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Most of the fruit that we see on the supermarket shelves is grown in monoculture settings that are heavily dependent on dangerous pesticides and fungicides. We have always been told that “an apple a day will keep the doctor away”, but what happens if that apple is what is making us sick in the first place?

The diversified orchard represents an alternative where large amounts of fruit can be grown together on relatively small plots of land in an ecologically and health conscious way.

nachine spraying multiple trees in a large orchard

Problems associated with commercial orchards

Incorporating fruit as a part of our diet is widely considered to be a health-conscious decision. We hear about the evils of fast food, of red meat, of too much gluten, etc., but rarely do we ever hear that fruit might be a dangerous part of our diet. While a fruit-filled diet will give you a number of vitamins and minerals that aren’t easily obtained in other food sources, how that fruit is grown is an issue that we often overlook.

The blemish-free, perfect fruit that fills the shelves of grocery stores comes with a price. Fruit orchards rely heavily on heavy inputs of chemical pesticides, fungicides and herbicides. The tendency to grow in monocultures of only one type of fruit may help the harvest process run more efficiently, but it also causes a host of pest problems.

Imagine that you are an aphid who loves apples. In a natural setting, you might find a few apple trees scattered over the landscape. This lack of food sources, coupled with a healthy ecosystem where natural predators abound, keep your population in check. When you come across an apple orchard, one day, thousands of the one type of tree that you love to feast on suddenly appear.

On top of that, the lack of diversity has drastically lowered the parasitic wasps and other predators of your species. With an unending food supply and no natural predator, your population explodes until some disgruntled orchardist resorts to heavily spraying every tree with toxic chemicals. While this remedy does kill off many of your species, a few of your brethren manage to survive. When they repopulate, they will find the same abundant food source while any natural predators have all but abandoned that chemical filled orchard.

One recent study found that apples are the most contaminated of all produce with 98% of apples showing some sign of pesticide residue. Grapes, strawberries, and oranges also were among the most contaminated species with over 90% of the products found on grocery store shelves tainted with chemical pesticides.

While we still don’t know the full range of effects of pesticides on human health, there have been studies claiming to find a correlation between pesticides and lower child IQ and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Furthermore, the Harvard School of Public Health recently reported that the men who frequently ate fruits with high pesticide residue had a lower sperm count, thus potentially leading to infertility issues.

The effect of heavy chemical inputs in commercial orchards also causes a whole range of negative effects on local ecosystems. Besides causing serious loss of biodiversity, orchards also contribute heavily to groundwater contamination and the loss of topsoil.

A typical practice of most orchards is to spray heavy amounts of herbicides such as glyphosate to control weeds underneath the orchard. This practice effectively kills off soil organisms and contributes to erosion by leaving the soil vulnerable to the elements of rain and wind. The left-over glyphosate may wash into streams and groundwater sources leading to the death of aquatic life as well. Recently, glyphosate was found to cause cancer.

While these negative effects of pesticide use in orchards are scary, perhaps the scariest effect of excessive pesticide use is in how they affect bee populations. Bees are among the most prolific pollinators in nature. In short, without bees, our plants would not get pollinated and we would end up with lots of green foliage but no food. One study finds that over 35% of all global food production depends on pollination from bees.

Furthermore, colony collapse disorder has been decimating bee populations in recent years and pesticide and fungicide use are largely considered to be the biggest culprits of this decline in bee population. In order to have blemish free fruit, we are effectively killing off the species that pollinates that fruit.

The diversified orchard—an overview

Despite the myriad negative effects for both human and ecological health that orchard pesticide use causes, very few orchardists are willing to look for other methods of fruit production fearing that without heavy fungicide, pesticide and herbicide use, production would sharply fall.

The diversified orchard that utilizes agroecological production techniques and integrated pest management, however, has been shown to be an effective alternative to monoculture, heavy-chemical input commercial fruit orchards.

Whereas commercial orchards will grow thousands upon thousands of the same species of tree in the same space, the diversified orchard grows a number of different types of fruit trees and other shrubs and trees that contribute to the overall ecosystem health of the orchard. In a carefully designed diversified orchard, one acre of land could contain hundreds of different types of fruit trees that fruit at different times during the year.

