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We love weeds under fruit trees!

It might seem a bit strange when we’re constantly taught that weeds are “bad”. The very way the word is used often conjures up images of threats to the environment and to farming.

But weeds (or understorey plants as we prefer to call them), can provide lots of environmental benefits:

  • weeds shade the ground and keep it cool
  • they prevent evaporation from the soil
  • they provide habitat and food for the bees
  • provide food underground for the soil microbes that are so important for the fertility for our trees, and
  • take carbon out of the air and pump it into the soil.

And that’s just the beginning of the list of wonderful things about them!

The downside to weeds under fruit trees

Before you start thinking we’re a bit “Pollyanna” about our weeds, we do acknowledge that there can be a downside to them.

They use water and nutrients. Grasses in particular can be overly competitive for water. They provide habitat for pest insects as well as beneficial ones.

They can also provide easy ‘ladders’ into the tree for ants, earwigs, and garden weevils.

Some weeds are definitely preferable to others, so it pays to make sure you’ve got the right ones.

Like most things in gardening and farming, deciding what to do with your weeds is a matter of weighing up the pros and cons. Overall, the pros of weeds far outweigh the cons.

Getting benefits from understorey plants

To get the maximum benefit from weeds, don’t let them get too long, and try not to let them go to seed.

As long as your weeds keep actively growing, they are pumping carbon into the soil. The best way to keep the weeds growing is to regularly cut them short.

Unfortunately for most gardeners, that means one of the jobs in spring and summer is having to mow around your fruit trees regularly.

Ant slashing the weeds in the orchard
Ant slashing the weeds in the orchard

When you’re mowing, don’t cut the grass too short. Leaving enough height on the plants helps them to stay in their growing phase.

On a home garden scale, it’s probably easier to use a whipper-snipper or brush cutter.

If you’re trying to live a low-carbon lifestyle, you might want to consider using an electric tool rather than using fossil fuels.

If you’re really keen, consider learning how to scythe instead of using a power tool at all!

Daniel mowing the grass under a peach tree with the whipper snipper
Mowing the grass under a peach tree with the whipper snipper

Control weeds with animals

The best plan of all is to use some animals to eat the grass.

The aim is to mimic what would be happening in the natural world. Before we imposed fences on the country, animals would move freely through the landscape grazing the seasonal grasses.

Because they could move on to fresh pastures, they never grazed it too short. Once the crops recovered, they’d come back and have another go.

Managed well, animals can completely remove your work of mowing. Admittedly, it replaces it with the work of looking after animals, but your fruit trees will love you for it.

Plus, they get the extra benefit of all that lovely juicy grass being turned into natural fertiliser.

Sheep and alpacas make perfect lawnmowers

Whether you’re looking after the grass with tools, by hand with scything, or with animals, the aim is to mimic the natural model.

That way you’ll be protecting your soil and using it to store as much carbon as possible!

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