The Benefits Of Biological Orcharding

It is often difficult and sometimes impossible to find natural, organically-grown produce in many locations. And what is available is usually higher priced than chemically-grown foods. Organic fruit growing, or biological orcharding as it is sometimes called, is the best way to obtain optimum quality fruits and nuts at an affordable price.

By taking control of the production of our food we can be certain of obtaining high-quality, uncontaminated produce that will best satisfy man’s nutritional needs.

Besides the obvious benefits of having a supply of fresh produce uncontaminated by chemical fertilizers and pesticides, you have the added health benefits of good exercise out in the fresh air while establishing and maintaining an orchard. You have the economic benefits that result from having your own food-producing trees and you have the psychological benefits of feeling “rooted” to a piece of land—a sense of responsibility for your own space in the ecosystem.

Biological orcharding benefits the ecosystem by producing a protective blanket of green over an earth that is rapidly being deforested. Solomon, supposedly a wise man, employed 70,000 men to cut down the cedars of Lebanon, an act that geologists say destroyed the food production resources of that region forever. Similar destruction is now happening in the tropical forests of South America, even though science has proven the loss as irreplaceable.

A permanent grove of trees is not like a cultivated field crop, and the differences become more pronounced and profound with the passage of time. A grove of trees managed biologically will in a thousand years contain richer soil than it does today. A field cultivated conventionally in a thousand years will have no topsoil left at all and will have been maintained by tremendous outlays of chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

On the other hand, the grove is essentially self-fertilizing. The leaves fall to build rich topsoil through the interplay of soil microorganisms and humus. The tree roots feed on the nutrients released in the topsoil and also dig deep into the earth for minerals and water.

The minerals find their way, via the leaves, back to the topsoil! Woodland can raise the water level and it acts as a reservoir of moisture as rain soaks and holds in the deep, permeable soil beneath the trees. While the trees produce their food and nourish a whole chain of plants and animals under and around them, there is a net gain in fertility. In cultivated fields, there is almost always a net loss. In nearly every instance, trees can produce more food than grain.

Establishing An Orchard

Every individual, whether he lives on a small city lot or a large country estate or farm, can provide some or all of his fruit and nut needs with an orchard. Even back-yard gardeners can enjoy many varieties of fruit on dwarf-size trees and miniatures. The range of tree crops you can grow in your area depends very largely on climate. Climate is more important than soil. You can always improve the soil by adding proper nutrients, but you can’t do much about the climate.

Temperature and moisture are two factors which limit your orchard selections. Regarding temperature, your main problem in the North is too much cold weather and in the South your problem may be not enough cold weather to break the dormancy of certain trees. As for moisture, too much produces poor drainage in the soil and a high humidity contributes to fungal diseases.

Orcharding

Of course, too little moisture means nothing will grow. The best climate for temperate-zone fruit culture is dry with adequate irrigation and with mild but not too mild winters. However, you don’t have to live in an ideal climate to grow fruit and nuts. There are varieties established for every area. For assistance in choosing the proper varieties for your area, you should consult a local nurseryman or your county extension agent.

It is possible to experiment with varieties not usually grown in your area if you follow a few guidelines. Learn as much as you can about the requirements of the variety you desire and try to duplicate them as much as possible at your location. Mini-climates can be created around pools of water, next to walls, with the aid of greenhouses, etc.

For best success, plant varieties that are no more than one zone difference from yours (using cold hardiness zone maps from nursery catalogs or gardening books as a guideline).

Choosing Trees

Diversity is the key for successful biological food production. Solid blocks of one variety of trees are open invitations to population explosions of pest bugs. A few trees of each of the varieties that you like are easier to care for and more likely to produce a crop of fruit every year.

Buying trees from nurseries is, in the beginning, the best way to get started, provided you get good healthy trees in varieties best suited for homestead production. A general principle is to buy from growers and suppliers who have a reputation to maintain. Healthy, well-grown trees may cost you more initially but will save you time and effort and will produce better in the long run.

Choose trees with a well-shaped crown, a strong leading shoot, no damaged branches and a good, fibrous root system. The eventual size and vigor of fruit trees is an important consideration. This depends on the rootstock onto which they are grafted and a good nurseryman will be able to advise on the best rootstock for each purpose.

Nursery trees are sold in three categories. Bare root, container-grown, and balled-in-burlap. Bare root trees are only available during the dormant season, usually early spring in the northern areas and mid-winder in the South.

Container-grown and balled-in-burlap trees can be set out anytime of the year though spring or fall are best. Trees planted in the fall have all winter to establish root systems before leaves start to develop and therefore will need less care and attention during the dry summer months.

Pollination Of Trees

A good nurseryman will be able to suggest suitable cultivars to ensure pollination. Then you can be sure that your choices will have the best possible chance of giving you good yields.

