Creating water security in a changing climate

The pad for the new water tank
The pad for the new water tank

It doesn’t look very exciting, does it, but it is! It’s the pad for the new water tank we installed next to our shed as part of the ‘Hub’ infrastructure we’re building for the Harcourt Organic Farming Co-op, funded by Agriculture Victoria’s Food Source Funding (for which we are very grateful).

The completed tank looks even better than we imagined, and is now steadily filling up.

Our shiny new water tankhy
Our shiny new water tank

Why are we talking about this, when the tank’s old news, and we have plenty of water at the moment?

Because one of the principles we absolutely rely on on the farm, and in our teaching, is that diversity = resilience. In the case of water, we advocate having as many different sources of water available as possible — and definitely more than one!

Hugh improving the irrigation system
Hugh improving the irrigation system

We’re bringing it up now because autumn and winter are good times to be thinking about how to increase your water security, and making improvements.

The pressure is mostly off from being busy with harvest, but the logistics of your irrigation system are still fresh in your mind from summer — how easy or hard it was to run, whether you had enough water to grow a full, healthy crop of fruit, how much your water cost (if anything), and how well your trees managed with the amount of water you gave them.

We rely on water from four different sources – the Coliban Water irrigation system, our dams, storage in the soil (ie rainfall) and tanks, but we know from past experience in the big drought that sometimes this isn’t enough, and so we’re always looking to add more resilience into the system.

Our large farm dam - which also gets used for recreation!
Our large farm dam – which also gets used for recreation!

For us, the main solutions are:

  • buying more water to give us more of a buffer if our allocation is reduced;
  • continuing to put in more roof catchment and tanks;
  • continuing to improve the water-holding capacity of our soil;
  • keyline planning and design for the farm, to improve water harvest and storage.

But of course your solutions to improving water security will probably be completely different.

They might include adding a tank, improving the efficiency of your irrigation system, improving the water-holding capacity of your soil, or installing a grey-water system.

This is a topic we’re passionate about, and have written three different short courses, plus an ebook on the topic, to help you improve your food growing resilience in a rapidly changing climate. It really is a topic none of us can avoid if we still want to be able to grow food in another 20, 30 or 50 years.

So if you’re planning to plant trees this year, or already have an established garden, now’s the time to either review how your irrigation system performed over summer, or plan to put a new system in.

We all need to be ready when (not if) the next drought (or flood) comes!

The big flood of 2011 breaking a dam wall
The big flood of 2011 breaking a dam wall

Have you planted a green manure crop this year?

A few weeks ago we recommended planting a green manure crop as one of the fastest and easiest ways to improve your soil before you plant fruit trees. This week we’re showing you what the crop should be looking like by by now, and what to look for.

A green manure is a fast-growing crop of (usually) annual plants, and it’s one of the quickest ways to improve soil fertility and add organic matter to your soil.

The last couple of times we’ve planted new orchards, we’ve first put in a green manure crop before we’ve planted the fruit trees because we’re always aiming to increase the biodiversity under our fruit trees—it’s one of the best ways we can provide the right habitat for useful insects that help us keep the pests under control.

Sas planting a green manure crop in the nursery
Sas planting a green manure crop in the nursery

This year we planted a green manure in the block where we’ll be planting the new nursery in winter. The seed mix included grasses, legumes (nitrogen fixers) and herbs – grasses to add bulk organic matter to the soil, the legumes to add nitrogen, and the herbs to add a diverse mix of nutrients. If you’re not sure what seed to choose, you can check out our recommended plant lists (and even some suppliers of organic seed, if you’re in Australia) in this short course.

We’re always aiming to increase the biodiversity in our soil – it’s one of the best ways we can provide healthy soil to grow trees, as well as habitat for useful insects that help us keep the pests under control.

The more diversity you can get into your garden, the healthier your fruit trees (and all your other plants) will be. And if you’re growing your own food, you definitely want that food to be as healthy and nutrient rich as possible.

Clover starting to grow
Clover starting to grow

It’s always a good sign to see lots of clover seedlings coming up. We particularly like having clover because it’s a nitrogen fixer (taking nitrogen from the air and putting it in the soil where the trees can use it).

Clover is quite spreading and so out-competes less useful weeds, and it self-seeds so it will persist in the orchard for years.

