Field Trips Are Fun

Field trips to other people’s properties are one of the most effective ways of learning about farming (apart from actually doing it for a few years, of course).

Ant at his first ANOO conference, with Hugh and Katie
Ant at his first ANOO conference, with Hugh and Katie

We’re just back from ANOO 2019, the fifth conference of the Australian Network of Organic Orchardists.

We went back to the roots by returning to Tassie, where ANOO was born back in 2015, the brainchild of Michelle McColl from Kalangadoo Organics. It’s a pretty casual group – no committee, no office bearers, no bank account, and is based on two principles: it’s for certified organic commercial growers, and it’s a collaborative, information-sharing space.

Organic orchardists having a round table discussion at Willie Smith's Apple Shed, in the Huon valley
Organic orchardists having a round table discussion at Willie Smith’s Apple Shed, in the Huon valley

Even though no-one’s a complete expert, ANOO is a gathering of farmers who are problem solving every day to grow the best fruit they possibly can.

We all face the same issues and problems, but everyone puts their own interpretation on them and solves them in their own unique way, like Simon, who uses a flame thrower in his orchard to get rid of last year’s leaves and the Black spot spores they carry, without only minimal damage to the understorey – a brilliant solution!

Simon demonstrating the flamethrower he uses to kill black spot spores in his orchard
Simon demonstrating the flamethrower he uses to kill black spot spores in his orchard

Sometimes the learning comes from noticing the differences between the farms we visit and our own. And because ANOO is set up on the principle of openness and information sharing, we get to see and hear about everyone’s mistakes, as well as their successes.

Simon's undulating orchard on the side of several hills had Ant jumping for joy
Simon’s undulating orchard on the side of several hills had Ant jumping for joy

In Tassie some of the challenges most growers face is too much vigour in the trees, and too much grass in the orchard. We wish! It’s such a contrast to our semi-arid growing conditions, and our relatively low soil carbon levels.

So it’s reassuring to benchmark ourselves against others and and assess our yields, fruit quality, and disease management against what other people are getting. Ant should feel rightly proud of the success he’s achieved with Tellurian Fruit Gardens with a minimal amount of water, and good soil and nutrition management.

Ant giving the pigs what they love at Our Mates' Farm in Geeveston
Ant giving the pigs what they love at Our Mates’ Farm in Geeveston

We saw lots of examples of animals in orchards, which gave Ant the chance to compare the different management techniques he needs to use to look after his animals in our drier and more fragile environment.

The greatest value of ANOO (or other similar networks, like Mel talked about in her blog about the Deep Winter Agrarians gathering) is having a peer group of like-minded people who “get” what you’re talking about.

There’s not many places in the world we can have in-depth conversations about Codling Moth or Black Spot without the eyes of the person you’re talking with quickly glazing over!

Where are my bloody multigrips?
Where are my bloody multigrips?

Without fail, we learn something new to bring back for the farm, and for our Grow Great Fruit members, and this year was no exception – we’re buzzing with new ideas to share.

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

Will a multigraft fruit tree suit you?

Multigraft fruit trees are kind of awesome.

A multigraft apricot tree with two varieties
A multigraft apricot tree with two varieties

This is a great example — an apricot tree with both Katy and Trevatt apricot branches. Katy is an early apricot that is a bright orange colour, firm texture, slightly oblong shape and terrific flavour that combines sweetness and tartness. It’s also a reliable cropper.

Trevatt is a more common apricot that you may have heard of — it’s a heritage variety (dating from the 1900s, developed in Mildura), and is completely different to Katy. It ripens about a month later, it has pale lemony-orange skin, and is a super-sweet apricot with very little tartness. It also has a much different texture, ripens from the inside, and is much softer — it can even go a little mushy if allowed to get overripe.

So, will a multigraft suit you? They’re much less well-known, and many gardeners are a little hesitant to try them out.

It’s almost a no-brainer that a multigraft is a better use of the space in your garden, unless you have space for a LOT of fruit trees and would prefer to have whole trees of each variety. Considering that a mature tree can easily yield up to 40 or 50 kg of fruit (or more) in a good season, it usually makes sense to spread the harvest over a longer period, rather than have a massive glut to deal with all at once.

There’s a couple of other great reasons that multi-grafts can work well:

  • pollination: in this example both varieties are self-fertile, but even self-fertile trees can benefit from having pollen from another variety close by, and this can help to increase yields;
  • spreads the risk: apart from the issue of gluts already discussed, some seasons just don’t favour some varieties. For example, if you happen to get a frost just at the time when the Katy are at full bloom, the Trevatt may be later coming into bloom and might therefore have less frost damage. Another scenario we’ve seen many times is rain affecting one variety that is almost ripe, causing it to split, while another variety that is still a month away from picking can escape relatively unscathed — so the more varieties you have, the better your chance of at least getting some fruit every year!
  • disease resistance: different varieties may be more vulnerable to particular diseases, like blossom blight or brown rot, either because of the difference in their ripening times, or just the natural resistance of that variety.
A fruit salad tree with a plum and two apricots
A fruit salad tree with a plum and two apricots

A fruit salad tree is like a multi-graft on steroids!

This extends the concept to include different types of fruit on the same tree, rather than just different varieties of the same type of fruit. In the example we’ve included here, you get both!

This tree has three varieties:

  1. Katy apricot (described above) – ripens late Nov
  2. Trevatt apricot (described above) – ripens late Dec
  3. Angelina plum – an early season European plum, very sweet, with beautiful dark purple skin with the traditional dusty-looking ‘bloom’ on the skin. These plums are incredibly delicious and versatile – you can eat them fresh, dry them, bottle them, jam them or make them into wine, just to name a few. They’re also a favourite for the classic European plum dumplings, or plum cake. They’re a really good plum to include in the garden.
Beautiful Angelina plums
Beautiful Angelina plums

Angelinas ripen in January – so with just one tree you’ve already extended your harvest over three months, as well as given yourself a pretty good variety of fruit to enjoy and preserve.

We love creating multi-grafts in our on-farm nursery (called Carr’s Organic Fruit Tree Nursery), and have quite a lot of different combos on sale this year — you can see our selection of multi-grafts here.

At the moment we’ve limited it to apricots and plums (though we have plans to extend it to apples, pears and peaches), but there’s heaps more you can do in your own garden, by learning how to graft new varieties onto existing trees.

It’s such a brilliant and easy way to extend your fruit season and increase the variety of fruit in your diet that Grow Your Own Fruit Trees for Free
is one of our favourite short courses, and probably the best one to start with if you’re new to grafting. We also have specialist courses on individual grafting techniques when you’re ready for them.

There can be a couple of drawbacks with multi-grafts though.

One of them is that the trees can come out of the nursery a slightly unusual shape (as you can see from the photo above), and so require a bit of careful management to establish as a useful ‘vase’ shaped tree.

The other main issue is that one variety may dominate the tree, and again, may need some attention when pruning to help keep the tree balanced. A handy tip is to plant the tree with the weakest branch pointing north, where it will be favoured by more sunlight.

But really, the management issues are usually handled easily during the regular “getting to know you” phase of your relationship with the tree, and once established, they usually settle down and crop beautifully.