!

Grow well

Sas (and Mel)

VEGGIE BOX SURVEY link:  https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/HNYJTZT

Gung Hoe Growers
69 Danns Rd Harcourt