Orange blossom oil – a new venture

One of our Grow Great Fruit members is busily starting a venture harvesting orange blossom from trees on their property to distill to produce neroli, the beautiful scented orange blossom oil. Here’s her story of their first crack at it this season (and by the way, we’ve smelled the oil and it’s divine!).

Our first morning’s harvest of orange blossom from the orchard was on 19th Oct 2016. Each morning for 14 days we would take the ute up to the orchard and lay the harvest cloths under each tree.


In all we picked over 350 kg of blossom over the 14 days. We estimate this to be around 50% of blossom available. If we had more pickers and a very efficient still we could process an estimated 600 kg of blossom from this orchard. But that is in the future.

From the orchard the blossom is transported back to the oil room to be sorted ready for distillation the next day. We have let the blossoms sit for 24 hrs as advised by distiller Guenther. Average 25 kg per day.

The Harvest cloths are fantastic.

Pickers’ notes.  Socks with the toes cut out and used as forearm protection proved mighty good. The area between the wrist and the hand often gets scratched and this helped prevent the damage to the arms.

Long-sleeved shirts, sturdy boots and good thick gloves add further protection from being scratched and also from being bitten by mosquitoes and bugs. Face nets were used to keep bits of nature from falling onto the eyes and face.

Bees were well behaved and we were mindful not to get in their way.

We used yellow irrigation hoses to secure the harvest cloths down on windy days.

Digging sticks were the perfect length and shape to reach and tap the taller limbs so that ripe blossoms fell on the harvest cloths.

We note the need for opening up the trees for ease of access to the blossoms. Will undertake a pruning course and begin to prune trees to suit.

We also noted the need for being able to identify when a tree had been harvested. Will develop a form that shows each numbered tree so that we can comment as we harvest.

Harvesting after 11.30 am is not sensible here as the heat is building and the blossom seem to wilt a tad in the middle of the day. So early starts are the go.


After the sorting, the blossoms are placed in the still in the water ready for hydro distillation. This is the first time that we have used the still with no column.


Wood is collected each day for the firebox which is the source of heat. We noted the need for smaller pieces of wood that burn quickly so that we can maintain 100º C and create a good head of steam.


Weighing the blossom now after the sorting and just prior to putting into still so that we get a more accurate account of blossom weight.

Cleaning the still became an issue. The separator, the condenser and the bowl all were cleaned with citric acid and came up a treat. This stopped the oil being darker than we wanted. I need to ensure that the still is cleaned thoroughly with citric acid between each different plant species being distilled. It is all a learning curve.

Overfilling the still with water, i.e. over 120 liters, led to a very long warm-up time. One day we started at 9.30 am with 160 liters of water and 30 kg of blossom and we did not get hydrosol coming out until 5.30 pm! This was the longest day and a great lesson in finding the balance of water to blossom.

Recommend 120 liters with 25–30 kg of blossom. Less than 20 kg of blossom only requires 100 litres.

Applying the spelt flour paste.

In all we have produced 190 litres of Neroli hydrosol and 160 ml of Neroli essential oil. Our ratio will improve as we get more knowledgeable and intuitive about the distillation of Orange blossom flowers. Each plant has its own character when distilling. Citrus aurantium certainly is a heady aroma and is not easily coaxed out of the flower petals.


By day 8 our team was satiated with Neroli qualities. We were too tired to go on so we had a day’s rest to enable us to smell nothing except the Australian bush.

We called it a Nerolized stupor.

So, all done and dusted until next October when the blossoms bloom for a few weeks and we begin the story once more. Great harvest and thanks to all. Now to find a good home for the lot.

If you’re interested in finding out more about buying neroli oil or hydrosol get in touch here, and we’ll pass on your contact details.

Don’t panic – have a party!

Spring on an orchard is traditionally a time of high tension. As the sap in the trees rises, so does the blood pressure, because it’s make or break time in many ways. Fruit trees are at their most vulnerable when they’re flowering, and a frost, or too much rain at the wrong time, or a disease outbreak, can severely impact the crop for the year. On top of that there are a million and one jobs to do, and it always seems to be the season when a crucial piece of equipment goes AWOL. This year the pump has decided to die, a few days before the first hot spell of the year!

Can you tell spring can sometimes not be much fun? We were describing the sense of spring panic to a friend a couple of years ago, and they pointed out that the word ‘panic’ comes from ‘pan’, and Pan is the god of spring! In Greek mythology he’s the god of the wild, shepherds and flocks, of fields, groves and wooded glens, and is connected to fertility and the season of spring. So we decided to reframe our panic and to invoke Pan to reclaim spring as a time for gratitude, feasting, celebration, and welcoming in the new season.


