This is my journey in learning about growing and maintaining fruit orchards. Basically, it’s written for our Garden Club, but I felt it could be useful to others who want to grow a sustainable fruit tree guild.
There was a permaculture class I took, Fruit Tree Guilds, at the Naperville Resiliency Institute, which I am incorporating into this article. From this class, and due to other extensive reading literature and watching videos online, I knew right off there were things we could do to begin feeding the trees rather than simply relying on foliar sprays to keep away pests and disease.
(Note that when there is this symbol ** it means that these are linked articles I’ve written on my blog.)
First Step, Surveying the Orchard or Property
I inspected the orchard and found the ground was bare under every tree, fairly carefully weeded. The paths are mostly grass with a little clover mixed in.
Since there is Creeping Charlie weeds in some of the understory, my suspicion is there is a boron deficiency, since boron kills that particular weed. But don’t quote me on that. Just a hunch. That weed also has beneficial aspects. But I’m focusing on signs of soil quality. Read your weeds! If there are dandelion, the common belief, and studies, is there is a calcium deficiency. If you were to chop and drop either of those weeds, they would feed the soil those nutrients (boron and calcium respectively). Or just let them grow there.
Because the orchard was already well established, and part of a community garden, it’s probably not possible to do a seven layer approach to a guild. But I’ll be focusing on the steps we have taken so far, as well as possible alternatives.
If one is starting from scratch, there are other steps that can be taken to prepare the soil and design the property. But I won’t be going into those in this post. But leave it to say, it would be highly beneficial if one could prepare the soil at least one or more years in advance. It’s suggested in years 1-3 to mulch, compost, build soil from bacterial to fungal (**ramial wood chips would be ideal, – biochar may even be better) – worms and mushrooms thrive in fungal soil created by ramial wood chips.
Beneficial Guild Plants – Perennials When Possible and Stackable Functions
First and foremost, it’s always a wise choice to incorporate perennials in the understory of the tree and elsewhere. Once the work is done, you only need minor upkeep with no additional cost for plants. In addition, it’s often a good idea to review how many functions a plant serves in a garden. A single plant can potentially have one or more of these functions:
- edible for humans
- provide forage for beneficial wildlife
- deter undesirable wildlife
- feed the soil and surrounding plants
- screen or facilitate air movement
- provide shelter
- act as fences or visual barriers
- cool or warm a home or area
- are enjoyable to look at
Those are foremost goals to keep in mind when selecting plants. The more stackable the function, the more beneficial the plant is to the guild.
Single function plants might be nice to look at or enjoy the shade, but why use that space when a multi-functional plant could be providing so many more benefits?
Seven Layers of a Fruit Tree Guild (Food Forest)
A fruit tree guild, or food forest, begins with a Guild of beneficial plants, which is essentially seven layers that work together, support each other, and create habitat. It mimics the way a forest sustains itself. Sometimes, it’s not possible to have all seven layers, especially if one owns or uses only a very small plot. Also, if you belong to a community garden, there are guidelines that usually prohibit trees (and sometimes perennials).
Keep in mind that one plant may encompass more than one layer. Those layers, from tallest to shortest, are:
- Canopy – large fruit and nut trees (pear, apple, cherry, peach, plum, persimmon, hickory, walnut, chestnut, pecan, black locust)
- Sub-canopy – dwarf or semi-dwarf variety of trees (same fruit as above plus paw paw, hazelnut, amelanchier)
- Shrub layer (gooseberries, currants, honey berries, hazelnut, amelanchier, Oregon grape, and nitrogen fixers goumi, alders, lead plant)
- Herbaceous – includes nitrogen fixing plants and herbs (comfrey, beets, herbs and nitrogen fixing – legumes, and dynamic accumulators – comfrey, borage, nettles, and pest confusers – bee balm, mints, alliums)
- Rhizosphere – any root vegetables that open up the soil, deter pests or fix nitrogen (beets, garlic, turnips, daffodils and nitrogen fixers, ground nuts)
- Ground cover (strawberries, wintergreen, wild ginger, mushrooms, and nitrogen fixers – legumes, ground nuts)
- Vines – vertical layer (climbing plants)
Within those seven layers, we are considering the functions of the plants. These functions should fulfill:
- Food for people
- Food for plants (nitrogen fixers, mulch, dynamic accumulators)
- Food for bugs (high nectar and high pollen producers)
- Pest deterrents (herbs – strong smelling/task, medicinals, bulbs, daffodils)
1., 2., 3. Canopy, Sub-canopy and Shrub
At our orchard, the canopy trees are the various fruit trees (primarily apple, but there is plum, pear and others) of the dwarf variety, so they are actually in the sub-canopy category. We have planted in the herbaceous and rhizosphere layers too (one plant serving the two functions). So of the seven layers, we have three layers so far (dwarf trees and daffodils), with plans for other layers in Spring.
