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

Fruit trees, animals, and electric netting

Animals and fruit trees are a natural partnership – after all, they evolved together, so it makes sense they work well together, as we’ve spoken about in other blogs.

But it has to be done right, as there are risks of having large animals like sheep under fruit trees.

One of our organic orchard buddies Phil Marriott runs Shropshire sheep under his lemon trees, and points out that they routinely eat the bottom metre or so of foliage from the trees (as you can see from the photo below).

They can also be naughty and try to climb the trees to reach more of the foliage, or try to push through fences into areas they’re not supposed to be.

Over the years, Phil has developed his ‘dream team’ by immediately excluding anyone that shows a propensity to do the wrong thing, because it only takes a couple of days for a new and unwelcome behaviour to spread through the whole flock.

One of the major downside of animals is the bother of having to use and manage electric netting fences, a common management tool used for shifting animals as diverse as sheep, cows, pigs and chickens around the orchard.

Electric netting keeping sheep in an orchard
Electric netting keeping sheep in an orchard

The most common complaints include the fence getting tangled in long grass and trees, shorting out and becoming ineffective, and needing regular moving and maintenance.

Many growers are moving instead to permanent netting systems to divide their orchards into small manageable blocks to shift animals through – but that’s a much more capital-intensive solution, which puts it out of reach for some people.

And of course animals take much more constant care than trees. You’ve got to take care of things like shelter, water and protection from predators, and pay constant attention to their welfare.

Chickens make wonderful companions for fruit trees, but need reliable protection from predators
Chickens make wonderful companions for fruit trees, but need reliable protection from predators

Despite the drawbacks, there is widespread agreement that the benefits of combining fruit trees with animals definitely outweigh the costs, which is why it’s one of the key strategies in our Permaculture in Action short course.

For many backyard fruit growers, chickens are the easy place to start, and they are a great fit with fruit trees.

The ideal situation is to be able to confine them around your trees for a short period, a few times a year, especially in spring and autumn. That way they’ll be providing the maximum benefit cleaning up pests as these emerge from the soil in spring, and again as they are preparing to overwinter in autumn.

The predator-proof chicken enclosure at Kalangadoo Organic Orchard
The predator-proof chicken enclosure at Kalangadoo Organic Orchard

However, on young trees chooks can give the tree roots a pretty hard time if you leave them in there for too long, which is why it’s great to have another option for where you keep them the rest of the time.

What broke my fruit tree?

As spring slowly comes our way, we thought it a good time of year to bring you a series of pest and disease management tips.

This week we’re focusing on identifying the damage that big pests like kangaroos, wallabies, rabbits and hares cause, because they often inflict their worst damage at this time of year, especially on newly planted trees.

Hare damage on a newly planted cherry tree
Hare damage on a newly planted cherry tree

The key to effective pest and disease management is to figure out how to protect your trees or fruit from the pest.

This may sound completely obvious, but in fact is quite opposed to the more conventional approach of trying to get rid of the pest altogether (often with chemicals).

Trying to get rid of pests doesn’t work; it’s expensive, time consuming and frustrating, and in fact every animal and insect has its place in the ecosystem – even if we don’t necessarily want them near our fruit trees!

The first step in our strategy is to figure out what’s doing the damage. It’s one of the basic principles we rely on in the Protect Fruit Trees from Pesky Pests short course (which includes identification and prevention methods for pests that damage both fruit and trees).

This photo above shows what hare damage looks like, and the one below shows a close-up view (pretty gruesome, isn’t it?)

A close-up view of fresh hare damage
A close-up view of fresh hare damage

Kangaroos will also nibble the top of young trees (they seem to find apical [tip] buds especially delicious), though kangaroo or wallaby damage often seems more incidental than purposeful, done by accident as they clumsily jump past the trees, resulting in this type of damage:

Incidental kangaroo damage on a 3 year old tree
Incidental kangaroo damage on a 3 year old tree

Another clue to identify the culprit animal that’s doing the damage is to look carefully on the ground for scats (or poo, as most of us call it).

Kangaroo poo
Kangaroo poo

To help you figure out which animal might be responsible for eating your fruit trees, here’s some photos of other types of animal scats (thanks to ABC Science and The Wildlife Trusts for these photos):

Brush-tailed possum
Fox
Rabbits and hares
Droppings are left in clusters of little, round, hard balls. They are usually yellowy-brown or green in colour, and full of grass. Hare droppings (on the right) tend to be slightly bigger and flatter than rabbit droppings (left hand side).
©Darren Tansley