We inherited an established, overgrown, diseased, buggy home orchard when we bought our house. There were probably about 30-35 different fruit trees on the property - mostly apples and pears, with a couple edible crabapples, a couple peach, and a cherry. We've since removed some of the way overgrown, beyond-saving trees. We had a couple enormous trees that were very sick, with rotted limbs throughout more than a third of the tree. We decided they weren't worth the effort, so we've cut them down. We still have another really large apple tree to cut down... if it ever stops raining this week, we'll take care of it then. Otherwise, it will be taken care of soon. We've also removed some other trees that were too diseased to save or just haven't been fruiting for the last 3 years. We're now down to about 22 fruit trees, I believe.
It has been my goal to revive the orchard using organic and sustainable methods. This is no small task, but I believe it can be done. I learn many new things each year, but I am making good progress. I am hopeful that we'll actually be able to harvest some decent fruit this year... although we'll see what impact the cold, rainy weather has on the trees in the next week or so. That cold and rain could not have come at a worse time for a home orchard... so we're keeping our fingers crossed that the bees were still able to pollinate and things weren't disrupted too much.
Anyway, I wanted to share my progress and the methods by which I'm achieving success so as to encourage others to either tackle some old, overgrown fruit trees, or maybe to switch over to more sustainable methods of home orcharding.
I wanted to start off with a few things to do in the spring. I took care of most of these items quite a few weeks ago, but it's still not too late for you to attempt any of these ideas.
Feed the trees.
Spring is the time you want to encourage strong, rapid growth of your fruit trees. Early spring is the best time to do this by feeding the trees. I have chosen to use chicken manure compost, which is higher in nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium than other manures, therefore you don't need to use as much. When spreading the manure around the trees, you'll want to focus on the area where the feeder roots (the smaller, fibrous roots that actually absorb the nutrients from the soil) are growing. This will be dependent upon the size of your tree. But basically, the larger roots of a tree are towards its center. The feeder roots extend out from the larger roots, generally to the edge of the canopy. This is the area you want to focus on when feeding your trees.
Neem oil is a great, safe insect-control oil spray. It makes a great dormant oil spray, too. I sprayed my trees with neem oil at the half-inch green tip stage, as well as another spray when the buds were just turning pink (before blossoming). I will also be spraying this week after all petals have fallen. One more spray about 10 days later will do the trick in deterring scab and rust fungal diseases.
Overwintered pests begin to emerge in the early spring. A very effective and safe way to rid your orchard of (most) pests is to trap them by using sticky traps. These traps will monitor the presence of different pests - codling moth, sawflies, apple maggot, tarnished plant bugs, etc. I have been using a combination of white sticky traps and red spheres in our orchard for the past two years with great effectiveness. Of course, the traps don't catch everything, but they really do make a good dent in the pest population and improve your fruit crop substantially.
White Sticky Traps
Place white sticky traps at about eye level in your trees to trap lots of European apple sawflies. You may not catch them all, but you'll catch enough to improve your apple crop. You will want to remove the blossoms within about 12 inches of the white sticky trap.
Place white sticky traps at knee level to catch lots of tarnished plant bugs. You will want to hang these at the beginning of silver tip.
Only set out a few cards initially in order to monitor. Set out more when control is required. For a trap-out hang 1 trap per dwarf tree, 2 per semi-dwarf tree and 3 to 4 per standard tree.
Make Your Own White Sticky Traps
Of course, you can purchase white sticky traps, but you'll spend about $3-4 per trap. Or, you can make your own traps for less than 50 cents per trap.
You'll need the following materials:
Quart-size plastic Ziploc freezer bags
Pants hangers (with the clips)
Cut your white posterboard so that it fits inside the Ziploc bag, approximately 6"x8". Slide the white posterboard into the bag and zip it closed. Coat the plastic bag with a sticky material. Some options are Tanglefoot, Stikem, or even petroleum jelly.
Clip the sticky bags into the clips on the pants hanger. Hang in the tree.
When your sticky substance becomes covered with bugs, simply slide off the plastic bag and discard it. Put on a new bag and coating, and you're back in business, using the same piece of cardboard.