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 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 “Polyanna” 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 by far outweigh the cons.

Getting benefit 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.

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

The best plan of all is to use some animals to eat the grass. This is one of the affordable strategies we talk about in Natural Fertility for Fruit Trees.

Sheep and alpacas make perfect lawn mowers

This can completely remove the work of mowing. Admittedly, it replaces it with the work of looking after animals, but your fruit trees will love you for it. They get the extra benefit of all that lovely juicy grass being turned into natural fertiliser.