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

Fruit trees, animals, and electric netting

Animals and fruit trees are a natural partnership – after all, they evolved together, so it makes sense they work well together, as we’ve spoken about in other blogs.

But it has to be done right, as there are risks of having large animals like sheep under fruit trees.

One of our organic orchard buddies Phil Marriott runs Shropshire sheep under his lemon trees, and points out that they routinely eat the bottom metre or so of foliage from the trees (as you can see from the photo below).

They can also be naughty and try to climb the trees to reach more of the foliage, or try to push through fences into areas they’re not supposed to be.

Over the years, Phil has developed his ‘dream team’ by immediately excluding anyone that shows a propensity to do the wrong thing, because it only takes a couple of days for a new and unwelcome behaviour to spread through the whole flock.

One of the major downside of animals is the bother of having to use and manage electric netting fences, a common management tool used for shifting animals as diverse as sheep, cows, pigs and chickens around the orchard.

Electric netting keeping sheep in an orchard
Electric netting keeping sheep in an orchard

The most common complaints include the fence getting tangled in long grass and trees, shorting out and becoming ineffective, and needing regular moving and maintenance.

Many growers are moving instead to permanent netting systems to divide their orchards into small manageable blocks to shift animals through – but that’s a much more capital-intensive solution, which puts it out of reach for some people.

And of course animals take much more constant care than trees. You’ve got to take care of things like shelter, water and protection from predators, and pay constant attention to their welfare.

Chickens make wonderful companions for fruit trees, but need reliable protection from predators
Chickens make wonderful companions for fruit trees, but need reliable protection from predators

Despite the drawbacks, there is widespread agreement that the benefits of combining fruit trees with animals definitely outweigh the costs, which is why it’s one of the key strategies in our Permaculture in Action short course.

For many backyard fruit growers, chickens are the easy place to start, and they are a great fit with fruit trees.

The ideal situation is to be able to confine them around your trees for a short period, a few times a year, especially in spring and autumn. That way they’ll be providing the maximum benefit cleaning up pests as these emerge from the soil in spring, and again as they are preparing to overwinter in autumn.

The predator-proof chicken enclosure at Kalangadoo Organic Orchard
The predator-proof chicken enclosure at Kalangadoo Organic Orchard

However, on young trees chooks can give the tree roots a pretty hard time if you leave them in there for too long, which is why it’s great to have another option for where you keep them the rest of the time.

Animals and fruit trees

Do you have animals around your fruit trees?

We’d never grazed animals in the orchard before (apart from the ones we don’t want, like kangaroos, rabbits and hares), until Tess Sellar joined us here at the farm and brought her lovely dairy cows.

Tess and Ant (who now runs the orchard on the farm) have been experimenting with grazing the cows in various orchards.

In winter when there are no leaves on the tree it’s wildly successful, with the cows making good use of the feed (saving Ant having to mow), leaving behind lots of fertiliser, and only causing minimal damage to the trees.

Cowpats in the orchard providing natural fertiliser
Cowpats in the orchard providing natural fertiliser

However in summer they quickly discovered that it’s a different story when the trees have leaves – turns out cows absolutely LOVE fruit tree leaves.

One of Tess' cows munching down on an apricot tree
One of Tess’ cows munching down on an apricot tree

If you can get the logistics right to get the benefits without the damage, fruit trees and grazing animals are a natural mix, and in fact have a long tradition of being farmed together.

But it’s a very uncommon practice in modern orchards, and so we’ve been glad to be part of the ANOO network (the Australian Network of Organic Orchardists) to learn from the experience of other small-scale organic orchardists – because that’s exactly the experience we can then bring to you to try out in your backyards/small farms.

Within the ANOO network there are growers using sheep, cows, pigs, chickens and geese in their orchard, and every year it’s a hot topic of conversation at the conference.

Here’s a couple of things we’ve learned so far.

Phil Marriot has been grazing Shropshire sheep in his organic orchard. Phil finds that using the Shroppies to control the weeds under his trees brings great benefits – keeping the grass short and thereby helping to put more carbon into the soil, providing free nutrition for the trees delivered exactly where it’s needed, helping to control pests and diseases, cleaning up waste fruit from the ground, and of course converting waste (grass, fruit) into useful products like meat and wool.

Sheep grazing in a cherry orchard
Shropshire sheep grazing in a cherry orchard
Photo: Phil Marriot

While generally happy with the benefits, Phil warns that large animals will routinely eat the bottom metre or so of the foliage from both his cherry and lemon trees (as you can in the photo above).

He’s also spent a few years building up a herd of quiet, well-behaved animals that get to go in the orchard – any naughty ones are immediately banished, before they can spread their bad habits to their buddies.

Matthew Tack from Our Mates Farm in Tassie runs Wiltshire Horn sheep under his apple trees, and returned from a trip away to find this damage (below).

Sheep damage to an apple tree trunk. Photo: Matthew Tac
Sheep damage to an apple tree trunk.
Photo: Matthew Tack

Matthew and his wife Coreen are big fans of using animals with fruit trees, but warn of the dangers of letting the animals run short on minerals. The sheep were left in an area that they thought would have been big enough to feed them for 2 weeks.

“It goes to show how important minerals are! These trees fortunately are well established and should recover. Most of this damage is from last year’s wethers.”

One of the other big issues with keeping animals with fruit trees is protecting them from predators – but more on that in another blog.

If you’re interested in having animals around your fruit trees, we wrote Fruit Tree Care for Animal Lovers just for you! It will guide you through the pros and cons of including various animals and helps you figure out which will suit you best.