Spring has sprung in the patch

Happy change of season and daylight hours out there!

Hope this finds you reawakening as one does when the light gets longer and the air begins to blush with warmer winds.

The Gung Hoe patch in spring
The Gung Hoe patch in spring

I think the turnover seasons are my favourite on the farm.  They are, of course one of the most important and busy, but they are also a pleasure to be amongst.  In Spring the grass is green (and growing very fast along with the weeds) and your fingers don’t snap off from frost and the birds have woken up and are darting everywhere eating the smaller (and bigger) bugs that are alive thanks to warmer weather and soil.  Everything feels alive rather than cold, dead and cold.  It feels hopeful and abundant.

Seedlings in the hothouse
Seedlings in the hothouse

And that’s the tricky thing about Spring – it feels all of these things but one thing it definitely isn’t is abundant.  While things are growing it’s a tricky time with planting, sowing and of course, timing.  Things we planted too late in Autumn/winter don’t do well with the sudden hello of hotter horizons; freak out and bolt.  And the hot lovin’ plants like zuchs, cucs, tomatoes, caps, melons, basil and chillies can’t handle weather below 10…our nights have been colder than that still, and as the old saying goes – don’t plant them out till after Melbourne Cup Day – it’s true! unless you’ve got a warm hot house or like Sas, heatbeds and love and care to water them everyday…at least once.  So with hope comes one of our leanest times out here in Harcourt with veg. In saying that this year does seem to be one of the best in terms of us being on top of things and as much as anyone can never be – on a somewhat OK timeline?!! haha.

It’s also that time of year when things begin to shadow over you as you know it will be non stop for the next little while…

We’re excited to have partnered with the monthly Castlemaine Farmers Market to begin a weekly farmers market.  Beginning on Nov 6th, prioritising Mount Alexander Shire residents there will be producers from our region selling their wares.  We are hoping that people and producers alike get behind the market and it becomes a thriving weekly event with good food and good people.  Sas and I think it is imperative to build up the resilience of the local food system, and we believe this is a way to encourage and support and hopefully inspire the region’s producers with an avenue to sell and be seen for all the work they do and connect with their community. 

Our little farm family (co-op and volunteers and workers) continues to swell and step further into understanding how and what we’re all doing.  It is an evolving journey and one that teaches lessons for each and all along the way.

The farm family gathering for Katie's birthday morning tea
The farm family gathering for Katie’s birthday morning tea

We are lucky to have met a hilarious lady named Sarah (through Tessa) who is helping us build a website.  This is great ‘cos its been on our to do list for about 2 years now…when its up and running in a few weeks it will be the place to find the link to our Open Food Network online shop to buy boxes – hopefully starting in December sometime – all our blogs and information on where in the community you can buy our produce, info for restaurants/cafes who want to work with us and news about the co-op etc, etc.  Hurrah!

Ziggy gathering her resources in preparation for a busy season ahead
Ziggy gathering her resources in preparation for a busy season ahead

On a personal note, I am so glad for a change of season as winter has been dark.  Maybe one of the darkest actually.  I have a new found gratefulness for being able to put my energy into Gung Hoe and the family out here at Harcourt because without it, I’m not sure where I would have ended up.  I have regained my love and passion for what Sas and I (are trying to) do and am excited by the potential and current lay of the land.  I feel proud to claim my aims and creations made of dirt; and want nothing more but for us to keep evolving and growing Gung Hoe and our farming family to be a beautiful, successful (I have my own definitions for this) growing, learning and thriving existence.  For us and for our community. 

Here below is an excerpt from one of my favourites – Khalil Gibran, ‘The Prophet’ on Work. Note – for me the God is unreligious.  

May we grow in all senses of the word.
Cheers, Mel 

“Then a ploughman said, Speak to us of Work. And he answered, saying: You work that you may keep pace with the earth and the soul of the earth. For to be idle is to become a stranger unto the seasons, and to step out of life’s procession, that marches in majesty and proud submission towards the infinite. When you work you are a flute through whose heart the whispering of the hours turns to music. Which of you would be a reed, dumb and silent, when all else sings together in unison? Always you have been told that work is a curse and labour a misfortune. But I say to you that when you work you fulfil a part of earth’s furthest dream, assigned to you when the dream was born, And in keeping yourself with labour you are in truth loving life, And to love life through labour is to be intimate with life’s inmost secret. But if you in your pain call birth an affliction and the support of the flesh a curse written upon your brow, then I answer that naught but the sweat of your brow shall wash away that which is written. You have been told also that life is darkness, and in your weariness you echo what was said by the weary. And I say that life is indeed darkness save when there is urge, And all urge is blind save when there is knowledge, And all knowledge is vain save when there is work, And all work is empty save when there is love; And when you work with love you bind yourself to yourself, and to one another, and to God. And what is it to work with love? It is to weave the cloth with threads drawn from your heart, even as if your beloved were to wear that cloth. It is to build a house with affection, even as if your beloved were to dwell in that house. It is to sow seeds with tenderness and reap the harvest with joy, even as if your beloved were to eat the fruit. It is to charge all things you fashion with a breath of your own spirit, And to know that all the blessed dead are standing about you and watching.”

