I have been around fruit trees for 34 years and have seen incredible things: plants producing that aren’t supposed to survive in our cold climates, and plants die that were supposed to thrive. Along the way, I’ve uncovered a few secrets I’m sharing here to help you grow good fruit and make sound decisions moving forward.
For me, “organic growing” has always meant zero input, which means it’s essential to plan well, plant it right and let it grow. If you ever have to use any inputs, such as fungicides or pesticides, they must comply with the Canadian Organic Standards—and be used minimally.
Growing organic fruit: what you’re up against
Are you scared yet? You should be. Ah, but there are solutions– and relatively easy ones at that.
First of all, don’t let the lists frighten you too much. The most worrisome and major diseases are apple scab, fire blight, black knot, peach leaf curl and bacterial canker. The most common and harmful insects are curculio (weevils), moths, worms, aphids and maggots. All the rest are much less common.
When growing organically, though there’s no magic solution to protect your fruit from every disease and insect out there, with the right mix of tricks and techniques, it is possible to keep the damage to a minimum without resorting to chemicals. It’s about planting smart.
Focus on the soil. Most important is having healthy soil and a good root system. Each tree or shrub requires a different soil blend: when planting, I find it easier and more logical to amend soil using a mix comprised of 1/3 compost, 1/3 black earth and 1/3 of the original soil taken from hole into which tree or shrub is to be planted. If you have heavy clay, add sand to the mix. You can also add some mycorrhiza to help roots get going more quickly. Continue to build up the soil by throwing compost (preferably vegetable and leaf based) at the base of the tree whenever you can. Though it may be tempting to use fertilizer, be aware that’s a short-term solution. It’s like humans taking supplements because they don’t eat well. If you eat a healthy, balanced diet, you don’t need to supplement with vitamins because you’re already getting all the nutrients you need. Same goes for trees and shrubs. That’s why building up the soil is very important.
Go easy on the water. Remember: after planting, do not overwater. You want roots to activate and go looking for water; that’s what gets them growing and spreading. I sometimes water in a circle one foot from the tree.
No babying! One last point before we really get into it: a tree or shrub should not be treated like an annual vegetable. Annual vegetables have small weak roots that need constant attention. Tree roots go many feet down into the ground and will find water and nutrients much more easily. Too much love is the worst thing for them.
Secret #1: It’s easier to start from scratch than to bring back an old orchard or tree
Genetics and/or fruit varieties are the most important factors in growing organic fruit. If you have an old apple orchard with varieties such as McIntosh, Northern Spy, Cortland or Melba, you’ll have a really difficult time finding a way to grow organically and the process will be fairly labour intensive. The results will be medium at best.
I believe old varieties are at the heart of organic fruit growing problem. People are naturally discouraged when the trees they find in their backyards and farms or bought from a national chain produce sub-par or no fruit at all. But this is partly because they’ve set themselves an uphill battle. By choosing more naturally resistant apple varieties such as Liberty, Nova Spy and Freedom, life will be much less complicated. Why? Because Liberty, for example, is resistant to apple scab, cedar apple rust, mildew and fire blight. By choosing the right genetics, you’re setting yourself up for organic success.
Secret #2: Water is the worst
That’s right. Everyone is always trying to get more water to their plants; I work to avoid it.
Any place with sitting water or poorly drained soil is harmful to the plant and its root system and provides a great environment for fungal diseases to grow. Shrubs like gooseberries, raspberries, blueberries, and grapes are especially susceptible to water-borne diseases.
Growing shrub fruit is even more difficult, because we use wood chips, newspaper, and hay as mulch and weed suppressors. These methods actually increase the chances of mold spores jumping from the mulch to the fruit. A better and equally effective solution is to use hulls and permanent plastic or even geotextile covered in stones.
If the snow melts in early winter and is followed by a cold snap, the roots will freeze in poor drainage situations.
Shrubs and trees need to be watered occasionally after planting during the first year. Once established, they should never need water again unless there are drought conditions. Niagara and Osoyoos growers might disagree with me, but in reality, most of Canada rarely lacks water.
I see lush forest all over Canada. Even on along Kingston highways, with just a few inches of soil on top of solid rock, beautiful trees are growing. What I’ve never seen is a guy with a hose in those forests. So do your trees and shrubs a service and go easy on the water. They might just thank you for it.
Secret #3: One of your biggest enemies is actually your best friend
Wind can kill a tree. In the winter months, when the winds are howling and the temperature plummets to -25 °C or colder, an unprotected fruit tree can die in a matter of hours, even if it’s already well established. The most popular solution is to build windbreaks. Don’t get me wrong, these are a good idea, but don’t just throw a straight hedgerow of evergreens up. The key is to find a mix that will slow wind down without completely halting it. What you need is porosity (I have been waiting to use this word for a while). According to my friend Rob Johnson of the Green Legacy Conservation Society, 60% porosity is ideal. Porosity allows for air to get through a windbreak while slowing its potentially harmful effects.
Why would you want to go to all that trouble just to let a little wind through? Because wind provides real benefits when you grow organic. These include:
- Drying the fruit, which will help prevent moisture issues
- Keeping insects away
Secret #4 Diversity is key!
When planting, I always make sure I have numerous varieties of each type of fruit. I do this for many reasons, including pollination, insect control (diversity confuses them) and, last but not least, natural illness or disaster control. I’ll plant three or four types of pears, three or four types of apples and three or four types of plums in a small orchard. That way, when something goes wrong with one variety, it’s not a big deal. It’s like a stock portfolio for trees. I refer to it as a tree portfolio. Would you invest all your money in one stock? Same goes for fruit trees. Producing a single type or variety of fruit is called monoculture, and it’s a bad idea, especially when growing organic fruit.
Once that’s all done, you now have to worry about the things you can’t control… Including insects that haven’t been fooled and diseases that haven’t been thwarted. If all else fails, as a last line of defense, here are a few suggestions for products that you can spray that are compatible with organic regulations. Remember to contact your organic affiliation to find out what products are allowed, and then do the research to be sure they meet your personal health and safety criteria.
Pest control: Organic spray options
All trees and shrubs have different needs. Trying to explain how to manage them one at a time would necessitate writing a book, so here are a few suggestions for useful books that offer specifics: The Holistic Orchard by Michael Phillips is good, though unfortunately Michael did not get the advantage of starting with good genetics, so his management techniques are a little more complicated than I’d prefer. My favourite book on fruit growing is Backyard Fruit Production by David Schlabach. He is conventional but also grows organically, his writing is easy to understand and full of wisdom and experience. The book can be tricky to find, but is available at www.whiffletreefarmandnursery.ca. Lastly, I would recommend Lee Reich’s Grow Fruit Naturally for smaller spaces. Both Reich and Phillips’ books are available for loan from the COG Library.
Good luck and good planting. If you have any further questions, do not hesitate to call me or email me.
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