Providing frost shelter

We’ve written about frost and fruit trees before and noted the importance of providing shelter for some fruit trees in spring, which is the danger time when a heavy frost can damage flowers, tiny fruit, or even drop-bears.

Our resident drop-bear on a freezing cold morning
Our resident drop-bear on a freezing cold morning

So today we want to talk about a few different options for providing that shelter.

The first one is to build a frame over the tree. This is a great option, because you can use the same frame for bird netting, fruit fly netting, or frost cloth, depending on your need and the season.

Frost cloth is a special, fine cloth that keeps the frost from settling on the ground, protecting the trees, vegies or other crops under it. It’s not very tough and is easy to work with – and even sew with, as you can see in the photo below where an industrious Win (one of our Grow Great Fruit Home-study Program members) is sewing the cloth to fit the frame.

Win hard at work at the sewing machine
Win hard at work at the sewing machine

You can avoid the expense of frost cloth by using old sheets. A word of warning if your cover completely covers the tree to the ground – it’s best to put it on when a frost is forecast, and take it off again (or lift it up) mid-morning or when the frost has disappeared.

A bird netting enclosure can be re-purposed to provide frost protection
A bird netting enclosure can be re-purposed to provide frost protection

Another way to provide the protection your trees need is to use assets you already have in the garden. Here’s a photo illustrating how a shed and a couple of tall trees provide a wide frost shadow.

You often won’t notice these micro-climates unless you go looking for them, so next time you have a big frost, check out your garden carefully.

Look all around for the influence of buildings, sheds, fences, water tanks and other physical assets, and also notice how vegetation like trees, grass and vegie patches can determine where the frost lands, and how it flows.

Other things you can do to protect your trees from frost include putting sprinklers on your trees, using frost fans, keep your soil moist, keep the ground cover plants under your trees short and don’t mulch (because it keeps the ground too cool).

Interestingly, all the things we recommend for soil health (like increasing the amount of organic matter in your soil) can also make your plants more resistant to frost.

This is for two reasons:

  1. Plants with a high Brix level have a lower freezing point;
  2. Soil with higher organic matter levels hold more moisture, which makes them less vulnerable to freezing.

Frost is just one of the factors you need to think about when planning your home orchard (our Home Orchard Design short course has 19 different units in it, and frost only accounts for two of them!).

It can definitely make it harder to grow some fruits in a cold climate, but with understanding and planning, it doesn’t have to be a deal breaker.

Before you do soil prep…

Autumn is an excellent time for soil improvement and preparation before we plant fruit trees in winter.

Apples close to harvest time in autumn
Apples close to harvest time in autumn

There’s usually enough of a gap between when the harvest of summer fruit has finished (though you may still have apples and pears on the tree), and when planting happens in winter, to allow for planting an autumn green manure crop, for example.

However, before you even start thinking about soil prep, there’s a few other steps you need to do.

  1. Review how your fruit trees performed this summer

Did you get enough fruit to meet your goals? If not, why not — was it because of disease, lack of pollination, or just not enough trees? If you don’t know, we recommend keeping a fruit tree diary to help track of how your trees are performing. (You can download our Fruit Tree Diary template, plus instructions for using it, as part of the Learn to Diagnose Your Fruit Trees short course).

We like to preserve enough fruit to see us through winter
We like to preserve enough fruit to see us through winter

2. Decide whether you need to plant more trees 

After completing step 1 you should know whether you’re going to need more trees to help you grow the perfect amount of fruit to suit you and your family. There’s no point planting trees unless you actually need the fruit.

3. Decide which varieties will help you achieve your goals

  • You may have discovered that you need to choose a variety to fill a gap in production and provide a more continuous supply of fruit throughout the season (balancing out the periods of glut and scarcity).
  • If pollination is an issue, you may be looking for a variety that can act as a pollinator to improve yields from an existing tree.
  • Or you may be adding a type or variety of fruit that you normally have to buy.

4. Now choose the right location in your garden

Having chosen the varieties you’ll be buying, now think about the best location in your garden for those varieties.

For example, apricots and almonds need the most frost-protected spots, but they also need to be able to dry quickly in periods of rain in spring. Pears are relatively frost tolerant and reasonably tolerant of waterlogged soil.

NOW that you know what you’ll be planting and where, you can think about getting started with your soil prep! More on that in another blog…

April means garlic…

April means garlic for us and the anniversary of our time growing at Mt Alexander Fruit Gardens. In theory garlic is the last of our autumn and winter crops to go in the ground, but in reality it’s one of the many things we’re rushing to get in the ground while there is still some warmth to the soil and the weather isn’t either too blisteringly hot or too freezing cold. Next week, we will be planting out our fifth crop of garlic as Gung Hoe Growers.

We’ve carefully saved our best garlic from the crop we pulled out in November 2018 and this will be what we plant out next week in our beds, which have housed beans all summer. Over the past 5 years we’ve repeated this process so that slowly over time the garlic we grow is really well acclimatised and suited to our specific little patch of land and climate. We’re also going to try planting a later-maturing variety of garlic, which our lovely friend Darren from “Two Good Acres” in Yapeen has kindly offered to give us some of. That way we can extend the harvest and storage of our garlic crops over a longer period of time.

If April is Garlic, than March is broad beans (and everything else). Most of our brassicas (Cauliflowers, Broccoli, Brussels, Kohl Rabi, etc.) got tucked in in February along with the winter greens (Escarole, Radicchio, Endives), leeks and spring onions. After visiting Days Walk Farm and picking up a few good new tips and with the wonderful volunteer help of Marty, Cara and Kya, we planted out our broad beans in what was the Okra row. Rather than pull the okra plants out, which are still spitting out the occasional okra, we decided to leave the plants in the ground and plant the broadies in around them. Our idea is that as the broadies grow we’ll be able to continue to harvest the okra, and they may even be nursed through the winter with the frost protection from the broad beans. That means we don’t have to lose all the good soil biology that’s clustered around the roots of the okra or disturb the soil too much. Bit of an experiment, but that’s how we like to roll.

Last year we were still harvesting tomatoes and eggplants in late May. It was a lovely long (proper) autumn. This year, we haven’t really had an autumn, it feels like it’s gone straight to winter. We’ll be ripping the tomatoes out in a week or so and making way for more winter crops like onions. Farming teaches us to be creative with whatever the weather and natures presents to us and try and make the best of it. It’s a humbling place to be, and a constant reminder that despite what we tell ourselves, we really cannot control anything in life. 

Grow well,

Sas (and Mel)