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.

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.

What are those brown marks on my apples?

We¬†had a great question from one of our Grow Great Fruit members recently about what causes russet on apples, which describes both the yellow marks (as you can see on the side of this Cox’s Orange Pippin apple), and the rough brown marks around the stem end of the apple.

Russet is one of those curious conditions that occurs naturally – in fact several heritage apple varieties include it in their name, like Brownlees Russet, Egremont Russet and Old Somerset Russet. It’s also commonly seen on pear varieties such as Beurre Bosc.

These days, russet is not considered an attractive trait on apples (have you even seen a russeted apple in the supermarket?), and it’s just one of the reasons many of these beautiful old varieties have gone out of favour (which is one of the reasons we’ve planted a new heritage apple orchard to preserve many of these old varieties).

Russet can also be an injury caused by environmental conditions like frost, sunburn, or hail, or by spraying your apples at the wrong time – even using sulphur (which is an organic fungicide we use occasionally) at the wrong time can cause russeting on some apples (as can a lot of the chemicals used by chemical farmers).

This damage-type russet – think of it like scar tissue – usually happens in the three weeks after petal fall, when the trees are flowering, or when the environmental challenge happens. It is often not a problem in itself, but it can make the apples much more vulnerable to other diseases, like various fungal rots, cracking, or even sunburn.

Heritage varieties that were bred in the UK, such as the divine Cox’s Orange Pippin apples (above) or the much-loved Bramley (below), are really not suited to the harsh and hot conditions in Australia, and so it’s very common to see this type of damage on your apples.

Of course once you realise that, you can set about creating micro-climates that these trees will prefer, and you may find that much of the damage is preventable.

You can find out more about creating micro-climates in your garden in Permaculture in Action.