Almost Killed Our Orchard and Half of Our Potatoes

Living on the ocean is wonderful but fog and dampness are typical throughout the growing season. It’s not unusual to hear water dripping off the roof eave over night from high moisture in the air. And along with that dampness come diseases. Diseases such as potato blight and scab, both of which are fungal in nature. Let me tell you how we almost killed our orchard and half of our potatoes recently.

Sad Looking Apple Leaf

Sad Looking Apple Leaf

Assessing Plant Health

Part of gardening is being vigilant with plant health. A daily walk through the orchard and garden can tell the gardener a lot about the health and vigor of the plants. Disease can spread pretty quick so it’s always nice to watch for the first signs of a problem. Those problems might be insects as well. Here are some things we look for: discoloration of the leaves, ants and other obvious insects such as aphids, potato bugs and cabbage worms plus we assess the leaf structure looking for holes or curling.

Let’s break it down further. Discoloration of the leaves can be caused by something as simple as a nutrient deficiency or could be from something more problematic such as pests or disease. A healthy plant is lush and a vibrant green. If a plant is in need of fertilizer, the whole plant will likely have a yellowish tint to it. There might be a small area that looks unhealthy or the whole crop might be a lighter shade of green. A side dressing of fertilizer or better still, composted manure worked in next to the plants should restore a healthy green glow to the plants. A foliar spray can be done as well. Do the manure side dressing before it rains so the rain has a chance to wash the nutrients into the roots or irrigate right after the side dress application. We want to get the nutrients to the roots in a hurry. One can also make a manure tea and apply it to the soil around the plants. I’d avoid digging around the plants especially if they are shallow rooted as onions are. No need to cause a secondary problem by disturbing the established roots or worse yet damaging the plant roots with aggressive cultivating and hoeing.

We look for excessive ants gathering on our plants as an indication of aphids. Rarely do we have to deal with aphids but because I didn’t get a chance to build the greenhouse yet, this past spring, some of our seedlings indoors on our windowsills became infested with aphids. We used an insecticidal soap to deal with the infestation and in the process, damaged the tender seedlings. It took several months for them to recover and now they are thriving. But the point is that even organic methods of insect and disease control can take a toll on plants. Even if used properly.

We look at the leaves to assess health. Are they discolored, rolled up or look like swiss cheese with lots of holes? A closer inspection of hole laced leaves will show that to be the work of insects. In our experience, various caterpillars are at work chewing on the leaves. Tomato Hornworm, Cabbage looper or some species that would delight an entomologist might be found if one carefully turns leaves over for a better look. A spraying of BTK (Bacillus thuringiensis or Dipel) is a good way to deal with this problem. Diatomaceous earth is an alternative but one we rarely. Another culprit could be flea beetles which can devastate young seedlings in spring. Diatomaceous earth works for flea beetles too.

We are far from experts on plant diseases but when we see black or browning on our leaves or what appears to be white mold, we immediately take notice and try to ascertain what the problem is. Over time, we’ve figured out what our problems are and have learned how to deal with them. But each homestead and location is different and will have a whole new set of problems to figure out.

Spray Program and Fungicides

The standard routine for an orchard is to spray a dormant oil in the spring before leaf out. Its purpose is to smother and kill over wintering insects and eggs. Our spray also had a fungicide which helps with overwintering mold spores. Johanna did her spray in the spring and we were golden.

It was a cool, rainy spring and plants and trees were delayed getting a decent start to the growing season. But mother nature is unstoppable and eventually everything was leafed out and vigorous. In early July, a few apple trees displayed some discoloration in their leaves that we suspected had a touch of blight. We had a choice of 2 fungal sprays, one sulfur and one copper based. We opted to use the copper. Instead of treating just the couple of trees exhibiting symptoms, we thought it would be prudent to spray the whole orchard and be preemptive. It was sound reasoning since proper use of a fungicide at the first sign of trouble or shortly before expected trouble as a preventative measure is wise. However, it wasn’t too long after the spraying that the leaves on all the trees became heavily blotched. It was obvious something was seriously wrong.

