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

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


The opportunity cost of not netting

Beautiful autumn colours in the apricots
Beautiful autumn colours in the apricots

Autumn is one of the most stunning times of year here on the farm. But it hasn’t all been beautiful sunny weather, we’ve finally had some decent rain. We’ve even had a bit of hail the last couple of days.

Hailstorms at this time of year are much less damaging than when we have fruit on the trees, but have reminded us of one of the main benefits of netting your trees.

Most of us think of netting fruit trees as a preventive measure to stop the birds eating the fruit – and it is – but it can also provide a level of protection against hail damage, depending on the type of net you use, and how you apply it.

Putting away the nets after the season
Putting away the nets after the season

As the fruit season winds down and we start to have a bit more breathing space to think about other things, now is a great time to review how your netting (if you have any) performed this season. Think about both the pros and cons:

  • was it easy to manage the infrastructure (either building your netting system, or putting out and taking in nets)?
  • how well did it protect your fruit from different species of birds or other animals like bats, possums, rats, kangaroos or deer?
  • did it provide any protection from weather events like rain, hail or storms?
  • did it have a negative effect on birds or wildlife? 
  • did it cause any damage to the fruit or trees?

It might have been a bit of a pain to manage, or not been completely effective. But here comes the real convincer (and it’s probably something you don’t want to think about!)

If you didn’t net your trees this year, try to estimate how much fruit you’ve actually lost to birds, other animals or weather events that you think might have been preventable with the right protection in place. 

Considering that a mature tree can easily produce from 20 to 40 kg of fruit (or even more in some cases), you may well be looking at substantial losses!

Once you have the answers to those questions, they’ll steer you in the right direction for making some good decisions about how you’ll approach the question of netting your fruit trees next season.

A netting enclosure over cherry trees reinforced with wire
A netting enclosure over cherry trees reinforced with wire

And it’s definitely worth putting protection in place if you can. If you’ve never seen hail damage of peaches, check this out – gruesome, huh?

Hail damage in cling peaches
Hail damage in cling peaches

Our farm is in a fruit growing area, and it’s becoming increasingly common for commercial orchardists to net their orchards to prevent hail damage as well as bird damage.

Two common methods commercial growers rely on are to use either a permanent canopy system (as you can see in the photo above), or drape netting the trees each year and then storing the nets in the shed over winter, as we do on the farm.

Surprisingly, both systems can offer substantial protection against hail. It’s tempting to think that you’ll only get hail protection if you put in a highly engineered (and therefore expensive) permanent structure, but actually those systems can be more easily damaged by hail, as we saw in a really bad hailstorm in Harcourt a few years ago, where the weight of the hailstones caused severe damage to the net of a neighbouring orchard (though to be fair, it did protect the crop underneath).

Drape netting may still result in some fruit on the outside of the tree (where it’s in contact with, or just under the net) being damaged by hail, but actually the net deflects most of the hail and provides pretty good coverage for most of the crop.


In our opinion, the best system for both birds and hail is something like the one above, because it’s not in contact with the tree, but it also allows the hail to fall off rather than catching it. This type of system can also be as temporary or permanent as you like and the same structure can also be used for frost cloth or fruit fly cloth if needed.

So there you go, the pros and cons of different types of netting systems for providing hail protection.

Which netting system you use (and you can see quite a few different versions in our short course Protect Your Crop From Birds) will depend on your garden, your budget and your capacity to build it – but guaranteed, your future self will thank you for installing the most effective system you can manage!