starter trees

2017/01/10 deej 0

We’ve hit the new year with all the right energy, planting trees. There are all these sayings about trees, like “the best time to plant a tree is ten years ago; the second best time is now” and “a society grows wise when [people] plant trees in whose shade they will never sit” (implying planting trees for the benefit of future generations), and it all boils down to: trees taker a long time to get established. Start them as soon as you can.


Trees (and shrubs, and other deep-rooted perennial plants) are essential for a food forst, or any forest-like permaculture system. They’re also really useful for rehabilitating damaged or degraded landscapes, especially where salinity is a problem (deep-rooted perennial plants lower the water table and reduce salinisation of surface soils by salty groundwater). Many trees are also highly productive, giving a higher yield per area in terms of food value produced than most annuals, often with less care, maintenance, and irrigation.


But trees are harder to get established than annuals. They are longer lived and therefore slower growing, slower to mature and reach productivity, slower to get established. And fruiting (or otherwise productive) tree species are often quite delicate in a WA context, and don’t handle the heat or the dry weather very well. There are exceptions, but usually permies will want to start out by planting some nurse trees, to get some soil bacteria established and shade the ground a little to stop all the moisture baking out of it in the summer. If they fix some nitrogen, or have some other use, all the better. Some of these phase 1 trees will continue on in the final forest system, while others may die natural deaths (fast growing short-lived trees will naturally be senescing when your main canopy starts to mature) or be removed (and mulched or used for timber) to make space in the canopy for the productive trees to grow into.


After three years of trial and error, and research, we’ve got a pretty good handle on what trees work well in the context of the Perth hills (600 – 800 mm rainfall per year, mostly over winter, temperatures ranging up to 42 degrees C in summer and down to zero degrees C in winter, possible light frosts in winter, sandy laterite gravel soils with some clay content, high fire risk in summer) with minimal additional irrigation. So here are some of our top picks for the stage one planting on a degraded site.


  • (1) Wattles. Not all wattles are native to the area, but they seem to behave as if they are. They’re fast-growing, nitrogen fixing, and shade-providing, making them excellent nurse trees for later planting fruit trees. We’ve put in all species with edible seeds, meaning that they’re also a food producing plant: jam wattle (Acacia acuminata), prickly wattle (Acacia victoriae), mulga (Acacia aneura), silver wattle (Acacia dealbata), coastal wattle (Acacia sophorae), and dogwood (Acacia coriacea). Grow easily from seed; fast growing.


  • (2) Empress Tree or Princess Tree (Paulownia tormentosa). These need a bit of babying for the first year or two, but once established they’re virtually unkillable. They coppice well (i.e. resprout from the roots), and they create beautiful deep shade with their large, soft leaves. They’re fire retardant (i.e. they’re hard to burn, and fires will generally stop at them as if at a firebreak), and their flowers are a very good nectar source for bees. Grow easily from seed; fast growing.


  • (3) Jacarandas (Jacaranda mimosifolia) are hardy, tough, and beautiful. Their only real use (other than shade and soil stabilisation) is that the flowers are a good nectar source for bees, but I love them. Flowering jacarandas have always been my marker for spring. Grow easily from seed; fast growing.


  • (4) Illawarra flame trees (Brachychiton acerifolius) need a biut of support through their first summer, and they suffer quite badly from defoliation by grasshoppers, but they’re pretty tough. Their seeds are theoretically edible (were used for food by some Aboriginal groups), but the seed pods contain irritating fine hairs similar to the glochids on prickly pear cactus. They can cause blindness if they get into your eyes, so be careful handling the seeds and seed pods.


  • (5) Honey locust (Gleditsia triacanthos) are similar in appearance to jacarandas, with feathery leaves, but they don’t have the showy flowers of the jacaranda. Their seed pods (and leaves) are useful as stock feed, though; high in sugar and minerals. There is some indication that honey locusts may be nitrogen fixing, although they are non-nodulating – it’s controversial, but they do show many of the characteristics of nitrogen fixing trees, including thriving in low N soils. Grow easily from seed; fast growing.


