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temporary help for an old orchard?  RSS feed

 
Annie McCabe
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Location: Iowa
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I've moved back onto my family's farm, and there is an old orchard - about 20 trees, mostly apple. The trees are spaced about 20 feet apart, and grass grows right up to their trunks. What is the best thing to do for them, when I don't have time or energy to really take on the orchard yet? Can I mix clover seed in with the grass? I've mulched around a few of the younger trees with shredded wood and soybean stalks, but my hens tear it right up. The trees are bearing pretty well, but especially after two years of drought, I'd like to help them. Any ideas that are fairly low input, to last a few years until I get other parts of the farm in order?
 
Jay Green
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I'm wondering why you would want to change the grass growing right up to the trunk? More ground covered, more moisture retention. I'd be more inclined to see if the older trees need topped out a little, add some nutrients( pelleted lime, manure) around the root line and see what happens.

I did just such for an old orchard on my place and it really made a difference from one year to the next~bumper crops that were still on the ground clear up into winter. I also got some hair sheep to run with my chickens in that orchard and their presence improved the type and growth of the grasses there also, as well as turning the dropped fruit into sheep and chicken manure that got deposited right where it was needed.
 
Leila Rich
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Location: Wellington, New Zealand. Temperate, coastal, sandy, windy,
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Welcome to permies Annie.
I'm afraid my post is more questions than answers, and not necessarily helpful
I agree with Jay to an extent: while grass isn't ideal around trees due to water demands and root competition, it's waaaay better than nothing!
Do you know what kind of grass it is? Actual variety isn't important, but growth habit is: easy-to-kill grass grows as separate plants, with one 'bunch' of roots on each plant. It's generally possible to smother it with just a deep layer of mulch.
The horrible stoloniferous kind puts out zillions of fat, horizontal roots that effectively make it one giant plant. Every cut piece of root=new plant.
That stuff generally needs a much tougher mulching regime...

Fruit trees usually do better in moisture and nutrient-retentive soils that aren't particularly nitrogen-rich.
I'd avoid putting down much in the way of nitrogen-rich fertilisers, which tend to encourage sappy growth and insect pests.
Hmmm. I assume you don't have access to seaweed? That's a great tree tonic!
Trees prefer fungally-dominated environments and woody mulches are super-fungal.
Just be very careful about mulching around trees: leave a good ring around the trunk unmulched. If mulch keeps the wood damp, collar rot is a real danger, and that tends to be the end of the tree.

One suggestion I have to discourage chickens scratching mulch is to lay what we call 'chicken wire' flat on top of the mulch.
This also works when germinating clover etc: scratch up the soil (it needs contact with bare soil) and cover with a rough dome, role or heap of mesh until the clover's well up.
I'd try and get comfrey going all over the orchard. It's an amazing plant. 'Bocking' cultivars are sterile, so you need root-cuttings. Some people grow comfrey that sets viable seed, but we don't have that here, and the thought of a seeding variety scares me a little
Do you plan to prune? If so, I suggest investigating 'summer pruning', which is usually done late summer/early autumn. Summer pruning controls 'vigour' and the likelyhood of trees shooting up in all directions, which is likely with winter pruning.
My take is, you're likely to see better results from pruning than just about anything. Just don't overdo it-spread it over a few seasons or the trees might freak out
 
Jay Green
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I can't imagine any grasses that would seriously compete for water at the same depth as a fruit tree~if so, the trees would not have survived and thrived for this long~ and the normal water table in your area will have brought those roots to the optimal level to mine that water.

I'd say those native grasses and those trees have lived in perfect symbiosis for some time and any disturbance of that may yield unfavorable results over time. Sometimes nature really does perform better than we mere humans can design it....if that orchard has existed this long with that combination, it is likely to be fine with just minor adjustments such as nutrients and pruning.

 
Leila Rich
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Location: Wellington, New Zealand. Temperate, coastal, sandy, windy,
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Jay Green wrote:I can't imagine any grasses that would seriously compete for water at the same depth as a fruit tree

Fruit tree's fine feeder roots tend to be quite close to the surface, in the zone for competition with grass roots.
I'm not arguing that grass should be eliminated, but as far as I know it's not an ideal orchard groundcover.
 
