There’s no denying that it’s discouraging to go out to your orchard and discover your ready-to-harvest fruit crop has been ravaged by insects or your young trees have been girdled by rodents. Fortunately, you can use many natural methods to discourage these pests and keep them out of your orchard so you can literally enjoy the "fruits” of your labor.
Courtesy Ward Upham/Kansas State University
The biggest—and arguably the most destructive—group of pests you will find in your orchard are insect pests. You often won’t even know the pests are there until you see the damage they’ve caused—in many cases, this includes distorted fruit and/or leaves. Some insects, such as coddling moths and apple maggots, will invade the fruit, while aphids and pear psylla leave honeydew (a sticky black secretion) on the trees.
All fruit trees are vulnerable to insect pests, and it can be extremely difficult to control the infestations once they’re established. One of the easiest and most reliable ways to fight insects is to encourage natural predators, such as ladybugs, praying mantises, frogs and birds, in your orchard. These helpers might already be present, but ladybugs and praying mantises can also be purchased in bulk amounts. Providing a water source can encourage these beneficial predators to visit your orchard, and it can be as simple as a small, shallow container of water.
If push comes to shove, you can always try spraying your trees with plain or soapy water to remove pests—this works particularly well for aphids.
Courtesy Julie Rosiar/Flickr
Squirrels might be less of a threat to your fruit trees than other pests, but they can cause significant damage. While they may not decimate your fruit crop, they will eat some fruit and might strip bark off tree branches.
Although squirrels are notorious for getting past all kinds of traps and barriers, you can outwit them in other ways. For example, coat fruit-tree trunks with a blend of pepper sauce and dishwashing soap; the bad taste and smell will discourage squirrels from climbing your trees. You can also plant a few sacrificial fruit trees a distance from your orchard—both squirrels and deer will hopefully find those trees more easily accessible.
Courtesy Jeremy Hiebert/Flickr
Even though deer aren’t always considered "pests” in the same way insects and rodents are, the damage they cause your orchard can often outweigh that of all the other pests put together, largely because of their size.
Besides noshing on orchard fruit, deer will chomp on branches and tear off leaves—they might even kill young trees if they feast on them long enough. Bucks can scrape the bark off your tree trunks by rubbing their antlers against them.
As mentioned above, planting sacrificial trees away from your orchard can help keep deer where you want them: out of the orchard. You can also companion plant around orchard trees to drive deer away. They’ll avoid most types of herbs, especially pungent ones, such as onions and garlic, so plant those either around the trees you want to save or around the perimeter of your orchard.
In the opposite vein, plant flowers that deer find delicious and put them far away from your orchard; roses, hibiscus and sunflowers are particularly appealing. You can also fence in your fruit trees, but this could quickly get expensive depending on the size of your orchard and the height needed to keep deer out. Six to 10 feet will be necessary to deter these nimble jumpers.
4. Rodents and 5. Rabbits
Courtesy Yuri Levchenko
Rabbits and some other rodents, such as orchard mice and voles, can heavily damage fruit trees during winter when their normal food sources become scarce. These animals are capable of chewing bark off trunks of young (and even not so young) trees. If the damage is significant enough—more than 50 percent of the tree’s circumference—the tree is said to be girdled and might not survive.
One way to discourage mice and voles from taking up residence in your orchard is to simply keep it mowed. Mowing between and around your trees eliminates the thick, grassy places in which these rodents love to live and thrive, significantly reducing the numbers of these pests in your garden. Additionally, keep in mind that voles and mice have many natural predators, so try not to discourage the presence of animals like owls, foxes, snakes and badgers. Of course, a good barn cat can also work wonders! In any case, you can provide additional protection for small trees by loosely enclosing their young trunks with a cover made of plastic, or with hardware cloth.
Get more help growing and maintaining an orchard:
About the Author: Samantha Johnson is the author of several books, including The Beginner’s Guide to Vegetable Gardening, (Voyageur Press, 2013). She lives on a former dairy farm in northern Wisconsin with a Pembroke Welsh Corgi named Peaches and writes frequently about pets, gardening, and farm life. Visit her online portfolio.