Fear and suspicion of insects

Almost every week, one of our Grow Great Fruit members gets in touch saying something along the lines of “help, there’s a bug on my fruit tree!”

Back before we were certified organic we took a different approach to insects, treating them mostly with fear and suspicion, and we aimed to eradicate them, mainly with terrible toxic sprays.

We didn’t understand just how much damage we were doing, and it was an important part of our journey to learn to appreciate them.

A cicada on a fruit tree
A cicada on a fruit tree

There are so many hundreds of thousands of different insects that identifying a specific bug can be difficult (particularly as we’re fruit growers, not entomologists).

A macadamia flower with insects (look carefully...)
A macadamia flower with insects (look carefully…)

This is a close-up of a macadamia flower from our macadamia tree, and if you look closely there are 3 different insects hiding in there (admittedly, the one in the middle is very hard to see!).

We use one key factor as our guide to how we respond to any insects in the orchard – do we have evidence that they’re damaging either the fruit or the trees?

A caterpillar on an apricot
A caterpillar on an apricot

We reckon it’s so important to learn how to really LOOK at your fruit trees (rather than have a knee-jerk reaction to seeing bugs on them) that we’ve written a short course called “Learn to Diagnose Your Fruit Trees“.

If your monitoring shows that yes, the insects are doing damage, then the next step is to get to know as much about the insect as possible, particularly its life cycle, looking for a weak point where you can interfere in such a way as to stop the damage occurring, and this is one of the strategies we explain in the next course that’s relevant to the topic, Protect Fruit Trees from Pesky Pests.

We take this approach because it would be a huge challenge to try to learn about every insect in the garden, their interactions and whether they’re pests or predators.

Insects, birds, plants and even the microbes in the soil have complex relationships that we’ll never begin to understand in our lifetime, but what we’ve observed over many years is that as long as there is lots of diversity in the garden, populations tend to keep each other in check and become more balanced over time.  

Fabulous green bug
Fabulous green bug

Our experience on the farm has been that as long as we encourage LOTS of biodiversity, and take measures to protect our fruit without interfering with nature too much, we usually manage to live in harmony with all the critters in our orchard.

We prefer this to the “scorched earth” approach of killing everything that moves because, honestly, it’s very easy to do more harm than good once you start killing things in the garden.

How can you tell if your trees are healthy?

If all is going well with your trees this spring, you should be seeing growth like this on your trees:

New spring growth on an apple tree
New spring growth on an apple tree

This time of year we like (and expect) to see a flush of strong, healthy new growth in our trees, particularly on young trees.

Successful fruit growing is all about helping the tree to balance its energy between growing new wood (i.e., new shoots, as you can see in this photo of a young apple tree) and growing fruit. If it grows too much of one, it tends not to grow much of the other.

We need the new wood so the tree continually has new buds being formed to produce next year’s fruit (though the buds can also form on older wood in some trees).

But we don’t want the tree to put too much energy into growing wood at the expense of putting its energy into growing fruit – it’s a balancing act.

Shoot length is one of the best indicators of the overall health of your tree, and spring is the time to monitor it – so visit your trees and have a look.

If you see plenty of young vigorous shoots (anything from a few cm to 1 metre long, depending on the type and age of the tree), you know the tree’s pretty happy.

And if you’ve done a great job with your pruning, you’ll also notice that the new shoots are growing in the right place in the tree to make future fruit picking easy and manageable.

Here’s what healthy spring growth looks like in cherries:

On a young plum tree…

Healthy spring growth on two year old plum tree
Healthy spring growth on two year old plum tree

On a mature plum tree…

An Angelina plum tree showing vigorous spring growth
An Angelina plum tree showing vigorous spring growth

and finally, a mature apricot tree that’s growing beautifully (note the beautiful red colour of the fresh new growth, which will gradually fade through orange to green).

Beautiful new growth on a mature apricot tree
Beautiful new growth on a mature apricot tree