Some simple rules for fruit pollination are as follows:

  1. Some apples are self-fruitful but most horticulturists advise planting three varieties of apples and pears if you want to be 100% sure of pollinating all the trees. In apples, a Golden Delicious is probably the best way to ensure good pollination.

  2. Some plums are self-fruitful including Stanley, Greengage, Shropshire Damson, and many of the old varieties plus Italian and other prune plums. Fewer of the Japanese plums are self-fruitful. Methley and Santa Rosa are.

  3. You must have two varieties of sweet cherries for pollination. If you don’t have room for two trees, graft two varieties on the same tree.

  4. Sour cherries are self-fruitful, as are almost all peaches, apricots, and nectarines.

  5. Southern- and eastern-type figs are self-pollinating but western Smyrna figs depend on a particular insect or mechanical pollination.

  6. Persimmons are self-fruitful.

  7. Some varieties of nuts are self-fruitful, others require cross-pollination. Some growers believe pollination between varieties produces a bigger and better-quality crop.

Preparing A Site

The main considerations in preparing a site for your orchard are soil condition and drainage. The first thing you must put right in any area where it is a problem is drainage. Where the problem is not too severe, double-digging which breaks up any hardpan (compacted soil impenetrable by roots) and aerates and introduces organic matter into the soil may be sufficient.

On very heavy clay, you may need to aid drainage by digging a deep, stone-filled sump (a pit or reservoir serving as a drain for water) at the lowest end of the orchard with one or more lines of drainage tiles covered with six inches of gravel buried two feet deep leading to it.

Other treatments for heavy clay are to dig coarse boiler ash, mortar rubble, coarse sand, etc., into the top-soil. And work in plenty of bulky organic matter, well-rotted compost, or coarse peat to increase the humus content and open up the soil structure.

The ideal soil for growing the widest range of fruit and nut trees is a medium loam combining the advantages of sandy and clayey soils and containing plenty of organic matter and minerals. Few gardeners are lucky enough to have such soil. However, any type soil can be improved through a program of organic soil conditioning methods.

To maximize soil fertility, large quantities of well-rotted manure, compost, and minerals are required. Sandy soils will benefit from the addition of coarse peat, clay, or even subsoil from excavations. Clayey soils must be thoroughly cultivated, and lime makes clay more workable by encouraging the formation of soil crumbs.

Nearly all soils are deficient in one or more minerals. These can be added in the form of rock phosphate, colloidal phosphate, granite dust, feldspars, ground glacial rock, and greensand. Natural rock fertilizers are slow working and long lasting. They do particularly well on acid soils and are more effective when combined with raw animal and/or green vegetable manures.

A healthy soil depends on adequate quantities of organic matter. While barnyard manure has long been used for this purpose, well-made garden compost is an excellent alternative. Apart from diseased material, all plant residues and kitchen wastes should be composted and returned to the soil. Various methods can be used to make compost, but all require good aeration, free drainage, adequate moisture, and a balance between dry coarse material and soft green plant tissues or animal manure.

Dry material should be layered with soft plant material or animal manure and then watered. Bone meal or other natural fertilizers can be added to the heap to supply additional nutrients.

Another good way to increase the organic material in the soil is by green manuring. A quick-growing crop such as mustard, vetch, clover, or lupines is sown early and dug into the ground a few weeks before the orchard is to be planted.

The soil should never be left uncovered, especially on sloping sites, otherwise erosion will occur. You can use ground cover plants or a mulch of organic material such as ground bark, old straw, grass clippings, and/or leaves.

Planting Trees

Trees that come bare root will benefit from being placed in a bucket of water for a couple of hours before planting. For optimum growth, trees should be planted in a large hole filled in with the best soil and rotted compost. Do not put a lot of fertilizer in the planting hole. Spread the roots of the tree out in the bottom of the planting hole in a circle over a mound of earth.

Compact the soil firmly but gently around the tree roots taking care that the trunk is not left leaning to one side or the other. The tree should be set at the depth it was growing before, which should be obvious by a dark ring around the trunk above the roots.

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In areas with high winds, it is a good idea to stake newly planted trees. This can be very simply done by placing a slated stake against the tree facing the prevailing wind. You can also stake the tree by using a wire line covered with a rubber tube looped around the tree and attached to an upright post. Mulching with heavy rocks is also an effective method to help hold trees in place during high winds.

Fruit and nut trees need a lot of sunlight. They should be planted in an open area cleared of native trees, and they should be spaced far enough apart so they don’t shade each other. Also, tall varieties should be planted on the north side of the orchard.

Mulching

No matter how you plant your trees, growing them successfully depends on mulch. Six inches of mulch will cover a multitude of planting sins. Even watering every day is not as effective as mulch. Mulching subdues weeds and grass under the tree that would compete for available water and nutrients.

