Archives for posts with tag: orchard

If you’ve followed this blog for any time, you know that I usually dedicate the entire month of June to spraying and squishing rose chafers, in the orchard. Not any more. (Well, not as much as usual.)

Not all of the trees are subject to rose chafer damage, but those that are, suffer terribly. Last year the relentless bastards killed one of the plum trees. It’s the plums they go after the most. Plums, cherries, apples, then pears…in that order. It is the rose chafer scale of delicious. This year, we needed a strategy more formidable than one little old lady with a spray bottle full of soapy water, and a keen eye for for squishing bugs. But, we aren’t willing to go chemical.

The answer is fashion. What is the sensible fruit tree wearing this spring? Why, tulle, of course! We bought yards and yards of agricultural fabric and UV resistant thread (for outdoor upholstery) and I whipped up a few summer ensembles for the plum crowd. Since the younger trees of any type are also at risk, we ran a childrens’ line, as well.
We’ve now covered the most vulnerable, and are watching like hawks to see if the thwarted predators shift over to the less-delicious. (And we’re ready, if they do.) So far, it’s working well. We’re not asking what the neighbors think. (Michigan gardeners can be such fashion snobs!)

I don’t know what I’ll do with the month, now that I’m freed up from guard duty.


It’s a challenge, every year, to get tree care tailored to the orchard’s needs. Our trees were selected for early, mid, and late season harvest–with some overlapping pollinators. Unlike a larger scale orchard, these all bud, leaf, and blossom at different times. Spring care is a crapshoot, in any event, doubly so for our motley collection.

We do spray–but we use organics. For early season care, we do two dormant sprays–the first is just a food-grade mineral oil, and the second is food grade mineral oil and garlic. Timing the first is easier; it can be done anytime when the tree is dormant. (Though, preferably not when things are freezing, or wet, or…. or.) It’s also helpful if you can nab a two-day window following, without precipitation. And, of course you want to avoid spraying in a high wind. Even with organics where overspray is not a toxic issue, spraying in the wind is just a waste.

This year we had weird weather–a rolling month of warm days and freezing nights. It confuses the poor trees. They’re inclined to bloom (and some did), only to lose the blossoms to the freeze. This won’t be a heavy fruiting year. And, you need to watch that those freeze damaged blooms don’t become a pathway to disease–like fire blight. You have to be ready to prune off branch tips that wither or turn black. I’m especially keeping an eagle eye on the pear trees, as they can quickly succumb to neglected fire blight damage. It appears that freezing is no longer a risk. But warm weather, and its attendant bug-load has come on fast, nearly tripping over itself to invade the orchard.

The mineral oil acts as a barrier, smothering eggs left on the tree from the last season and then killing and dissuading the early spring pests. The challenge each year is to time the second spray. Too early and you’ve wasted the effort. Too late and the bugs get a foothold. This year, the leaf-rollers have got ahead of me on two of the trees. Leaf-roller is a generic term for those little caterpillar larvae that hatch early and then make tiny tents out of the emerging leaves. I have at least three different varieties. I don’t have a window of weather opportunity for my second spray until Thursday. In the meantime, I’m taking attendance and squishing them when I see them. And I go out every other day or so, hunting them down, gently opening up their tents, to avoid damaging the tender leaves, and killing them. You can spot them easily enough by the bent-over foliage.

A real farmer, with an orchard full of trees, couldn’t possibly babysit like I do. I understand why they spray poisons. We laugh about how the local cherry farmers are always whining about the weather. I can afford the time to avert the worst of the infestations, and I don’t need market-perfect fruit. Even with the weird weather, things don’t look too bad so far. Maintaining an orchard is just like comedy, it’s all in the timing.

My biggest challenge is the rose chafers. We lost a plum tree to their damage last year, but this year, we’re ready. We bought bug-netting, and we’re going to wrap them like lollipops. So there!


We’re ebbing towards the end of the rose chafer season. Part of me wants to claim at least a partial victory. Not that we didn’t suffer losses; we did. But we appear to be making progress in our annual war with them. Unlike last year, no trees were completely defoliated. That’s an improvement. And, we discovered that intense garlic spray can go a long way in protecting the trees. Next year, we’ll spray earlier, to give the orchard advance protection. It doesn’t eliminate them, but it appears to limit their numbers.

