Netting options for backyard fruit trees

Fruit damage from birds, bats and possums is high on the list of complaints from home fruit growers. This week we look at various netting options,and how they can protect your crop from most of these problems.

The birds left us the stems!

Our new cherry trees are now producing fruit (hooray), and even though we drape netted some of them, it wasn’t completely successful – partly because we were a bit late getting some of the nets on, and partly because the type of birds that were giving us a hard time (parrots) are also particularly clever at getting under drape nets!

So, successful netting is not just about doing it in a timely fashion, it’s also about having the right system for your situation.

Another big advantage of netting your trees is providing some protection against hail, and if you’ve experienced hail before, you’ll know what we’re talking about! Hail storms are a pretty common occurrence on the farm and we lose at least some fruit to hail most seasons.

This is what hail damage looked like on our apricots last year:

Hail damage on apricots

Birds not only damage the fruit, but can help spread brown rot as well. There are lots of different ways to try to scare birds away, such as CDs hanging in the tree, fake predators and the like, but the only real solution is to net your trees – the sooner we all resign ourselves to this necessity, the happier we’ll all be!

This simple net below is made with a frame of star pickets and pipe, and is the easiest and most effective solution we’ve seen (and used).

It’s easy to put up (and take down again if you choose), and easy to peg down around the perimeter to stop persistent smaller birds getting in under the net, which can happen with drape netting (as we saw this year!). This particular set up also has wire netting around the base, which can be useful for stopping larger animals from getting into the enclosure.

Drape netting is easier if you are doing a lot more trees, and is very effective against big birds, and can also deter fruit bats, both of which descend on the tree from above and don’t like to get in under net.

Unless you are really diligent about tying off the net around the trunk, it won’t stop smaller birds like parrots, which are happy to nip under the edges of the net and help themselves. Having said that, it does keep the damage to minimum and is definitely worthwhile.

Learn practical strategies that actually work to protect your fruit from birds and other critters in Protect Fruit from Pesky Pests.

It’s about to rain—what should I do?

After a patch of quite hot weather last week (which was been lovely for us and the fruit), the Bureau of Meteorology were predicting BIG dumps of rain the last few days, as well as storms and potential hail, which begs the question, what can you do to prepare for rain?

The big concerns at this time of year are:

  1. fungal concerns, like brown rot and black spot;
  2. fruit cracking on the tree from the rain;
  3. fruit being blown off by gale force winds;
  4. the potential for hail;
  5. fruit being generally battered, or becoming dirty.

This is what happened.

There was indeed lots of rain, though not nearly as much as some parts of the state which had up to 190 mm!

Here’s how we prepared:

  1. Picking everything that was ripe enough;
  2. Picking some fruit that was probably a little greener than we’d normally pick, to let it ripen safely in the coolroom rather than be damaged on the tree;
  3. Put an organic sulphur spray on all the trees to help prevent brown rot and black spot;
  4. Getting as much fruit netted as possible to protect against the risk of hail, and making sure the net is well secured.

Other tricks you can consider are watering the trees before the rain (seems counter-intuitive but can help prevent splitting) or investing in hail covers. In the long term, remember that wind is your friend because it can help trees dry quickly after rain and prevent damage, so plant your fruit trees in moderately windy places.

We’ve even heard of large commercial orchards hiring helicopters to help dry cherry trees after storms, but that’s probably a bit out of most people’s league!

severe rain crack

So, what happened? There was a bit of damage and cracking in the apricots (as you can see in this photo) and cherries, but this time we reckon the farm dodged a bullet!

To find out more about irrigation for fruit trees, rainfall and drainage, check out Water for Fruit.

Eeek – hail!

Yesterday it hailed just down the road from our farm, luckily not at our place, but too close for comfort! And there’s more predicted today, and for later in the week. Eeek!!

Hail is a fruit growers’ nightmare. It can do untold damage to fruit in a short space of time, and has been responsible for the ‘wipe-out’ of whole crops many times before. Here’s what our neighbour’s place looked like after a hailstorm a few years ago.

hail-mcleans

and this is how big the hail stones were right outside our door in a storm last year…just like little rocks, being hurled out of the sky onto our fruit. No wonder we worry, right?

hail-stones

Here’s a selection of some hail-damaged apples at maturity, to give you an idea of how bad it can be…

hail-damaged-apples-600x449

Hmm, not very attractive. But there’s no sense complaining, or worrying, is there? It’s one of those things we have no control over. Or…do we?

Here’s what some apples looked like just after a hail storm. You can see the little marks on them, that grow into the bigger deformities as the apple grows.

hail-damaged-fruit

Being an organic farm, we do all our thinning by hand (as opposed to the chemicals used on chemical orchards to do the same job). It costs us more in labour to thin by hand, but apart from the benefits to the environment (and our health!) of not using the chemicals, it also lets us manage hail (or other) damage by choosing the most damaged ones to remove. This way we can at least produce the least damaged crop as possible.

Because of the very unpredictable nature of growing fruit, we have a Risk Management Strategy (it’s so important, it even has its own capitals!). We reckon that we might not have any control over the weather, but we’ve got plenty of control over how we plan before the bad stuff happens, and how we respond, after the bad stuff happens.

For us, risk management is all about diversity. We reckon the more diverse our farm is, in every possible way, the more we can spread the risk.

So, for example, we grow 7 types of fruit (cherries, apricots, peaches, nectarines, plums, apples and pears), and more than 90 varieties, and we add more varieties every year. In all our years of growing, through every dire weather event we’ve experienced (drought, hail, flood, bird plagues, a fire at the local coolstores, heat waves, incessant rain, storms, grasshopper plagues…do you need us to go on?) we have NEVER been completely wiped out. Some years we’ve lost all the apricots, or all the plums, or most of the apples and a few pears and some of the peaches…but never everything all at once.

Because we grow many different types of fruit, they are all at different stages of development in spring, and will therefore be affected differently by any given weather event (except something catastrophic, like fire). If we do get a hail storm this week, the apricots will be really vulnerable because a lot of them are already thinned, they are already quite large, and they are pretty exposed because the leaf cover develops after the fruit. The apples, on the other hand, are still flowering and therefore very protected, and the pears are tiny, and would be hard to hit with a hail stone, and they both have good leaf cover!

If we go back to the hail damaged apples from a few years ago, when we managed to turn a severely damaged crop into a moderately damaged crop by hand thinning, next we had to decide how and where to sell the fruit. We were obviously not going to get fantastic prices if we sent less than perfect fruit to the wholesale market, but we didn’t have to take much of a cut by selling them at Farmers Markets, because we could explain to our customers in person why there’s a mark on the skin, and how it barely affects the quality of the fruit under the skin. Farmers Markets also give us a good chance to sell our second grade fruit at a reasonable price, because we have lots of customers who appreciate a bargain!

We also have an online market, and because we can accurately describe the fruit, we can get a fair price for each grade of  fruit, because people know exactly what they’re getting! Diversity of markets is a blessing in situations like this!

We’ve learned the hard way that we can’t control the weather, but in the end we’re grateful, because it has meant we’ve had to get real about managing our risk, and these days we feel a bit more secure, knowing we’re doing everything we can to take matters into our own hands! (But we’d still rather we didn’t have a hail storm, so keep your fingers crossed for us…)