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Growing Organic Fruit Trees

by Stark Bro's on 05/29/2014
Organic Jonathan Apples

Although there are several ways to grow fruit organically, organic fruit growers share this concept: don’t expect “perfect-looking” fruit! The photo at right is of organically grown Jonathan apples. The average consumer likes “perfect-looking fruit”, which is often achieved in grocery stores at the expense of flavor and nutrients, so don’t let a few spots and bumps bother you.

Some gardeners avoid growing fruit trees because of the misconception that many chemicals are needed just to keep the fruit pest- and disease-free. Quite the opposite is true! There are means of growing organic fruit trees — like natural/organic pest and disease control sprays — effective and safe to use around people, pets, and the environment. There are also methods to practice that help you grow healthy and productive fruit trees. Just like with people, the easiest way to avoid health issues in fruit trees is prevention, and an ideal planting site is the best place to start.

Tips to creating a healthy environment for your fruit trees:

  • Research before you plant, and be sure to choose varieties that are recommended for your zone. Choose disease-resistant varieties when possible. Read about choosing the right place to plant your trees here.
    • Don’t grow anything from the genus Juniperus (which includes Eastern red-cedar) near apple trees, or you risk dealing with cedar-apple rust.
  • Nutrient-Rich SoilTest the soil. Do a soil composition and pH test* so you know which nutrients are lacking and treat accordingly. Most fruit trees favor a neutral soil pH between 6.0 – 7.0. Improper soil pH can translate to nutrient deficiencies, so condition as needed if the soil is too acidic or too alkaline for your fruit trees. Healthy soil equates to healthy trees. Poor, lacking soil puts undue stress on fruit trees, which makes them more susceptible to problems.
    • Well-drained locations are critical. Low sites that retain water are the prime instigator of fungal diseases and molds, which cause issues like phytophthora and other root rots. Read more in our article, Plan Ahead for Rainy Weather.
  • Soil quality. The percentage of organic matter in the soil will also determine its ultimate drainage and ability to retain water when needed. To check yours, remove four inches of the soil and place in a one-quart jar with a lid. Fill the jar with water and screw on the lid. Shake well, then let the jar stand for 24 hours. The soil will settle into layers: good loam will have about 1.75 inch (45%) of sand on the bottom, then about 1 inch (25%) of silt, then about 1 inch (25%) of clay and about 1/4 inch (5%) of organic matter on top. Read more about the “Jar Test” here.
  • Prune to remove dead/diseased branches, leaves, and twigs from existing trees as soon as you spot them. Dispose of the debris far away from the trees to avoid re-contamination of any diseases. Avoid composting potentially diseased leaves or debris.

If your tree develops a disease, properly identify it so you know what to do.

Here is a useful resource to help identify common issues:

» Diagnostic Guide to Common Home Orchard Diseases (from UGA)

Your local county cooperative extension is a highly recommended resource for soil tests (pH and composition), as well as identifying pest and disease issues common in your location.

Once you’ve identified the problem, you can address it.

Basic organic pest and disease control for fruit trees:

  1. Apply an organic fungicide – like Actino-Iron® Biological Fungicide – around the time your tree’s leaves are half grown-out. This product is also an exceptional soil conditioner. It combines Actinovate (a professional biological fungicide) with organic iron and humates (a super-compost/soil conditioner that does wonders for your dirt). This helps to control root rot, including verticillium wilt and dollarspot. OMRI-certified organic.
  2. Serenade® Garden Disease Control is a safe, organic, biofungicide control that can be applied the day up to harvest. A good solution for dwarf fruit trees.
  3. Shot Hole Blight on Peach LeafInsecticidal Soap is the thing to use as on-contact control of aphids, lace bugs, mealy bugs, mites, grasshoppers, leafhoppers, scale insects, plant bugs, sawfly larvae (pear slugs), psyllids, tent caterpillars, thrips, spider mites, earwigs and whitefly. May be used up to day of harvest. Alternatively, you can also choose to use Neem Oil.
  4. If your soil is in great shape but you still have a disease issue with a fruit tree, try Actinovate® Fungicide. It contains a high concentration of beneficial microorganisms that keep the soil healthy by living off off the plant’s by-products and simultaneously attacking disease-causing pathogens. Actinovate stops common root diseases like verticillium and fusarium wilt, and late blight. Also protects against mildew, leaf spot, shot hole and black spot. This product is safe for use around pets and people.

You may also try Kaolin clay, a natural mineral that creates a physical barrier between leaves and fruit, and bugs and fungus. There is some dispute in the orchard-growers’ community about the effectiveness, but many organic tree growers have been happy with the results. Your trees may look a little unusual as the clay solution dries, but it will repel insects (mites, thrips, grasshoppers, flea beetles, Japanese beetles) and guard against some fungal diseases. Spray with the manufacturer’s recommended amount at petal fall. You may find Kaolin clay products at your local garden center or garden supply store.

