Learn to Love Your Weeds

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

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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.”

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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.

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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

Say Hi to Fifi!

We’ve had a new addition to the Gung Hoe team in the last few weeks. Fifi, the 1960 Massey Ferguson tractor, lovingly revamped by Kenny (Sas’ dad). Fifi has lived a life in quiet retirement in Kenny’s backyard for many years, occasionally getting fired up to go out and grade the dirt road where they live after a big rain or to move something large around the backyard, or sometimes just so Kenny could hear the deep guttural hum of her engine and rattle of her rusty exhaust pipe and know that she still had it in her!

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Kenny has given Fifi a complete retune and even a paint job and new seat and she is looking and sounding mighty fine. Last week Kenny and Jules bought Fifi up on the back of a trailer to become a part of the Gung Hoe family. I got a lesson on how to drive her and look after the engine and Kenny is coming back in March to show us how to use the different implements, such as a scoop which will come in very handy when we’re moving loads of organic cow poo around!

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We don’t use machinery in the market garden proper. This is so that we don’t compact the soil or disturb the delicate soil life more than we need to. Fifi has come in mighty handy already though around the patch. Last week she lugged 80kg+ of tomatoes up to the packing shed in one go, rather than us lugging them up in eight sweaty trips by foot! She bought a load of 12 trays of seedlings down to the patch that would have taken me four trips back and forth by foot. I’ve still got a lot to learn about how to drive her gently…not accelerating over bumps and loosing afore-mentioned seedlings off the back of the ‘carry all’ would be helpful! But all in all we love FiFi and her red hot exterior! Doing things by hand is wonderful but it is also a great thing to be able to use appropriate technology thoughtfully to smooth some of our efficiency bumps. Thanks Kenny for passing Fifi down the line and saving our backs!

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In other news, the tomatoes are seriously staring to crank and the okra and eggplants are not far behind! We’ve started sowing all our autumn seedlings en masse and have started our very small scale foray into weekly veggie boxes. We’ve also got our rainbow cherry tomato mix for sale in biodegradable punnets at Green Goes the Grocer in Castlemaine, and the feedback so far is that they rock. Enjoy the sun folks…

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Sas and Mel

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Gung Hoe Growers
69 Danns Rd Harcourt

If you can’t be with the one you love…

briggs-red-may-white-peach-tray-480x269This season I’ve been hankering for tangy sweet apricots, lusting after juicy delicious yellow nectarines, and longing for fragrant white peaches. Why? Because we’ve grown very few this year in the orchard, and I’m feeling deprived.

I’ve written in a previous blog about why this happened (wettest spring on record, devastating Blossom blight in the apricots, worst case of Leaf curl we’ve ever had in the peaches and nectarines, blah, blah, blah…). Boring and disappointing, but predictable—part of our business model is to plan for bad things to happen (from an environmental point of view) during the season, because they invariably do. The last decade has dished up plenty of wild weather; we’ve had the longest drought, the wettest flood and the biggest hail storms, and all projections are that it will only get worse.

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I often find myself fantasising about creating the perfect growing ecosystem that would provide protection from the elements (rain, hot north winds, heat waves, hail) and give a better chance of a successful crop every year, without sacrificing the essential ‘organic’ nature of our growing.  Ideas from permaculture (planting wind breaks, using one crop as protection for another) and big horticulture (enclosure nets, rain covers) make me think it would be possible (with enough capital and ingenuity) … fascinating, but a topic for another blog!

Seasons like this also make us slightly envious of chemical farmers in some ways, who have tools at their disposal that provide better protection against rain, particularly when it comes to fungicides, for example. Those chemicals are not allowed on certified organic farms because of the potential impacts on human and environmental health, so we’re happy not to be using them, but they sure reduce the risk for the farmers!

In a year like this it’s also easy to start beating yourself up and wondering what you could have done differently to save the crop. When disaster strikes, many farmers have a private conversation going on their head, asking themselves things like ‘What could we have done differently? Should we have paid more attention? I knew we shouldn’t have taken that holiday.’ It’s not necessarily logical, but farmers have a very personal relationship with their farm, and it’s hard not to feel responsible when things go wrong, even if it was out of your control. And that’s with fruit trees! I can only imagine how much worse it must feel when you’re farming animals and something goes wrong.

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A plum in the hand…

That’s the bleak side of the picture. Good things come out of bad situations as well, and not least that we always learn something about how to be a better farmer! Every new situation that nature throws at us gives us the chance to figure out a better approach, come up with a new strategy or find a new tool.

And one of the unexpected consequences to come from having so little stone fruit this year has been how much fun it’s been to really celebrate plums. In the absence of the more glamorous stone fruit that usually hogs the limelight, we’ve found ourselves really paying attention to the myriad and varied characteristics of the many different plum varieties we grow, and wow! They’re amazing!

The differences in flavor, colour, texture, skin characteristics, juice quality of all our different blood plums are quite stunning. And that’s just the blood plums! Then there’s Greengage, Angelina, Prune d’Agen, Amber Jewel and Pizzaz, plus half a dozen more, and they are as different to each other as apricots are to peaches.

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Amber Jewel love

 

So this year’s stone fruit season hasn’t been a complete loss—in fact far from it. In the absence of yellow nectarines (drool….) and those fragrant heritage Fragar white peaches, we’re learning to really love our wonderful plums! As the song says, if you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with!

Happy plum season!

Katie