RetroSuburbia…and a new future

I had the privilege last night of MC’ing an event and panel discussion  at an event in Castlemaine where David Holmgren introduced his new book “Retrosuburbia: the downshifters guide to a resilient future″. (If you want to know more about it you can check out the website or the Facebook page).

David Holmgren giving his very entertaining “Aussie Street” presentation at the Retrosuburbia event in Castlemaine

David is best known as one of the co-originators of the permaculture concept in the 1970s, along with Bill Mollison. Since then he’s written a number of books, developed three properties and taught permaculture around the world.

RetroSuburbia is a manual for how to use permaculture thinking to create home-based solutions for a sustainable future by applying the idea of retrofitting our homes, gardens, and behaviours. David and his partner Su’s property “Melliodora” is an inspirational example of how living a sustainable lifestyle can really work as a realistic and attractive alternative to what David calls “dependent consumerism” (if you’ve never been there, I can recommend going on one of their tours).

A big part of David’s vision for a resilient and sustainable future is seeing household food growing become part of everyday life, and so we were rapt to find that our range of ebooks have been included in the book as one of the ways people can improve their fruit-growing skills (the books are included for free as part of our Grow Great Fruit program).

Wanting to spend more time teaching is one of the main reasons we’re not running the orchard any more. Ever since we started the Grow Great Fruit business in 2013, it’s been squeezed into the cracks in our farming life—and to be honest, there haven’t been many!

While we purposely chose to set up GGF as an online business so that we could reach as many people as possible, over the years we’ve found the part that we find most satisfying is the contact with people—but we haven’t had time to do much of it.

Ant and Mel represented HOFC (the Harcourt Organic Farming Co-op) at the networking event before the Retrosuburbia launch

So, now that Ant has taken over the orchard (and rebranded it Tellurian Fruit Gardens), we’re very much looking forward to getting stuck into our mission of teaching as many people as possible how to be self-sufficient with their fruit growing.

We’ve got lots of ideas about how to reach more people, make the program more accessible, and increase its effectiveness. We’re not sure yet exactly what will change (yes, Hugh, we do have to do another strategic planning session…), but some of the ideas we’ve been playing with include:

  • Going global—we’ve developed a northern hemisphere version of the program and briefly tested the US market, but had to pull back due to lack of time to commit to the project;
  • Expanding and improving services for members with more masterclasses, case studies, videos and a vastly expanded Fruit Tree Database;
  • Running workshops in different places such as members’ properties or community gardens;
  • Turning our workshops into an interactive online format to make them accessible to people who can’t physically get to a workshop.

One of the things we’re really interested in is working with people and groups that will get the most benefit out of increased food security. While we love working with our current members in Australia, we’re aware that most of them—like us—already enjoy pretty good food security and economic prosperity, particularly when looked at in a global context.

We feel like it’s time to use our position of privilege to help create food security for people to whom it can make a genuine difference, so we’ll also be looking at things like:

  • Scholarships for low-income people;
  • Working with small-scale or start-up farmers in Australia or overseas to help them increase profitability and sustainability within their fruit growing businesses;
  • Working with community groups.

So we’re looking at an as-yet-unknown but exciting future, and can’t wait to get started on the next stage of our journey as organic fruit growers. There’s just that strategic planning session to organise first!

It doesn’t cost anything to give it a go!

Buds are starting to swell and seeds are beginning to germinate…a call to action in the heritage fruit tree nursery. Merv has been busy preparing the soil in the new nursery patch. Katie has been busy selling the last of the beautiful fruit trees that we grew before they come out of their winter sleep and need to be planted in the ground properly again. But now that our saved apple, quince, pear and peach seeds are starting to shoot, its all hands on deck.