Growing organic fruit trees is possible and gives you the peace of mind of knowing exactly what you’re eating! Explore and find advice about caring for fruit trees in our Growing Guide Plant Manuals.

Interested in learning more? Read ‘5 Reasons Not To Grow Fruit – And Why They’re Wrong‘ from Growing a Greener World.

12 Comments

  1. Harold Reynolds permalink

    I have a few apple trees and 2 oriental pear trees and they are about 5 years old. They have plenty fruit on them, my question is: do you need to remove some of the fruit to make the rest grow larger? And if so how many should be left and when is the best time remove them?

    • Thinning the fruit does help the tree bring the remaining fruit crop to a larger size and improve quality. We recommend thinning fruit, especially in young trees bearing their first fruit crops, to reduce stress on the tree and avoid overbearing-related “fruit drop” as well.

      For apple trees, we generally recommend breaking up fruit clusters (leaving the best-looking, most-developed fruit in the bunch) and leaving about 6-8 inches between remaining fruit on the tree. The same approach may be used with the Asian Pear trees. Now is a good time to thin the fruit on your trees, but you can start as early as when the fruit is around an inch in size (long, wide, etc.).

      • Patrick S permalink

        Hi Harold – yes, you are correct, you need to remove some of the fruit so that the remainder has adequate resources to grow, esp. on Asian pears as they tend to overset. I remove them when they’re about the size of a marble (late May/early June in VA), choosing the largest, least damaged, most sun-exposed fruitlet on each cluster of fruit. You generally want only one fruit per fruit spur and spurs no closer than 6″ apart. You may want to use pruners so as not to damage the fruiting spur. It’s tedious, but you will get faster the more you do it.
        Patrick

        Sorry Sarah, didn’t realize you were answering, at least we said the same thing (encouraging for me!).

        • It’s just fine, Patrick! I think in cases like this, hearing the same advice from more than one source is reassuring. :)

  2. Mark Petrowski permalink

    How much Actinovate Fungicide and Serenade would I need for around 35 fruit trees. Thank You.

    • Since the Serenade is intended as a foliar application, the answer ultimately depends on the size of your fruit trees’ canopies, Mark. The 32oz Serenade concentrate in total makes 8-16 gallons of spray (depending on your mix ratio/application rate) and you’ll be spraying the top and bottom surface of the foliage until runoff. You’ll need to figure out how much liquid it takes to cover the foliage of your 35 trees to decide how much concentrate you actually need. You can test this with plain water and see how much you use on 1 tree and estimate how much you’d need for 35.

      The Actinovate Fungicide is a little easier to figure out, since it can be used as a soil drench. According to the label, one 20-gram packet makes 10 gallons of solution. You use a cup of solution to treat smaller trees (about 6″ root system, including plants and trees in containers) and around a gallon to treat larger root systems. I hope this helps!

  3. Kathi permalink

    Hi Sarah~we just had a sudden light frost last night (31 deg F)~fruit trees and grapes made it thru just fine. I have 3 walnut tree seedlings planted last Fall~2 made it thru but one (champion) the leaves turned dark and died. Do I leave the tree alone or should I prune dead leaves? Thanks, Kathi

    • You probably don’t need to worry about removing the discolored leaves. They’ll drop on their own in time (as if it was actually fall!) and they will be replaced by new leaves afterward, as long as the frost didn’t do more damage. If you see discoloration in the branches as well, they may be dying back, and you can prune the dead tips to stimulate growth in the remaining living tissue. :)

  4. Tim permalink

    Sarah,

    dumb question I received 2 apple trees and planted them about mid week last week … how long should it take before they show signs of life …

    -Tim-

    • Dormant plants and trees may take anywhere from 3-6 weeks before they show signs of leafing out and growing — although it’s often sooner than this in a normal, average, spring.

      If, after 3-6 weeks have passed, you don’t see any new growth, try the ‘Scratch Test’ (instructions are here) to check for life.

  5. SteveG permalink

    “Don’t expect “perfect-looking” fruit when growing organically!”

    I do as the Japanese do commercially. Right after petal fall I spray with SurroundWP (non-toxic clay) to discourage bugs. Then several weeks after petal fall I cover my apples and pears with plastic bags (non-toxic polyethylene bags – basically a long chain of carbon and hydrogen, place bags over fruit about mid-June in Connecticut). After bagging, no more spray is needed for the rest of the season. Result: picture perfect fruit that would brighten any magazine. Note, this only works on apples and pears. It does not work on peaches or plums. See article: http://www.almanac.com/blog/gardening-blog/apple-blossoms-mean-bagging-starts-week-or-two

    • Thanks for your input Steve! It’s good to hear of organic methods that work for your apples and pears there in Connecticut.

      Note: Surround WP (wettable powder) is essentially kaolin clay for anyone who might read this and wonder.

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