Jay Green
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And yet so many old orchards are still around today with grass covering their roots...as is the one in this thread topic. I'm assuming that's the way they are in nature and it is beneficial to both species, without taking away from either one. If that current species of grass were mining all the nutrients and moisture at the level of the trees and it was of a detriment, I'm thinking those trees would not have lived and would not be producing.

I thought permie ideology meant working with nature instead of against it and not introducing methods that aren't sustainable over time. Over the years I've found that whatever is growing in old pastures and old orchards~be it grass or tree~ is usually the species that will thrive there without intervention and those just need nutrition and grazing/mowing/pruning to keep doing what they've been doing all these years past.
 
Annie McCabe
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Location: Iowa
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Hi Everyone, thanks for all the replies. The grass there is regular old turf grass. I'm no expert on turf grasses, but it's stoloniferous.

You're right; the orchard is doing fine as it is. The grass can't be causing too much damage. My concern is water use, especially as we are two years into severe drought. Our soil is almost totally dry about 5' down, and the little rain we do get is shared by all that grass. But perhaps I should just stick with pruning for now.
 
Jay Green
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I'll tell you what I've noticed with common garden plants, so it may be true for trees as well, for I see very few well-established trees that are affected by the droughts unto death. In the drought years they send feeder roots deeper than normal to mine for moisture where it can still be found.

My old orchard produced the best fruit I'd seen in 5 years in the spring and summer of our worst recorded drought in many a long year. The crop was in such abundance and the apples so big and juicy that I could not use them all, even after giving away many truck loads to many people. Many went to waste on the orchard floor and fed the sheep, the deer, the chickens and the dogs well into winter. Even the trees that had not produced well in the 5 years previous had bumper crops and those trees that had never seemed to produce more than a few apples had branches that were breaking under the weight of the fruit.

I've noticed that, in dry years, if you water your tomatoes too soon or too light, that it will cause the roots to stay shallow and they will only mine for moisture near the surface. If you start watering too early, you will have to water all season long because the root systems have stayed shallow. I'd venture to say that trees send feeder roots deeper in the drought years as well and these old orchards have been standing for many a long year as proof of their tenacity in varying weather conditions. New orchards with tender young saplings might not fare so well, but those old trees have got a good foot hold on the Earth, I believe.

Here's a pic of that old orchard sleeping under a blanket of snow. This orchard is at least 40-50 years old and has 15 trees of 7 different varieties of apples...



And one lovely old Golden Grimes lady in spring...





 
James Slaughter
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It all depends on the quality and quantity of the fruit being produced. If you have amazing deep and rich soil, good soaking rains during fruit set, then yes, grass and tree will survive happily together. If not, then the grass will compete for many of the nutrients and light rain / watering will never make it deep enough for the tree itself (tree will be surviving more upon any deeper groundwater it may reach). If you wish to a have a more natural setup, you can deeply water at a single point just inside the dripline in order to get to the tap roots. Then apply your fertilizer as a foliar feed, though this would actually have to be applied more often than applying natural fertilizers to the root zone. In this way the grass will naturally die back and provide shading / mulch.

The more marginal the land the more effort and intervention it requires to produce high quality, market acceptable fruit. Limited rain during fruit set is always the biggest hurdle, as it results in stunted fruit, or even worse if you do happen to get a decent deluge at the wrong time it can result in fruit splitting.

Personally I would run chickens through the zone after your season, to clean up excess bugs that will have built up over the seasons, then I would allow whatever weeds / grass grows over winter / spring, and then slash it all down and lay the results over the drip zone. The bulk of the material will suppress / kill deep rooted weeds and grasses in this area, help to retain moisture in the ground, and as it rots will also release nutrient back in to the soil. Just keep the trunk of the tree clear of any material to avoid rot, and also give you a good view of any insects that may be coming or going (such as slugs, snails, ants that may indicate aphid problems, etc). Cheers.
 
John Polk
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Location: Currently in Lake Stevens, WA. Home in Spokane
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Since the grasses are as old as the orchard, I would say "Leave them there."

A common practice nowadays in orchards is to kill every living thing that isn't a fruit tree.
That is the reason that orchardists require the use of bee hives.
They have eliminated the natural environment of the native pollinators.

