Control your weeds…or not?

We love weeds!

A lovely mixed patch of weeds
A lovely mixed patch of 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.

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.

As long as your weeds stay in the actively growing, 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.

Ant slashing weeds in the orchard
Ant slashing weeds in the orchard

But it also means that one of the ongoing jobs around your fruit trees in spring and summer is keeping up with the slashing or mowing!

At our place, we don’t like to to cut the grass too short because that helps the plants stay in their growing phase.

On a home garden scale, it’s probably easier to use a whipper-snipper or brush cutter.

Daniel mowing the grass under a peach tree with the whipper snipper
Daniel mowing the grass under a peach tree with the whipper snipper

The best plan of all is to 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!

Sheep and alpacas make perfect lawn mowers
Sheep and alpacas make perfect lawn mowers

Read more about how to create Natural Fertility for Fruit Trees (within your budget!)

Why every garden needs plum trees

Prune d'agen plums - perfect for drying
Prune d’agen plums – perfect for drying

Plums are one of the most versatile and delicious fruits, and a great tree to choose if you’re a beginner to fruit growing, as they’re super easy to grow.

Maybe it’s exactly because they’re so easy to grow that they’re often a bit looked down on, and don’t get the attention they deserve. Today, we’re celebrating the plum!

Supersweet Greengage plums
Supersweet Greengage plums

There are hundreds of different varieties of plum, and while they have a lot in common, there’s so much variation that most gardens deserve a number of plum trees of different varieties.

This not only spreads the harvest and gives you fresh fruit for longer, but also gives you more variety in your diet and more scope to preserve and cook them in different ways.

There are two main types of plum – European-type plums and Japanese-type plums.

Damson plums - sour and perfect for jam making
Damson plums – sour and perfect for jam making

European plums are the more familiar and “old fashioned” looking plums that were common in early Australian gardens, like these Damsons (which by the way is one of the best jam plums you’ll ever find).

But the Greengage and Prune d’Agen plums above are also European-type plums, and there are also lots of other varieties in the ‘gage’ and ‘prune’ families.

The most common European-type plums that most people are familiar with have this classic “egg” shape, plus the dusty ‘bloom’ on the skin, which is actually naturally occuring fungi (which is one of the reasons that plums naturally ferment so well, and are used around the world to make hundreds of local variations of plum wine or liqueur).

An Angelina plum in a hand, this one is large for the variety
An Angelina plum in a hand, this one is large for the variety

Here’s another well-known European plum, the Angelina, which never gets very large but is prized for its sweetness, and is the classic plum used in many Eastern European countries to make plum dumplings.

Classic European plum dumplings
Classic European plum dumplings made with Angelina plums

The Japanese-type plum category includes all the blood plums, of which there are dozens of different ones. One of our favourites is the Mariposa because it’s a very regular cropper, grows to a good size, and is very sweet and juicy.

Mariposa blood plum with juice dripping
Mariposa blood plum dripping with sweet juice

But far more prized than the Mariposa is the more old-fashioned Satsuma blood plum, known for its dense and almost ‘meaty’ flesh and it’s dark red juice (whereas the Mariposa has clear juice with pink flecks).

Satsuma blood plums on the tree
Satsuma blood plums on the tree

Satsumas were a common feature of many early gardens, and they have the wonderful characteristic of being regular croppers regardless of whether they’re thinned or not (though they can sometimes fall back into the ‘biennial bearing’ pattern common to most fruit trees and start having a year off). Unless they’re thinned hard, they do tend to be one of the smaller plums.

There are also lots of different yellow-fleshed Japanese-type plums like these lovely Amber Jewel, who become nice and sweet fairly early in the season but continue to hang well and sweeten for several more weeks. One of the stranger things about these plums is that the tip of the stone often breaks off within the fruit, creating a small ‘floating’ bit of stone that forms an unexpected tooth-crunching trap for the eater.

Amber Jewel plums - sweet, and will hang on the tree without dropping
Amber Jewel plums – sweet, and will hang on the tree without dropping

Plums are rare in the fruit world in that they don’t have any particular pests or diseases that target them every season, though of course they can fall prey to aphids or brown rot if the conditions are right (or wrong!).

However they still need the right care in terms of thinning, pruning, picking and correct storage to get the most out of your crop. The Precious Plums short course covers all of these basic skills, as well as instructions and recipes for preserving and cooking with plums.

Mariposa blood plums on the deyhdrator
Mariposa blood plums on the deyhdrator

Plums lend themselves to preserving in a multitude of ways including jam, chutney, making alcohol, bottling and drying, and make the most wonderful arrays of desserts.

They can also be used to make more exotic fruits like berries go further, and one of our favourite desserts is this absolutely delicious plum and raspberry pie (the recipe is included in the Precious Plums short course).

Plum and raspberry pie
Plum and raspberry pie

Did you accidentally prune your fruit off?

A lovely healthy peach tree – with almost no fruit!

Do you have any fruit trees this year that don’t have fruit on them?

Not sure why?

It might be because of how you pruned them. One of the principles of pruning is that the harder you prune, the more the tree will respond by growing, as you can clearly see in these pear trees that have been hedge pruned, leading to a massive growth response at the tops of the trees.

Pear trees that have been hedge pruned
Pear trees that have been hedge pruned

The risk is that if you prune a tree too hard it will divert all its energy into growing wood instead of producing fruit, and it’s one of the most common (but by no means the only) reason your tree may not have fruit.

With mature fruit trees the aim with winter pruning is to keep the tree in balance, so that it keeps growing some new wood, but also stays nice and settled and produces plenty of fruit.

A President plum tree showing a good growth response to pruning
A President plum tree showing a good growth response to pruning

This photo above shows a President plum tree with lovely strong new shoot growth in response to last winter’s pruning.

The photo below shows that it also has a nice crop of fruit – success!

A nice crop of President plums on trees that were pruned in winter
A nice crop of President plums on trees that were pruned in winter

However for young trees, the balance between shoot growth and fruit production needs to be very one-sided – it’s all about growth!

A young cherry tree showing strong growth in response to pruning to create new branches in the tree
A young cherry tree showing strong growth in response to pruning to create new branches in the tree

We’re often asked how quickly a fruit tree will start producing fruit. In fact they’ll often flower and bear fruit the year you plant them (depending on what type of tree they are) but we reckon it’s better to NOT let them have fruit until the tree’s grown enough branches.

If you’re trying to grow a vase-shaped tree (which is a great shape for most backyards), it usually takes at least two to three years to prune the tree into the right shape.

Three year old apricot trees of different sizes
Three year old apricot trees of different sizes

In the photo above of three year old apricot trees, you can see that the tree on the left has grown well, and has grown enough branches to make the shape we want, so it’s been deemed mature enough to bear fruit.

However the tree on the right hasn’t grown as well for some reason and is much smaller. Any fruit that set has been removed to allow the tree to continue putting its energy into growing new branches for at least another year before it’s allowed to have fruit.

Learning when and how much to prune your trees is one of the strategies in the How to Look After Fruit Trees in the First 3 Years short course, but as you can see, the principle still holds good with your mature trees, and may just help to solve the problem of why your tree has no fruit!