By C.J. Walke
It is now almost fall in the orchard and time to think about harvest, cleanup (orchard sanitation) and preparations for winter. Managing fungal diseases can challenge organic tree fruit growers all season, but we can decrease overwintering fungal pressures by putting in a little effort now.
Apple scab overwinters on infected leaf and fruit tissue, so remove all fruit, especially mummies, from trees, and augment leaf decomposition by mowing and spreading compost and/or applying fish hydrolysate to encourage microbial activity on the orchard floor. I received numerous calls and emails this spring about peach leaf curl pressure being higher than usual, so some growers may need to use an OMRI-approved sulfur product to kill spores that overwinter on peach buds. For more on fall activities in the orchard, see my article in the fall 2015 issue of The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener.
The Early Tree Years
When we view the orchard as an integrated part of a larger farm cropping system, not just a calculated geometry of uniformity, doors open to imagination and creativity, and we start thinking about other crops we can grow with our fruit trees. The early years of the orchard are ideal for intercropping or companion planting short-lived cash crops or longstanding beneficial perennials. Whether you’re planting full-size standards or dwarf rootstocks, you’ll have at least a few years before your first harvest, and the soil beneath the trees can produce value during that time.
Establishing new fruit trees at the farm I manage for College of the Atlantic (COA) in Bar Harbor, Maine, offers an example. Good soil preparation is critical before planting in organic farming systems; soil microbes need a little time with rock powders before crops can access those nutrients. I have been both patient and rushed in the past, and patience has better payback. In 2013 we broke ground at COA in an old cattle pasture to establish a half-acre plot to grow garlic, potatoes and butternut squash. I wanted to line both long sides of the rectangular plot with dwarf apple trees to add diversity and, of course, to grow apples. That first season we tilled and cover cropped (oats, buckwheat, rye/vetch) and had a small student-planted potato plot, for which the wireworms were most grateful!
Before sowing the rye/vetch mix that fall, I had taken a soil sample and, based on test results, spread dolomitic lime to add calcium and magnesium and to raise the soil pH. By April 2014 the plot was a nice young stand of winter rye and vetch, which we tilled in then. We were ready to plant trees! We marked two 175-foot border rows for the trees, and for the next couple of weeks lightly cultivated the future apple rows with hand tools to make sure the rye and vetch were incorporated into the soil and were not preparing to spring back to life!
The first week of May we planted the 44 dwarf apples (22 in each row) on G.11 and G.41 roots, with a few B.9 mixed in because of the availability of different varieties. During planting we added to each tree hole a 5-gallon bucket of our own compost, 2 quarts of Fedco’s Fruit Tree Planting Mix and 2 tablespoons of MycoApply to inoculate the soil with beneficial mycorrhizal fungi. We installed a 1-inch irrigation mainline along each row with spot emitters for every tree and pinned the line down with bent scraps of high-tensile fence wire. We then spread 4 to 6 inches of decomposed wood chips in a 4-foot-wide band (2 feet on either side of the trees) as a mulch and for fungal food along both rows. We also mulched around a few trees with belly wool from our sheep.
We planted the trees 8 feet apart. Looking down the row of young whips, I saw a lot of open space and a few years of time before apples would grace the tree branches. So we dug perennial herbs from around the farm (mint, sage, lavender, oregano, chives, yarrow) and transplanted them between the trees. The herbs did not fill all the spaces, so we also planted newly grafted trees in the remaining spaces, three grafts per 8-foot space between the dwarf trees. By mid-May 2014 our two 175-foot apple rows contained 44 dwarf trees, 80 young apple grafts and two dozen perennial herbs, with an irrigation line buried beneath a thick layer of wood chip mulch.
The following year the apple rows had filled in nicely, although everything was still young, but I still saw more available space in the short term. I didn’t want to cultivate regularly next to the apple rows and disturb any developing roots, but something had to grow there. So in April 2015 we planted a row of ‘Sparkle’ strawberries on the inside of each apple row, ran a line of drip tape next to the small plants, pinned the drip tape down with more high-tensile wire scraps and mulched heavily with straw. We pinched all the flower buds that first year and watched the strawberries spread from individual crowns into a nice matted row.
The herbs took a year to establish, but we have harvested numerous bunches from these plants in the past two years. This past spring we dug all the grafted trees, then 2 years old and 3 to 4 feet tall, transplanted some around the farm and sold the rest to neighbors. In the freed space, we planted another batch of newly grafted apples in the same spots to let them grow for sale in two years. And from mid-June to early July, we harvested about 200 quarts of strawberries for sale and put a small stash in the freezer.
We should see our first modest harvest of apples this fall, where most trees have fruit, although I’ve thinned thoroughly. The herbs continue to be picked and sold fresh or hung and dried. We will dig the young apple grafts in two years and sell most of those trees and most likely fill the vacant spaces with herbs, since the remaining trees will start to dominate the space. We hope for two more seasons of strawberries beneath the trees, if the clipper weevils don’t have other plans!
During these few early years, we expect to produce 125 apple trees ($20 to $25 each), 500 quarts of strawberries ($8 per quart) and numerous bunches of herbs ($3 per bunch), with an estimated total gross value of $7,000. This is a much better use of time, space and energy than weeding and waiting. This space that will eventually be dominated by dwarf apple trees now holds a variety of crops that provide biological diversity and generate income while we wait for the first full apple harvest.
C. J. Walke is MOFGA’s organic orchardist. You can address your orcharding questions to him at 568-4142 or [email protected].