Organic Fruit Tree Growing:
Observation, Sanitation and Expectation
So you want to grow one or more fruit trees organically? You will need to use your observation skills, practice sanitation, and adjust your expectations.
Observation is basically learning the difference between the “good guys” and the “bad guys,” and providing for the basic needs of the tree. Since over 99 per cent of insect species are beneficial or neutral, any control should target the less than one per cent. You will need to familiarize yourself with the major pests of fruit trees, their telltale signs, and their natural predators. Control pests using traps or organic sprays, but remember that just because a spray is organic does not mean it is not toxic. For example, rotenone is an approved spray but is toxic to all insects. Traps can be very effective when they target specific insects. We have developed a sticky trap against apple maggot flies (also known as railroad worms) that works really well for apple trees.
The basic needs of fruit trees are fresh air, sunlight, the right company, the right pair of genes, and a place in the yard where they won’t get their feet wet. Fruit trees need fresh air that is replenished by breezes but not full or howling wind, so they shouldn’t be hemmed in by hedges on all sides. They also need sun, full sun. Two’s company but threes are even better when it comes to growing fruit trees; they should be in the company of different cultivars (often called varieties) for the best cross-pollination. Most fruit trees need a mate that could be placed as much as several hundred meters away, but closer is better. The genes of choice for organic fruit tree growing are disease-resistant cultivars. The more resistance these have to various diseases, the better. Some of the newest and the really old cultivars are the most resistant. The newest have been selected by plant breeders for resistance. But before 1900, when breeders did not have the arsenal of sprays available today, nature selected for the most resistant to disease and the least resistant just died.
Sanitation involves removing what the tree drops and reducing competition for the tree. Most pest insects cause fruit to fall, so clean up all fallen fruit — mature and immature. This is how insect pests complete their life cycle: They lay eggs on or near the apple and the larvae eat their way into the fruits, which then fall to the ground. The pest larvae emerge from the apple, migrate into the soil and pupate. That season or the next, when conditions are right, they emerge as adults to start the cycle all aver again. So, simply by picking up dropped fruit at least once a week, you can greatly reduce the number of potential pests. In addition, raking up the leaves and inserting them into a hot compost pile will reduce the amount of disease spores that would otherwise try to overwinter under your tree. You can reduce the competition from grass, which is a substantial stress on the tree, by using a mulch or ground cover (any non-grass plant) under the tree up to its drip line. Compost, straw, wood chips from pruning crews, or even rocks may all be used as mulch as long as they prevent grass from growing. A nice, simple maintenance combination is to grow a few plants or flowers with mulch, but remember to make it easy for yourself to keep up with the rest of the sanitation.
Expectations of cosmetic perfection in fruit has become commonplace. Our grandparents had slightly lower expectations. Occasional surface imperfections can be perfectly satisfactory as long as you learn which ones are just skin deep and which ones lead to a critter inside. A simple test is to simply slice off the skin, if there is no trace of anything more, then its only skin deep and all similar imperfections will also be skin deep.
It really comes down to deciding what you want your tree’s primary purpose to be. Do you want the tree for its shade, flowers, or primarily for its fruit? Growing your own organic fruit can be very satisfying, rewarding, and a great learning experience about food and life cycles. You can have organic fruit by investing the time needed for observation to control only the necessary pests, by practicing sanitation and adjusting your expectations.
Stefan Sobkowiak is an organic orchardist, teacher, biologist and speaker. For more info regarding the apple maggot trap contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.