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.
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.
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).
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.
So, here’s our top three tips for managing the weeds and understorey plants under your fruit trees in spring:
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.
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.
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.
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…
…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!
Our new orchard intern Ant will be starting in a couple of weeks – and we’re super excited! But we’re very conscious that he will have missed all of spring, which is the ‘engine room’ of the fruit season, when most of the important stuff that determines how the season will turn out happens.
Along with the intensive training we’ll be providing Ant, we want him to get a good understanding of what each season on the farm is like, to help him with his planning. So while it’s very fresh in our mind, we thought it a great time to sum up what spring on a busy organic orchard looks like. (All these jobs need to be done whether you have 6 trees or 6,000, so hopefully this list should be useful for everyone with fruit trees!)
As we move from winter to spring, the way we prioritise our jobs gradually shifts from those jobs that are good for the trees (and next year’s fruit) in the longer term, like compost and fertiliser, to what’s most crucial for looking after this year’s fruit (short-term) like netting, taping and thinning. Once the fruit is ripe and ready for picking, top of the list every day is, what needs picking today?
It looks like a big list and it can certainly feel overwhelming while you’re in the middle of it, but as long as you’re prepared for the fact that spring needs your full-time attention it’s all quite doable – though wherever possible it’s great to lighten the load by having friends or volunteers to help out, and in our case employing people where necessary, to make sure the jobs all get done.
This one starts way back in August, when we have to start monitoring for the first signs of budswell in the peaches and nectarines, and from then on we’re monitoring regularly for two things (the trees as they flower, and the weather) to make sure all trees have an organic fungicide on at the right time.
Depending on which trees need to be sprayed, this job can take anything from 2 hours to all day, and depending on the weather, it might need doing a couple of times a week, or not for weeks!
With spring comes rain and warmth, and the grass starts growing. This is basically a good thing because all these lovely annuals start pumping carbon into the soil, but we can’t let the weeds get too long around the trees, so it means we need to start slashing – and keep slashing regularly, right through summer until the grass slows down. It’s mostly a tractor job (until we introduce some animals into the orchards), with some back-up work with the whipper-snipper around any young trees.
This job is simple and quick (just putting a bit of double-sided tape around the trunk of the tree. It only takes a couple of minutes per tree), but its one of the most important jobs we do for trees where the main fruit-eating pest are earwigs and garden weevils (cherries and nectarines in particular). One of the tricks we’ve learned over the years—don’t put it off! It’s really good to get this job done nice and early, before the earwigs are in the tree, because if you put the tape on after they’re in the tree then you’re trapping them up there! It’s also a sticky job, so it’s definitely worth gathering a couple of buddies, getting hold of some disposable gloves, and going for it!
Watering itself needs to start happening as soon as the weather is warm enough and the soil dry enough to warrant it, which will be different each year (but was in mid-spring for us this year). But before that, there’s lots of little maintenance jobs that can practically be done in late winter, so you get them out of the way before spring craziness happens—checking the pump, checking and cleaning out all the filters, flushing out the irrigation lines in each orchard, and then turning the system on and checking every dripper. Admittedly, this is a job that’s much more pleasant to do in warm weather (yep, you’re gonna get wet…), but from a time-management point of view, the earlier the better!
Thinning is one of those jobs that you can’t start until the fruit is big enough, but as soon as you start it should have been finished yesterday (before the fruit gets too big)! Luckily this job is also quite spread out, because there’s usually time to finish thinning the apricots by the time the peaches and nectarines are ready, and then we move onto the plums, the apples and the pears. It’s a big job because most trees need thinning (except cherries) and each tree can take a long time. It’s definitely one job where many hands make light work. Here on the farm this is one of the main jobs we employ people to help with each year.
There’s not much point doing all these other jobs if then we let the birds eat the fruit (and they will, they always do!). So, as soon as the thinning and taping is done, it’s time to get the nets on.
Netting is another team effort. For us this means one person to drive the tractor forward to drape the net down over the row of trees, and two to hold the sides of the net to spread it out over the trees. Then we all help with tying the net down so the birds can’t get in underneath. Again, this job doesn’t take very long (only about 1/2 hour per row, plus the setting up time of getting the equipment and finding the right nets!).
Feeding the microbes
In early spring the trees get their energy from the nutrient they stored in their bark, roots and buds the previous season, but as soon as that runs out they need to be able to quickly access whatever they need from the soil via their roots, which means we need to make sure the soil microbes are active and well fed, so they can feed the trees. Compost tea (to top up the microbe populations), microbe foods (mainly liquid fish and kelp), organic matter (compost), and any manure we might get hold of—any or all of these are applied from early spring onwards, and we keep this going right through the growing and fruiting season. Compost tea is great because it is a liquid and so can be injected straight into the irrigation lines. (On a backyard scale it’s an easy knapsack job.)
Picking, packing and selling
So, after all that, it’s kind of a relief when the fruit starts ripening, the cricket season starts (providing perfect packing shed easy listening) and the rhythm morphs into a more steady summer pace of picking, packing and selling all that delicious organic fruit we’ve been nurturing!