How do you plant a green manure?

We talk about green manures and how important they are for the soil all the time, but the logistics of getting the seed into the ground can be daunting, especially on a large scale, so we decided to share how we did it this week in the nursery.

The fallow nursery block after the disc plough has been used to turned in the weeds
The fallow nursery block after the disc plough has been used to turned in the weeds

Carr’s Organic Fruit Tree Nursery is made up of three different blocks, and at any given time one of them is fallow.

This is the perfect time to plant a green manure crop to restore soil fertility,
replenish the soil, and replace the organic matter we’ve removed by growing and harvesting hundreds of fruit trees.

After hearing soil scientist Dr. Christine Jones a couple of weeks ago and learning more about the importance of multi-species groundcovers, we got inspired to ramp up our green manure seed mix even more than usual. More on that in a moment, but first, how do you actually prepare the soil?

We’re lucky enough to have equipment, so Hugh jumped on the tractor and first up used the disc plough to turn in the weeds that were already growing. You can see the result in the first photo above.

Those weeds were in effect the first green manure crop, which we’re now following up with a more diverse plant mix that will hopefully stay green over summer.

We’re always wary about using equipment like discs, harrows or rotary hoes because of the way they smash up the soil and can damage microbes, particularly soil fungi.

But you’ve also got to find a way of getting the seed into the soil, and Dr. Jones was very much of the opinion that it’s worth disrupting the soil (albeit as minimally and infrequently as possible) to get diverse, perennial groundcover crops established. The benefit should quickly outweigh the initial cost.

The disc did a good job of turning most of the weeds in, but it was still too rough for the seeds to connect with the soil well enough, so next we put on the rotary hoe.

Hugh using the rotary hoe to prepare the soil for the green manure seed
Hugh using the rotary hoe to prepare the soil for the green manure seed

You can see the difference just one pass with the rotary hoe makes (on the left hand side of the photo above). It’s still not a super smooth seed bed, but it’s good enough for the seeds to hit the soil when they’re broadcast, rather than getting stuck on a clump of grass – where they definitely wouldn’t germinate and grow!

If we had seed-drilling equipment that could inject the seed straight into the soil we wouldn’t need to do this step, and in fact many innovative regenerative farmers are sowing seeds directly into pasture these days, with no soil disturbance of loss of ground cover at all, and getting excellent results.

The green manure seed mix spread on the soil
The green manure seed mix spread on the soil

But needs must, so the next step is broadcasting the seed by hand. It’s always a challenge to scatter the seed evenly over a patch this size, but by dividing the patch into sections and weighing out portions of the seed mix we got a pretty even spread.

The last step is raking the whole patch to get a light cover of soil over the seeds, and finally give the whole patch a really good watering in.

Raking the seeds to get a light cover of soil over them
Raking the seeds to get a light cover of soil over them

We’ve always used a fairly diverse mix of seeds for the green manure, but this year we went nuts! We were also influenced by Dr. Jones to make a couple of other modifications – we mixed in a good dose of worm castings out of our worm farm, and then we soaked the seeds in raw whey (sourced of course from Sellar Farmhouse Creamery) for a couple of hours before we sowed. These are both great sources of microbial innoculation to help the seeds get the best possible germination rate, and because we had access to both we gave it a double whammy!

The green manure seed mix, mixed with worm castings and soaked in whey
The green manure seed mix, mixed with worm castings and soaked in whey

This left the seed mix pretty wet, so then we mixed it with enough dry sand to make it spreadable.

The reason we were inspired to increase the diversity of our green manure seed mix was that Dr Jones explained that prior to European invasion, “the natural grasslands that once covered vast tracts of the Australian, North American, South American and sub-Saharan African continents – plus the ‘meadows’ of Europe – contained several hundred different kinds of grasses and forbs.”

Several hundred species! Imagine that!

A multi-species crop is an entire community of plants working together to convert sunlight into liquid carbon (remember learning about photosynthesis at school?) which it feeds the microbes in the soil. It’s called the plant-microbe bridge, and it builds soil, converts carbon from the air into stable compounds in the soil and holds far more water in the soil.

So, feeling inspired, we set out to create our own multi-species crop. We didn’t quite get to 100 species, but we managed 40:

  • Alfalfa (lucerne)
  • Amaranth
  • Basil
  • Beetroot
  • Broad bean
  • Buckwheat
  • Butterfly pea
  • Chia
  • Cocksfoot
  • Coriander
  • Corn
  • Dill
  • Endive
  • Fenugreek
  • Kidney beans
  • Lab lab bean
  • Linseed
  • Medic
  • Millet – French white
  • Mung bean
  • Mustard
  • Purslane
  • Quinoa
  • Radish
  • Rocket
  • Sesame
  • Soy bean
  • Sunflower
  • Turnip
  • Vetch

Now we just have to get them to grow! Stay tuned for photos….and if you’d like to find out more about how to quickly build fertile soil at your place using green manures, we’ve packed a lot more detail into this short course.

