Learn to Love Your Weeds

We’re on a mission to help you think differently about your weeds.

plantain
Plantain

Every time we talk about weeds during a workshop, there’s always a few people that are very resistant to the idea that we should welcome—and dare we say it, even encourage—weeds under our fruit trees.

First let’s have a think about what a weed really is. In most cases what we really mean is a plant that got there by itself, i.e., we didn’t plant it. Even for experienced gardeners, it can be difficult (almost impossible) to know all the plants in your garden, and when we don’t know what a plant is, many of us have a slightly unfortunate tendency to take the approach of “if in doubt, rip it out.”

Yorkshire fog grass
Yorkshire fog grass

Actually, no plants are intrinsically “bad”, even the ones that have characteristics that make them unpleasant to have around (Gorse, anyone?) or possibly dangerous to an ecosystem (think wild blackberries in the Australian bush). But even blackberries are valued in their native England, where they form natural fences and barriers along many a country lane, and are valued for their fruit. So really, a weed is just a plant that we have decided is in the wrong place.

Many plants we think of as weeds are also herbs, which the Oxford Dictionary defines as “any plant with leaves, seeds or flowers used for flavouring, food, medicine or perfume.” They also have other uses such as stock feed, dyes and cosmetics. Suddenly, weeds start to look useful!

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Mixed weeds in the orchard

From a biological farming point of view, we also prefer to having living plants under our fruit trees (as opposed to bare soil, or even to mulch), for a long list of reasons: they keep the ground cooler, provide habitat for soil microbes on their roots, provide organic matter for microbes and earthworms to eat, pump carbon into the soil, attract predator insects, and fix nitrogen – just to name a few!

So, with that very long list of positives in mind, it suddenly becomes much easier to find reasons to love each and every one of the plants in your garden, regardless of whether you think of them as a “weed” or not.

Marshmallow
Marshmallow & Capeweed

Learning the name of a plant is the next step to appreciating its attributes, and deciding whether or not deserves a place in your garden.

But it can be overwhelming, because there are literally thousands of plants that are commonly found in gardens and backyards. So, take it one step at a time. In the Grow Great Fruit program we look at one new weed every couple of weeks and go in-depth into its properties, how to identify it, and all its potential uses. It’s a neverending (and endlessly fascinating) topic, but these are some of the ones we’ve covered so far:

  • Great Mullein
  • Gorse
  • Marshmallow
  • Cleavers
  • Plantain
  • Capeweed
  • Yorkshire fog grass
  • Oxalis
  • Wild radish
  • Knotgrass
  • Borage
  • Dandelion
  • Tansy
  • Ivy leaf speedwell
  • Blackberry
  • Fumitory
  • Catsear
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Harvesting wild blackberries

How to grow apples – the wrong way!

Pretty much everything about our new heritage apple orchard is “wrong”— at least in the world of large-scale commercial apple growing.

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Katie and Merv planting the new heritage apple orchard

As usual, we’re straddling two worlds—the modern world of commercial horticulture that tends to be focused on high production, export, and monoculture; and the slower, more old-fashioned world of small-scale organic farming that aims to meet the needs of the people and the community who support our farm, is responsive to the climate, and empowers other people to become self-sufficient in food production.

So, what are we doing wrong?

  1. Planting more than 60 varieties, including lots of heirloom and heritage varieties you’ve never heard of…

How many varieties of apples can you name? Most people know Pink Ladies, Fuji, maybe Gala or Granny Smith, but for many, that’s as far as it goes—after that it’s “red apples” or “green apples”. If you can name 10 varieties you’re doing really well.

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Katie selling organic apples at market

That’s largely because the number of varieties grown commercially (and therefore sold in supermarkets) has been steadily shrinking over the last few generations. And while there’s lots of research being done into new varieties, most will not end up in large-scale production, and it’s likely you’ll never hear of them.

Why has the number of varieties shrunk? As with every other area of food production, it’s a response to the commercialisation and globalisation of our food systems. For a variety to maintain its position on a supermarket shelf (and therefore on a modern farm) it has to meet certain criteria: it must be increasingly productive, withstand many months of cold storage with no loss of quality, have a long shelf life, be able to travel well, and be very consistent in appearance. And as farms get bigger and bigger, it’s just a lot more practical and cost-effective to grow 100 (or 1,000) hectares of the same variety.