This week we planted our cherry rootstock and acquired some compact apple rootstock varieties to experiment with. Along with grafting the cherries in September and budding the apples we’re hoping to experiment with creating a ‘stool bed’. Katie and I haven’t ever done a stool bed so we’re excited to learn this technique from Merv. A stool bed (from my limited understanding) is a way of trench layering a ‘mother plant’ in order to grow multiple root stock trees from a small number of ‘mothers’. This is important for cherry rootstock, which don’t grow readily from seed, and special varieties of rootstock, which you want to multiply true to type.


The plum cuttings are starting to ‘heel up’ (grow a heel/scab over them from which the roots will sprout) which means we’ll plant them out soon . The apple, peach and quince seeds are sprouting so we’ve begun to plant them out in rows. These we will grow up over summer and ‘bud’ in February with a number of different varieties for sale the following year.

We have also been cutting back the trees we budded last February, to the bud union. These trees (see pic) with different colored pipe cleaners are the plum rootstock we budded multiple varieties of plum and apricot onto. Another experiment, which so far seems to be going well…as long as we can keep track of which branch has which variety budded onto it!!

Soon it will be time to sow our green manure crop in the resting nursery patches and sow some more citrus seed in the hot house (yet another experiment). Most of the rootstock we grow, except for our experiments with cherries, citrus and small apple rootstock, we have grown ourselves. We either collect seed or take cuttings to create them, and like Merv always marvels, “it doesn’t cost you anything”! There is a lot of time and care that then goes into turning that seedling into a good fruiting tree, but Merv’s right, it doesn’t cost you anything to give it a go!

The important work of becoming a fruit tree parent

Proud parents picking up new fruit trees

It’s tree pick-up week, and as people have been coming to the farm to collect their fruit trees the days have been full of conversations about their plans for their gardens and orchards, explaining different tree training systems and giving mini-pruning lessons, explaining the merits of different fruit varieties, and providing impromptu planting demos.

When they feel ready and armed with all the right info, we help them load up their trees and wave them off as they go home to get planting. It’s a little like sending new parents home with their babies, and as I imagine midwives must feel when they say goodbye to a young family, I’m simultaneously delighted to see them start their journey together, and slightly nervous about how they’ll manage, particularly if they’re first-time parents.

Trees waiting to be picked up and taken to their new homes

Of course, trees and babies are completely different cases, because babies are the most precious thing in the world and must be kept alive at all cost, but it doesn’t really matter if a tree dies from neglect or mistreatment, it’s just a few bucks down the drain and you start again, right?

Strictly speaking that’s true, but actually, there’s a little more at stake. You see, I know something more…I know what it feels like to nurture a fruit tree all the way through to maturity and harvest, and it’s almost indescribably satisfying.

Rhonda bravely pruning her brand new tree for the first time

It starts with planting it out in the right spot in the garden and giving it the first (terrifying) pruning.

Then you’re responsible for protecting it from pests that might damage it and making sure it has healthy soil and enough water.

You nervously watch it grow and then bloom, are awed by the miracle of pollination and seeing fading flowers falling off to reveal tiny fruit.

You protect the fruit from pests and diseases, and then … finally … harvest the most delicious fruit you’ve ever tasted in your life, because you grew it yourself.

Over years the trees grow, your skill grows, and your confidence that you can protect your precious crop against all the hazards and dangers that threaten it will grow too. And it needs to, because this is important work. You’re providing nutritious organic food for your family for the whole year, not just summer. You’re saving money in the family budget. You’re giving your kids irreplaceable memories of picking fruit straight from the tree. You need to get results every year, not just the years you’re “lucky”.

And when it works and you bring in the harvest, you feel on top of the world because you know you’ve joined the ranks of one of the most important groups in society—the food providers, those salt-of-the earth types who have the seemingly magical ability to coax delicious food from a little dirt, sunshine and hard work. You’re a farmer.

I know all this because this has been my journey over the last 20 years.  Yes, as with raising children, there’s pain along the way as you make mistakes and things go wrong, but I know the joy that lies ahead for you, and while admittedly it’s nowhere near as special as bringing a whole new human into the world, I’ve done that too so can say with the voice of experience that your fruit trees are not going to give you nearly as many sleepless nights!