Practical grafting

We thought we’d show you a couple of practical ways you can use grafting to save or improve fruit trees – it’s such a cool way of getting functional fruit trees in your garden for free, that we recommend everyone learn it!

Grafting success!
Grafting success!

You can graft at this time of year (late winter/early spring) as long as two conditions are met:

  • you stored some scion wood in advance (that’s what we call the wood from the new variety that you want to graft onto your tree) – it needs to have been collected while the tree it came from was still dormant;
  • the tree you’re grafting onto has started to show some spring activity like growing flowers, leaves or shoots.

The photo above is a Tilton apricot that was grafted on to a plum rootstock.

In fact, the tree was planted as an apricot tree in our orchard a couple of years ago, but then met with misadventure (broken by a passing kangaroo!), so the top of the tree was broken off.

But the rootstock (which was a plum) survived, and put out a new shoot that we were able to graft onto, as you can see in the photo.

You can see there is good contact between the cambium layers of both the rootstock and the scion (that’s the layer just under the bark).

That’s where the new tissue that has bound the two pieces of wood permanently together started growing, they must be touching each other.

Another way to save or repurpose a tree is to regraft the whole tree to a new variety. Here’s one we prepared earlier:

A mature fruit tree that has been grafted over to a new variety
A mature fruit tree that has been grafted over to a new variety

This is a great way of turning a useless tree (e.g. a variety you don’t like, or a tree that produces inedible or dull fruit, like a cherryplum) into a useful and productive tree that will add to your food security by growing fruit you want to eat.

You can supercharge the process by grafting a different variety onto each limb, and turn one tree into 5 or 6 varieties without the expense, bother or space issues of planting and looking after more trees!

Grafting seems very difficult – until you do it. Yes, there are lots of different skills involved, and you need to get comfortable using a knife, and you’ll probably have all sorts of failures along the way – but don’t let that put you off!

The sooner you get started (and we’ve put our Grafting Bundle (i.e. collection of all 5 of our grafting courses) on 50% discount until September 30 to help you get on the way), the sooner you can start practicing!

Is Grow Great Fruit Growing?

This time last year I had just MC’d an event and panel discussion  at an event in Castlemaine where David Holmgren introduced his new book “Retrosuburbia: the downshifters guide to a resilient future″ (you can read the blog here, or check out the Retrosuburbia website here.

Ant and Mel represented HOFC (the Harcourt Organic Farming Co-op) at the networking event before the Retrosuburbia launch
Ant and Mel represented HOFC (the Harcourt Organic Farming Co-op) at the networking event before the Retrosuburbia launch

A big part of David’s vision for a resilient and sustainable future is seeing household food growing become part of everyday life – which aligns strongly with our mission to get everyone growing their own fruit – so we were delighted that he included our range of ebooks (which are free for members of our Grow Great Fruit program) in his book.

The cover of Retrosuburbia
The cover of Retrosuburbia

At the time we noted that growing our Grow Great Fruit coaching business was one of the motivations for establishing the Harcourt Organic Farming Co-op, to free us from the day-to-day business of farming.

Some of the ideas we were tossing about at the time included:

  • Taking the GGF program to other countries;
  • Providing more services for members;
  • Returning to running workshops;
  • Taking workshops online to make them more accessible;
  • Providing scholarships;
  • Working with small-scale or start-up farmers to help increase profitability and sustainability;
  • Working with community groups.

So, 12 months on, how are we doing? Have we made any progress at all?

Well, yes – but not as much as we had hoped, mainly because everything always takes longer than you think it’s going to!

This has been true for pretty much every aspect of life for the last year, like adjusting to not being farmers (harder than we expected), the infrastructure project we’ve been building for the Co-op (consumed a lot more time and resources than we optimistically hoped), and the fact that our previous commitments seemed to suddenly expand to take up more space in our lives. Many times we’ve wondered how we ever had time to farm at all!

Despite all that we’ve made some good progress, so here’s our report card for the last 12 months:

  • Went on a 5 week study tour to America to check out whether the Grow Great Fruit program is a good fit over there (and came back feeling pretty confident that it is);
  • Grew the membership of the program by 30%;
  • Increased services to members (e.g. more one-on-one consulting calls);
  • Created “on-demand” webinars to increase accessibility and convenience;
  • Changed the format of our Weekly Fruit Tips newsletter to provide more meaningful free content every week;
  • Trialed an online workshop for small-scale farmers.

We’ve got a long way to go, and still feel like what we’re doing is just a drop in the ocean compared to what’s possible.

But what’s great is that we’re more interested and excited than ever about helping home fruit-growing enthusiasts to turn their passion into reliable crops.

We still have lots of plans in the pipeline – so the next 12 months should be just as exciting as the last!

Looking forward to the next 12 months
Looking forward to the next 12 months