For the home gardener, organic strawberries and bramble fruits are not much harder to grow than organic vegetables, but organic tree fruits are definitely a challenge. This is partly because plantings are in place for years — sometimes decades — which gives pests and diseases lots of time to dig in. It’s also because fruit trees have lots of enemies, many of them widely distributed and many of them extremely tough, thanks to years of natural selection in response to chemical biocides. Nevertheless, fruit trees can be grown organically if you are willing to take the following steps:
- Start by learning the basics. Never mind how delicious it sounds — is this something that does well in soil like yours, in your climate-zone, in your micro-climate? Are there particular cultivars that have built-in disease resistance?
- Pay close attention to the plants, keeping them in the best possible health. In addition to weeding, feeding, pruning, and applying the prophylactics (such as dormant oil sprays) that ward off problems before they happen, plan to spend plenty of time just watching out for trouble. Organically approved remedies work best when diseases are just getting started and pest populations are small.
- Keep it clean. Many pests and diseases winter over on fallen fruit, dead leaves, or weed debris close to the target plants, and a lot of the really nasty characters need to spend time on or in the ground in order to complete their life cycles. Rake up the fruit as soon as it falls and do the same thing for leaves, composting only healthy material (burn everything else, or send it to the landfill). Mow the area around the trees if it is in grass, plant a low cover crop such as vetch, or make sure the area is mulched.
- Accept imperfection, which is nature’s way. The goal is to have fruit that tastes good, not fruit that looks like it’s made of wax.
- Take the long view. Just as it takes years to build good soil with a fluffy texture, plentiful nutrients, and the necessary balance of life-supporting organisms, it also takes quite a while to establish the kind of self-policing ecosystem where beneficials are numerous enough to vanquish most pests. Until this happy state is achieved, there will be many temptations to resort to strong chemical fixes ‘in an emergency.’ If you succumb, you’ll lose some of the gains you’ve made in the journey toward balance, and the number of emergencies will not diminish as rapidly as it would otherwise.