When there are missing layers, it limits the diversity of insect and wildlife in the orchard. All of these layers create habitat, which causes a cycle that helps the orchard. With more ground creatures (snakes, lizards, frogs, toads), you are able to ward off insects and rodents.
With bare soil, nothing can hide, so it keeps beneficial ground creatures from doing their job of helping in the orchard. If one relies primarily on birds of prey, (the reason some orchardists keep bare soil), in order for them to more easily see the prey, it limits the number of creatures that can help remove undesirable creatures. With more beneficial insects, and insects in general, you attract more birds that consume those insects rather than feasting on the trees.
4. Herbaceous Layer
Here are a few plants that accumulate nutrients from the soil so they become accessible to your plants: **Comfrey, borage and nettles are some of the common dynamic accumulators in the herbaceous category. Because comfrey would be ideal in an orchard, preferably (B-14) Russian variety, I’ve included a link to my article about it. Research on your own to discover the plants you prefer.
Here is another article and list of ideal dynamic accumulators in temperate climates.
Nasturtiums are in the herbaceous layer. Here is the link to my research on one of the more sustainable varieties of **nasturtiums, (Mashua, Tropaeolum tuberosum), however, various varieties would be suitable.
Bee balm, mints and alliums, to name just a few, are ideal for bewildering the hungry little beasts. We’ve yet to discuss which we’ll be using, but most likely, it will be something growing low so it can be easily chopped or mowed. Chives (an allium) can serve both in the herbaceous and rhizosphere layer. More on chives below in the rhizosphere layer.
Here is an excellent article on Aromatic Pest Confusers for a Temperate Climate
5. Rhizosphere Layer
So far, we have planted this layer! It’s a good start. We will likely also be planting chives (in the allium category), with large root systems into the rhizosphere. Nasturtium, because of its rhizome, can also be included in the rhizosphere family of crops. Details have been made in the herbaceous layer above.
One might think these are planted for ornamental reasons, but they are toxic to pests and wood borers. There are so many things that could be said about daffodils that I created a separate article on them. Read more about **daffodils in my article.
The typical allium family plant, planted under trees is chives. But anything in this family would be suitable bulbs. Garlic, ramps, or walking onions would be beneficial as well, as they also act as an herbicide, insecticide and fungicide. The main problem I have with garlic under trees is it can’t be chopped down, but the good thing is, it’s usually harvested by June, long before fruit harvest season.
The chives can also be used for harvesting, since they are a nutritious food. They contain vitamins, minerals, are said to help with blood pressure, cholesterol, cancer and aid digestion.
In the garden, chives deter Japanese beetles and other pests. Some claim they help with disease, such as apple scab. The flowering plant attracts beneficial insects. They also add beauty to the garden!
Ground cover is spreading, clumping and vining plants that are good wildlife habitat and encourage beneficial insects. They also can be nitrogen fixers. Excellent choices could be strawberries (including wild), wintergreen, wild ginger, mushrooms, clover and nitrogen fixers – legumes or ground nuts. These are not the only choices, just a few of many possibilities.
White Dutch Clover
**White Dutch clover is a dynamic accumulator, attracts beneficial insects, is nearly a perennial (self seeds) and can be mowed. Read more about it in my article.
There are a couple schools of thought about ground cover and/or wood chips around fruit bearing trees. One is that you want nowhere for pests or burrowing creatures to hide. Another is the very groundcover itself can deter the same. But mostly, folks worry about robbing nitrogen in the soil. They have distinct advantages for creating a fungal soil. If one uses wood chips, they should be aged six or more months. Otherwise, they need nutrition added (nitrogen). Read more about **ramial wood chips at my article.