But it’s difficult to truly ‘know’ if we are making progress. We are only one small orchard. The main part of the orchard has only a dozen trees–none of them the same variety. Our tree mix is a complicated blend of what we like, what will grow here, what is needed for pollinating each variety, and timing, what will provide harvesting throughout the season. There is no way to do any kind of an A/B comparison, no control group, no double blind. Beyond that are the imponderable intangibles–weather and whatever other factors dictate the rose chafers’ numbers from year to year. We can only do what we can. And then there’s the open question of climate change–will it make insect issues better or worse? I even wonder if my manual efforts (daily bug squishing) could make a difference from year to year in the population. After all, through the season I am killing thousands of rose chafers. Does that play forward into the next year’s numbers? There’s no way to know.

One longs for the rigors of true science: single factor differences and the ability to identify true cause and effect. Sigh. It’s that Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times.” I have my own version, “TDMV.” Too Damn Many Variables. It’s the answer to so many of life’s current vexing issues. We just have to do the best we can, and recognize that we have no control.


A.V. Walters

It’s clear that the neighbors all think I’ve lost it. Our immediate neighbors are retired organic farmers. When I said that the solution to poor soils in the orchard area was to amend the soil before planting, they just shook their heads. But, I meant it. It’s one of the cool things about having heavy equipment—you can do things that make sense, but normally wouldn’t be worth the effort.

When I said that we’d amend to a depth of 5 to 6 feet, I was exaggerating, but not by much. We dug out 4 to 5 feet. That’s the beauty of a backhoe. Still, it wasn’t easy. The digging goes well enough, but then you have to separate out the good topsoil, from the glacial sand below. Then you have to add in the compost—just a little over a cubic yard per hole—and mix it together with the good topsoil. You can’t just layer it, or you could get “perching,” where the compacted layers resist water flow. So the mixing and the filling of the holes has to be done by hand.

Even Rick thought I was nutty. He mentioned that it felt like he’d been conscripted into the army, and was sentenced to dig holes and fill them in again. That was what we were doing—though not quite as simple as that (and not punitive.)

If ever there was ever a good reason to go to great lengths, putting in trees would be it. It’s why they call it permaculture. They’re permanent. If you don’t take extra measures now—you won’t get the chance later. These trees deserve the best start they can get. If planted in well draining soil that’s also rich in organic material, these trees will be well ahead of the game. We live in an area that considers itself the “Cherry Capital.” All too often, though, the cherry farmers drop the whips (baby trees) into the sandy ground and then fertilize and spray them for the rest of their lives. It’s like being hooked up to an IV feeding tube! So much for conventional agriculture.

We won’t be doing that. You can grow healthy fruit without all the junk. It helps if you think ahead. This weekend was a backbreaking exercise in thinking ahead. Just as we were finishing up last evening, yet another neighbor walked over to query us on just what we were doing. I was hip-deep in the last hole. Granted, we didn’t actually plant yesterday. We were too tired. So, it really did look as though we were just digging holes and filling them. We were. In a funny way, we are burying treasure. She didn’t look convinced when I explained our system. When I told her that we’d water them with willow bark tea for good root development, her eyes widened.

This is a small town. I’m sure that within the week the whole town will know how crazy we are. Most folks just dig an 18 inch hole for a tree. That’s what the instructions say.  We’ll hear all about it when we go into the hardware store. That’s were you can catch all the good farm gossip.

Today the trees went in. We now have 4 cherry trees, 2 pear trees, and 3 apples. We still have one more orchard tree to plant this year, a plum. It hasn’t yet arrived, snug in its mail order carton. We’ll put in another four next year (they were out of stock this year!) and then the orchard is complete. All were selected for winter hardiness, disease resistance, flavor, type (cooking or eating), and timing. After all, you wouldn’t want them all ripe at once!

Between forest trees and orchard, in the past two weeks, we’ve planted 95 trees. It’s a relief to go back to building.

We can’t put in the garden for another ten days. When our frost-free date comes, we’re ready to plant our seedlings. If they think we’re crazy with the orchard, wait ‘til the neighbors see the buckets.