  • (6) Olives (Olea europea) are not fast growing trees, but they are very hardy. They need very little support after their first year in the ground (although extra water and fertiliser will encourage them to grow faster), and are a commercially productive tree. Propagate from cuttings of known varieties.


  • (7) Casuarina or Allocasuarina species – I’m not actually sure what species the ones we have are, as they self-seeded from local stands. Could be Allocasuarina decussata, or possibly Allocasuarina huegeliana. Whatever exact species they are, they produce copious quantities of pollen for the bees, and the foliage can be used as livestock feed for ruminants. Given they volunteered (self-seeded), they must grow easily from seed, and they do grow fast. I’ll try deliberately planting some seeds this autumn and see how that goes.


  • (8) Frangipani (Plumeria spp.) are surprisingly tough, and can be grown very easily from cuttings. They give good shade, and drop a lot of leaves in winter, providing some good soil-building biomass. I can’t find a corroborating link right now, but the petals of the frangipani flower are edible, and can be added to salads. I have not done any toxicity testing, so eat at your own risk, but I have eaten them with no ill effects.


Amusingly, fig trees don’t make this list. People think that figs are tough and hardy, and they are – once established. Getting them there though.. they have to be babied through their first 2 – 4 years in the ground with extra water and a lot of care. We have killed four baby fig trees learning this.


Pomegranates should be a good option, as long as they are in full sun. So far our pomegranate experiments have not done well, because we mistakenly thought that full sun in Europe would = some midday shade in WA. Not true. After 2 years of not growing and barely surviving, with permanently yellow leaves, we gave in and dug the 2 baby pomegranate sup, and moved them to a full sun location to see what would happen. One didn’t survive the transplant, but the other is thriving for the first time ever and actually growing. I’ve ordered some more young trees, which will go into the ground when they arrive in nice, sunny locations, and I’ve planted some seeds from a supermarket fruit to see what happens. If they germinate reasonably easily, I may import some new genetics from the US and the middle east in seed form and start playing with pomegranate breeding.


Apples, pears and quinces do remarkably well if provided with a bit of additional water in summer (not much water is needed to keep them alive, but they need it regularly – twice a week). They do summer complete defoliation from the grasshoppers though, so either spray them with insecticide (neem oil is great) or net them. Guinea fowl do help keep the grasshopper population down, but they don’t provide sufficient control to keep the trees alive without spraying or netting.


The next experiments (currently in seed trays, hopefully germinating soon) include moringa (Moringa oleifera), graceful honey myrtle (Melaleuca radula), and bottlebrush (Callistemon spp. – locally collected seed). We also have poplar (Populnus nigra) and willow (Salix spp.) cuttings growing, to plant out this autumn, and some lilly pilly (Syzygium smithii) seedlings in the ground to see how they go.


The experiments never end though. I want to try putting in some tagasaste (Cytisus proliferus, also known as Chamaecytisus palmensis) and leucana (Leucaena leucocephala), and some black mulberry (Morus nigra) seedlings. I’d like to try some riberry (Syzygium luehmannii) plants too, if I can find some.


June 15: staple crops

2016/06/15 deej 0

A staple crop is one that provides the majority of a population’s diet, generally providing primarily starch and/or protein. Our current primary staple crops worldwide are corn (maize), wheat, and rice. There are also other staple crops or potential staple crops (crops with the capacity to provide the majority of a population’s diet) grown – barley, rye, oats, teff, sorghum (milo), millet, soybeans and other legumes (beans, chickpeas, lentils, ..), quinoa, amaranth, potatoes, sweet potatoes, yams, oca, cassava, arrowroot, plantains and sago (derived from the pith of the sago palm). There are probably others, but those are some of the more common ones. Do you notice anything in common between most of them?


Of the 23 crops I just listed, all but 2 are annuals, grown from year to year. Plaintains and sago are derived from short-lived perennial plants, and the sago palm is killed when the sago is harvested. Some of the root and tuber crops can maintain themselves if managed correctly, as not all of the roots or tubers have to be harvested, but a commercial harvest will strip the entire plant population out to maximise production. Fully one third of the plants in the list are grain crops.