Gung Hoe Growers
69 Dann’s Rd Harcourt

In praise of the apple seedling

One of our favourite books from Maine - the apple nerd state
One of our favourite books from Maine – the apple nerd state

If you’ve inherited a garden, or moved into a house with existing fruit trees, there’s a very good chance you won’t know what they are – because it’s a rare homeowner who keeps good enough records or labels to pass onto a new resident!

So, you’ll probably need to do some garden detective work to figure out what you’ve got.

One of the first things to look for, is whether a tree is a seedling, or a grafted tree. Not sure of the difference?

An 8 year old apple tree with an obvious graft union, but it's probably going to become less obvious with age
An 8 year old apple tree with an obvious graft union, but it’s probably going to become less obvious as the trunk thickens with age

Here’s a couple of tips that might help:

  • Look for a graft union, where the scion was grafted onto the rootstock. Any fruit tree you buy from a nursery will have been grafted (unless you’re buying rootstocks from a specialist rootstock nursery), but unfortunately the graft union may be hard to see in the adult tree. If you can see it (there’s a couple of examples in the photos above and below) – great! You know you’ve got a grafted tree, which means it’s a known variety, and then you can start trying to figure out which one. If you can’t see a graft union, that’s inconclusive evidence! It may be a seedling, or it may be a grafted tree where the union is no longer visible.
A mature tree in Tuscany with a very obvious graft union
A mature tree in Tuscany with a very obvious graft union
  • Another give-away is a tree having multiple trunks. Seedlings are often naturally multi-trunked, while grafted trees always have a single trunk. BUT, it’s very common (particularly if a tree hasn’t been well looked after) to see the original grafted trunk plus a number of suckers from below the graft union that have become extra trunks. One of the ways to spot this is to notice whether seasonal changes (blossom, or leaves changing colour in autumn, for example) look the same and happen at the same time on each trunk, and of course whether they all bear the same type of fruit (or any fruit at all).
A seedling apple tree with multiple trunks
A seedling apple tree with multiple trunks

Traditionally in Australia (and more generally in the orchard world), seedlings have been thought of only as a source of rootstocks for grafting known varieties onto.

Seedlings themselves have been considered at best worthless, and at worst pest trees that must be chopped down and eradicated.

We noticed a much different approach to seedling apple trees when we visited America (and particularly in Maine, which must be the apple-nerd capital of the world), where they are more likely to be appreciated for their own potential:

A seedling apple is like a musical improvisation In the world of music, one parent would be the original composition and the second would be the musician. When the musician sets aside the printed page and plays the tune extemporaneously, the result is something new….You may or may not recognise the tune. It may be pleasant to the ear, or it may be discordant. Musical improvisations may be endlessly fresh and inventive…(t)hey may also be stale, cliche and uninteresting. However, whether you like them or not…each will be new and unique.

Same with apples. Some seedlings will be stale and uninteresting, while others will be quite wonderful. Each is an improvisation.

John Bunker, Apples and the Art of Detection
Nan Cobbey's huge multi-trunked seedling apple tree; it might look like it's in Africa, but it's actually growing in Belfast, Maine. From "Apples and the Art of Detection", by John Bunker
Nan Cobbey’s huge multi-trunked seedling apple tree; it might look like it’s in Africa, but it’s actually growing in Belfast, Maine. From “Apples and the Art of Detection”, by John Bunker

So, if a seedling tree is potentially a wonderful fruit tree in its own right, why is it important to know whether your tree is a seedling or a grafted tree?

Because (as John points out), “some seedlings will be stale and uninteresting” – or in other words, completely useless, whereas grafted varieties have all been chosen because they’ve been proved to grow apples with desirable characteristics.

If you’re aiming for fruit self-sufficiency (and if you’ve got room for a few trees, why wouldn’t you be?) then each tree needs to pull its weight by growing the varieties and quantities of fruit you want.

So if you really want to achieve fruit self-sufficiency, you need to know what you’re starting with (as explained in Grow A Year’s Supply of Fruit).

Because there’s no room in a productive and thriving food production garden for “stale and uninteresting” fruit!

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