Vines are typically vertical. Nasturtiums can also fall into this category. Legumes and nitrogen fixing plants are also appropriate here.
Other Orchard Considerations
When first planting (trees, shrubs, and other edible plants), it is recommended planting (and especially transplanting) the roots facing north. This is due to aligning roots with the magnetic field. Scientific studies have shown northern alignment to strengthen and improve plant growth. Check out this study, The effects of magnetic fields on plant growth and health. Another article that’s been transcribed from a radio interview, how to plant and feed trees (also tomatoes and other plants) is found here, Fruit Trees on Steroids?.
Defense against Apple Maggots
One sticky red sphere trap for every 100 apples on a tree is the general guideline. There are various sources of these traps, but check out Apple Maggot Traps here.
Rake Leaves or Not
Some folks believe that leaves from the fruit tree should be removed from the ground. If some leaves are left on the ground, they can be sprinkled with pelleted lime (avoid magnesium lime) to destroy mold spores. Remember, the calcium from lime deters disease.
Keeping fruit leaves on the ground can be a controversial topic. The current line of thinking is moldy leaves will harbor mold in the soil, passing it onto the following season’s crops. But the fact they developed disease in the first place is what is at issue here. Undernourished plants, that are unable to access calcium, are usually the problem.
Pruning should always be done in the dormant season. In our zone (5b/6), this should be done around mid February. Because this is a fairly vast subject, in itself, one should refer to pruning guides for fruit trees.
Fruit won’t get as large if it’s not thinned. There should be no more than one bud every six inches, retaining the King blossom unless it’s not the healthiest of the bunch. Buds or new fruit can be thinned. This way, more nutrition goes into each fruit and the tree is not overburdened with providing nutrients. Too much fruit equals inadequate levels of nutrients, which in turn, invites disease and pests.
Tips from Eartheasy, another sustainable fruit tree grower.
If there isn’t space for more than one tree for cross pollination, grafting different varieties on one tree is the answer. Consider how much fruit you might grow, preserve or sell to determine how many trees you wish to grow!
It can be advantageous to your plants to have hives of bees nearby. Mason bees, especially the Orchard Mason species (Osmia lignaria) are encouraged, as one mason bee does the work of 300 honey bees! They require virtually no maintenance, are not aggressive, rarely sting, and are much better pollinators for orchards than are honey bees. They should be ordered in dormant (winter) season.
Of course, if you want to harvest honey, then you can have honey bee hives. And also remember, mason bees are active for only six or so weeks, around the time fruits are blossoming. So they can’t be depended on for pollination of later fruit and vegetable crops.
Keeping a ground bird bath or two around encourages snakes, frogs, lizards and birds to drink water rather than peck into fruit and vegetables for hydration. It also helps keep bug populations in check by attracting wildlife that consumes them.
Already, we’ve discussed companion planting that give fruit trees nutritional input. But let’s talk about how to feed them with soil amendments and foliar sprays. Many folks who grow sustainable food forests generally don’t add amendments, or have reduced need for amendments. But if you notice your trees are subject to disease and pests, you may need remedial methods.
The first thing to keep in mind when feeding plants: Anything you add to the soil will be consumed by the microbes first. Whatever is left over is what plants get. Therefore, a second feeding is usually warranted within the first couple of weeks after the first feeding.
As mentioned in the “Planting” section above, the same article on Fruit Trees on Steroids? applies, but principally for planting or transplanting trees. Essentially, with nutrients in the soil prior to planting the root ball, and placing on granite rock (it contains silica), under the root crown, adding five points of soft rock phosphate, mixing in compost, forest mulch and topsoil, you can get three years of growth in one year with enough oxygen.
The Four Holistic Sprays of Spring (taken from The Holistic Orchard for disease management through nutrition). This is a more complicated mixture than some use. I’ll discuss that after giving the formula.
