Your secret weapon against extreme weather

Katie and Hugh in a hot orchard. (Photo credit: Biomi photo)

In these days of climate variability, farming is becoming increasingly unpredictable. In the last 10 years we’ve had the worst drought, the worst flood and the wettest spring on record!

This summer has been searingly hot, with temperature records being broken all over Australia, and more consecutive days in the high 30s and low 40s than we’ve ever experienced here in central Victoria, leading to more sunburned fruit than usual.

Sunburned plums

A couple of years ago we had the wettest spring ever, with the consequence that we experienced about 95% reduction in our normal apricot crop, and at least 75% reduction in our peach and nectarine crop, as well as cracking in the cherries. 

Rain cracked cherries

Some areas are more conducive to food growing than others (with more reliable rainfall, and milder conditions), but to a certain extent all small-scale food producers are subject to the same risks from the environment, no matter where they live.

So how do we protect ourselves against this extreme climate variability? Should we all just give up trying to grow food here at all?

We’ve been aware of this for a long time, and have actively pursued a few strategies here on the farm to protect ourselves from this unpredictability as much as possible, but they basically they all come under the same heading.

And the secret weapon is…biodiversity!

Flowering sage attracting bees

We practise diversity at every level of our farm, from growing as many different varieties of fruit as possible (in different micro-climates and places on the farm), to having multiple water sources, a diversity of plants under our fruit trees, and even a diverse soil food web of microbes under the ground.

Many times we’ve lost a variety on one tree for some reason, but been able to pick them from another tree in a different part of the farm.

predatory shield bug eggs and nymphs

We also welcome a diversity of insects, birds and other wildlife. We’ve worked hard to continually improve our biodiversity over many years.

And it clearly works, because throughout every flood, hailstorm and heat wave, though we’ve frequently had fruit damage (or complete loss of a particular crop), we’ve always picked a crop of something.

Carla picking a very light crop of apricots

No matter what scale you’re growing food on, you can practise the same principle.

Pack in as many different types of fruit tree, vegetable and herb as you can fit in your garden, and even value your weeds for the diversity they add to your patch!

It’s particularly worth having lots of different flowering plants in the garden to attract bees and other insects, because they’re so important in ensuring you get a good harvest every year. Find out more about how to create a bee-friendly garden in the Bees and Pollination short course.

5 ways to help your fruit trees recover from fire

The fire rapidly approaching the farm in January 2018

Hopefully you’ll never need this information, but we had a little fire in the orchard a year ago this week, so we can now share our experience about how to best help your trees recover from fire damage.

Watching the fire burn through the orchard

Our amazing fire services put the fire out very promptly, and we got away relatively lightly, with the loss of only about 300 fruit trees, some fences and the irrigation system.

A burnt out fenceline and vegetation

Our most immediate concern after the fire (after having a good wash up and a cold bevy) was what to do next.

The most useful info we could find was from Agriculture Victoria, which started by listing the different types of damage that can occur to trees in a fire:

  • Leaves are scorched and die, but limbs survive
  • Trees are burnt and die
  • Trees are affected by radiant heat, killing the cambium layer in the trunk and limbs
  • Trunks are ringbarked by the vegetation burnt around the base of the tree
  • Older trees can be damaged through embers lodging on the bark or in the crotch of the tree
  • Root systems sometimes survive even though the tops have been killed
  • Root systems are damaged by burning organic matter or heat in the rootzone
  • Fruit is scorched or baked
  • Irrigation lines and emitters are destroyed
  • Defoliated trees can have limbs sunburnt after the fire

That list is pretty much spot on! Of the 300 or so trees that were burned, we saw most of these outcomes, and in the aftermath some trees survived, some re-shot from the rootstock (if the tops were severely burned or if the trees were ringbarked), and many just died.

Here’s the main things you need to do to look after fruit trees after a fire:

  1. Assess the trees as soon as possible, and try to decide whether they’re likely to live or die—check the cambium layer under the bark and see if it still looks healthy, check whether the bark is shrivelling, look for signs of new shoots starting to emerge;
  2. If the irrigation system was damaged, re-establish it asap — if you think the trees are worth saving;
  3. Delay pruning until regrowth has been established, so you can clearly see where there is new growth and dead wood;
  4. You may need to protect trees from sunburn if they’ve been completely defoliated, e.g. use shade cloth or paint the trunk and branches with whitewash;
  5. Remove any remaining fruit to prevent pest and disease build-up and unwanted stress on the trees.