The native growth under those trees supplies that environment the native pollinators need to survive.

As far as mulching is concerned, I would suggest leaving a 6-12" ring around the trunk bare - NO mulch.
Otherwise, rodents, and other pests will set up winter home in the hiding space next to their bark dinner.
 
Jay Green
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I agree. The only thing I did for this old orchard was apply pelleted lime, topped out some of the overgrowth in the middle of the trees to let in some sunlight, overseed it with white dutch clover and run chickens and sheep through it. Seemed to really generate a new spark into the old trees.
 
Milo Stuart
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Location: Mendocino Coast, CA
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Yeah! Grass isn't bad but over time maybe add some clovers, favas, radish
berries (elder, currant, goumi, raspberry, aronia) comfrey and artichoke (mulch producers)
yarrow, mint aaaand more grass to the mix.

A diversity of plants at varying root depths encourages a healthy/balanced soil and critter population..

Could leave a spot underneath your trees for chillin! Yarrow is great for that, spongy.. Have fun
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Tree is just a baby but good example
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Michael Newby
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Location: Mount Shasta, CA Zone 8a Mediterranean climate
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With trees this well established and your goal of minimizing water usage I would look into maximizing your pasture diversity (I like to think of it as pasture or green manure crop, not lawn) both flora and fauna, above and below ground, which will give you many benefits including moisture retention and healthy soils which will have better nutrient availability for everything, apples included.

I'd also look into making swales on contour if you can to trap more water and get it to infiltrate your soil further. With your diverse pasture you'll have the full range of root profiles to give the water pathways very deep. The old dead roots will give you lots of organic matter to retain that water as it infiltrates the soil. You will also start to get a diverse array of microbes and fungi in the soil that will further enhance moisture retention and nutrient availability.

If you put in the swales make sure you pay attention to the roots of the trees and minimize disturbance of the roots. I would probably try to make them by adding good soil in 6" depth increments over the course of a few years, allowing the roots of the trees to grow into them without worry of smothering them. If you can get them, make the raised swale out of wood chips, they'll slow the water, catch nutrients and create habitat for beneficial microbes and fungi and eventually become a great place to plant some berry shrubs and other appropriate understory plants. It will also contribute to a fungally dominated soil which is more appropriate for fruit trees.

I'm not saying that the trees aren't doing okay, just that they could probably be doing much better and the land itself could certainly be doing better than essentially producing two mono crops put together.
 
Bryant RedHawk
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Annie McCabe wrote:I've moved back onto my family's farm, and there is an old orchard - about 20 trees, mostly apple. The trees are spaced about 20 feet apart, and grass grows right up to their trunks. What is the best thing to do for them, when I don't have time or energy to really take on the orchard yet? Can I mix clover seed in with the grass? I've mulched around a few of the younger trees with shredded wood and soybean stalks, but my hens tear it right up. The trees are bearing pretty well, but especially after two years of drought, I'd like to help them. Any ideas that are fairly low input, to last a few years until I get other parts of the farm in order?


I did just what you are inquiring about in 1967-68 with an orchard planted by Johnny Appleseed (documented). When I located the orchard it was completely overgrown and had not produced any fruit for many years according to the farm's owner, who was 87. I cleared the overgrowth all the way to the ground, left the grass alone and pruned up every tree to open the centers, took off all crossing branches and then watched them as winter came on. The next spring they bloomed and put off so much fruit I was giving away bushel baskets of them. I never bothered to use any amendments and I didn't water them either. The apples that fell off were gobbled up by the deer. If you desired to do so, I would say just turn over the grass near the trunks. Pruning will do more for them than most anything else, after all they have survived for quite a while with out any care from what you mention. The orchard I revived had not been tended by the owners for more than 50 years, in fact they had forgotten it was there but did have letters from when Johnny Appleseed had stayed at the farm and when he had planted the golden delicious orchard. There was also a letter that he sent saying he was going to be back in the area, a few years later, and he wanted to come and see how the orchard was doing and perhaps plant a few more for the owners. I can say this, they were no worse for wear once I gave them the care they needed to start producing again.
 
I agree. Here's the link: http://stoves2.com
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