To mulch or not to mulch?

Our fruit growing study tour of the USA got us thinking about mulch, as we saw a number of different approaches to it in our travels.

An apple tree mulched with woodchips at the Maine Heritage Orchard
An apple tree mulched with woodchips at the Maine Heritage Orchard

Of course it wasn’t hard to find orchards where the weeds have been completely sprayed out with herbicide, and mulch isn’t needed because there’s no plants left.

Yuk! Don’t do that!

The chemicals are bad for your health, the weeds grow back and need spraying again ($ straight from your pocket to the chemical companies), but worst of all – it’s really bad for the soil and kills the natural fertility system that trees need to get their nutrients (more $ straight from your pocket to the fertiliser company).

So what to do? Should you just let the weeds grow? Won’t they compete with the trees?

For young trees this is somewhat true – it’s definitely helpful to keep the weeds (or you could call them precious understory biodiversity plants) down while the tree’s roots are getting established, and we saw this in action at the Maine Heritage Orchard in Unity, Maine.

This orchard was planted not that many years ago on the site of a disused gravel pit, so major soil building and remediation has been the order of the day.

Hardwood chips have been extensively used, not only to mulch the trees when they were planted, but also to build paths, build soil more generally, and as an ongoing weed suppression tool even as the trees mature.

A tree in Michael Phillips' orchard which was mulched with woodchips when planted and has since been allowed to revert to natural understory
A tree in Michael Phillips’ orchard which was mulched with woodchips when planted and has since been allowed to revert to natural understory

We saw a different approach in Michael Phillips’ orchard in New Hampshire.

He also uses woodchips on young trees, but welcomes a wide diversity of understory plants as the trees grow, using mulch in a more ad hoc way.

There is widespread agreement that if you are going to mulch, hardwood woodchips are preferable.

This is because fruit trees prefer a fungally dominant soil, as we explain in our Soil Biology and the Soil Food Web short course.

Understanding the amazing world of soil microbes that are key to the Natural Fertility System will change the way you think about soil, fertiliser and mulch forever.

So, to mulch, or not to mulch?

After everything we’ve seen, we’re still in favour of mulching while the trees are young, and then transitioning to either a natural or cultivated understory – a “living mulch”!

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