Nothing wrong with grain crops (all the various grains and pseudocereals I’ve tried have been delicious and versatile) or with annual plants in general. Annuals can provide a valuable contribution to our diets. However, large scale commercial production of annual crops (a) requires huge inputs of fertilisers and pesticides to support vast monocultures, and (b) is very susceptible to variability in climatic conditions. In a world running low on fossil fuels from which to cheaply manufacture chemical fertilisers and pesticides, and anthropogenic climate change increasing climatic variability and extreme climate events, that’s not a good thing for our food supply.


One option is to intensify our staple production even further – for example, raise rice intensively using aquaponics or other controlled environment production systems. Eventually, the increasingly industrialised food production systems could be moved off-planet along with other polluting industries and our staples could be produced in space stations. That sort of techno-utopic future is not immediately achievable, though – and depending on the political and popular appetite for technological solutions, not to mention the cost of sending payloads into space and back down to Earth, it may never be achievable. At best, there’s a delay before we can get there.


We need some ideas to handle that delay, and to act as fallback positions if sending industrial production off-planet doesn’t end up happening at all. Current agricultural policy is pushing the dual strategies of increasing production without increasing inputs (via genetic engineering, better management techniques and technologies, decreasing costs to offset lower commodity prices, and a combination of hope and luck) and increasing ecological sustainability, specifically maintaining soil health. No one is talking seriously about what crops we grow, except in limited areas of developing nations which are suffering from crop failures and extreme weather events. But there are alternative staple crops available.


Many, although not all, of the potential staple crops which are more resilient to climate change than our current major ones are  tree crops. Nuts are high in protein and oil (for energy), so depending on climatic zone and soil type that might include pistachios, almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts, pinenuts, pecans, macadamias, and so forth. Chestnuts and edible acorns (from holm oaks or cork oaks, among others) are higher in starch than most tree nuts, and can be used more like a grain crop. Tree legumes are also a possibility, including edible wattle seeds and mesquite seeds (high in protein, minerals and fibre) and carob pods (high in starch and sugars). Some fruit crops which are high is starch can act as staple crops; plantains are one of those, but sweet bananas also have potential, as do figs and mulberries (both can be dried and used as a major part of the diet), breadfruit, peach palm fruit, and dates.


One plausible option to manage the potential food shortages of the not-too-distant future is using these tree crops. So, to support those who want to start trying to incorporate these alternate staple foods into their diets, I’m going to start posting recipes and instructions for the use of these crops. And we’ll be planting at least a few of each of those trees which will grow well in our climate – so one day we’ll be able to supply these crops or products made from them.


The best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago. The second best time is now.


Images sourced from Wikimedia commons:

June 14: plant profile: quinoa

2016/06/14 deej 0

No tasks completed yesterday, so here’s another plant profile instead 🙂


Quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa) is an annual plant from South America, which grows in climates just as hot and dry as ours. Its seeds are edible, and can be used the way you would use rice. They’re very high in protein, so they’re especially good for vegetarians.


Although it’s used as a cereal grain, quinoa is actually a pseudocereal, like amaranth or buckwheat, meaning that it is not a grass. All true grains are grasses; quinoa is actually more closely related to spinach and beetroot. It grows 1 – 2 m tall, with leaves arranged alternately on the woody central stem. The flowering panicles emerge form the top of the plant, and may be white, red, black, or any shade in between.


Quinoa seeds straight from the parent plant are covered in bitter-tasting saponins (soap-like chemicals) which the plant uses to discourage birds form eating the seeds. A thorough wash before cooking renders the seeds far more palatable. It is gluten free, and is considered easy to digest. Just like corn, it can be puffed or rolled into flakes, or you can buy it whole. Whole seeds may be sprouted (2 – 4 hours in water) or cooked.


What quinoa needs:

  • Water – Quinoa is drought tolerant. The regions where it grows naturally receive anywhere from 300 – 1000 mm rainfall per year.


  • Sunlight – Full sun.


  • Soil – Quinoa plants do best in sandy, well-drained soils with a low nutrient content, moderate salinity, and a soil pH of 6 to 8.5.