You will need:
- 100% cold pressed, unadulterated neem oil* mixed with…
- Soap emulsifier (dish soap), then add the rest below…
- Liquid fish fertilizer (not emulsified, not oil) (for vegan farmers, coconut milk substituted)
- Liquid kelp or dry seaweed extract
- Blackstrap molasses (unsulphured)** mixed with…
- Mother culture of effective microbes***
You can premix your full batch of neem oil with soap in advance, rather than small portions at a time: 1 tablespoon soap per 6 oz. neem oil
Thin molasses by mixing 1/4 cup molasses with 3/4 gallon non-chlorinated hot water (otherwise, chlorine will kill the microbes you’re about to add). Add 3/4 cup mother culture effective microbes. Culture these in a stable and warm place for three days at 90-95 degrees, then another five to seven days at normal room temperature (72-78 degrees) until pH reaches less than 3.8 (3.0-3.5 is ideal).
You can make your own, or mother culture can be found at SCD Probiotics Mother Culture or TeraGanix Microbial Inoculant.
There is one alternative to purchasing the mother culture, and that is brewing your own compost tea, using an aerated system.
The above formula’s complication may deter orchardists from using it. When using companion planting and tree guild growing techniques, you may be able to simplify this significantly. Some orchardists inoculate vermicompost or compost by moistening it with a mixture of molasses and water (1 Tbsp molasses for every 1 gallon water), letting that sit in comfortable temperatures for 24-48 hours, then brewing a compost tea simply from the inoculated compost. Once it’s brewed, you can use this as spray and for root watering.
I really appreciated this detailed information at Microbe Organics, on the topic of compost teas. Here is a 12 gallon brewer he designed and sells (he calls it a Bioreactor) He also sells a 50 gallon brewer.
This other guy shows how he makes compost tea (not my video), with adequate equipment that he built at home:
For a four gallon backpack sprayer, 2.5 oz. pure neem oil, a generous teaspoon soap emulsifier achieves a 0.5% neem concentration. 10 oz. liquid fish, 6 oz. mother culture of effective microbes, up to 1/2 cup blackstrap molasses (dissolved in warm water first), 5 oz. of liquid kelp or 0.5 oz. dry weight seaweed extract.
For an orchard rate of 100 gallon spray tank for one acre of trees: Half gallon pure neem oil with 1/4 cup soap emulsifier, 8 oz. dry weight seaweed extract, 2 gallons liquid fish and 1 gallon activated effective microbes.
Spray leaves, bark and ground in the understory with this formula. Use this application at the following four times:
1. Week of quarter-inch green: This is somewhere between between green tip and half-inch green. Choose warm days. Target fallen fruit and diseased leaves too.
2. Early pink: This is the first sign of pink, prior to opening buds (not on open king blossoms).
3. Petal fall: After petals fall and fruit is beginning to form, spray the same formula to the point of runoff. Weather plays a big role, as rain encourages the growth of pathogenic fungi, especially at this point in the season.
4. First cover: This is within seven to ten days after petal fall (depends on the weather).
Here is a video from The Holistic Orchard author, putting it all together:
Whey or Milk
Whey is an economical alternative to using milk for calcium. You can buy powdered whey or milk and reconstitute it. The solution is two ounces of liquid milk or whey per gallon of water. You can mix large batches of this in advance. Calcium uptake of foliar spray is within 20 minutes and excellent for disease suppression.
Colas contain phosphoric acid, and used as a foliar spray, can also improve phosphorus uptake for plants within 20 minutes. The concentration is 8 oz. of cola per one gallon of water. Phosphorus is excellent for pest suppression. It does not kill insects, but instead, insects don’t like the taste of plants once there is adequate phosphorus.
Fermented teas can build cuticle defense in plants. One can use a handful of compost in a five gallon bucket and aerate it for 24 hours. Molasses and other ingredients can be added to add a real nutritional punch and grow effective microbes. (see articles above)
Some folks go by the older idea of non-aeration of simple things, such as comfrey or horsetail leaves. Typically, it’s simply packing a five gallon bucket of the preferred herb(s) and/or weeds, filling it with non-chlorinated water and left to sit for a few days to a month. It will have a foul smell of rotting vegetation, meaning it’s become anaerobic. This is why many folks add aeration, to avoid the smell and keeping it aerobic, or use it prior to becoming foul smelling.
