Fire and Fruit

Article published to the Winter 2014 Edition of the Southern Fruit Fellowship‘s Magazine which specifically goes out to members of the organization.

As we invest time, energy, and resources into developing vibrant local food, fruit production is precious.  When we are consulted about school gardens, urban mini-farms, and private homes, we encourage people to plant fruit trees as a first step, the skeleton of all resilient food systems. The value of healthy trees in urban areas is dynamic; they provide shade, oxygen, animal habitat, soil fertility, and fruit. The first three years of urban fruit trees are very crucial for their survival and health. We’ve been fortunate to observe manyvarieties of common fruit trees thriving in diverse places, from South Central Los Angeles, California to suburban/rural Georgia. As the climate changes globally, we are offered new opportunities to learn how to
manage and care for these valuable trees through many changing circumstances.

Last year, all of our plum trees were almost entirely infested with insect larvae in the fruit. It was obvious early on in the development of the fruit; they would turn black, shrivel up, and fall off – very heartbreaking.  We didn’t get any fruit at all. We sprayed the trees with the mixture of garlic,  apple cider vinegar, vegetable oil, neem oil, and compost tea. We strained this mixture and sprayed a heavy, foliar-feeding twice – once just as fruit was becoming visibly infested, then again as we realized the fruit was totally invested. All of the fruit was a total loss. Perhaps this helped in the grand scheme, and that is why I share this information. What we began to see was that the larvae live in the cambium (inner bark of the tree) over the winter, and also in surrounding bushes.

The bugs hatch just after the petals fall. This year, we ordered a large bag of Surround spray, which is basically finely-ground kaolin clay. Before the trees began budding, we sprayed the entire tree until they all had a thick, white coat. We then fed them with compost, lots of wood ash, and very small chunks of charcoal.  We made large, woodchip mulch circles around each tree.

For medicinal purposes, we use charcoal to pull toxic substances and parasites out of our bodies.  We experimented to see if this would prove the same for the soil and trees, thinking that if we created a stronger soil structure, the trees might become tough enough to discourage the pests themselves. We have also heard stories about how activated charcoal has been used to store nutrients in the soil.

The trees bloomed after a very wet, late winter, and after petal fall, we sprayed again. The spray was great and really stuck through the rain storms. We sprayed one additional time. The kaolin suffocates the existing bugs through all of their orifices, as well as discourages them from landing to lay eggs. Charcoal ash is largely lime, which raises the pH of the soil and prevents runoff. We must emphasize: this was charcoal and ash from an onsite wood fire at the farm – NOT briquettes from a grill; those are usually treated with dangerous chemicals. Charcoal can trap and retain nutrients and has been used as a soil conditioner for a long time. Thousands of years ago, the people of the Amazon basin treated the soil with charcoal. Today, this soil still remains so nutrient-rich, even with centuries of farming, that it is bagged and sold.

Some of our plum trees at another site out near Athens, Georgia had also been extremely infested. On these trees, we sprayed the kaolin clay and did not add charcoal or ash. These trees remain infested. The trees at our farm in the West End Atlanta, at the Good Shepherd AgroEcology Center, gave us so much fruit this year! One plum tree in particular was so heavily laden with fruit, even after winter pruning, a few of its branches hung all the way to the ground. This tree is four years old! Its fruit was delicious, and we fed plums to over 100 people.

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