Deep Winter…and connections

The soil is the great connector of lives, the source and destiny of all.  It is the healer and restorer and resurrector, by which disease passes into health, age into youth, death into life. Without proper care for it we can have no community because without proper care for it we can have no life. — Wendell Berry

I’ve just come back from a small-farmers’ gathering called ‘Deep Winter Agrarians’ that this year was held in Bangalow, NSW.  Small farmers, meaning small scale relative to what most people consider ‘normal’ farming.  By no means was it a small gathering—there was 250–300 people in attendance every day!  Friday saw us touring 5 local farms/growing spaces, all quite different markets, styles of farming and some examples of various leasing systems.

Saturday saw us meet in a beautiful early 1900s hall nestled next to the Bangalow Showground, eating local honeycomb and politely lingering around the kitchen for coffee. We began with a Welcome to Country from the local mob. It was really amazing and set the tone for a lot of conversations over the rest of the weekend. We were not only led through the ‘official’ welcome to country, but then were taken through a guided reflective, spiritual-like connection to country that was genuine and genuinely welcoming.

After being welcomed and taken to the level above tokenism, we split up into several groups of different workshops with topics such as land access and agreements, certification, and paddock to plate, chef, and consumer education. I went to the land access one and appreciated the amount of different models there are out there currently in Australia. However, land sharing/leasing is definitely becoming the norm, as access is becoming harder and harder, especially for small-scale farmers, let alone those of us who are just starting up. Frameworks for alliances/agreements—such as what we are about to embark upon out here in Harcourt—are definitely cutting edge, and as a whole movement we are all creating a new way of using land, together.

Being amidst that action is exciting and literally groundbreaking (yes, thats a pun!). There was an interesting conversation around the language used around people ‘owning’ land (surely no-one OWNS land, right?) and we were challenged to imagine how we can incorporate treaty and indigenous history past and present into our legal plans. It was really refreshing and forward visioning to think about how do we want land access to be possible in the future, what history the land holds for indigenous people, and actually asking the land what it wants to show us.  I really appreciated both the positive lens and the respectful mind that challenged and reminded us to seriously work with the land in a holistic way.

After a delicious lunch of amazing soup there was another round of workshop discussion groups and then getting ready for Saturday night’s feast! It was a beautiful combination of farmers, produce, and chefs working together to provide incredible food. I don’t normally get to eat out that well! It was a reminder that in this business you eat like kings. It was a relaxed social event of eating too much, pinning down those people you hadn’t had a chance to chat with earlier in the piece, and being kept warm by a massive bonfire into the wee hours.

So, what did I take away from the weekend, apart from feeling incredibly shy the first few days? Compared to 2 years ago when I first went, this year it was all farmers, and a few farmers’ friends rather than food outlets or policy changers. I’ve gathered a few good quotes that will stick in my brain for a while to be sure, such as “food yields community”.  The idea that building good soil builds community made me think especially about the alliance at Harcourt with lots of different ventures (veg, fruit, chickens, ducks, cows) all working together for the best outcome for the earth and the animals (the good soil bit) and how it will no doubt also build community.

I struggle to use the word community sometimes cos I feel it’s overused and wrongly used, but refreshingly this weekend it was a pleasant and exciting word again. I saw the overrepresentation of market gardeners and could see the boom from 2 years ago in our field.  My theory is that this is because veg has the easiest and quickest turn around of planting, money, and personal gratification, and way less red tape to go through. You can also do it on a very small scale. It was promising to see a few animal peeps there, edible flowers, cut flowers and grain farmers. It’s exciting as I feel they are the next ones to boom, which means our food system will become that much stronger.

One of the discussions was around different community-supported agriculture (CSA) models and distribution frameworks. It was a nice reminder to see for Sas and me how much our values underpin our decisions in regards to access and modes of selling, and that there is (of course) no one way that is ‘right’ as every climate, farmer, community, soil, and lifestyle is different.

