Nursery Notes: Keeping orchards and gardens tidy helps plants stay healthy

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March 7 rolls around every year and if you own your own business it is time to pay worker’s compensation fees. As the owner, I couldn’t ever collect. Luckily I am blessed with good health and in 15 years I’ve only had a few times when I needed to take time out of my work day to deal with health issues. A few years back, I was in the doctor’s office getting a couple of stitches. The doctor was most impressed that I’d just sterilized my orchard pruners with a bleach solution before accidentally stabbing myself in the thigh. No point getting an infection, right?

I’ve just finished my orchard clean up for the year. I have about an acre of apples and just over two acres of cherries. In the apple block, I raked out all of the leaf litter, old twigs and picked up any new prunings. From the cherries, I picked up all the prunings and removed the leaves from the grass between the tree rows. The prunings have all been chipped. The leaves mostly composted but some had to be burnt. What is left should rot down to make some fine compost.

The idea is to remove disease inoculum from the orchard blocks. I do this in my home gardens too. Sanitation was why my pruners had just been sterilized before my accident. By keeping your pruning tools clean, you minimize the spread of bacterial disease from tree to tree.

While cleaning up the apple block, I found what looked like three kinds of overwintering caterpillars, residual aphid colonies from last fall, a leaf fungus (apple scab) and lots of evidence of voles. The cherry block seems pretty clean with some bacterial canker (diseased wood) and probably some mildew hiding in the leaf litter, but no evidence of any insect pressure.

The reason I spend the time to do all this clean up by hand is so that I can go into the next season with a fresh start. I do the same in my greenhouses when time permits. All the leftover growing media is removed and the tables and floors are bleached. Why leave it to chance?

In the orchard we have pruned for light and airflow into the trees. I’ll give them a thorough dormant spray with oil and sulphur. The dormant oil will suffocate any overwintering insects and the lime sulphur will control overwintering fungus. You can do this anytime between now and when the flower buds start to pop. The irrigation systems in the orchards are designed to place water directly into the soil so as to keep new leaves dry and prevent disease later in the year.

We mow the grass between the tree rows after the spring bloom in the orchard has finished so that any insects in the grass aren’t encouraged to hop into the trees and ruin the developing fruit. The weeds are kept down under the trees to prevent insect and disease pressure in the orchard trees too. Of course, the trees are fed nutrients to keep them growing and healthy, but not too much nitrogen or they will grow too much leaf.

By learning some of the better growing practices, you can save yourself a few headaches and better enjoy the results of your labours. Last but not least, when it comes time to water your garden (or greenhouse seedlings), if you can apply the water early in the day you greatly increase the chances of the leaves drying. This will go a long way to keeping your crops healthy and disease free.

Evan Davies own Beltane Nursery at 2915 Highway 3 in Erickson.