We put out a call for help to the community to help us with #5, because the job of removing all that fruit was just too daunting. We got a great response, any fruit that was salvageable was taken home by the vollies, and we received some terrific donations for our local CFA.

So, one year on, what did we learn?

Plum trees flowering the spring after the fire
  • That if you’re going to remove a tree, do it sooner rather than later, because unless the tree is stone cold dead it’s likely to re-shoot, which may trick you into thinking it’s worth your time to try to nurse it back to health.
  • If the tree is burned around the base, it may re-shoot high in the tree. It may have lots of vigorous growth, but you’ll end up with a tree that grows all its fruit high in the tree where it’s hard to manage. It’s probably best to remove it.
  • If the tree has been badly burned it’s probably better to cut your losses and start fresh with a new tree. It will probably take years for the tree to recover completely, and even then it may never function as well as before the fire.
  • Fruit trees are incredibly resilient! We were able to save a few trees that had only been mildly burned because they re-shot so vigorously it gave us plenty of opportunity to prune away the damaged wood and leave new shoots that will grow into replacement limbs.
New shoots that will replace the wood that was burned.

We also learned that we’re pretty resilient, and that after the initial shock we were able to get on with things really quickly, particularly because we received excellent support from the community. We were also extremely fortunate that we received some compensation for our losses, which made a huge difference to our capacity to clear up trees and get on with our recovery.

If you’ve found this blog useful and are looking for more helpful tips about how to manage your fruit trees, please visit our online short course library.

Why do you dream of growing your own?

Ah, the lifestyle dream. Everyone, it seems, wants to move to the country and grow their own food these days.
But why? What’s at the bottom of this passion that drives people to want to make the “tree change”?
For years I’ve been interested in the reasons for this, but have struggled to articulate them. It’s something I’ve also felt for most of my life, so I totally get it, but how do you describe that deep, yearning desire to grow your own food, let alone the incredible satisfaction and pride you feel when it works, and you harvest, cook and eat it?
We often comment when we sit down to a meal about how much of the meal we grew ourselves, or came from neighbours, friends or family.
We’re in the incredibly fortunate position of having lived on a farm for 20 years now (and growing up here as well), so we’ve had plenty of time to get the systems in place and the skills to grow a large part of what we eat.
We mainly eat meat from our farm or other farms in the district and have practised home butchery for years; we grow about 50% of our veggies (including the ones we preserve in summer to eat in winter), or get them from the Gung Hoes, and of course we have all the fruit we could possibly want for eating, preserving and cooking.
Occasionally a meal will also include our own nuts (we grow almonds), honey from a neighbour or eggs from a family member (we don’t currently have chickens but are planning to remedy that soon!).
This little ritual is not only a way of expressing gratitude and appreciation for the earth, but also interesting for making you think about the foods you don’t grow yourself, and whether (a) you could, or (b) they’re replaceable with something else you could grow.
To try to get to the bottom of this collective passion for food growing, we recently asked a bunch of people what they thought of the idea of being self-sufficient, growing organic food, and producing a surplus to sell. Here’s what they said:
  • It’s the best dream I’ve ever had
  • In my dreams
  • Amazing…yes!
  • To be self-sufficient, to take care of nature and to supply for my community with the surplus, that is what permaculture is about – it all appeals to me!
  • I love the idea of this! Good for the whole world! Good for people, the Earth and our fellow Tellurians, fantastic!
  • Love this!!!
  • My total dream: to be able to be as self-sufficient as possible with food, plus to be environmentally friendly
  • Totally love the idea of being self-sufficient, not having to rely on supermarkets. To know where my food comes from and how it was grown as well as being able to get children involved so they understand the importance of fresh healthy food.
  • Food is all important, to nourish and repair
  • Being sustainable, knowing where and how my food is grown, feeling proud of my produce
  • To be able to go out the back door to the garden and pick food that is free from chemicals that tastes amazing that would be just perfect.
  • Sure is my dream! A few reasons: sustainability and environment, a changing climate and food security, and because I love growing things!

Enjoying the abundance of the Gung Hoe market garden outside our back door

The urge to grow your own seems innate—and of course, that absolutely makes sense. The drive to feed yourself and your family is primal—it’s key to staying alive and making sure your genes are passed on to the next generation.
But these comments show that it’s so much more as well. We’re not just driven by primal desires (as important as they are), people are also drawn to growing their own food for ideals of health, teaching children, eating food with no chemicals, looking after the environment and, well, just living simply.
Bring it on, we say.