Fruit tree leaves: bonus or problem?

Here’s a question we were asked recently: as the leaves fall off your fruit trees, is it OK to let the leaves rot on the ground, or are you potentially creating a disease problem?

Autumn apricot leaves on the ground
Autumn apricot leaves on the ground

Issues like this are often decided by comparing the costs (in time, money or effort) of taking action, against the benefit.

Plus, you’ve got to consider what you’d do with the leaves if you collected them, and factor this into the equation. If they can go into an active compost system, or be fed to animals, and therefore returned to the soil, this is a very different outcome to filling up your greenwaste bin, or – horror of horrors – putting them in landfill!

In this case we’re weighing up the benefit of the lovely organic matter and nutrient provided by the leaves returning to the soil, versus the potential risk of fungal disease from any spores that are on the leaves, which may create disease in the tree next season, like Blossom blight, for example.

Blossom blight on apricot flowers
Blossom blight on apricot flowers

So, how to decide?

The rule of thumb is that it’s beneficial to let the leaves rot under the trees as long as they break down quickly (within a couple of months, and certainly before next spring).

Fruit tree leaves starting to break down
Fruit tree leaves starting to break down

If you have reasonably healthy soil with an active soil food web and plenty of worms, there should be no problem and the leaves will break down quickly. The soil food web and the key role it plays in the health of your garden is explained in detail in this short course.

If you find they’re not breaking down fast enough you can help them along by mowing them with the mower or slasher, and either sprinkle a bit of compost on top, or spray them with compost tea or worm juice to help them along.

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.

Preserving the autumn harvest

Before the days of refrigeration and a supermarket on every corner, preserving fruit (and other food) was a matter of necessity. Knowing a number of different methods of storing those essential nutrients to see us through winter was second nature, particularly for country families.

Hugh and Katie cutting peaches for preserving
Hugh and Katie cutting fruit for preserving

In the modern era, when we expect to be able to buy any type of food at any time of year (which is very weird, when you think about it…) these life skills have largely disappeared.

It’s such a pity, and makes us much more vulnerable to factors outside our control for our food supply. Cities in particular can run short of food very quickly after disasters.

So it just makes good sense to preserve as much food as we can to keep our pantries full, but turning our harvest into preserves is also heaps of FUN, and brings out your inner pioneer spirit!

A bounty of apricots destined for the kitchen
A bounty of apricots destined for the kitchen

Our “go to” method is bottling (also called canning in some parts of the world), because once the fruit is preserved it doesn’t take any more energy to store it (unlike freezing, for example), and it lasts for years.

Here’s the technique we use:

  1. Prepare the fruit by washing if needed, remove any bad bits and chop into the right sized pieces to fit the jars you’re planning to use;
  2. Pre-cook the fruit if desired (it can also be bottled raw);
  3. Wash jars, rings, lids – and have your clips handy;
  4. Place rings around the neck of the jars;
  5. Fill the jars with fruit, and top up with either water or syrup (get as much air out of the jars as possible and fill right to the top with liquid);
  6. Put the lid and clip on;
  7. Cook in the Fowler’s pan or preserving pan for the right period of time (this differs slightly for different types of fruit, depending on whether the fruit is pre-cooked, and the temperature of the contents when you start the preserving process);
  8. Allow to cool before removing from the preserving pan;
  9. Label and store in a cool, dark place.
Make sure the ring is fitted properly around the neck of the jar
Make sure the ring is fitted properly around the neck of the jar

You can find more detail about this in our Fabulous Fruit Preserving short course, along with detailed instructions for other techniques including:

  • freezing
  • making jams, chutneys etc.
  • drying (including how to build your own dehydrator)
  • pickling
Preserving plums for winter
Preserving plums for winter

Any type of fruit can be preserved using this technique. In this time of year hopefully you’ll still have access to plenty of fresh pears and apples – and maybe even plums, if you’re lucky!