It helps the soil to conserve moisture during periods of drought and moderates the temperature of the soil around the tree roots. The mulch also begins immediately and continually to release nutrients to the tree. Mulching can supply most of the nutrition needed by a fruit or nut tree.

The type of mulch you use is mostly a matter of preference and availability. Any organic matter will do. Leaves are usually easy to obtain. Good results have been demonstrated from using old hay and on poor ground, straw mixed with manure is beneficial. Grass clippings are also a favorite of many growers.

Mulch should not be piled up too closely to the tree trunk. It is best to leave a few inches of air space between the mulch and the tree.

Orchard Fertility

Nitrogen (N) and Potash (K) are what fruit and nut trees need the most of. Phosphorus (P) needs are smaller but just as necessary. Other important nutrients include calcium and magnesium in addition to manganese, zinc, boron, copper, iron, and others.

Where land has been abused, or is naturally deficient in some trace element, nutritional deficiencies in your trees may occur. These deficiencies often show in the form of fungal diseases, though they can also manifest insect damage, hail damage, etc.

If mulch is not giving your trees enough of the important nutrients, other natural, slow-release fertilizers can provide them. Rock phosphate and bone meal will supply additional phosphorus, if needed. Wood ashes are an excellent source of potash, and they also contain high amounts of calcium. Manure is good for both nitrogen and potash. Bloodmeal, cottonseed meal, and soybean meal are slow releasers of nitrogen.

In situations where you need both calcium and magnesium, dolomitic limestone or oyster shells can provide them. Granite dust and greensand are very slow-release forms of potash and are more effective when used with a high content of organic matter. Compost is one of the most desirable organic fertilizers of all. It contains all the important nutrients and trace elements.

The importance of a balanced nutrient supply cannot be overemphasised. The controversial argument of organic growers, that proper organic fertilization gives plants resistance to disease and pests has been given more attention by conventional science in the last few years.

There has been a steady increase in announcements by conventional science that a balanced, organic fertility program may indeed keep plants healthier and more resistant to bugs as well as promote more vigorous growth. The conclusions support the observations of organic gardeners for tens of years—organically-grown plants DO resist diseases and insect attacks better.

The English authority, E. R. Janes, in his book, The Vegetable Garden, wrote, “All gardeners should become health-minded and not worry too much about disease and pests. If it comes, act promptly and destroy the first specimen. Feed the soil so that plants are in sturdy health, because all the remedies in the world are useless if the underlying cause is repeatedly neglected.”

Pest And Disease Control

In a biologically-managed orchard, pest control should be limited to the use of integrated pest management techniques which include biological controls such as parasites, predators, and diseases. When insect damage is severe, organic growers can make use of certain nontoxic sprays such as dormant oil, retenone, pyrythrum, ryania, pepper juice, and others (see previous lesson on organic gardening for more details). All insecticides should be used only in emergencies, and with caution, because of the possibility of upsetting the natural balance.

The main point in biological pest control is the greater the area under biological and integrated pest control, the greater that control can be. When one orchard under biological control methods is surrounded by nearby, sprayed orchards, it has less of a chance of attaining optimum good effects from biological management. The more growers who can be convinced to retreat from total reliance on toxic chemicals, the more effective the overall program will become.

However, at times you may need to intervene when pest damage is overwhelming. Some insects and types of controls are as follows: The Caribbean fruit fly may cause a problem with citrus. A small brown spot will appear on the rind, and you may find small worms inside the fruit. The papaya fruit fly does similar damage. The only control suggested is bagging the fruit. If you want to do this, use
brown paper sacks, or cloth—not plastic which will cut off respiration. The fruit will still be able to ripen, since the ripening process proceeds through the leaves, not the fruit.

A program to exterminate Caribbean fruit flies in Florida has reduced damage from this pest. Millions of the flies have been captured and sterilized by irradiation. The sterilized flies are released to mate with wild flies, resulting in sterile eggs.

As mentioned in the previous lesson on organic gardening, “Neutral Copper” may be used in controlling certain plant diseases. If used properly, it will control diseases without poisoning the fruit.

Use neutral copper on fig trees only if rust (a fungus disease) becomes a problem (the leaves look like they are covered with a rusty powder). If there is just a little, simply ignore it.

Neutral copper may also give some control to fire blight on loquat trees if sprayed prior to blossoming, and again when the fruit is about the size of a pea. The symptoms of fire blight are drying up of blossoms, blossom stems, or fruit, when the size of small marbles. Remove and destroy diseased parts, then spray with neutral copper three times at two-week intervals.

If you find splitting bark, or gum running from the trunks of your trees, remove the loose bark, spray with neutral copper twice, seven days apart, then apply pruning paint. When the pruning paint wears off, repeat the process.

