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Managing fungi in the orchard

Phillips' applesThe fourth chapter of The Holistic Orchard was mostly about what can go wrong in the orchard and how to prevent bugs and diseases from ruining your crop.  I'm going to skip over the insect information since it was pretty mainstream, and instead give you a rundown on Phillips' more unique recommendations for managing fungal disease.

Once the fungus has a real foothold on your tree, holistic prevention techniques have failed and you're stuck either throwing up your hands and calling the year a loss (like I did with our peach brown rot two years ago), or using harmful chemicals.  But it's also possible to plan ahead and block pathogenic fungi from successfully overwintering and/or infecting the tree in the first place.  Techniques we can all get behind include boosting the health of the tree with proper nutrition so its immune system is able to fight off that initial infection, and helping leaves decompose as quickly as possible in the fall so the fungi can't survive until spring.

Spraying apple treesPhillips' sprays are a little more controversial.  He blasts his trees with storebought beneficial microbe mixes and compost tea (to colonize leaf surfaces and prevent pathogenic fungi from getting a foothold), molasses (to feed the good fungi and bacteria), whey (to fight bad fungi), herbal teas (to boost leaf silicon and calcium levels), liquid fish and seaweed (for micronutrients), and neem oil (to smother insects and feed good microorganisms).

The last item on the list --- neem oil --- is the one Phillips swears by the most, and the one that I think is closest to an allopathic medicine.  (In other words, I think it's a bit harsh on the ecosystem to be used preventatively.)  Like other oils used to kill and deter pests, neem oil is likely to harm untargeted insects, and can even damage the tree itself if sprayed on too thickly at the wrong time of year.  I'd put neem oil at about the same level as Bt --- if you're comfortable with using one, you probably won't mind using the other.

Neem oilI'd be curious to hear how you felt about this spray-based approach to tree health.  There was a lot of other fascinating information in this chapter too, like how to mix fruit trees with grass without starving the tree roots, so feel free to leave your comments on those tidbits as well.

Next Wednesday, we'll be moving into the second half of the book, which profiles each type of fruit tree in a mouth-watering but still educational way.  Chapter five covers apples and pears, and since I've written about disease-resistant apple varieties (and a lot of other apple-related information) lately, I'll be focusing in on the pears.  I hope you'll read along and chime in with your own pear experiences.

Finally, those new to the club might want to check out previous posts on beginning a holistic orchard, techniques for designing a holistic orchard, and orchard soil health.  Even though these summaries are long and intense, I'm only barely skimming the highlights of this fascinating book, so I highly recommend you hunt down a copy and join the club.

The Weekend Homesteader starts with basics so you don't become overwhelmed during your first forays into self-sufficiency.


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Concerning neem oil, one of its main identified active insecticide components (azadirachtin) breaks down relatively easily. The point is made in the neem oil fact sheet that:

insects must eat the treated plant to be killed. Therefore, bees and other pollinators are not likely to be harmed.

And according to the wikipedia page for azadirachtin:

it degrades within 100 hours when exposed to light and water

Effects of these preparations on beneficial arthropods are generally considered to be minimal.

(the word preparations refers to the many other compounds related to azadirachtin that can be found in and extracted from the bark and leaves of the neem tree)

And it is good to keep in mind that neem oil also works as a insect repellant, not just a toxin. There are many different chemicals in neem oil.

Compared to other pesticides that last much longer in the environment and are much more lethal, this seems a relatively harmless choice.

Why not try it on some of your trees next year, see if it makes a difference?

A practical difficulty with all these natural products is that their composition will vary per batch, year and/or place of origin. So it is hard to know how much you should use.

It would of course be nice to have an insecticide that only kills pests. But such an extremely specific material would probably be hard (and therefore expensive) to find. First you'd have to define what exactly you consider pests (which might vary depending on what kinds of plants you're growing). Then you'd have to find something that disturbs the metabolism of only the "bad" bugs, and in a rather fundamental way, so it is not easy to evolve resistance against it.

BTW, the term "allotropic" is commonly used by homeopaths to describe medications used in maintream medicine (i.e. stuff that is extensively tested and actually works). Compare that to the standard homeopathic practice of diluting stuff until the chance of finding a molecule of active ingredient in a bottle is practically zero, I'd prefer allotropic medicine!

Comment by Roland_Smith Wed Oct 24 15:23:59 2012
I meant allopathic instead of allotropic. Been reading too much chemistry lately. :-)
Comment by Roland_Smith Wed Oct 24 15:28:18 2012

It seems everything I've read about growing fruit in the orchard says you need to spray. There are organic sprays and Frankenstein sprays. Frankly, both scare me despite what "science" says. (Sound science gave us DDT, if you remember ...) I'd be curious to know from either your experience, or the experience of others who might comment, if anyone has experience growing good fruit without spraying. Anyone?

