COPPICING smaller diameter younger trees to produce a woodchip mulch rich in minerals and enzymes is providing a sustainable source of fertility and organic matter for young fruit trees at a Welsh nursery.
Tom Adams grows fruit trees on a 2.6 hectare site at Weston Rhyn, near Oswestry, utilising organic principles and an environmentally sensitive approach to pest management.
At a recent Farming Connect horticulture study visit at his fruit tree nursery, Tom shared some of the knowledge he has gained from many years as a grower.
One of his core aims when he designed his current site, which he bought in 2018, was to create a closed loop system by generating his own compost and woodchip to be self-sufficient in soil improvements.
“We grow 3,000 – 4,500 trees a year and they all need mulching,” he said.
He makes Ramial Chipped Wood (RCW) from trees with a trunk no greater than 7cm in diameter. “It is full of nutrients and can be applied fresh without it taking nutrients from the soil because it has a higher nitrogen to carbon ratio than larger diameter wood,” Tom explained.
“It doesn’t take as much nitrogen out of the soil as wood chip from large diameter trees.”
Some of that mulch comes from willow – Tom has three willow coppices and grows five different varieties; willow contains salicylic acid which has been shown to help manage scab in apple trees.
Trees are coppiced when they are two years old, in November when they are not in leaf, and a two-year cycle of coppicing follows.
To chip the wood, Tom hires a woodchipper at a cost of around £200 a day. “I think it is better to hire in a decent one that does a good job than to buy a cheap machine that doesn’t,” he reckoned.
He is self-sufficient in his own pest controls, growing cultivated and wild flowers to create a diverse insect population including bees, ladybirds, lacewings, butterflies and hoverflies.
“We are mowing less and less to allow more growth to attract those insects,” Tom explained.
He operates a seven-year rotation for apple trees to avoid ‘apple replant disease’ – if trees are planted on the same site year after year tree size gradually reduces.
“Seven years is the key,” Tom recommended.
He also advised growing at least two different varieties of each fruit tree, to protect against failure.
To control aphids, which can distort growth in the spring, he applies a homemade spray which combines seaweed extract, garlic oil and molasses.
His primary aim, however, is to create the right soil and plant health conditions to combat those infestations.
Green manures, chamomile tea, cut flowers and vegetables are grown in his seven-year rotation but he advised that the land blocks could also be used in other ways, for example keeping chickens or ducks or growing grain like rye or barley, and scaled up for larger sites.
“We try to have bare soil for as short a period of time as possible,” he said.
Green manures are not allowed to get to the flowering stage otherwise many of their valuable nutrients would be lost.
Tom has collaborations with other businesses to enable his seven year rotation, including a chamomile tea business.
His fruit trees are planted in rows that run north to south, to allow good light inception – if they ran from east to west light intensity would be unevenly concentrated, he pointed out.
Soft fruit plants are established on the western edges of those rows to capitalise on the afternoon sun. “Fill those gaps with something useful,” he recommended. “Soft fruit can cope with dappled shade.”
On the eastern side, plants such as comfrey and mint are grown to attract pollinators and also predators to manage pests.
“Everything we grow here has more than one use,” said Tom.
He grows a range of fruit trees including pears, apples, cherries, plums and damsons, varieties that are disease resistant and easy to grow.
“There can be a lot of fungal issues in Wales because of the wet climate so it is important to consider disease resistance when selecting varieties to grow,” he said.
The rooting qualities of rootstock should also match local soil conditions – there are different root stocks available for different soil types and situations.
Tom grows M106 and M116 as rootstock for apple trees, both with similar vigour. These are planted in February.
All trees are mulched when they are planted and a green manure pathway established between rows.
Sarah Gould, Project Manager for Farming Connect, said Tom had shown how nature-friendly growing techniques, including encouraging predatory bugs to eat pests instead of using pesticides, known as integrated pest management (IPM), can be very effective.
With opportunities for new and existing growers in Wales, there is increasing interest in developing horticulture businesses.
This was reflected in the range of people at the open day, some with an ambition to grow nutrient dense food to supply local communities, others to establish a diversification enterprise to make their existing farming business more sustainable.
Debbie Handley, horticulture sector officer at Farming Connect, said there were many resources and fact sheets available from Farming Connect to help inform their decision making.
“These can be found under the horticulture tab on the Farming Connect website – https://businesswales.gov.wales/farmingconnect/ – or by contacting your local Farming Connect development officer,” she advised.