Ground-up sulfur rock is an organic fungicide. Organic Gardening magazine, August 1980, says it is the best organic fungicide available.

Pruning

Pruning is more of an art than a science. It is an act of cooperation or compromise between what you want the tree to do and what it wants to do. There is no “rule” of pruning other than the overall rule: approach each tree individually, and prune it in a way that enhances the natural form it wants to take.

The most artful form of pruning may be none at all. Masanobu Fukuoka, the Japanese farmer who describes in his book, The One-Straw Revolution, his own orchard management techniques eschew all pruning in his citrus orchard which grows helter-skelter among other food and forest trees. According to Fukuoka, pruning is only necessary when man starts tampering with the tree.

Trees that are grafted onto other, different rootstocks, especially dwarfing rootstocks, will invariably need pruning. Most growers prune in late winter or early spring before buds begin to swell. Some additional light pruning may be done in summer. Normally, you want to prune when the tree is dormant, toward the end of winter in the North, earlier in the South.

General Pruning Guidelines

Cut as close as you can so as not to leave a stub, which can die and rot back into the trunk, providing a handy entrance for disease. On larger limbs, use a pruning saw to make flush cuts.

If you cut a branch partway back (called heading back), the buds behind the cut will grow more than they would have otherwise, develop more branchlets and spurs, and therefore thicken the growth. This will also stiffen the branch. Heading back can easily be overdone. If in doubt, don’t!

Where two branches of about equal length form a Y, the branch cut back the least will grow the most, thus avoiding a weak Y-crotch.

In heading back a branch, always make a cut just above an outward-pointing bud, preferably on the lower side of the branch. This encourages low-spreading growth.

When heading back a central leader, cut back to bud so that there is no dead stub left when the bud grows out as a new leader.

Don’t be in a hurry to cut lower branches from a tree unless you live in an area where snow drifts get heavy enough to weight and break them down. Cutting vigorous lower branches off too soon slows the growth of the tree.

Pruning tends to delay fruiting with the exception of skillful heading back of dwarf trees to induce fruit budding on spurs close to the trunk.

You only begin to understand pruning after you have lived with a few trees from planting to their heavy-fruiting years. In the meantime, the old-timers maxim, “Keep a tree just open enough so a robin can fly through without touching its wings,” is about as good advice as any.

Thinning Fruit

Hand thinning is done primarily to develop extra large fruits. Apples and peaches will thin themselves to some extent (called Junedrop) and that usually suffices for busy people. If only a few trees are being maintained, supporting overladen limbs with wooden props is an alternative to hand thinning the fruit. The home-grove grower should thin only to assure that his fruit is of good size and quality.

A Grove Of Trees To Live In

It is more important now than ever that man begin looking to tree-crop agriculture as a way to sustain both himself and the earth. As more and more people go hungry every year and more and more land is ruined due to poor farming methods and greed, it becomes eminent that changes must be started. Biological orcharding is a step in the right direction towards reforestation of our planet.

Instead of a few people establishing groves of trees isolated from the concentrations of chemicals and toxins in our environment, perhaps the future could bring the whole landscape for human habitation into a pleasant grove of trees to live in and from.

Frequently Asked Questions

Are dwarf trees really worthwhile?

Standard trees have some advantages over trees with dwarfing rootstock. In fact, only in apples are the dwarf trees really satisfactory. In peaches, plums, cherries, apricots, etc., many horticulturists believe standard trees are better for home orchards. Rootstocks on standard trees are almost always stronger, more adaptable to a wider range of soils, hardier, and more drought resistant. However, dwarf trees usually bear earlier and require less pruning. Dwarfs are easier to pick and spray, unless the standard tree is kept small in which case the difference is minimal. You can keep a standard tree fairly small with intelligent pruning.

Should the orchard site be tilled before planting?

Not necessarily. Some orchardists recommend
deep tilling, lime, fertilizer, etc., a year ahead of time
before planting an orchard and admittedly this is a good practice on certain types of soils. It cannot be practiced on a hillside or where erosion is a problem. Planting in sod can be successful and eminently more natural to the ecosystem. Trees should be mulched to the dripline and they can be fertilized with a light application of manure and minerals.

I am 70 years old. Is it foolish for me to consider starting an orchard at my age?

No! Some of the best orchardists are elderly folks. They are usually livelier than many young people and have a more positive outlook on life. Not only will you be contributing to your own health and welfare but you will be making a serious contribution to society as well.

Do trees need to be arranged in any particular way in order to be pollinated properly?

No, you do not need to strive for perfect pollination. In an organically-managed orchard, an abundance of bees and other pollinating insects will do a fine job for you as long as the trees are reasonably close to each other.

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