Ah, orchards. The homesteader’s epitome of wishful thinking. If you’re a novice in such matters, like us, you’ve got to be at least a little naive to start an orchard. Especially if you don’t have a ride-on lawnmower.
You see, there are three ways to keep down the grass in a new orchard: 1, have a ride-on lawnmower; 2, don’t have grass at all; or 3, as in our case, use farm animals to graze the area. Because our orchard area is quite large, it’s downright unmanageable unless you graze it (or are fancy enough to own a ride-on, which we’re not, nor want to be). Grazing not only maximises the usefulness of the space and provides shelter for the animals once the trees are mature, but also maintains soil quality by adding fresh manure.
But grazing your orchard raises one big fat question: How do you prevent the herbivores from sampling (read: devouring) the delicacy of your vulnerable saplings? Well, for us it’s been a journey of innovation. We began with a simple approach…
Three winters ago in 2015 we started planting our orchard, and this was how we protected our saplings from the voracious quadrupeds:
The bare-root baby trees were spindly enough to fit into these plastic oblong sleeves, which were held in place by wooden stakes pounded into the ground. Easy online-ordering method and foolproof assembly. You can tell this is true by the following depiction of a fool assembling one.
They worked for a time… but only until the trees outgrew their confines…
Especially the poor citrus, which grew into long box shapes!
Okay, that’s hilarious and ridiculous. Ah, sweet naivete.
The sheep (especially Gordon Ramsay) also had a tendency to scratch up against them, tearing them and loosening the posts over time.
On our already large olive which didn’t fit into a sleeve, we tried shade cloth wrapped around Y-posts, but the sheep actually climbed the material to sneak a nibble. It looked a lot less saggy than this when we first put it up:
We searched far and wide across Internet Land for a better solution, but short of building expensive wooden cages, buying expensive steel frames, or sourcing expensive steel barrels (which are commonly seen skirting the trunks of old trees in the country, but are harder to come by nowadays), our search turned up cold. So, we put our heads into inventor-mode. Necessity, as they say, is the mother of invention.
We had long played with the fantasy of affordable semi-permanent cages interconnected on an underground grid which could be electrified. (Idealistic much?) We played with a few concepts, most unfeasible, until finally arriving at a somewhat sensible solution. We had no idea if it would work, but it was worth a shot.
While we were thinking, the pasture decided to be a dick and grow:
Our idea consisted of making a bunch of eighty-centimetre diameter hoops of high-tensile fencing wire, clipping them onto thin fibreglass posts which were banged into the ground, then joining the loops of wire with a stripped underground cable. Err, maybe photos will explain it better…
So there we have some hoops of wire, which we laboriously crimped. Some one-hundred-sixty in total for our forty-plus fruit trees (four hoops per tree).
Then came the next step of banging in the posts. We had a process where Char would hold the post next to a stick to gauge the height, and I would smack it with a shitty wooden mallet hastily fashioned from a scrap of two-by-four.
Obviously we couldn’t both be in the photo at once during this process, so we totally posed for the shot above and the shot below. Can you tell?
(Excuse the knee-pads. I wear them to bolster my sex-appeal more than anything else.)
We angled the posts away from the tree so the hoops of wire would be taught when clipped on.
After the posts were banged in we used wooden spacers to measure out where to put the clips, having estimated the right space and height to deter your average sheep proboscis.
It was fiddly work, spreading the spring to loosen the friction so you could slide them on and rotate them. As usual, I got flustered on multiple occasions. Mostly because Char was so quick at it. Her efficiency is a damn super power, I swear.
Once all the clips were spaced at the correct heights, we seated the wire hoops…
…and then commenced the finger-bruising task of closing the clips.
This holds the wire hoops at the right height and prevents them from coming loose.
And then, as if suddenly materialising – poof! – a tree cage!
The first of many. Each took about five minutes to erect, excluding the time spent making the hoops.
I know what you’re thinking. Doesn’t look very sturdy, does it? Well! That’s where the next step comes in…
Electricity! Nothing says “STAY THE FUCK BACK” like a brutal jolt to the snout. (Isn’t that right, Mica? Poor kitty.)
After clearing strips of summer grass with a weed-eater, we used spades to cut thin deep trenches which connected all the tree cages.
Lifting the sliced sod with a trowel, we pushed the insulated underground wire firmly down into the trenches. Then we stripped the ends of the wire and twisted them around the hoops, connecting them all.
When it came to connecting to each subsequent tree cage, we only had to loop the underground wire around the lowest hoop of the previous tree, because all four were already connected from the tree before that one (if that makes sense…).
Once we connected all the trees, it was all down to hooking up a solar energiser to test our work…
Success! Not the highest voltage (this usually reads around 7.5 kv on a tape line), but certainly zippy enough to keep those insatiable gobs at bay.
And with that confirmation, it was time to graze out this jungle!
Of course, in truth we experimented with just a couple of tree cages to see how they stood up against the sheep (not depicted) before putting in time/money for the rest.
It couldn’t have worked better! A couple of zaps on the schnoots and they kept well clear after that. They even avoided eating a ring of grass around each cage.
The orchard thrived since we could access it better, the trees could breathe, and the grass could be kept down(ish).
(The tea-towel under the hat is also for sex-appeal, FYI.)
And now, a season or two later, we’re literally enjoying the fruits of our labours…
Even if the odd one is a little bit sour…