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Sorting different varieties in the nursery

So, you might be surprised to hear that there are literally hundreds—and in fact thousands—of different apple varieties. When we were gathering the grafting wood to grow the trees for our new orchard, we had to make ourselves stop at 60 (it was VERY tempting to keep going). And we must admit, some of them were only included because they have such fantastic names—who could resist growing Geeveston Fanny or Peasgood Nonesuch? You can read the whole list here.

So, why are we swimming against the tide and planting exactly the opposite of a monoculture?

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A huge diversity of different varieties in the tree nursery

If the wild weather conditions (drought, flood, hail…) we’ve experienced over the last 12–15 years have taught us anything, it’s that diversity is our best bet of bringing home a crop every single year, regardless of the weather conditions. The variability between different varieties in things such as timing of flowering, harvest times, and resistance to diseases all increase the chance that when something bad happens it won’t affect all varieties to the same degree, and therefore we have a bigger chance that at least some of our varieties will safely reach maturity each year.

2. Planting on seedling rootstock 

You’ve probably heard of dwarfing rootstocks, right? Well, all modern apple orchards are planted on some type of dwarfing rootstock, from the MM111, which grows to about 80% the size of a seedling tree, down to the M26, which is only about 40% the size of a seedling tree.

 

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Merv (Katie’s dad) planting apple seeds

But not us! Nope, we’re planting our trees on seedling rootstock, which are trees grown straight from an apple seed, and are the biggest possible size an apple tree can become (in fact, this is what sets the benchmark standard of 100% that other rootstocks are measured against). In a modern orchard, this is crazy behaviour!

Seedling trees can get huge, which means they can be harder to prune, harder to thin, harder to pick, and pretty much everything has to be done up a ladder.

So, why are we apparently making life so much harder for ourselves? Well firstly, we’re pretty sure that by diligent pruning and careful management we can stop the trees from becoming too huge.

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Seedling apple rootstocks being transplanted in the nursery, ready to graft

But the main reason is that we’ve just been through the worst drought in living memory, and with the climate variability that has so quickly become a way of life for farmers, we’re anticipating the next drought any time soon. And what we observed was that while trees on dwarfing rootstocks really struggled, most of the remaining few trees in our district that are on seedling rootstock—even the ones that had no irrigation—survived the drought. Wow, they are one tough tree, which makes them the perfect tree for the future climate we should be preparing ourselves for if we want to maintain food security.

3. Not fumigating our soil or killing the weeds

Standard practice in commercial orchards is to fumigate the soil before planting new trees. This is a process where chemicals are pumped into the soil to sterilise it, particularly to kill any root-eating nematodes or other pathogens that might have built up in the soil which would cause replant disease in the new trees. New trees are normally also “supported” by killing any weeds growing under them with herbicides to reduce competition for water and nutrients, and by the addition of various artificial fertilisers.

 

Nuh. Not us. We’re not doing any of those things.

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Clover is a great plant to include in the green manure crop because it’s a nitrogen fixer

Don’t get us wrong, we also want to support our new trees as much as possible, reduce competition, and make sure we don’t get replant disease. We’re just going about it a completely different way, which inevitably is slower, more expensive, and more time consuming to put in place.

For a start, we’re relying on building healthy soil to make sure we don’t get replant disease. The best defense against root-eating nematodes is nematode-eating nematodes, so we inoculate the soil with them and make sure we provide the right soil conditions to keep them happy.

Second, we work consistently to build a strong natural fertility system to make sure the soil contains all the macro and micro nutrients that the trees will need, and that we have plenty of bacteria and fungi present to transform them into a plant-available form.

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Using organic oaten straw as mulch

Third, we reduce competition from weeds by mulching our trees for the first couple of years and, as the mulch breaks down, encouraging a wide biodiversity of plants to grow under the trees, thereby providing a multitude of benefits, from taking nitrogen from the air and putting it into the soil to providing habitat for beneficial predator insects.

Just because we lean towards the “old” way of doing things doesn’t mean we’re not interested in being as modern, efficient, and productive as possible. In our new block we’ll be participating in some ground-breaking research to test different types of mulch and different types of groundcover to see which system can achieve the best results as quickly and cheaply as possible.

We actually believe that by doing all these things “wrong” we’ll be able to demonstrate in the long run how much more sustainable, ecologically viable, and less reliant on artificial inputs our organic orchard will be.