But in any case, this tea will contain silica (great for building cuticle) and calcium (great for building plant structure). Both ward off disease.
Garlic and other aromatic extracts
Garlic extract assists in carrying silica and other nutrients through the cuticle and into the plant. Wormwood is used to ward off female codling moths (confusing smell). Tansy prevents fungal rusts. Horseradish prevents various rots. Nasturtium and broad-leaf dock teas can be used on existing cankers and protect young trees from getting cankers. Wild lettuce extract deters grasshoppers.
Seaweed contains chelated nutrients, amino acids and other growth promoting substances. It’s used to increase fruit quality, shelf life and resistance to environmental stresses such as drought and heat, pests and diseases.
Suggested apple varieties and heirloom cultivars
A suggested website to research varieties, Grow Organic Apples.
- White sticky cards
- Shaking tree each morning to shake out weevils
- Borers – clay based trunk slurries, at base of each tree and brushed up over burr knots in early summer to repel egg laying females
- Heavy dousing bark with neem oil
- Red sticky sphere traps
- Beauveria bassica spray to avoid larva to pupa stage. However, even though Michael (from Grow Your Apples link above) suggests this, I personally would only use this as a last resort (if even then) because it kills beneficial insects (lady bugs), infects the lungs of wild rodents, and the nasal passages of humans. There are other drawbacks as well (read the link).
Seasonal Orchard Care
Here is a handy guide to orchard tasks throughout the year.
- Check for deer incursions weekly, pack down vole tunnels around trunks.
- Prune trees (check your zone for the best time for this).
- Remove any remaining fruit from trees.
- Order supplies, repair equipment.
- Chip prunings in orchard, add as a mulch, excluding severely diseased limbs.
- Spread ramial wood chips, mulch, leaves, compost on open ground.
- Add soil amendments if needed.
- Sprinkle borax (for boron) on soil (under mulch) only every few years.
- Remove spiral trunk guards from young trees.
Week of quarter-inch green
- First holistic spray (refer to section above for foliar sprays). Stone fruits can be sprayed up to two weeks earlier than apple (pome).
- Apply organic fertilizer to nonbearing trees.
- Train branch crotch angles on young trees with limb spreaders.
- Cultivate around trees.
- Check trunks for borer damage.
- Second holistic spray (refer to section above for foliar sprays). Direct at leaf piles also.
- Hang white sticky traps.
- This is primary scab season, but sprays should assist with this.
- Cut down wild fruit trees within 100 yards in the area, except those to keep for pest traps.
- Nesting tube replacement for mason bees, honey bee management.
- Hang pheromone wing traps for monitoring moth presence.
- Third holistic spray (refer to section above for foliar sprays)
- Full coverage of refined kaolin clay can be applied at this time also. It will need to be applied two or three times to build up barrier protection from curculio moth and suppressing egg laying. Spread applications every five to seven days for two to three weeks when weather is dry (especially after a rain). This should only be applied after petals have fallen and prior to fruit size larger than marbles.
- Gather sticky traps.
- This is prime scab season, so the holistic spray is the best suggestion for curbing this problem.
- Prune shoots. Break off blossom spurs if there is fire blight.
- Begin mowing, or chop and drop, the understory. Use this mulch thickly under the trees.
- Fourth holistic spray (refer to section above for foliar sprays). Add horsetail and nettle teas to this brew, if desired.
- Kaolin clay coverage can be continued if curculio continues to be an issue.
- Place dropcloths under trap trees to contain infested June drops, preventing larvae from pupating in soil. You can also bring in chickens or ducks to do the job instead. Companion plants in the understory also encourage snakes and frogs to take care of this problem.
- Hand-thin the number of buds. Leave one fruit per cluster, and more aggressive with the number for trees that tend to bear biennially. Thinning must be completed within 40 days of petal fall. Infested fruitlets can be fed to chickens or taken far from the orchard.
- Primary scab season ends. However, if issues are noticed, foliar sprays can be continued.
- First generation codling moth shows up about this time. Other organic pest sprays can be used at this time (Bt, spinosad, granulosis virus are what Michael suggests, but personally, I would avoid those products).