Damaged Pear Leaves

Damaged Pear Leaves

Damaged Apple Leaves

Damaged Apple Leaves

We’ve used both fungicides, copper and sulfur, in the past although the copper was used sparingly. To complicate matters, there are a couple of different brands of copper we’ve bought over the years, one is crystalline and the other is a powder and we think we used the new crystalline stuff this year.

Although this stuff is considered an organic remedy, copper is still toxic and needs to be treated with respect. It can build up in the soil if it’s overused. Although we used this properly according to the directions, we’ve learned the hard way that copper can kill plant tissue. Here’s my best guess on what really happened.

Mature leaves have a protective waxy layer. But since our orchard leaves had just popped open, they had no protective cover and were very susceptible to damage from sprays. The copper dries on the leaves and then every time they are wetted, they release ions which damages the leaves. Any moist sea air, dew or rain releases more toxins into the leaves and before you know it, the poor leaves are heavily spotted, curling and in some case, dropping off the tree.

The Mad Scientist Does an Experiment

We’ve never had this problem before since we’ve always lived in a comparatively drier climate. So this is a new one for us. I enlisted the aid of a number of Provincial experts on orchards, research biologists, and a fruit tree specialist who all concluded the copper was likely the problem. In order to prove conclusively that the copper was the culprit I had Johanna spray half of our potatoes with copper and half with sulfur. Potatoes can get fungal blight and this would be a preventative measure. It was quite obvious days later which was which. The sulfur half remained lush and green but the copper sprayed half started yellowing and wilting. Weeks later, the situation is the same. They won’t recover their vigor but the good news is that as of mid August, in the copper sprayed half, the hills are loaded with potatoes. Johanna pulled out a 4 inch round potato which surprised us. We will have more than enough potatoes this year even with less than desirable health on the copper side.

Copper Sprayed Side, Yellowish, Sparse Leaves

Copper Sprayed Side, Yellowish, Sparse Leaves

Sulfur Sprayed Side, Lush and Full

Sulfur Sprayed Side, Lush and Full

Equally good news is that I had a talk with the orchard trees and pleaded with them to give us another chance. They’ve responded by sending out a whole new set of shoots and leaves and we’re going to be OK. We lost part of the growing season but when I look out on the orchard, I can actually see fruit trees with leaves and no semi-barren sticks. The orchard is back on track.

Rejuvenated Apple Tree

Rejuvenated Apple Tree

One last thing, normally I go around through the growing season to prune or pinch off suckers that grow from the base of the tree up to where the first true branches form. I don’t want the plant spending energy growing branches that will never be utilized. I want the energy of the plant devoted to growing a strong network of lateral fruit bearing branches. But this year, I’m just thankful they came back and I’m letting everything grow. I’ll do my pruning once the trees are dormant this winter. I figure at this point, any leaves regardless of location are putting pep back to the roots for next season.

Until next time, keep the dream alive! We wish you a great day!

Ron and Johanna

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4 Responses to Almost Killed Our Orchard and Half of Our Potatoes

  1. nora says:

    Yes, our wet Spring played havoc with many people’s gardens. Glad you got yours back in tip-top shape.

    • Ron & Johanna Melchiore says:

      It sure did Nora. Now if we can get one more good soaking rain, which looks like it is coming tonight, we’ll be all set for this year’s crop. It’s been a tad dry lately.

  2. Margy says:

    It was a hard way to learn what is best in your new area. My scale is much smaller, but I’ve learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t in my garden. My greatest challenge is crop rotation with so little “land mass” to work with. – Margy

    • Ron & Johanna Melchiore says:

      It gave us a bad scare Margy. Not only a potential loss of considerable money invested in the trees but the loss of time trying to recover when we have limited years left on the planet. There are many variables to crop rotation and experimenting is the best way to see what’s possible.

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