We decided if we were having a celebration, it would be an excellent time to thank the community of people – our village – who help us to run the farm. It’s a long list that includes Katie’s dad Merv who grows our trees for us in the on-farm nursery; the pruning crew of Lucy, Vanessa, Ruth, Peter and Mog (some of whom are also the market crew, along with Tegan); a different Lucy, who has been working with us on designing the new farm shop; Mel and Sas who have added a whole new dimension to the farm’s production with the Gung Hoe Market Garden; Lizzie and David, who lend us their car once a month to do markets on that tricky weekend where we have three markets on the same day; our fabulous intern Victoria; and Evan, who takes our fruit to the wholesale market each week.

It’s a long list, isn’t it? Then there’s all the people who do one-off or occasional things, like Katie’s mum Marcie who acts as our reliable proofreader, all the lovely people who have volunteered for our working bees or donated plants for our new farm shop, and Tom and the other lovely Wwoofers who share our lives. And of course we’re also very grateful for all our Grow Great Fruit members, our appreciative and loyal customers, and the thousands of people who follow us on Facebook. It’s a pretty big village!

In keeping with the spring theme we had an egg-based feast, with eggs appearing in entree, main and dessert, and oh boy, it was delicious. We also had a bonfire (which was just as well, because the evening was freezing cold), so the evening finished with wine and marshmallows around the fire while we were entertained by Victoria’s angelic singing. It was a great night, and a satisfying way to declare season 2015/16 officially launched!



RIRDC Victorian Rural Women’s Awards – week 28

Meanwhile my RIRDC project has been marching on. The past fortnight I’ve:

  • been on the judging panel for the Rural Ambassador Award for the Victorian Show Association
  • ended the competition for stallholders to see who could get the most new Facebook ‘likes’ and win $300 of stallholders at their market
  • been working on stage 2 of the project, getting feedback from the Farmers Market strategy, and also developing the model of how to implement social media at farmers markets for the most effective outcomes
  • been talking to some other women who are interested in applying for the award

My project, called “Growing Communities Around Farmers Markets” has been made possible by the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation Rural Women’s Awards.  Nominations for the 2016 awards have just opened.

Simon Rickard on Mt Alexander Fruit Gardens…

We were lucky to have renowned garden writer Simon Rickard visit the farm earlier in the year to take photos in our orchard for his new book on heritage fruit (we’ll let you know when it’s published…stay tuned!).  He was kind enough to drop us a line this week to share his reflections on the way we farm, so here is…

Simon Rickard on Mt Alexander Fruit Gardens…

It’s summer and stone fruit season is upon us. Christmas holidays just wouldn’t be the same without these glorious fruits, dripping with sunshine and sweetness.

It’s been a bumper year for cherries, which must be a huge relief to cherry growers. Cherries are a notoriously difficult crop to get to market. They are extremely sensitive to rainfall at harvest time. Any extra water lingering on the fruits causes them to crack near the stem, creating an entry point for brown rot fungal spores. This destroys cherries’ ability to be stored. A chance summer storm can render an entire crop unsaleable. In some years, cherry growers don’t get any crop at all. In good years, they have to play catch up to make up for the bad years. As the cherry season winds up, the apricots, plums, peaches and nectarines take the baton. These are the crops that Hugh and Katie grow so beautifully at Mt Alexander Fruit Gardens.

I visited Mt Alexander Fruit Gardens back in spring, to photograph the peach blossom for my upcoming book on heritage fruit. As Hugh showed me around the orchard, I was full of admiration for their commitment and expertise in growing these particular fruits. Anybody who has ever grown stone fruit at home knows that they are one of the most sickly, disease-prone plants imaginable. They are susceptible to all manner of root rots, curly leaf, black aphids, shot hole, bacterial canker and brown rot, not to mention attacks by rapacious cockatoos and possums. Coaxing a crop out of a stone fruit tree requires the utmost skill and diligence. And doing so organically, as Katie and Hugh do, is nothing short of masterly.

On my visit to the orchard, Hugh showed me where they had been pruning out dead wood from apricot and peach trees which are still suffering the effects of a very wet summer five years ago. He described the organic spraying regime that is needed to stave off the fungal diseases that plague stone fruits, explaining how timing the sprays with the right stage of bud development is critical for the treatment to be effective. He talked me through their soil nutrition and weed management techniques.

I was absolutely humbled by the amount of work Katie and Hugh do right though the autumn, winter and spring, so that we can enjoy stone fruits for a few short weeks in summer. They are a bit like Santa Claus and his helpers, slaving away all year making toys to bring joy to children at Christmas, only orchardists never get the same celebrity treatment that Santa does.

If you, like me, are guilty of scarfing down peaches and apricots without a second thought, try growing some yourself at home. You will soon get a feel for what an amazing job stone fruit growers do, and realise what a precious gift they give us every summer.