Are cherries worth the effort?

Cherry blossom
Cherry blossom

The cherries have started flowering!

Even though they’re not the most exciting looking flowers they cause great excitement and inspire cherry blossom festivals around the world, most notably in Japan.

They’re actually one of the last tree fruits to flower, coming in at around the same time as the apples and pears, and way after the apricots, peaches and plums.

But then they’re the first fruit we harvest. Cherries are kind of a miracle fruit, with a super-short growing season that makes them a terrific garden fruit tree.

Just a few short weeks after they’ve started flowering the flowers will fade away, leaving these innocuous looking little green lumps – the baby cherries.

A baby cherry peeking out from the leaves
A baby cherry peeking out from the leaves

Nothing much seems to happen for a while….until suddenly one day you’ll notice a flash of pink in the trees – an exciting day for a fruit grower!

Farmer Ant admiring his ripening cherries
Farmer Ant admiring his ripening cherries

Sounds pretty simple, doesn’t it?

Unfortunately there’s a long list of things that can go wrong with cherries, both the trees and fruit:

  • The biggest challenge is protecting the precious fruit from birds – in most cases, netting is the only option;
  • Then there’s all the things that want to eat them (other than us), like earwigs and garden weevils;
  • They’re very vulnerable to weather events like rain and hail, as the fruit splits easily;
  • The trees hate having “wet feet”, so need a spot with good drainage;
  • They also need enough water, which in most cases means an irrigation system;
  • The fruit can be vulnerable to diseases like brown rot;
  • The trees are frequently attacked by aphids;
  • Cherry trees are prone to several fungal and bacterial diseases.

It’s a long list of potential disasters (and we’ve experienced all of them), but don’t worry – there’s also a bright side.

Cherries are delicious! They’re very high in nutrients and vitamins and are fantastically good for you, even reputedly curing gout (and a number of other ailments).

They tend to crop pretty reliably, are usually easy to pollinise, and – once the trees are established properly – are easy to prune and maintain a good shape.

They’re also synonymous with summer holidays, visits to “pick-your-own” farms and long warm days, and in Australia they’re also strongly associated with Christmas.

So despite their finicky nature it’s totally worth having a cherry tree in the garden, as they’re one of the most rewarding fruits to grow.

You’ll find a wealth of cherry-specific information to help you with your trees in the Cheeky Cherries short course, and you’ll be pleased to hear that most of the above-mentioned problems have a fairly simple solution.

Hello peaches…

Anzac peaches need thinning
Anzac peaches need thinning

The Anzac peaches (one of the first to flower at our place) have set a good crop as usual, and it’s time to start thinning.

This is a good time of year to start assessing the impact of a couple of common diseases that can play havoc with our fruit trees, often without our realising it. 

You’ll also be thinning your apricots soon (if you haven’t already started), so while you’re doing so, it’s a good time to be looking our for signs of blossom blight in your tree.

Castlebrite apricot tree with blossom blight
Castlebrite apricot tree with blossom blight

Even though this disease does most damage when the tree is flowering, it can also affect the fruit that has set – because the disease that causes blossom blight also causes brown rot.

It’s not unusual to see remnants of it alongside healthy apricots, if you’ve had a mild case.

Flowers infected with blossom blight
Flowers infected with blossom blight

If you notice any of these diseased flowers on your apricot tree and you also have healthy fruit, it’s a good idea to knock or prune any diseased flowers and shoots off, for two reasons.

The first is that they can contribute to disease outbreaks next year, but the more urgent reason is that the pathogen that causes blossom blight also causes brown rot later in the season, and developing fruit is very vulnerable, as you can see in the following photo:

Photo showing Brown rot infection of a young apricot (blue arrow) that started from a flower that died due to Blossom blight infection (red arrow)
Photo showing Brown rot infection of a young apricot (blue arrow) that started from a flower that died due to Blossom blight infection (red arrow)

The other disease to check for is leaf curl, which is usually fairly obvious, the red leaves are a dead giveaway.

Leaf curl on a peach tree
Leaf curl on a peach tree

Only peaches and nectarines are affected by this tree, and if you’ve had a really bad case, it can also affect the fruit, so this is another thing to be looking out for while you’re thinning because you may as well pull the infected fruit off.

Affected fruit looks like this:

Leaf curl infection on a Goldmine nectarine
Leaf curl infection on a Goldmine nectarine

It’s not uncommon to end up with one of these infections despite having sprayed, which is super annoying.

There’s a couple of potential reasons for this. The first is that you may not have the right spray equipment for the size of the job you need to do – you can review the various options in this short course (because if you’ve gone to the trouble and effort of spraying, it would be really good to make sure it’s going to work!)

The second reason is that you may not have got the timing quite right, and the right conditions were in place for the fungal disease to take hold in the tree unimpeded.

Of course the long term aim is to get our orchard and trees healthy enough so they don’t need spraying, but while we’re building this biodiverse paradise, a bit of crop protection can go a long way!

Capeweed – love it or hate it?

Capeweed - pretty yellow flowers, but is it a desirable plant?
Capeweed – pretty yellow flowers, but is it a desirable plant?

We’re often asked what we think of capeweed, which is often seen growing in great abundance all over the countryside (and our farm) in spring.

If you’ve been following us for a while, you’ll know we’re generally big fans of weeds (we even wrote a short course about it called Learn to Love Your Weeds,) but does the same apply to a huge monoculture of one weed?

A yellow carpet of capeweed in the orchard
A yellow carpet of capeweed in the orchard

Capeweed germinates in autumn and winter, so is most evident in spring, dying off in summer – and that creates a problem right there, because where you have an over-abundance of capeweed, you end up with bare ground in summer – which is a terrible thing for the soil.

It’s basically a weed of cultivation, pastures, lawns and disturbed areas. Stock will eat it but don’t like it (and the woolly seeds can cause impaction), it can taint milk and where it’s the dominant feed, nitrate poisoning of stock is possible.

Sounds terrible doesn’t it?

A bee gathering pollen from capeweed flowers
A bee gathering pollen from capeweed flowers

But the problem is not the capeweed itself. It can actually play a useful role in covering bare soil and keeping it cool, attracting bees, and – when part of a rich biodiversity of plants – filling a niche in the ecosystem.

The problem is the soil – and even more importantly, the practices that have led to soil and diversity imbalances that result in this kind of destructive monoculture.

A carpet of capeweed is a stark visual reminder that whatever we’ve been doing to the soil is all wrong! It’s an indicator of acid soil, compaction and can be an indicator of waterlogging or salinity.

It’s telling us to sit up, take notice and change our practices immediately.

We need to get more organic matter into the soil, rebuild a wide diversity of plants, and particularly focus on including plants that will stay green throughout summer.

The work of eminent Australian soil scientist Dr Christine Jones (www.amazingcarbon.com) tells us that bare soil should be avoided at all costs as it heats up to at least 60C in summer, which causes it to rapidly lose moisture, kill soil microbes, and contribute to climate change!

So, that’s the long answer!

The short answer is that while a mooculture of capeweed (or any plant) has its drawbacks, it’s a fantastic indicator plant, a good bee attractor, and can be a very useful member of a healthy biodiverse garden or pasture.