- Pinch off shoots on young trees to correct crow’s foot from heading cuts.
- Continue mowing, chop and drop mulching.
- Cherries and berries: apply bird netting.
- Hang sticky traps for apple maggot flies by mid-June (in most of the US, other times in other zones/countries). Target the orchard perimeter and early bearing varieties. Renew tangle trap coating every four to six weeks. Traps should be moved to midseason varieties about a month later than the early varieties.
- Kaolin clay slurry can be applied thickly to tree trunks in late spring or early summer, for borer protection. It can be applied again about three weeks later. Saturating the trunk with neem spray would be a good alternative to kaolin.
- Kaolin or neem can be applied about three weeks after the last application if borers are still a concern.
- Summer prune watersprouts in mid-summer (late July/early August in the US).
- Spray for summer moth control. Pure neem oil and/or a whey/milk and cola mixture could be utilized.
- Every 10-14 days, summer sprays of neem, nettles, horsetail and other herbs can be done. In areas where humidity is high, add baking soda to the spray for sooty blotch and flyspeck on light colored fruit.
- Calcium (bi-weekly) of whey/milk or comfrey tea can be included in the foliar mix.
- Mow paths for harvest access. Another chop and drop under trees can take place now, to see early drops from trees.
- Hand-weed, especially around trunks, check for borers, adjust mesh vole guards, rub loose bark off, place repellent mudpacks over sapsucker holes.
- Sow an oat or legume mix cover crop along the edges of dwarf tree rows.
- Soil tests are taken in mid-summer (mid August in Illinois) every few years.
- Intact bales of hay can be placed around the orchard to provide nesting sites for field mice (not voles). Abandoned nests become bumblebee habitat the following spring.
- Prune out spent canes in bramble plantings (fruit bushes) immediately after harvest.
- Check for borer egg slits and destroy these.
- Dispose of sticky apple traps. Remove all other monitoring traps.
- Gather drops twice weekly.
- Apply soil amendments.
- Spread lime, then cover with well aged compost.
- Apply a holistic spray (same as the first sprays of spring formulas) when 50-60% of the leaves have fallen. Spray on leaves, branches, trunk and the ground. This will help with decomposition of diseases. This also adds nitrogen that will store for spring bud growth.
- Remove limb spreaders.
- Install tree guards on young trees. Mulch further away from the trunk to deter nesting. Check mesh protection against voles. Hopefully resident fox and coyote will keep vole population in check.
- Renew trunk whitewash if needed.
Fruit Tree Care/Feed/Mulch
There’s a fellow here in Illinois, Ed of Evergreens of Elwood, that grows and sells many varieties of fruit trees. He’s located at 19934 West Munch Lane, Elwood, Illinois 60421, phone 815-258-5558. He produces some very healthy trees that you should get harvest the first year you plant. Below are some of his tips. His approach is much simpler than much of what I outlined above. I’m including it here to illustrate there are so many ways to accomplish something!
- Keep graft line clear of debris and above ground. If the graft line goes below ground, the tree may revert to its root stock, not only growing the wrong fruit but no longer dwarf variety.
- Trees become biennial when they are not adequately thinned of fruit. Too much fruit is taxing on a tree, and they will need to take a year off from production in order to recover.
- Hang one apple trap for every 100 apples in a tree.
- Don’t use a weed-eater to remove plants growing under a tree. This can damage the bark of the tree, which weakens it.
- Ground mulch in spring:
- 5 shovels leaf mold
- 5 shovels garden compost
- 5 shovels peat moss
- 1 cup bone meal
- 1/4 cup each: rock phosphate, alfalfa, greensand.
- Top dress with 2″ in early March and again in mid-June.
It is my hope that this article gives a fair overview of sustainable fruit orchard practices. If this article is exceptionally long, it reflects my personal feeling of overwhelm, that if it takes this much effort to fruit orchard, wow! I have a great deal of respect for fruit growers, even those who use commercial methods.
Michael’s way or orcharding came from organic methods to sustainable, and he may be going to greater effort than is needed. But I felt it necessary to outline a good, solid plan for most problems, and to ensure trees remain as healthy as possible. Hopefully with companion planting, all these steps can be minimized substantially.