The joy of growing your own fruit trees

Katie in front of what’s going to become the Harcourt heritage fruit tree nursery

As an orchard kid I grew up familiar with the concept of grafting – I knew that all the fruit trees in the orchard had been grafted, but until I decided to take up the orchard business almost 20 years ago I had no idea how, or why. Nor did I realise that grafting has been around for literally thousands of years – in fact it’s one of the oldest horticultural practices known.

Since coming home to the farm I’ve had the chance to learn these truly ancient skills from my Dad. He’s been growing his own trees for the orchard, as well as “top-working” (changing varieties of mature trees in the orchard) for the last 60 years, so it’s been a fantastic chance to learn from a master grafter.

Hugh and I have been steadily planting, replanting and improving the orchard since we came home, and have put in literally thousands of fruit trees in that time – all of which have been grown in our on-farm nursery. It’s saved us thousands of dollars, allowed us to continuously improve the orchards, and given us the chance to learn and practise all the skills needed to grow our own rootstocks and graft the varieties we’ve needed, which we’ve incorporated into our Grow Great Fruit teaching program and workshops.

Now the orchards are pretty much all planted, and we’re handing over management of them to Ant next season, so there’s less need for the on-farm nursery. However, we didn’t want to lose it, so Sas and I are starting the Harcourt Heritage Fruit Tree Nursery!

Hang on, aren’t I meant to be retiring from farming? And surely Sas already has enough to do…so why are we starting a whole new business?

Well, over the years we’ve built up a pretty good collection of fruit varieties on the farm – 140 at last count! Of them, we’re pretty familiar with at least 80 (the rest are not fruiting yet so we don’t know them), which means we can provide pretty reliable info about them: how they do in this climate, reliable harvest dates, etc.

We’re also growing our own rootstocks from seed and cutting; this not only makes it a very low-risk and low-capital business to get off the ground, but also means the trees we’re growing from scratch are more likely to suit this climate because they’ve been grown here.

But the main reason both Sas and I decided to start a nursery is because we love growing trees, and we just couldn’t resist the opportunity to learn the nursery business from Dad, while he’s still active and interested enough to teach us!

We’re both passionate about learning the many and varied skills you need to produce healthy, vigorous organic trees, so a big part of the appeal for us is that Merv will be here to teach us everything, and oversee the whole operation.

A successful bud on one of our experimental citrus trees

He’s also trying new stuff all the time, which he’s passing on to us. The latest experiment has been trying to grow our own citrus rootstocks, and learning how to graft citrus trees.

Being evergreen, they’re completely different from deciduous trees, so it’s been lots of fun being a bit experimental. And so far, it seems to be working!

Another big appeal is that we know we’ll be helping to preserve some of the older heritage varieties that are hard to buy and in danger of disappearing in favour of the more modern and well-known varieties.

The very first trees are available for sale now – here’s the link to see what we’ve got (anything with MAFG or MAFGS after the name is out of our nursery) but we’ve only taken baby steps so far so there’s not many. For this year at least we’ve continued to source trees from a commercial wholesale nursery as usual, but by next year we hope to massively increase our offering, and have achieved organic certification.

From little things…

Making delicious organic yummy things – value-adding for fun and profit!

What does “value-adding” make you think of? Sounds like something to do with economics, doesn’t it? But in farming terms, it’s used to describe any process where you turn raw product (like fruit) into something else (like juice).

The grader at The Wild Apple where juice apples are separated from high-grade eating apples, before being pressed for juice

It’s something we’ve always done at home for our own use, aiming to store as much fresh produce as we can over summer, to eat in winter.

And despite dabbling in value-adding on a commercial scale, we’ve never managed to do it on any scale. To do that would take a real commitment and quite a bit of time, investment in equipment and training, and all the other things involved in launching new products like market testing, labelling, sourcing and logistics.

But the idea still excites us, and remains one of the great untapped potential directions that we (or someone else) could take our farm business. It was a hot topic of conversation at the recent Australian Network of Organic Orchardists (ANOO) conference we went to in South Australia. Nearly every other grower was value-adding, and in every case it was making a big difference to their bottom line.

Super delicious mixed dried stone fruit from O’Reilly’s organic orchard, first dried then frozen for longer storage

Here’s just some of the things other organic orchardists are making/doing that are inspiring us:

  • Juice – some growers are making and pasteurising their own juice, some are selling it fresh and unpasteurised, and some are sending fruit to processors who do the whole process for them;
  • Dried fruit – we saw (and tasted) some beautiful examples of dried fruit (and vegies), and again, growers are processing in a variety of different ways. Some of cutting whole, unpeeled fruit with an automatic mandolin and then drying in a heat-controlled electric machine that rapidly dries fruit to a pre-set moisture level (see the picture of this very cool machine below); some are processing by hand and drying in the sun, and others have semi-automated fruit prep and solar drying systems;
  • Cider – most growers at the ANOO conference grow apples, and lots of them are experimenting with cider and it’s close cousin…
  • Apple cider vinegar – this product has so many uses that any grower that’s making it says they can’t produce enough for their markets (plus it also makes a great basis for a variety of fruit-based vinegars);
  • Frozen – some creative growers have found an excellent market in frozen fruit, using specific varieties known to be high in vitamins and anti-oxidants, and aiming squarely at the health food market. Clever!
  • Jams – apple jelly (with all manner of different flavourings like rosemary, or lavender), apricot jam, plum jam – you name it, someone’s making it (and it’s racing out the door at farmers markets);
  • Preserved/canned fruit – nobody at the ANOO conference is doing this commercially, but several have done trials and are interested in taking it further;
  • Apple pies/pastries – a couple of growers have expanded into the related area of turning fruit into pies and pastries. It’s more fiddly and requires a much higher skill level (you actually need to be able to cook!), but the returns are worth it.
Inside view of electric dehydrator

We’re resigned to the fact that we’re probably never going to start a value-adding business ourselves, but we’re very excited about the possibility of a new member of the Harcourt Organic Farming Alliance that we’re setting up (either leases the orchard from us, or someone else) taking up the challenge of developing this side of the business, which promises to not only provide LOTS more ways that we can feed local families with healthy organic food all year round, but also make a healthy difference to the bottom line of the business!

Small scale solar dryer

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