Getting success growing fruit trees organically can be challenging, especially when you’re growing your trees in less than perfect soil. In fact, growing fruit trees organically is really about just that; creating a perfect soil. In order to get your organic fertilizer to work properly, it helps to understand a little about what’s going on “down under” in the world of soil.
Unlike chemical fertilizer, which is water soluble and releases food to the plant every time you water or when it rains, organic fertilizer is released by a chain of life and death actions that happen in the soil. With organic fertilizer it is the soil bugs (like earwigs and worms), bacteria of decay, and mycorrhizal fungi that eats the organic fertilizer you apply. In turn it is their excretions and the decay of their dead bodies that the plants eat. The more soil bugs, bacteria, and fungus you have in your soil the better your organic fertilizer works. So how do you attract this great collection of soil life into your orchard? It’s all about building good soil.
Creating the Sandwich
Here at the farm we garden in something that is so close to beach sand, it’s really a waste to apply organic fertilizer as there is no soil life here to help it break down. We have learned over time how to bring this soil back to life. In the orchards we use a system of organic fertilizer sandwiches a couple of times a year. Our late winter sandwich is composed of:
-Begin by applying a layer of organic fertilizer. There are many brands out there. We use Fertell which has little fillers; look for products that have components like cottonseed, bone meal, poultry manure. Also use plenty of it. It takes a lot, often double the amount of chemical fertilizers.
-Next spread an inch thick layer of manure or compost that is laid down under the canopy of the tree. Manure and compost are nutrient rich and well inoculated with bacteria and fungus, it helps bring the bugs and fungus to the party.
-Finial topping is a thick layer of hay. We find hay to be the elixir to poor soils; it rots fast and is nutrient rich, just the greatest food for young fruit trees. Be sure to buy Bermuda Grass hay, it contains no seed unlike Bahia Grass hay. You can use other mulches, leaves, lawn clipping, bark (no cypress, you need something that rots well).
By late June or July the hay is almost rotted away and the weeds are thinking about getting a start again, so we apply the second organic sandwich, which is just a layer of organic fertilizer and another thick layer of hay. Really all soils benefit from this system; it helps loosen heavy clay soils, and rebuilds soil in orchards that have been neglected. After a couple of years of sandwiches you’ll soon see a wealth of earth worms and a healthy crop of fruit to share with your friends.