Spring has sprung in the patch

Happy change of season and daylight hours out there!

Hope this finds you reawakening as one does when the light gets longer and the air begins to blush with warmer winds.

The Gung Hoe patch in spring
The Gung Hoe patch in spring

I think the turnover seasons are my favourite on the farm.  They are, of course one of the most important and busy, but they are also a pleasure to be amongst.  In Spring the grass is green (and growing very fast along with the weeds) and your fingers don’t snap off from frost and the birds have woken up and are darting everywhere eating the smaller (and bigger) bugs that are alive thanks to warmer weather and soil.  Everything feels alive rather than cold, dead and cold.  It feels hopeful and abundant.

Seedlings in the hothouse
Seedlings in the hothouse

And that’s the tricky thing about Spring – it feels all of these things but one thing it definitely isn’t is abundant.  While things are growing it’s a tricky time with planting, sowing and of course, timing.  Things we planted too late in Autumn/winter don’t do well with the sudden hello of hotter horizons; freak out and bolt.  And the hot lovin’ plants like zuchs, cucs, tomatoes, caps, melons, basil and chillies can’t handle weather below 10…our nights have been colder than that still, and as the old saying goes – don’t plant them out till after Melbourne Cup Day – it’s true! unless you’ve got a warm hot house or like Sas, heatbeds and love and care to water them everyday…at least once.  So with hope comes one of our leanest times out here in Harcourt with veg. In saying that this year does seem to be one of the best in terms of us being on top of things and as much as anyone can never be – on a somewhat OK timeline?!! haha.

It’s also that time of year when things begin to shadow over you as you know it will be non stop for the next little while…

We’re excited to have partnered with the monthly Castlemaine Farmers Market to begin a weekly farmers market.  Beginning on Nov 6th, prioritising Mount Alexander Shire residents there will be producers from our region selling their wares.  We are hoping that people and producers alike get behind the market and it becomes a thriving weekly event with good food and good people.  Sas and I think it is imperative to build up the resilience of the local food system, and we believe this is a way to encourage and support and hopefully inspire the region’s producers with an avenue to sell and be seen for all the work they do and connect with their community. 

Our little farm family (co-op and volunteers and workers) continues to swell and step further into understanding how and what we’re all doing.  It is an evolving journey and one that teaches lessons for each and all along the way.

The farm family gathering for Katie's birthday morning tea
The farm family gathering for Katie’s birthday morning tea

We are lucky to have met a hilarious lady named Sarah (through Tessa) who is helping us build a website.  This is great ‘cos its been on our to do list for about 2 years now…when its up and running in a few weeks it will be the place to find the link to our Open Food Network online shop to buy boxes – hopefully starting in December sometime – all our blogs and information on where in the community you can buy our produce, info for restaurants/cafes who want to work with us and news about the co-op etc, etc.  Hurrah!

Ziggy gathering her resources in preparation for a busy season ahead
Ziggy gathering her resources in preparation for a busy season ahead

On a personal note, I am so glad for a change of season as winter has been dark.  Maybe one of the darkest actually.  I have a new found gratefulness for being able to put my energy into Gung Hoe and the family out here at Harcourt because without it, I’m not sure where I would have ended up.  I have regained my love and passion for what Sas and I (are trying to) do and am excited by the potential and current lay of the land.  I feel proud to claim my aims and creations made of dirt; and want nothing more but for us to keep evolving and growing Gung Hoe and our farming family to be a beautiful, successful (I have my own definitions for this) growing, learning and thriving existence.  For us and for our community. 

Here below is an excerpt from one of my favourites – Khalil Gibran, ‘The Prophet’ on Work. Note – for me the God is unreligious.  

May we grow in all senses of the word.
Cheers, Mel 

“Then a ploughman said, Speak to us of Work. And he answered, saying: You work that you may keep pace with the earth and the soul of the earth. For to be idle is to become a stranger unto the seasons, and to step out of life’s procession, that marches in majesty and proud submission towards the infinite. When you work you are a flute through whose heart the whispering of the hours turns to music. Which of you would be a reed, dumb and silent, when all else sings together in unison? Always you have been told that work is a curse and labour a misfortune. But I say to you that when you work you fulfil a part of earth’s furthest dream, assigned to you when the dream was born, And in keeping yourself with labour you are in truth loving life, And to love life through labour is to be intimate with life’s inmost secret. But if you in your pain call birth an affliction and the support of the flesh a curse written upon your brow, then I answer that naught but the sweat of your brow shall wash away that which is written. You have been told also that life is darkness, and in your weariness you echo what was said by the weary. And I say that life is indeed darkness save when there is urge, And all urge is blind save when there is knowledge, And all knowledge is vain save when there is work, And all work is empty save when there is love; And when you work with love you bind yourself to yourself, and to one another, and to God. And what is it to work with love? It is to weave the cloth with threads drawn from your heart, even as if your beloved were to wear that cloth. It is to build a house with affection, even as if your beloved were to dwell in that house. It is to sow seeds with tenderness and reap the harvest with joy, even as if your beloved were to eat the fruit. It is to charge all things you fashion with a breath of your own spirit, And to know that all the blessed dead are standing about you and watching.”

