by Jacqueline Freeman
Biodynamic agriculture often uses methods perfected by old farming traditions and it’s always interesting to see them in action. The recipe I’m going to explain is a nutrient amendment and disease preventer used in winter while the orchard trees are still dormant.
Many years ago we invited a biodynamic educator to our farm to teach a two day class. The last thing on his list was something called biodynamic tree paste. He asked us if we had any diseased or nonproductive orchard trees and we told him about the line of heirloom apple and pear trees on the bottom of our south pasture.
These trees hadn’t had any care in probably 20+ years. They were too tall for us to bother pruning and the wormy misshapen fruits were too disfigured to get identified at the local fruit show. Pretty much their only purpose was shade for the cows who ate the punky fruit as it fell.
Our friend suggested that covering these tree trunks with a paint made from cow manure, clay and sand might make the fruit healthy again. I laughed. When he sees these trees he’ll probably think they have more value as firewood. The fruits were so bad you could teach a class on apple diseases while standing under one tree.
Nonetheless we gathered together the materials and mixed up a wheelbarrow full of tree paste.
The purpose of tree paste is to renew the tree’s trunk and give the tree a burst of energy. It does everything a dormant spray does and more. It can heal cuts and cankers, help the tree seal any damaged parts and deter fungal infections. It slows the onset of bud break which can be really helpful in our hot/cold Willamette Valley spring. Ideally we want buds to delay breaking and be protected till we have consistently warm days and the delicate young parts can survive easily. Tree paste can help do that.
The recipe is pretty simple.
1/3 sand and a small amount of diatomaceous earth (DE)
1/3 cow manure
Enough water to mix
If you want to make a wheelbarrow full like we do and use a 5 gallon bucket for measurement, our recipe is more like this:
3 buckets of clay
3 buckets of cow manure
2 buckets of sand*
1 bucket of DE
*Because we dig the clay from our own red clay soil. we need less sand.
We live in the Cascade hills where red clay abounds. We take a shovel and dig up a few buckets of red clay and use that. If you live in the rich and fertile bottomland of Willamette Valley where clay is more rare, you’ll have to buy some bentonite clay. If you’re going to use the dry stuff, mix it with water so it’s scoo-shy before you add it to the mix. Sometimes full absorption takes awhile so you may want to start mixing the clay a day or two early.
Use fine sand (silica), not too coarse. Buy it where gravel is sold or by the bag in a hardware store.
Manure has been used for centuries to increase fertility. The best manure comes from cows because they process it through their four stomachs.The very best cow manure is organic and grass fed. Why? Because it’s been properly processed by the cow and grass fed manure doesn’t stink like grain fed manure. The best age for manure is recent, up to one week old because it breaks up smoothly and blends in really nicely. Other manures can be used by fresh cow manure is the very best.
Put all the ingredients in a 5 gallon bucket or in a wheelbarrow. Add enough water to make a slurry. Use a hoe to mix the batch all together. You want it slippery, the consistency of latex paint.
Use a paintbrush to brush it thickly onto the trunk all the way up to the first limbs. My husband Joseph just uses his hands but I prefer wearing a pair of thin disposable gloves. Start at the bottom and pull the paste up the trunk, pressing the glop into the bark as you go.
In biodynamics we imagine the trunk of the tree is an extension of the root that is out in the open air and we paint the tree paste on all the way up to the first branches. If the tree also has very thick branches, paint it on the main part of them, too.
WHEN TO PAINT
Best to feed the tree about a month before it wakes up so January or February are good. When we did this the first time it was already mid-March and it didn’t seem to make much of a difference. Now I realize that’s because we were late in our application. We didn’t notice any change because the pests and diseases had already gotten underway. In this case the paste didn’t really do its stuff till the second year.
WHY IT WORKS
Tree paste introduces the beneficial organisms in the manure in a way the tree can access. Historically clay has been used as a skin rejuvenator for people and it does that with trees, too. Sand acts as a binder and holds it all together while the clay seals the outside so it doesn’t fall off. It is applied wet so it gets into all the nooks and crannies on the bark. The paste will dry hard and smooth over the trunk.
When we did this the first time, it was raining. I thought to myself, “It’s raining and will probably keep raining the next few days. This paste will wash right off. It won’t last till Tuesday.”
I was so wrong. Not only did it harden up and dry on the trunks, it made an impermeable seal over the entire trunk. This is great for the tree because the nutrients in the cow manure continue to seep into the trunk and give the tree extra nutrition. As the trees become healthier, they are able to fight off viruses and bacterial infections.
In springtime the larvae that wintered over in the leaf litter wake up and heed the ancestral call to climb the trunk and lay eggs near the future fruit. When the tree has been sealed with tree paste, the bugs find themselves on a material the primitive bug’s brain doesn’t recognize as tree bark. The bug, thinking it’s climbing something other than its correct habitat, stops climbing and goes looking for something it’s genetic knowledge base imagines is fruit tree bark.
Bug eggs that were laid last fall in the bark wake up and find their exit blocked by the sealed clay wall. Smothered and without food, they die.
Though we haven’t done this ourselves, we’ve heard you can even use this as a dormant spray on the rest of the tree. To do that, use less sand and more water.
Tree paste will hold up for two years or so. We apply it to half our trees one year and the other half the following year. You can also dip tree roots in it just before planting.
Once you’ve got the knack, experiment with adding other ingredients that are specific to your soil. A soil test will tell you what your soil is missing. Be sure to highly dilute the extras. Don’t overwhelm!
Good things to add may be mineral combinations like Azomite, zeolite, liquid sea minerals, liquid fish (more enzymes than fish emulsion), micro-minerals, lime, Effective Microbes (EM), compost tea, siliceous rock powder, rock phosphate, gypsum, or biodynamic herb preparations. In the wheelbarrow measurement, we’d use perhaps 1-2 pounds of lime. If you’re using trace minerals like manganese, zinc, copper, selenium, etc, you’ll want to use just a tiny pinch of the ones your soil lacks.
That first year we used the tree paste it didn’t do much. We’d applied it too late in the season and frankly I figured it just didn’t work. Then, the following fall, after the sealed tree paste had been on for a year and a half, the old trees surprised us with a lush harvest we could hardly believe. The trees suddenly woke up. 90% of the chronically misshapen diseased fruits came in clean and healthy, a real miracle, and the remaining 10% weren’t so bad either. We brought the near perfect fruit in to the local fruit show for identification and were tickled to learn one is an heirloom Winter Banana, one of my favorites.
I hope this inspires you to do some trunk painting this winter.
Jacqueline Freeman and her husband Joseph own a biodynamic farm, Friendly Haven Rise, in Battle Ground, WA. www.FriendlyHaven.com. Jacqueline is the author of “Song of Increase: Listening to the Wisdom of Honeybees for Kinder Beekeeping and a Better World.” Her honeybee site is www.SpiritBee.com