The increase in the biodiversity of the trees also brings an increased biodiversity in the insect population. By simply growing a few elderberry bushes amongst your apple and peach trees, large populations of parasitic wasps which love the large flowers of the elderberry fruit are drawn into the orchard and thus help to control the populations of certain pests.

Integrated pest management is the practice of finding different biological controls for the problems that can affect the quality of the fruit and the health of the fruit trees. For example, mites are one problem that can affect apple growers. Whereas commercial orchards use heavy doses of herbicides like glyphosate to get rid of any and all ground cover beneath the orchard, one apple grower found that by simply allowing grass to grow underneath his tree, he created habitat for beneficial mites that feasted on the other types of mites that were ruining his crop.

Instead of relying on heavy doses of fungicides to control diseases such as scab or brown rot, the diversified, agroecological orchard sprays their trees with trichoderma to help naturally control fungal breakouts. Furthermore, by focusing on creating healthy soils beneath their fruit trees, orchardists who run diversified orchards are helping trees to find their own nutrients and gain the resiliency needed so that they can combat certain diseases on their own.

Miracle Farms is one example of diversified, agroecological orchard. Besides diversifying their production and using principles of integrated pest management, this orchard also provides fertility for the food trees through planting leguminous nitrogen-fixing trees and bushes throughout the orchard. Certain trees and bushes have the ability to take excess nitrogen from the air and “fix” that nitrogen in their roots. Since nitrogen is an essential nutrient for all plants, when planted in an orchard these trees and bushes are providing “free” nutrients for the fruit trees.

ripe peaches hanging on tree in an orchard

The permaculture principle of guilds

Permaculture is the practice of designing sustainable human habitats by following nature’s patterns and respecting nature’s limits. When it comes to fruit orchards, one of the techniques for ecological production that permaculture introduced was the concept of guilds.

Guilds are simply an assortment of different types of plants that mutually benefit each other. Whereas the commercial orchard sees any other type of plant in the orchard to be a competitor for nutrients and a risk for disease, the concept of guilds finds that certain species should be welcomed and actively cultivated to improve the health and well-being of the fruit tree and the overall ecosystem.

A peach tree guild, to give one example, might grow dill, comfrey, garlic and daffodils around each peach tree. The dill would provide tiny umbel flowers that draw beneficial insects to help control pest breakouts. The deep roots of the comfrey draw up nutrients from the subsoil making these nutrients available to the shallow feeder roots of the peach tree. The garlic, which is a natural pesticide in its own right, would further help to deter certain underground pests. The thick bulbs of the daffodils, when planted in a circle around the tree, would help to deter unwanted weeds from crowding the trunk of the peach tree.

By carefully selecting plant species that will work in mutual benefit with the main crop you are trying to grow in your orchard, guilds can help to stimulate the overall systemic health of your orchard.

How a diversified orchard can improve your health

Fruits and berries are good for us. They provide essential vitamins and minerals that are hard to come by through other foods in our diets. When these fruits are grown in diversified, agroecological orchards that don’t rely on chemical pesticides, herbicides and fungicides, you can be sure that the nutrients in the fruit you eat don’t come with an appetizer of dangerous chemical residues.

Furthermore, by focusing on improving soil health, diversified orchards also produce more nutritious fruit. Whereas commercial orchards give trees the nutrients they need through heavy applications of chemical based fertilizers, diversified orchards with healthy, living soils allow the trees’ roots to access a whole range of macro and micro nutrients that are eventually deposited into the fruits the tree produces.

If you compare a commercially grown apple to an apple grown in the healthy ecosystem of a diversified orchard, you can actually taste the health difference.

Conclusion

To continue learning about how to start creating your own diversified, agroecological orchard, “The Holistic Orchard” by Michael Phillips is one of the best overall introductions.

Even if you don’t have several acres of land to establish a thousand-tree diversified orchard, you can still apply the principles of a diversified, agroecological orchard with only a few fruit trees scattered around your yard. When you taste the first apple, peach or plum from your diversified orchard, you will be hooked.

About Author

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Tobias Roberts is a writer and permaculture farmer based in the mountains of El Salvador. He runs a natural building cooperative in the Central American region as well as a diversified permaculture orchard.