Weeds in spring

Spring weeds under the almond trees
Spring weeds under the almond trees

With spring underway, weeds (or understorey plants as we prefer to call them), are starting to grow, which means the plants that grow under your fruit trees are likely to start looking out of control pretty soon.

One of the major ways that organic orchards and gardens differ from those that use chemicals like herbicides is that we appreciate the many benefits that weeds can provide.

Great biodiversity of plants around a young apple tree

Great biodiversity of plants around a young apple tree

Unfortunately in most orchards (and in many gardens, judging by the amount of weedkiller sold in garden centres) it’s routine to use herbicides to kill every weed in sight. This is a terrible pity, as it can do quite a bit of damage to the ecosystem (not to mention the now well known risks to human health).

On farms this is because monoculture systems that rely on artificial inputs like fertilisers see growing anything other than the target crop as a disadvantage. In gardens it’s often simply a case of misinformation, or the desire for a “tidy” garden.

We reckon killing weeds completely misses the point of creating a complex and diverse habitat, and ignores the many environmental benefits of weeds: they shade the ground, they provide crucial habitat and food for the soil microbes that are so important for fertility for our trees, and they take carbon out of the air and pump it into the soil, just to name a few.

Orchard pigs loving some attention
Orchard pigs loving some attention

If you have animals at your place, weeds can also be a wonderful source of feed, in exchange for which the animals will fertilise your soil, eat pests, and possibly even provide you with other benefits like eggs or meat (if you’re not vegetarian).

Geese in the orchard
Geese in the orchard

However, there can be a downside to having weeds in the orchard – they use water and nutrients, they may provide habitat for insect pests, and they make handy ‘ladders’ into the trees for crawling insects like earwigs and garden weevils.

Like most things in gardening and farming, deciding how to manage your weeds and understorey plants is a matter of weighing up the pros and cons.

We reckon the pros of weeds by far outweigh the cons, but to get the maximum benefit from them we like to keep them short and don’t let them go to seed.

This means they stay active in terms of pumping carbon into the soil, they use less water, and it’s provides a much nicer environment to work around the trees if the weeds are short.

Mowed grass under the almond trees
Mowed grass under the almond trees

So, here’s our top three tips for managing the weeds and understorey plants under your fruit trees in spring:

  1. Keep them short: We mow the grass in the orchard with the slasher pulled behind the tractor. It works well, but the downside is it uses diesel fuel. If you have access to pigs, geese or chickens they can do the job for you at no cost, otherwise mow the weeds with a mower or hand scythe before they get too long.  
  2. Grow something useful. We aim for a mix of grasses (for maximum organic matter), legumes (for nitrogen fixation from the atmosphere) and herbs (for the different nutrients they ‘mine’ from the soil). Vegies and culinary herbs are other obvious choices. You may already have useful plants growing among the weeds that naturally occur, but if you’re not sure if you do, or how to recognise them, you may find the short courses Learn to Love Your Weeds or Weed Therapy useful.
  3. Don’t give pests an advantage. Don’t let understorey plants become a ladder for pests to get into your tree, or an un-managed host habitat forr pests like grasshoppers.
Rutherglen bugs taking advantage of long grass for a habitat
Rutherglen bugs taking advantage of long grass for a habitat

2 thoughts on “Weeds in spring”

  1. What do you consider ‘young’ trees?
    When should I consider transitioning to a ‘living’ understorey instead of using mulch?

    1. Hi Janice – good question, we normally think of young trees as the first 2-3 years, roughly the same time as we’re doing the “establishment” pruning when we’re creating the right shape in our trees, after which we let them settle down and start fruiting, but be guided by the tree as well. If it’s not looking really vigorous and growing strongly you might baby it along until it’s looking better established.

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