The final morning saw us being led by a pear orchardist from Roberston, NSW in a little session called yoga for farmers, which can be practised in jeans, hehe. Pi Wei reminded us that we have to look at our body the way we look at the land—regeneratively.  She led us through some stretches and a few movements but the main thing she was teaching us was to check in with our body, read its landscape, and take care of it. After that session, Erika, who farms in the Blue Mountains, NSW remarked to me the new tool shed she’s building will now have a human tool bit to it, where you rebuild the body just the same as sharpening tools—love it!!  It is not by accident that the pristine wilderness of our planet disappears as understanding of our own inner wild natures fade. — Clarissa Pinkola Estes

It was a pleasure to keep the company of Tess, who is about to start her micro dairy here in Harcourt, and continue to be amazed at her amount of knowledge and depth of understanding of what she wants to do.

Coming together over Deep Winter introduced me and reintroduced me to people from all over Australia who I respect and admire in the same vein.  The core point of deep winter is to connect with other farmers during the depths of winter (when stuff can be tough), and warm the heart’s hearth, so to speak. It’s a gathering where we can learn from one another, realise we’re not alone, and continue to grow the revolution of small-scale farming to feed the land and our communities.

Thanks for listening! Mel x

Choosing the right fruit tree

2003-oct-12-netting-81It’s that time of year again, when our minds turn to planting some new fruit trees. Winter is the right time for planting, when the trees are dormant and their roots are inactive, so they’re at less risk of being damaged by being lifted from the soil in the nursery where they grew, transported (bare-rooted), and then planted in their new home.

Choosing the right variety is exciting, but always seems to be a challenge, both for first timers and experienced gardeners. And it is tricky, because you’re (usually) choosing varieties you’re not really familiar with, so you’re not sure of when they’ll ripen, whether they’ll suit your climate, if they’re going to ripen at the same time as a similar fruit you already have in the garden, or even whether you’ll like them.

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Which is one of the reasons that fruit tree gardens are such a pleasure, because each autumn you get to review how they performed during summer, whether you’re getting enough – and the right types – of fruit, and make new decisions to keep improving the garden every year. It’s a constant work in progress, and an endless source of delight. It’s easy to see why it becomes a life-long passion for lots of people.

We reckon the keys to creating food security in your own backyard come from creating a regular supply of fruit over the whole growing season (as opposed to periods of glut and scarcity), extending the harvest period as long as possible, and having as big a variety of fruit as possible.

autumn fruit bowl
autumn fruit bowl containing 7 different varieties

So an easy way to think about your garden review and start choosing your new varieties is to ask yourself a few questions:

  1. How many months did I have fresh fruit available?
  2. Did I have glut periods where I had more fruit than I needed?
  3. Did I go through periods where I had to buy fruit because there was none ready in the garden?
  4.  Am I growing all my favourites?

Your answers will give you a great starting point for making some choices for this year’s trees – look for varieties that will extend the season either at the beginning or end, ripen at the times when you are having to buy fruit, or provide you with some of your favourites. You might have to do some clever thinking around creating microclimates if your climate doesn’t quite suit the ‘favourites’ that you’d like to plant.

Of course, planting more trees is not the only solution – a lot of problems can also be resolved by grafting to make an overproductive tree into a multigraft, for example. But that’s a story for another blog!

 

Create art in your garden with multigraft fruit trees

Multigrafts, double-grafts, ‘family’ trees, fruit salad trees, cocktail trees – there’s lots of different names for them, but they’re essentially all the same thing. Fruit trees with different varieties or cultivars grafted onto the same rootstock.

A multigraft plum tree: the different varieties are showing their autumn colours at different times, making a beautiful display in the garden
A multigraft plum tree: the different varieties are showing their autumn colours at different times, making a beautiful display in the garden

If the different grafts are all the same variety (e.g., all apples), they will normally be sold as multigrafts, whereas a ‘fruit salad tree’ describes a tree that has different types of fruit from the same family, e.g., apricots and plums.

Generally speaking, fruits from the same family can be grafted onto the same rootstock, e.g., plums and apricots are compatible, peaches and nectarines, and pears and quinces. However, due to the magic of grafting, other combinations may also be compatible, e.g., some varieties of peaches and nectarines are compatible with plum rootstocks, allowing for glorious combinations of 4 fruit types on the same tree. While it’s safer to stick to known compatibilities, it’s always worth experimenting with odd and unusual combinations, because apart from your time, there’s absolutely minimal cost involved.