Thanks!

Comment by Dan Wed Oct 24 16:59:07 2012

Dan --- This is an excellent question, and gets to the heart of what I was going to say in response to Roland. (Basically, if I can get away with spraying nothing at all, that's what I want to do!)

I think that on an industrial scale, you probably can't get away with not spraying, mostly because the American public no longer understands blemishes. My father likes to tell me about a peach orchard he worked at as a young man --- they didn't spray, and the peaches had worms in them. People simply expected that and worked around it.

But those of us who are growing fruit for personal consumption can decide where the balancing point between safe food and pretty food is for us. Some fruits are much easier to grow that way --- I see no reason to do anything except topdress and weed strawberries, blueberries, and raspberries. Similarly, Lee Reich reports that many of the unusual fruits (persimmons, pawpaws, etc.) that he grows don't need spraying, but they might not fit your palate. I don't have enough experience with conventional tree fruits yet to say the same, so hopefully others will chime in.

Comment by anna Wed Oct 24 17:17:41 2012

Here in the Netherlands you can find blackberries (rubus fruticosus) growing in the wild almost everywhere, without people caring for them. On the contrary, they can be hard to get rid of. They tolerate a wide range of soils and conditions.

It might be a good obstacle against deer as well. These plants tend to form dense clusters or hedges, and they have lots of thorns.

When I was little we used to go into the woods and eat the ripe berries right off the bush. :-) The trick was finding one in an out-of-the-way spot that hadn't been stripped bare yet.

Comment by Roland_Smith Wed Oct 24 20:57:03 2012

I'm having problems with how spraying that much can be called Holistic, no matter what the spray is. I am however glad to know of the options if I get ambitious with my trees (unlikely!)or if I get into a serious problem with them. Maybe I would do one or two sprays a year, on my dozen under-performing dwarf trees (the standards don't seem to need help from us at all.)

What I liked the most was learning about root systems and how grass affects everything else. We've been mowing under our trees for awhile and now I realize that's been bad for them! Too bad cuz it's so easy :-) I plan to work on timing the one or two mows, and also adding different plantings.

Comment by De Thu Oct 25 15:33:07 2012

In case you don't know, I live in C. Florida, and I grow things that "don't grow here". Apples, old peaches, pears, apricots, plums, pomegranates. I don't spray a single drop of pesticide or fungicide. (Mildew, fireblight, stink bugs, and nematodes are the major things that hit my trees hard.)

A little back story. Now I understand that this is not practical for most people: I started out with " apples don't grow in Florida!" Well, I wanted to grow my own! So I went and ordered all the apple varieties in the catalogs, literally. (Over the years this gos for every fruit I listed up there)

Trial and error; half dead trees, no fruit.. Then, an apple! Its how it went.

But the point is, that only the strongest survive, and That is what I grow. That is the price of not spraying. It gos back to a time when you didn't have a crutch to prop up weak trees just because they had good fruit. I suggest anyone looking to not spray, look for locale people who have blazed the trail before you, or do it yourself. When your doing something in an unconventional way, it takes a little more effort to find out if its going to work.

Now don't think I have crappy, spotted brown fruit, and half dead scraggly trees. I do work very hard to keep my trees healthy. I prune them, thin fruit really hard. Have them on good roots. Keep them well fed with compost, so on.

Most of my trees fruit in the beginning or end of the year too, the fruit misses the peak bug activity. Stink bugs, the only big fruit pest I deal with, I can control some by planting disposable trap crops like beans and okra around my trees.

Anyway! Florida grows some Darn fine apples! (best Fuji ever! Honey Crisp! store ones cant compare, they need the heat to make anything out of themselves)

I am just now harvesting my red fleshed apples. They look bad on the outside, its been a very bad year for everything, but they are the best tasting ones Iv ever grown!

Comment by T Fri Oct 26 00:45:27 2012

T, That's exactly my theory on dealing with fruit pests and disease --- figure out what your worst problems are and then act ruthlessly to only keep trees that are immune.

I'm really enjoyed all of your thoughtful comments in the last few months, but know that a lot of our non-comment-readers missed them. Any chance I could talk you into doing a guest post or two? This comment itself is almost a guest post! Other topics I'm interested in include: your techniques for pruning apples on larger rootstocks to a dwarf size; the disease and pest-free varieties you grow in Florida; and anything else along those lines!

Don't feel obliged, of course, but I think your wisdom would be much appreciated by a wider audience! If you're interested, drop me an email at anna@kitenet.net.

Comment by anna Fri Oct 26 08:14:35 2012