  • Space – Sow quinoa plants 10 – 25 cm apart.


  • Warmth – Quinoa can survive temperatures down to -4 degrees C, and up to 35 degrees C. It doesn’t like weather much hotter than that, but has been grown successfully in the Western Australian wheatbelt – so it can clearly survive higher temperatures than 35 degrees.


What quinoa has to offer:

  • Edible seeds, and edible leaves (which are similar to silverbeet).


  • New plants, from seed.


Images sourced from Wikimedia Commons:

June 13: study plans

2016/06/13 deej 1

As many people who know me are aware, I’m currently partway through studying towards a Masters degree in Sustainable Agriculture. I embarked on this particular project for many reasons. I love studying, learning and researching things make me genuinely happy. Agriculture and horticulture are long term interests, and we are trying to build a sustainable, commercially viable farming enterprise on this property – so getting some more-or-less hands on ideas about large-scale farming (as opposed to suburban gardening) is useful, since I don’t come from a farming family or have any background in large scale agriculture of any sort. And part of the objective was also to earn a base level of authority on the subject that will let me be heard when I voice advice or opinions to farmers or policy-makers.


Both of these objectives have driven my choices so far in what topics I study and what research I do for this course. I have, of course, been influenced by my personal areas of interest as well – I’m unlikely to raise silkworms for commercials ilk production, for example, and Australia is unlikely to develop a large silk industry, but I still wrote a paper on the sustainability of the silk industry. For the most part, I’ve been trying to narrow my focus in on the topics which are most relevant to me and to my agricultural region.


Now I’m heading into the sharp end of the course, the part where I have to choose a single, narrowly focused topic to write a thesis on. It’s not easy to narrow it down, to find something that will be useful to my region as well as to my own farm, and interesting as well. (Suggestions welcome, by the way!)


So far, my topic looks like something around modelling the economic and ecological viability of small farm agroforestry, looking at tree crops (seeds, nuts, fruit, timber, etc.) and integrated livestock production (sheep, goats, cattle, poultry). As a start, I think my next research project is going to be looking at tree crops for Dehesa Australis systems – comparing the production capacity, set-up approach, and market for the most plausible low-care (i.e. not subject to fruit fly, don’t need excessive irrigation) tree crops which will grow in Western Australian conditions. My shortlist is:


June 4: dehesa australis

2016/06/04 deej 0

Dehesa (in Spain) or montado (in Portugal) is a type of agroforestry practised across the Iberian Peninsula. Traditional dehesa is an oak woodland, mostly cork oak (Quercus suber) but also holm oak (Quercus ilex), with various shrubs and grasses – and sometimes crops – growing under the tree cover. In many areas livestock are grazed under the trees; cattle and sometimes sheep graze on the shrubs and grasses, and pigs are herded through to eat the fallen acorns.


In an Australian context, a similar system of value-add agroforestry seems very plausible. The tree component could be any one of a number of tree crops – cork oaks and holm oaks would work just as well here, but so would carob (Ceratonia siliqua), several types of wattle (Acacia spp.) with edible seeds or foliage which can be used as supplementary feed for grazing animals, mulberries (Morus nigra), or Eucalypt species which have valuable timber. Forage shrubs could be grown under the trees – the smaller wattle speces, old man saltbush (Atriplex nummularia) – and both annual and perennial grasses and legumes. Then animals could be grazed under the shade cover of the trees.


This idea is one that I (and other people) have been playing with for awhile. Half of the property is currently forested with regrowth bushland, mostly Marri (Corymbia calophylla) trees and parrot bush (Banksia sessilis). My plan is to plant cork oaks, holm oaks, edible-seeded wattles, and stone pines (Pinus pinea) as the woodland trees. Through the area allocated as pasture (not currently wooded) I’m putting in mulberries, wattles, carob, olives, and honey locust.


A few weeks ago, I planted a selection of wattle seeds. Many have sprouted, and yesterday I gently teased out the individual seedlings and replanted them into tree tubes. Next: mulberry cuttings, and (hopefully) the sprouting of the cork oak acorns and stone pine seeds.


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