Gung Hoe Growers
69 Dann’s Rd Harcourt

Thinning 101

Mid spring is the time to start thinking about the “whys”and “hows” of fruit thinning, or manually removing some of the fruit from your trees. A lot of people have heard of it, but most people don’t really understand it – and anyway, pulling fruit off the tree just feels wrong!

One of the least understood reasons for doing this job is to try to break the cycle of biennial bearing that many fruit trees naturally adopt.

Angeleno plums before thinning
Angeleno plums before thinning

Here’s a typical bunch of plums on a tree as they naturally set. As you can see, there’s LOTS of plums in these two bunches at the end of a small branch.

This is what we’d call a “heavy” crop, and maybe enough to tell the tree to take a year off next year, or in other words, have a “light” crop.

Angeleno plums after thinning
Angeleno plums after thinning

If we remove all but two of the plums, we’re sending the tree a signal that it’s having a light crop this year, which will encourage it to have a heavy crop again next year.

But the good news is that if we do this job early enough we’re sacrificing very little actual fruit production, as the tree will put the same amount of energy into the fruit you leave on the tree as it would have to the big bunches of fruit.   

Managing the crop is one of your main jobs as the caretaker of your fruit tree, but there’s several other excellent reasons for thinning as well, including protecting the structure of the tree, getting more usable fruit, and protecting it from pests and diseases.

Of course knowing how much fruit to remove is the tricky bit, and one of the things that stops people doing this job, or doing it properly. We’ve included charts to help you calculate the variables in the Fruit Tree Thinning short course.

Insects in fruit trees

In spring we reckon it’s a good idea to visit your fruit trees at least once a week, and have a really good look at the leaves, flowers, fruit and bark. It’s a good way to keep track of the health of your tree, and stay ahead of any disease issues that show up.

One of the more interesting looking insects you might see on your fruit tree
One of the more interesting looking insects you might see on your fruit tree

While you’re there, try to spot any critters living in and around the tree, like this great bug we found on an apricot tree.

It doesn’t matter if you can identify the bug or not (though that can sometimes be useful) – it’s safe to assume that it’s playing an important role in the ecosystem (like pollination, pest control, or acting as a food source for someone else), even if we don’t know what that is.

A bee working hard on a peach flower
A bee working hard on a peach flower

Many people mistakenly think pollination depends solely on bees, whereas in fact many insects play an important role (you can find out more about this important topic in Bees and Pollination).

Though it’s absolutely fascinating trying to figure out what sort of bugs you’ve got, identification is much less important than the fact that you have lots of biodiversity in your garden or on your farm. In short, the more different types of bugs you can count, the healthier your system is.

Amazing antennae...
Amazing antennae…

Why is biodiversity so important?

We often get questions from people who have noticed bugs or insects on their fruit or trees, and are wondering if they should get rid of them, and if so how?

That’s not our approach at all!

In a healthy, biodiverse system there should be literally thousands of different types of insects around, and they all play a part in an incredibly complex system that (if it’s not interfered with) will generally keep itself in balance.

Unless you’re an insect specialist, there’s little chance that you can identify them all or even understand whether they’re a “pest” or a “predator” – in fact, many are both. For example earwigs are a dratted nuisance in apricot and cherry trees, but a useful predator eating up millions of aphids in apple trees.

An earwig on a leaf  - pest or predator (or both)?
An earwig on a leaf – pest or predator (or both)?

So we take a different approach.

Rather than focusing on the insects themselves, we focus on protecting our fruit and our fruit trees from damage.

The methodology we use, both on the farm and in our ebook What’s Bugging My Fruit? is not to try getting rid of the bugs (which is usually impossible, frustrating and expensive), but to understand their life cycle and look for vulnerabilities where we can often use small, easy, physical interventions to stop them doing damage to our precious fruit. Over many years of growing fruit organically we’ve found this method much more effective.

So when you’re doing your weekly inspections of your fruit trees, look for bugs, but also look for damage on the fruit and the trees, because that’s what will guide you as to the appropriate prevention techniques.

A spined predatory shield bug
A spined predatory shield bug