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!

Onion grass in pear block
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

Wannabe an organic farmer?

Since we started sharing our farm with the Gung Hoe Growers and their market garden, we’ve suspected that there’s a groundswell of people out there who would love to do what we’re doing – running slightly too small (by commercial standards) organic farms for profit or love.

ggf-facebook-pageSo to test our theory, recently we wrote a post on our Facebook page inviting comments from people who want to be organic farmers or live a self-sustaining lifestyle, asking what’s stopping them? What are the biggest barriers that get in the way of people realising their goals and ‘living the dream’?

Well, what a massive response! We got an outpouring from many people who expressed in equal measure their passion and desire to be growing their own food, along with the frustration and disappointment of how hard it can be to make it work.

Here’s just a selection of what people had to say about…

unnamed-1…their dreams and aspirations:

  • to become semi self-sufficient and trade with others nearby
  • just for home use…I would like to be able to supply family
  • I want to set up an organic/permaculture veggie garden and orchard integrating traditional fruit and vegies as well as bush tucker foods
  • I want to start my own organic market garden, buying land and a house somewhere cheaper, I think I know what I need and have the funds to do it, I just need help with a business plan and would love a mentor. I know what to do, just need support. I love growing organic vegies!
  • It’s a dream to one day have a patch that we can live off sustainably
  • implementing food garden and chooks, animals
  • I want to make a living out of my farm – but I don’t know how

img3494…the biggest challenges and barriers:

  • lack of infrastructure
  • lack of machinery
  • lack of TIME
  • having to work full time to pay for the farm
  • knowing what you want to get out of it
  • knowing what you need to do to get the best return from your soil type
  • understanding how to use organic principles
  • the skills to be water wise and knowing how to improve an old, outdated, inefficient irrigation system
  • weed control
  • pest control
  • compost making
  • setting up networks for support and marketing
  • planning and working with what is there with progression plan
  • structure, fencing, water
METADATA-START
METADATA-START

…the questions people need answered:

  • what can we produce what there is a demand for?
  • how do we know if there will be a market for what we want to grow?
  • how to develop a small farm into a profit-generating enterprise?
  • how do I engage neighbours in productive conversation re spray drift and chemicals in waterways?
  • how do I improve soil as quickly as possible?

…and the wishlist of what people want or need to help them realise their dreams:

  • I need a business plan and a mentor
  • being able to read the wisdom of weeds
  • the money to buy the farm
  • designing farm layout (keyline principles)
  • I need a basic design

Wow. Basically, these guys wrote our life story. We have shared these dreams, asked those questions and felt frustration at all those barriers.

But when we look back over the last 20 years, we’re also incredibly lucky that the pathway that this farm has taken us on has answered so many of those questions. We’ve done courses, read books, had mentors, employed business consultants, done farm planning, done market research, established marketing supply chains and networks, learned to value and understand our weeds, and learned the wisdom of continuously working on improving our soil.

Not that we would ever claim to ‘know it all’ – far from it! After all this time, we’re still learning and evolving. But what we do have is many years of experience, lots of runs on the board, and the successful experiment of Mel and Sas starting a micro-farm at our place, which has opened our eyes to a whole new way of farming, where we can use our land, resources and experience to provide a pathway for a new generation of farmers and food growers.

And judging by the recent outpouring on Facebook, this is just the beginning!blog-2015-08-27-1

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.

ANOO Chris Ellery presentation-480x359
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.

National organic mark
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!

ANOO Wild apple dried apple-360x480
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.