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The artist’s rendition of a tree from the ‘Tree of 40 Fruit’ series by Sam Aken (from www.treeof40fruit.com”

One of the best ways to think about a multigraft is as a work of art that you are constantly reviewing and improving.  A famous examples of this is the ‘Tree of 40 Fruits’ Series by New York artist Sam Aken.

Many of the problems that can happen with multigrafts (see the list below) are avoidable or fixable by paying careful attention to graft placement and detailed pruning, and then by reviewing and responding to how the tree has actually grown and performed each season.

clare-win-multigraft-353x628If you think of your tree as a living work of art (rather than the ‘plant and forget’ model that most gardeners use), and have high expectations of what you want to achieve with the tree, it’s possible to make them incredibly productive.

Benefits (Pros)

If you’re prepared to put the work into them, there are lots of benefits of having these trees in your garden, one of the most important being that they allow you to increase your food security in a small space.

How does that work? The more biodiversity that you can stack into your garden, the more you’ll be protecting your food supply from the many disasters and natural events that can ruin a crop. If you’re growing 10 varieties of apple, rather than just one, then if a hail storm comes along or you get a particular disease outbreak, chances are that some varieties will fare better than others, which reduces your chances of total wipeout.

The more varieties you can play with in the garden, the more you can work towards a consistent, even harvest throughout the entire growing season, rather than the normal cycle of glut and scarcity that most home fruit growers have to deal with.

Other benefits of growing multigrafts include

  • pollination
  • increasing food production in a small space
  • practising your grafting skills
  • making the most of an existing tree with an established root system, rather than having to get a new tree established

Problems (Cons):

  • Inappropriate varieties – not all varieties grow as well as each other in a given locations, so there’s a risk that some varieties you choose to graft won’t thrive, but, so what? Just regraft with another variety.
  • Pruning. It’s a very common scenario that some varieties will be more dominant than others, either because they are more compatible with the rootstock, the graft was better quality, or the variety is happier in the location.  This can make it more difficult to train the tree into a balanced shape and the dominant branches can end up being bigger and more vigorous. This needs careful management with pruning to prevent the problem becoming worse by allowing the dominant side to crowd out or shade the slower-growing varieties.
  • Branch positioning. It is important that the grafted branches are evenly spaced along the main trunk to produce a balanced form in the mature tree and to avoid undesirable crowding. On a single-variety tree, a misplaced branch can simply be pruned off to allow well-placed branches to grow. However, pruning off any of the first branches of a multigraft tree means sacrificing one of the varieties.
  • Providing pollination partners is one of the main reasons for creating multigrafts, but unless varieties are carefully chosen with this goal specifically in mind, it doesn’t always work. The varieties need to not only be compatible, but also flower simultaneously. In order for all varieties on a multigrafted tree to be pollinated, they must be carefully selected for flowering times to overlap sufficiently. Again, this problem, should it occur, is very fixable by regrafting with a more suitable variety.
  • Different varieties can be vulnerable to different pests and diseases. In the worst-case scenario, the introduction of disease by one variety on a multigrafted tree can compromise the health of the entire tree, particularly if you accidentally introduce a virus to the tree by using infected grafting wood. This is offset to a large degree by the advantages of increasing biodiversity (see above), but it’s good practise to only ever use grafting wood from trees with no visible signs of ill-health, and ideally a good record of productivity as well.
  • Labelling. This almost seems too frivolous to include in this list, but it’s probably one of the problems we hear about most regularly, for all fruit trees, not just multigrafts. It is hard to find a good labelling system that can easily withstand the ravages of time and the weather and remain not only in place but also readable! Our solution is to take a four-pronged approach:
    • make effective, permanent, low-cost labels by cutting up aluminium cans into labels, and using a nail to etch the name into the metal. Punch a hole in the label and use a piece of wire to attach it to the tree. Don’t attach it too tightly around the branch or it’s easy to strangle the branch as it grows.
    • Check the labels at least once a year. Make sure they’re still in place and still readable, and loosen the wire if necessary.
    • Keep a paper (or computerised) record of the location of each tree, its variety, and any varieties you add by grafting.
    • Take photos to back up the computerised record.

Multigraft fruit trees take a bit more work and diligence than single-variety trees, but the benefits are huge, not just in terms of increased production, but through providing other environmental services to your garden, providing beautiful sculptural trees, and providing a life-long interest and passion.

But be warned – it’s addictive!