Wish us luck!

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The new heritage apple block taking shape

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Top Three Tips to Protect Your Fruit

How’s your harvest? Where we live in central Victoria we’re about mid-way through our harvest.  Apricots and cherries have finished, though we only just sold the last of the apricots last weekend. We have a clever way of storing fruit for a bit longer than normal when we have to – it’s a special type of plastic bag that stops the fruit respiring, so it really slows down the rate of ripening. We don’t use them normally because we prefer to just sell everything fresh, but they come in handy for this sort of situation, when one of our regular customers didn’t return from an overseas trip until last Sunday, but didn’t want to miss out on her annual apricot jam!

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We’re about half-way through our peach and nectarine varieties, and have just started the apples. So, it feels like we’ve spent the last couple of months climbing a rather large mountain, and now we’re standing on top about to head down the other side to the end of the season, which is in sight … just a few months away.

Mid-season is a great time of year to reflect on what has worked, and what hasn’t, in terms of protecting the crop, which is our constant mission. We learned years ago that in farming you’ll always be exposed to the many risks that mother nature has in store for us, but with some good planning and crafty strategies, there’s lots you can do to predict and thwart the worst of them.

netting-over-cherry-trees-295x221Here’s our top three tips:

  1. Netting is the only reliable way to stop birds eating your fruit.  The bird threat comes from a variety of different bird species, at different times during the season, on different crops, and is hugely influenced by what else is going on in the environment around us. We have learned the hard way to always net. Just do it. It doesn’t have to be big, complicated or expensive – even drape netting your trees, or just covering a few branches with netting, old sheets or anything you have to hand, will usually be good enough to protect at least some of the fruit from these predators. It has the advantage of also protecting against possums and fruit bats (though if you have a serious and persistent possum problem, you may need to consider more of a permanent cage – for your fruit trees, not the possums – rather than a net.
  2. It’s possible to prevent crawling insects (e.g. earwigs) eating your stone fruit – but you have to be on the ball! Having just packed some peacherines that were full of earwig holes, we’re vowing (once again) to pay closer attention to this problem next year, because we know it’s largely preventable! Chemical farmers use poisons to deal with problems like this, but we’ve had to come up with organic solutions, which we’ve done through lots of trial and error over the years. The main solution we use is double-sided sticky tape around the trunk or branches of the tree, but if you’re going to do this, there’s a few tricks that make all the difference. Firstly, it has to go on in early spring, because earwigs are attracted into the tree as soon as it has leaves, and can cheerfully take up residence there for some time. Secondly, put the tape as high in the tree as you can manage – this helps to prevent other things like flying insects sticking to the tape, but also helps to prevent the crawling insects bypassing the tape by crawling up any grass that happens to be taller than the level of the tape in the tree. Thirdly, keep the grass short around the tree! And lastly, check whether there are any other places the crawling insects can access the tree – maybe an irrigation pipe, a fence, or a another tree that’s close enough for the branches to touch. It’s also really easy to trap earwigs in a variety of ways, but not as reliable as stopping them getting to your fruit.
  3. Protect against hail with – the same solution as #1 – netting!  Hail – aaarrgghh – it just takes one short, sharp hailstorm right above your fruit tree to wreak havoc (as you can see from the apples in the photo below). Hail is random, unpredictable, and unpreventable, but luckily the best defence against it is the same defence as Top Tip #1 – netting! In fact, preventing hail damage is an even more common reason that commercial orchardists use netting than bird protection. It won’t completely prevent damage to any fruit that is just under the net for example, but it can make a huge difference to the overall levels of damage in the tree.

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So, there you have it – our Top Three Tips for protecting your fruit this summer – good luck!


RIRDC Victorian Rural Women’s Award – week 44

As my year as the Victorian Rural Women’s Award winner starts to wind down my commitments have been fewer, but many opportunities continue to open up for me, as I’m sure they will continue to do for years to come as a result of my experiences this year.  In the last few weeks I have:

  • Been asked to participate in a forum held by the Australian Futures Project about how to make Victoria’s food system more sustainable
  • Agreed to be on the panel to select the 2016 Victorian Rural Women’s Award winner
  • Been interviewed for a new board position
  • Spoken to many people, and continue to make available the resources I developed, as part of my project.

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