April means garlic for us and the anniversary of our time growing at Mt Alexander Fruit Gardens. In theory garlic is the last of our autumn and winter crops to go in the ground, but in reality it’s one of the many things we’re rushing to get in the ground while there is still some warmth to the soil and the weather isn’t either too blisteringly hot or too freezing cold. Next week, we will be planting out our fifth crop of garlic as Gung Hoe Growers.
We’ve carefully saved our best garlic from the crop we pulled out in November 2018 and this will be what we plant out next week in our beds, which have housed beans all summer. Over the past 5 years we’ve repeated this process so that slowly over time the garlic we grow is really well acclimatised and suited to our specific little patch of land and climate. We’re also going to try planting a later-maturing variety of garlic, which our lovely friend Darren from “Two Good Acres” in Yapeen has kindly offered to give us some of. That way we can extend the harvest and storage of our garlic crops over a longer period of time.
If April is Garlic, than March is broad beans (and everything else). Most of our brassicas (Cauliflowers, Broccoli, Brussels, Kohl Rabi, etc.) got tucked in in February along with the winter greens (Escarole, Radicchio, Endives), leeks and spring onions. After visiting Days Walk Farm and picking up a few good new tips and with the wonderful volunteer help of Marty, Cara and Kya, we planted out our broad beans in what was the Okra row. Rather than pull the okra plants out, which are still spitting out the occasional okra, we decided to leave the plants in the ground and plant the broadies in around them. Our idea is that as the broadies grow we’ll be able to continue to harvest the okra, and they may even be nursed through the winter with the frost protection from the broad beans. That means we don’t have to lose all the good soil biology that’s clustered around the roots of the okra or disturb the soil too much. Bit of an experiment, but that’s how we like to roll.
Last year we were still harvesting tomatoes and eggplants in late May. It was a lovely long (proper) autumn. This year, we haven’t really had an autumn, it feels like it’s gone straight to winter. We’ll be ripping the tomatoes out in a week or so and making way for more winter crops like onions. Farming teaches us to be creative with whatever the weather and natures presents to us and try and make the best of it. It’s a humbling place to be, and a constant reminder that despite what we tell ourselves, we really cannot control anything in life.
It comes around so quick. Amidst the busy-ness of summer harvest time we somehow find time to kneel among our beautiful seedling root stock nursery and imagine the varieties they will one day be. It’s a little bit Frankenstein, a little bit God, to change the destiny of these wee trees and transform them into the varieties of juicy, tasty fruit we want them to be. But that’s how it works. If we let the trees that we’ve grown from seed or cutting grow to maturity, sure they will fruit, but the fruit will likely be small, not very tasty or both! In the case of citrus and plum seedlings, they will most likely be extremely spiky too!
That’s where summer budding comes in. By budding we can add one or more know varieties of fruit cultivar to the seedling rootstock. That’s where the Frankenstein thing comes in. You have to have a surgeon’s precision (and ideally over 50 year’s experience like Merv) to cut the fine incisions in the bark of the rootstock trunk (which by now is about the thickness of your index finger), just big enough for the bud to slide in and get taped on. Once the sap starts to flow and join the new bud onto the original rootstock tree then we have success, but if our cuts are a bit outta whack, the bud a bit big or dry, or the season too late then we have to wait again until spring to graft and try again.
February is the ideal time for budding. The rootstock trees are as big as they’re going to get (more or less) and the sap is still flowing, so happy unions between bud and tree can happen. Once the trees start to slow down for autumn and their winter hibernation, then the bark wont ‘lift’ anymore to receive a bud. This week, we (Merv, Katie and Sas) started our summer budding on the peaches. With freshly sharpened knives in hand we budded about 150 trees of all sorts of varieties of peach and nectarine. The rootstock trees we’ve grown from seed we saved out of last year’s bottling adventures. If the buds are successful, the trees should be ready to plant out in winter 2020.
It’s not the most glamorous or elegant activity, spending hours on your elbows and knees carefully slicing open small trees. But it is so incredibly interesting to see how the trees grow and learn about all the different varieties and experiment with different techniques, such as multi-buds on single trees. If we’re creating monsters, at least they’re edible monsters!!!
I go among trees and sit still. All my stirring becomes quiet around me like circles on water. My tasks lie in their places where I left them, asleep like cattle. Then what is afraid of me comes My tasks lie in their places and lives a while in my sight. What it fears in me leaves me, and the fear of me leaves it. It sings, and I hear its song. Then what I am afraid of comes. I live for a while in its sight. What I fear in it leaves it, and the fear of it leaves me. It sings, and I hear its song. After days of labour, Mute in my consternations, I hear my song at last, and I sing it. As we sing, the day turns, the trees move.
