Wicking beds and vegies

Despite my years of experience in the orchard growing fruit, I don’t have a gardener’s elbow, let alone  a green thumb. I missed out on Mum’s passion for roses, and while I share Dad’s fascination with all things edible, am envious of the ease with which he seems to produce enough vegies to feed the family, and frequently have a surplus.

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I see the amount of hard work that goes into producing the Gung Hoe Growers’ year-round parade of delicious vegies, but at the same I know it’s about more than just hard work – some people seem to have a knack for knowing when and how to do things, and I’m not one of them!

However, common sense says it can’t be that difficult, and since studying permaculture we’ve learnt lots of tricks and techniques to make growing vegies easy. Plus, Hugh’s started taking an interest in growing vegies, so I’m off the hook!

making new wicking beds-360x480A few years ago we converted part of the garden that had been little more than a dusty dog playground just outside the kitchen window into…

new wicking bed-360x480… a very productive (and much more attractive) wicking bed. In permaculture terms this is Zone 1 – close to the kitchen and path, and the right place to grow the things you need most often, like herbs, salad greens and vegies.

After a while we made some modifications, and we now have four beds in this area. The wonderful Victoria (the intern who was with us last year) planted them up with lots of perennials like Vietnamese mint, asparagus, stevia, comfrey, rocket, mint, marjoram, thyme, and some other herbs. This is such a lovely warm sheltered spot that we even have thriving lemongrass and a very happy lime tree in its own wicking bed built out of an old water tank.

Hugh-vegie-garden-cauliflower-490x275Since adopting these beds as his own, Hugh has filled every available space with vegies, keeping us supplied over winter with cauliflower, brocolli, brocollini, brussels sprouts, cabbage, chillies, celery and rhubarb.

He’s started the summer planting with tomatoes (under the glass covers to get them started), sweet corn, pak choi, silver beet, kale, celery, coriander, and more chillies. There’s still a few spots left, so there’ll no doubt be more going in soon.

This is a great spot for wicking beds, being right next to a 150 year-old, 100 m high cypress tree growing nearby, that has roots everywhere! The wicking beds are lined, which stops nearby roots sucking all the water out of them.wicking-bed-tank-lined-490x367

The principle of a wicking bed is that the water is delivered into the bottom of the bed (via the upright pipe) and then the plants ‘wick’ the water up from the bottom, so no water is lost to dehydration – a great trick for our dry summer landscape!

To make sure the wicking principle works, the beds must be level – as this spirit level shows (well, actually it shows that it’s not quite level yet, but you get the idea).

spirit-level-wicking-bed-490x367Every year we add some nutrition from home-made compost, our helpful worms, and chooks, and occasionally a boost from the neighbour’s horse or cow.

The weeds and left over plants get piled up near the chook shed at the end of each season, waiting for me to clean out the chook shed and start the next compost pile. Then they’ll be returned to the garden – gardening is just so cyclical!

For the time being, I’m leaving growing the annual vegetables to other people (thanks Hugh and Dad), and concentrating on the garden we started last year near the farm shop, where I’m planning to add passionfruit, pecan nuts, brambleberries, and choke berries.

custard apple-seed-490x275I’ve also got seed from a couple of different varieties of cherimoya (custard apples) to try – they’re not traditionally grown in this climate, but one of the great things we’ve learned from permaculture training is how much you can ‘stretch’ a plant’s natural inclination by creating micro-climates.

Here’s to a bountiful summer of home-grown vegies!

Cheers, Katie

What Do You Call a Gathering of Organic Orchardists?

A couple of weeks ago we got to do something we hardly ever do – hang out with a bunch of other organic apple growers.

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Chris Ellery from the Soil Foodweb Institute giving a presentation about soil biology

It may seem strange that this is a rare and unusual event, but it’s the result of a couple of slightly unfortunate circumstances. The first is that even though there are at least 40 of us Australia-wide (no-one knows what the actual number is), we’re scattered all around the country and few of us are lucky enough to live within coo-ee of each other.

The second reason is because of the generally unconnected nature of the organics industry. With more than 6 different certifying organisations, there’s no central register of who’s certified and who’s not. Each certifying body regulates the whole gamut of organic farmers and processors, from apple growers through to beef producers and organic skin care manufacturers, so they don’t function as a connector for producers within industries.

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The new organic seal

And then there’s the Organic Federation of Australia (OFA) which is the umbrella organisation for the whole industry and plays a great advocacy role for the industry, for example finally achieving a national mark or logo (that’s it on the left) which can be used by any certified producer regardless of who they’re certified with. Overseas experience has shown that introducing this type of unifying symbol should go a long way to achieving better consumer awareness for organics across the entire sector, so start watching out for it on your organic produce!

But membership of the OFA is voluntary, and so this organisation doesn’t function to connect producers within specific industries.

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Field trip to our place

Hugh and I have long bemoaned our lack of a peer group, which might seem strange when we live and grow fruit in Harcourt, the “apple centre of Victoria”. We’ve long been members of the Harcourt and District Fruit Growers’ Association, and in fact I was secretary for more than a decade. While obviously we have much in common with conventional growers, we also have many differences. The very basis of our growing systems – the soil – is handled quite differently between the two systems, as are pest and disease control, weed control, and even irrigation. The two paradigms can be so different that we sometimes feel we speak a different language.

So it was really a treat to find ourselves finally in a room with 10 other organic growers, who all essentially have the same issues, challenges, problems and understandings as us.