Experience has shown us that even though we plough green manure crops back into the soil before we plant the trees, plenty of clover seedlings will still come up, and over time it will gradually spread throughout the orchard floor.

A bean plant in the green manure crop starting to grow
A bean plant in the green manure crop starting to grow

Before we plant the new nursery in July, we’ll be turning the crop in. We use a rotary hoe, or the disc behind the tractor, but in a home garden you can either turn it in with a shovel, or just mow it and leave it on the soil – it’s not quite as good, but the worms will eventually take that lovely organic matter underground for you.

Getting ready to plant a new tree
Getting ready to plant a new tree

One of the unfortunate consequences of using large macinery like a disc is that disturbing the soil so comprehensively provides the perfect environment for opportunistic weeds such as capeweed (below).

Beautiful but unpopular capeweed
Beautiful but unpopular capeweed

We appreciate all our weeds, and even the much-despised capeweed has many fine qualities, but it’s not the plant we prefer to see in the orchard, as it tends to out-compete more useful plants, without conferring the benefits of a nitrogen-fixer.

Just one word of warning – if you are going to turn in your green manure crop, try to leave at least a couple of weeks between doing so and planting your trees, because the rotting green material can become quite hot as it breaks down, and you don’t want to burn the roots of your baby trees!

So in a classic case of “do what we say, not what we do”, here’s our top 4 tips for looking after your soil when you plant your fruit trees:

  1. Plant a green manure crop
  2. Turn it into the soil at the site where you are going to plant a tree, preferably a few weeks before you plant
  3. Disturb the soil as little as possible when planting the tree
  4. Re-seed the area with preferred understorey plants.

What do you think of pears?

Do you have a pear tree in your garden? Are you interested in growing them?

A beautiful Winter Cole pear
A beautiful Winter Cole pear

We’re on a bit of a mission here at the farm to bring pears back into fashion, because when you get them right, they’re really delicious.

They also really lend themselves to preserving, they’re relatively bomb proof in the garden (as long as you keep the birds off), and they improve your food security by extending the fresh fruit season.

However they tend to be one of the more ignored fruits, and there’s a couple of reasons why.

One is because it’s very hard to pick them at the right time so they will ripen properly, though this is easier with some varieties (including the various types of nashis) than others.

Ripe nashi pears
Ripe nashi pears

Many types of pears go floury if you let them ripen on the tree, so they have to be picked when they are mature (but not ripe) and then stored in a coolroom or fridge for a few weeks before allowing them to ripen at room temperature. That means there’s a few variables you need to get right.

First, knowing when they are mature can be tricky; it’s about making sure that the seeds have gone completely dark brown and plump, and that the fruit has enough starch in it.

Secondly, you need to be patient and let the fruit stay in cold storage for long enough before you try to ripen them, or they just won’t ripen. This is something we’ve got wrong many times ourselves in the past – in our eagerness to get them to market, we’ve often either picked too early or not left them in the coolroom long enough.

Pear blister mite
Pear blister mite

Pears are relatively easy to grow. They can get a few problems, like Pear blister mite (above), Black spot (a common fungal disease) and of course the very common Pear and cherry slug, but none of those problems are too destructive or hard to control.

They’re usually very reliable trees, they thrive in conditions that other trees don’t like (e.g., soggy, or frosty areas) and it’s pretty easy to get them to crop well. 

Gorgeous white pear flowers
Gorgeous white pear flowers

Plus, they’re beautiful trees to have in the garden, with large glossy green leaves, beautiful white blossom, and a stunning autumn display. 

Clearly we’re big fans of pears, which is why we’ve been steadily expanding the number of varieties we grow on the farm. It also means we’re able to offer some unusual heritage varieties at Carr’s Organic Fruit Tree Nursery (like St Michael Archangel, Glou Morceau, and Beurre Clairgeau, as well as the much sought after but hard to find Lemon Bergamot.)

If you’re tempted to plant a pear tree but don’t feel confident in how to grow them, take our short course Plump pears and quirky quinces for information about pests and diseases that affect these fruits, how to prune them, and a bonus bundle of 5 tried-and-true pear and quince recipes.

Pears featured at the National Gallery of Australia
Pears featured at the National Gallery in Canberra