The Budding Orchardist: Surviving a Harsh Summer

By Jeff Kanters, EMGV

The second installment of our series “The Budding Orchardist: To Everything there is a Season

“The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing”


(Image credit: Jeff Kanters)

What a summer this has been. Southern Durham, NC suffered long periods of drought amid insufferable heat and humidity. The Briggs Garden Orchard Team was challenged on several fronts. All fruit trees were inspected weekly at the trunk base, along the trunk, and throughout the canopy for disease or damage.

(Left to right) Briggs Orchard Zone Team members Deb Parks, Jeff Kanters and Corey Parks. (Image credit: Jeff Kanters)

Given the heat and drought of most of the summer, our priority was to focus on manual biweekly watering of all the trees deeply at the root zone around tree wells for most weeks. Good news is the berms created a good-draining soil that is favored by most fruit trees. Bad news is the berms created a good-draining soil. Therefore, the need arose for the twice-weekly watering to prevent the new trees from suffering drought stress which could weaken the trees and make them more susceptible to other pests and diseases. The summer heat snuck up on us, and until we quickly adjusted the frequency of watering, a few of the trees showed drought stress. Once we increased the frequency of watering, the stressed trees all recovered quickly.

Early in the summer we removed all developing fruit on these one and two-year-old trees to allow them to put energy into root and top growth as they were establishing. If we allowed the fruit to develop too soon on a young tree, this would have stressed the tree which is too immature to support developing fruit and, again, make the tree more susceptible to pests and diseases. Some of the trees grew fruit so fast that we were caught off guard before removing them in late spring.

We removed any root stock suckers growing at the base of a tree below the graft line. If we allowed these suckers to grow from the root stock, the new growth would suck energy from the grafted upper portion or scion of the tree, weakening tree development.

We applied spreaders to early season’s new growth to encourage side or scaffold branch angles between 45 and 60 degrees from the trunk. We did this because branches too close together shade the center of the tree and prevent sunlight from reaching leaves in the middle of the tree. This reduces tree vigor and the quantity and size of fruit that may develop in the future. As limbs hardened in place, the spreaders were removed.

We survived the Japanese beetle (Popilla japonica) scourge in mid-summer, manually removing over 2,000 beetles from many trees throughout June into the first part of July. They met their maker in dish-soapy water. In September, we initiated the application of milky spore pellets to the open grass areas throughout the vegetable gardens and orchard. We did this to reduce the developing Japanese beetle grubs in the ground feeding on grass roots. Milky spore is a soil dwelling bacterium, Paenibacillus popilliae.

This is how it works. Resident spores in the soil are swallowed by grubs during their normal pattern of feeding on roots. The ingestion of the spore by the grub host activates the reproduction of the bacteria inside the grub. Within 7-21 days the grub will die and, as the grub decomposes, billions of new spores are released into the soil that will kill more grubs. Milky spore is not harmful to beneficial insects, birds, bees, pets or people. We plan to apply another round of milky spore next May when the soil temperature is above 65 degrees.

We were also surprised by the rapid proliferation of quack grass and broadleaf weeds over all the orchard berms.  We acted and covered the berms between the trees with cardboard and burlap and topped with 2 inches of shredded bark. This snuffed out weeds as well as helped moderate the soil temperatures around the trees, slow water loss, and protect beneficial soil microbes from temperature extremes. Plus the cardboard and burlap naturally decompose. We plan to keep fortifying the berms annually with shredded bark.

Throughout this fall and winter, we will begin the process of prepping the orchard for the coming cold months. Stay tuned as this ongoing saga continues.


Resources and Additional Reading

For more information on how to start your own small orchard, North Carolina State University has a through guide.

Interested in growing fruit in your home garden? The NC State Cooperative Extension’s gardener handbook offers an excellent introduction with details on site selection, fruit selection, planting, care, and harvest.

To learn about biological control of grubs, the larval stage of Japanese beetles, through the use of milky spore bacteria, read more from NC State Cooperative Extension.

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