With spring underway, weeds (or understorey plants as we prefer to call them), are starting to grow in earnest. This means the plants that grow under your fruit trees are likely to start looking out of control pretty soon.

If you look really hard at the photo below you’ll see that in amongst the riot of greenery, there’s some almond trees! Hmmm, this is taking understorey to the next level – it’s almost become the overstorey!

Spring weeds under the almond trees
Spring weeds under the almond trees

But aren’t weeds bad?

If you were to take your cue from garden supply shops, you would think that weeds are the devil. They’d like you to use one of the many chemicals (herbicides) they sell, to kill them. If you have a look at the ingredients on these colourful bottles, you’ll find that many of them contain a chemical called glyphosate. In our opinion, this is much more devilish than the weeds! Read what we’ve previously written about this pervasive chemical here.

If you don’t fancy chemicals, you may have spent many hours of your life pulling up weeds. This is at best a temporary solution, and takes lots of time and energy. Maybe you’re tried organic weedkillers instead – also probably with less than satisfying results.

One of the major ways that organic gardens and farms differ from those that use chemicals like herbicides is that we appreciate the many benefits that weeds can provide.

Great biodiversity of plants around a young apple tree in an organic orchard
Great biodiversity of plants around a young apple tree in an organic orchard

Why we never recommend herbicides

Unfortunately in many gardens, it’s still routine to use herbicides to kill every weed in sight. This is a terrible pity, as it can do quite a bit of damage to the ecosystem (not to mention the now well known risks to human health).

On farms this is because monoculture systems that rely on artificial inputs like fertilisers see growing anything other than the target crop as a disadvantage. In gardens it’s often simply a case of misinformation, or the desire for a “tidy” garden.

We reckon killing weeds completely misses the point of creating a complex and diverse habitat, and ignores the many environmental benefits of weeds: primarily the fact that their roots talk to each other and even swap genetic material, as explained by Dr. Christine Jones in this fascinating masterclass.

In addition to that they shade the ground, they provide crucial habitat and food for the soil microbes that are so important for fertility for our trees, and they take carbon out of the air and pump it into the soil, just to name a few.

If you have animals at your place, weeds can also be a wonderful source of feed, in exchange for which the animals will fertilise your soil, eat pests, and possibly even provide you with other benefits like eggs or meat (if you’re not vegetarian).

Orchard pigs loving some attention
Orchard pigs loving some attention

However, there can be a downside to having weeds under your fruit trees: they may provide habitat for insect pests, they make handy ‘ladders’ into the trees for crawling insects like earwigs and garden weevils, they can make it harder to work around your tree, and if you’re unfortunate enough to possess the “neat gene” the provide a constant source of friction.

Like most things in gardening and farming, deciding how to manage your weeds and understorey plants is a matter of weighing up the pros and cons.

Geese in the orchard
Geese in the orchard

We reckon in most circumstances the pros of weeds by far outweigh the cons, but to get the maximum benefit from them we like to keep them short and don’t let them go to seed.

This means they stay active in terms of pumping carbon into the soil, they use less water, and it’s provides a much nicer environment to work around the trees if the weeds are short. Since being exposed to the revolutionary ideas of Dr. Jones, we’re moving much more towards establishing permanent garden beds of flowers, herbs and vegetables under our trees to out-compete the “weeds”. We’re also working closely with our Grow Great Fruit members to do the same.

Mowed grass under the almond trees
Mowed grass under the almond trees

Here’s our top three tips…

Hee’s just a few ways we suggest you can manage the plants under your fruit trees in spring:

  1. Keep them short: The best and most natural way to do this is with animals, so if you have access to pigs, geese or chickens they can do the job for you at no cost, otherwise mow the weeds with a mower or hand scythe before they get too long.  This helps to keep them in the growing phase.
  2. Grow something useful that you want. We aim for a mix of flowers, vegetables, grasses (for maximum organic matter), legumes (for nitrogen fixation from the atmosphere) and culinary herbs (for the different nutrients they ‘mine’ from the soil). You may already have useful plants growing among the weeds that naturally occur, but if you’re not sure whether you do, or how to recognise them, you may find the short courses Learn to Love Your Weeds or Weed Therapy useful. The Guide to Edible Flowers is another great resource to help you decide what to plant.
  3. Don’t give pests an advantage. Don’t let the plants under your fruit trees become a ladder for pests to get into your tree, or an un-managed host habitat for pests like grasshoppers. #1 is a good short-term strategy, with #2 being the long-term strategy we’re aiming for, but in the meantime mulching around your fruit trees can help to keep the weeds down for a bit longer in between mows.
Rutherglen bugs taking advantage of long grass for a habitat
Rutherglen bugs taking advantage of long grass for a habitat