— Wendell Berry
Hi out there! I hope you are having a moment’s breath and soaking up the rain we got yesterday and are enjoying the cool change like me (Mel). Whilst I was picking lettuce at dawn on Tuesday I had this whole blog written out in my mind. I love the meditative state I can find myself in whilst completing some tasks. The blog I’d composed was actually quite negative and there were tears forming if I allowed myself to go there. You see, Tuesday morning through to Tuesday afternoon is a big picking and packing day for us. We are currently providing 40-odd houses (affectionately named ‘boxies’ – they have committed to buying a small or large veg box off us for the summer season) with weekly veg and still up keeping a somewhat regular supply of salad, veg and edible flowers to local restaurants, cafes, caterers and occasionally sell bulk produce to a few green grocers in town too. So, Tuesdays we arrive at the farm 5.3 0am, put the coffee on the stove, the irrigation on, water the seedlings in the hardening-off area and after we write all the orders and divvy up which box gets what we set out to pick ‘n pack it all.
Usually by this time of year we are drowning in summer produce and are needing to pick every 2 days, and it was this that made the old eyes start to well. As I was picking the lettuce (which looked beautiful) all I could see around me was what I deemed as failure. The green tomatoes staring at us = failure; the basil just plumping up after being in the ground for 2 months = failure; the zuchs with a few fruit on them = failure; the cucamelons from Mexico that are meant to love drought are splattered with baby fruit a few mm long but not really what I’d call abundant picking = failure; the capsicums under their shade cloth with but a few fruit = failure; the eggplants showering again with flowers and bees but small fruit = failure; the corn with its wind-shrivelled leaves and flowers = failure; the beans with fried flowers from the wind = no beans = failure. A few successes but for the most part what I felt surrounded by was failure.
I walked back to the shed to splash water on the buckets of leaves I’d picked and put them in the coolroom when I ran into Sas who was bunching kale/silverbeet and restaurants’ herbs…mentioned the failure feeling to her and I was met with an unexpected response: ‘I know!! It’s all I can see…’. So it wasn’t just me being extra hormonal or something if Sas was experiencing it too. We had a quick chat about it and went back to picking our respective vegies. In our quick chat we had both identified the need to build not just eco-system and food resilience, but mental resilience. We are not strangers to the failure feelings (I’d even be so bold to say that everyone experiences them) and we are getting better at acknowledging them and identifying why we’re feeling that way and if it’s within our control or not. So Tuesday morning we both came to the fact that this season’s current challenge (as all seasons have at least one) has been the heat. And without wanting to bang on about it, the consequences of it are really tough! Next year we will be better prepared, plan for another hot season and no doubt we will have a wet, mouldy etc etc season and there will be more blogs about wet and mildew ha! (…or it could be just right and nature and us will nail it!). But in the meantime we have to just keep plodding on in the current reality. We get one shot at each season each year….
Another thing we acknowledged to ourselves were expectations. Our own expectations and what we think others’ expectations of us are. We want to provide everyone with what summer normally provides! For example, tomatoes big and small, yellow and black and red. But we aren’t doing that. We feel like we aren’t providing what we should be – thus we have failed and let people down and people will think we’re not trying hard enough, aren’t very good, won’t trust us with their stomachs again…etc etc. It’s a whole spiral when you start going down that tunnel. Which is so bloomin’ easy to do. Hence why we spoke about mental resilience instead.
We both finished the fragile leaves that need to be carefully picked and bunched before the sun’s rays get too hot by 9am and sat down for a coffee (yes, another one!) and breakfast with Tessa (the legend behind the microdairy) in the shed. We asked her about mental resilience and we spoke about it a bit more. Later that day when I was weighing and bagging up salad leaves for boxes and restaurants, Katie was packing fruit and so I also asked her about the failure feelings. I’m still yet to hear the gems of wisdom from her lived experience, but she spoke about the reality of that feeling being common with farmers. Her decade of farming in drought and seeing farmers commit suicide saw her build mental resilience I reckon – Katie I’m still gonna hunt down that conversation with you!
Again there was that affirmation that these feelings are very real. So I think I’m still left with pondering a bit of how to build that said mental resilience. I think we’re doing heaps better this year with that than any other year. Even though we’re very green (young/new) at farming we do have a few years under our belt now, simply to know that something always goes wrong, there’s always pests depending on the condition of the seasons and if we try hard enough we do remember that we are producing good food, to people and our community and that were getting better each year.
One of the reasons we wanted to do veggie boxes apart from it stemming from the value of wanting to offer affordable, locally grown, chemical free food to families in our community, was also to have direct contact with people who are eating the food! When we deliver to restaurants we have big smiles for the chefs who produce works of art with our produce – but we don’t get to sit at the table when customers eat the fresh salad leaves and the crisp, peppery watermelon radish…
Having direct contact and seeing stuff go home to houses has a lot of value for us. I think this year we have seen potentially the other side of this value in action too. This isn’t a cry for comments or anything like that – just a transparent slide from our side acknowledging the fact that we take it very seriously that people have committed to eating with us for a season. So I guess where my I’m left is with the reality of the season and our capacity is what it is. We work hard and do our best. And at the end of the day we laugh and cry and laugh, work in a stunning outdoor office surrounded by other beautiful hardworking souls farming and we love what we do…
And now, you can go back up to the top and read the Wendell Berry poem again and it might make more sense 🙂
Peace out, do some dance steps or jump around to thrash – whatever’s your fancy; and as Leunig would say, go pat a dog.