It’s long been on my “to do” list to try to organise this type of event; I even got as far as starting to compile a list of other organic fruit growers a few years ago, but that’s as far as it went.

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Michelle McColl, Tim Neilson and Hugh on a field trip to our farm

Luckily the very dynamic Michelle McColl from Kalangadoo Organics (she and husband Chris were recently featured with their organic orchard on ‘Gardening Australia’) beat me to it last year. She took the initiative of finding and contacting as many organic apple growers as she could find and organising a get together in the Huon Valley in Tasmania. Luckily, we were on the list and were invited to the event.

It was fantastic! Michelle had the foresight to organise a facilitator for the growers’ round-table discussions, and to put a few topics on the table to get the ball rolling, which meant that discussion was lively, frank and very useful as growers shared their problems, solutions, tips and resources.

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Compost tea demonstration in a very cold barn!

Field trips to 3 organic orchards were also illuminating – there’s nothing quite as interesting as actually seeing and experiencing what other people are doing. Another highlight was the conference dinner at a restaurant in Salamanca Place in Hobart. All in all Hugh and I enjoyed ourselves so much that we offered to host this year’s conference in Harcourt.

Following a similar format worked well, the only addition being two really interesting and relevant speakers who gave presentations on soil biology and insect and bird interactions in organic orchards.

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Mount Alexander Shire Council Deputy Mayor Sharon Telford giving the conference welcome

We were really pleased that our local Mount Alexander Shire is taking an active interest in the potential for growth of the local organics industry, and Deputy Mayor Sharon Telford gave a great welcome and opening address for the conference. It was also fantastic that a few local orchardists accepted the offer to attend the session on soil biology, a topic with relevance to anyone growing anything!

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Some of the fantastic value-added product that growers brought to share

Two jam-packed days of talking, sharing ideas and experience, eating, field trips, cider tasting, getting to know each other – and lots more talking – left us feeling refreshed, revitalised and very grateful to be part of a new group of people who are not only professional colleagues, but also rapidly becoming friends.

One year later …

Around this time a year ago, I was just about ready to throw up.  I was full of nervous anticipation, and had written, and was rehearsing, the acceptance speech for the Rural Women’s Awards, “just in case” I was lucky enough to win. We stayed in Melbourne the night before the announcement, and I can remember being in our hotel room feeling absolutely sick and getting a pep talk from Hugh – he told me just to assume I’d already won, so that I’d be completely ready when my name was called.

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Amazingly, he was right, and when my name was announced I reckon I fooled everyone into thinking I felt confident. Now, 52 weeks later, I’m writing my speech for the ceremony on April 14 where I’ll hand over to this year’s winner. So technically I’m only on the job for another couple of weeks, but it’s had such a lasting impact on my life that I’m not expecting things to change too much after the announcement.

hugh-katie-mayor-big-chequeFor a start, I’m very aware of the investment that RIRDC (Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation, who run the Rural Women’s Awards) have made in me, particularly by funding me to do the AICD (Australian Institute of Company Directors) course. I figured that seeing as how I passed the course, I’d better use it, and so I’ve just accepted a role on the board of the Maldon and District Community Bank. I know a sum total of nothing about the banking industry, but I know lots about community, so I figured it was the perfect opportunity for me to put my training to use, get some new skills, and learn about something completely outside my normal life.  Except it’s not, is it? Unless you live under a rock, banking and the financial sector actually has a big impact on us all – and what attracted me to the community bank model is that it was set up specifically to return the profits (made from OUR money) directly back to the community – banking with heart!(I sound like a slogan, I know, but I’m actually really excited to learn about it!)

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So that’s one of the more concrete things to have come out of this year, plus the fact that as part of the RWA alumni, I am now part of a community of women who get asked their opinion about stuff, like at the recent Women in Agriculture Forum held by Victorian Minister for Agriculture Jaala Pulford, where past RWA winners were well represented along with lots of other rural women leaders and emerging leaders. There was a lot of discussion at the Forum about how hard it can be for women to find the confidence to step up and find their voice, and that’s one of the main differences I feel from this time 12 months ago. Directly after I won the award I suffered from a big dose of Imposter Syndrome, feeling terrified that someone might find out what a complete fraud I was!  That feeling still pops up at times (like when I find myself invited to Parliament House, for example!), but I can now recognise it and put it back in its box where it belongs, so I can get on with the business at hand.

Of course running my project has also been a big part of this year, and I’ve learnt lots about both project management and about the topic (using social media to connect farmers at farmers markets directly to their customers). It’s yielded some interesting results and is still ongoing. Two of my big passions are farmers markets and farmers using social media to improve their marketing, and the chance to work on a big project around it was why I applied for the award in the first place.

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What else? Along the way I’ve also had lots of opportunities to inflict my fledgling public speaking skills on unsuspecting audiences, I’ve been to numerous conferences and forums, and I’ve made some really great contacts and friends, particularly with the other RWA state winners.

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But I think the most important part of the whole experience has been an internal one (inevitably). It’s hard to articulate, but I think I feel different now because I’ve been treated like a leader all year, by everyone I’ve come into contact with as part of the award, from the wonderful people at RIRDC and the Dept of Economic Development (who help run the award) to the Minister of Agriculture.  They’ve all seemed to assume that not only did I deserve to win the award, but that I’d have the skills and qualities I needed to manage everything that was asked of me along the way – and that’s been a very powerful and transformative process.

And do you know what? I think they were right!


RIRDC Victorian Rural Women’s Award

My project, called “Farmers Markets Building Communities” has been made possible by the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation (RIRDC) Rural Women’s Awards.