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.

 

summer

2016/12/14 deej 2

No matter how much I like the longer days (getting home when it’s still light!) and warmer weather, I also dread summer a little. While the long, hot, dry days and the coastal breezes may be perfect for a holiday or a day at the beach, they’re not so good for growing anything. The dry summer season is as harsh in its own way as the cold winter of the temperate areas of the northern hemisphere.

 

The theory is that our forest orchard will be reasonably self-sufficient once established, requiring minimal irrigation or care. That theory has a downside though – it takes years for a forest (or an orchard) to become established. The trees are going in, gradually but steadily, but for their first few years they’ll need a lot of support. Daily watering through summer, wire cages to protect them from rabbits and kangaroos, spraying for insect pests, and more. I’d prefer not to spray for insects, but there is only so much you can do without poison. The guinea fowl seem more interested in eating my hibiscus plants than they do in eating ticks or grasshoppers, and there are too many trees already to hand pick bugs off them all. We have plans to try traps for the grasshoppers this season, half filling bright yellow buckets with molasses-enriched water to attract and drown them, and spreading bran sprayed with a bit of molasses-water around the trees (the grasshoppers & locusts eat this, gum up their digestive systems with it, and die – in theory), but we’re inevitably going to end up spraying as well.

 

We’ve acquired some Muscovy ducks to free range across the baby orchard as well, in the hopes that they’ll be more motivated to eat bugs than the guinea fowl. I haven’t seen them eating any flies yet, but apparently they do. The surviving juvenile guinea fowl are going to be free ranging soon as well, bringing us up to a total of 6 (4 babies and 2 adults, out of a total of 4 bought as chicks and 18 hatched). They do seem to be keeping the tick population down, but they aren’t having much of an impact ont he grasshoppers.

 

In the meantime, irrigation is a big ticket item on the to-do list. Last summer we hand-watered every day, carrying 10 L watering cans back and forth. This summer we’re trialling a gravity-fed dripper system, fed from the small water tank, for the apples. It seems to be pretty successful so far, so we’re aiming to put in similar systems (fed from 200 L barrels or 1000 L IBCs of water) for each group of trees. With luck that’ll cut our workload down to weekly check-ups, although it increases the workload now as we get the irrigation set up. There are more trees to go in this autumn, so automated watering systems are essential.

Olives for integrated livestock-orchards

2016/11/14 deej 0

I’ve been doing an awful lot of research, recently, into integrated agroforestry and pastured livestock farming systems. Specifically the system of pasture and productive woodland common to the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal) which is commonly called  dehesa, or montado in Portugal.

 

Although the traditional dehesa forests are primarily made up of cork oak (Quercus suber) and holm oak (Quercus ilex), the system could work with any number of tree species. It’s basically a Mediterranean silvopasture system, with scattered tree cover (using trees which produce some sort of commercially valuable product) with pasture and animals grazing underneath. Traditional dehesa systems often include pasture raised pigs, which are fattened in the autumn on the acorns dropped by the oak trees and then slaughtered to make premium jamon iberico. The fallen leaves of the oak trees are also a useful fodder resource for pigs, sheep, goats, and cattle, supplementing the available pasture.

 

In an Australian context it turns out that oak trees aren’t really the way to go unless you’re planting a forest for pleasure. There’s a limited international market for cork (and even more limited domestic market), and the trees take around 25 – 35 years to produce a viable cork harvest (and can thereafter be harvested only every 9 – 10 years). There is no existing market for acorns, in spite of their value as pig feed, and the fact that when they’re properly processed they are entirely edible to humans too. And they’re gluten free, but provide a similar gumming capability to gluten, useful in baked goods.

 

Rather than oak trees, an Australian dehesa style system would work best if it used trees which produced a crop faster, and one for which there is an existing market. That still leaves several options, and the choice depends largely on the local climate (rainfall, available chill hours and heat units) and on what type of livestock will be included in the system. For example, apples or plums are a great option if (a) your region gets enough rainfall for them to thrive, (b) your region gets cold enough for long enough over winter to ensure good fruit set, and (c) you want to keep pastured poultry (turkeys, chickens, or geese will clean up windfall fruit and help control fruit fly, but won’t eat the foliage of the trees – which is potentially toxic). In warmer and lower rainfall regions, some of the best options in terms of market value, yield and productivity are date palms, pomegranates, and pistachio nuts. And olive trees.

 

Olive trees are appealing because they’re already widely planted, and there’s a huge market for both table olives and olive oil. The commodity prices may rise and fall, but it doesn’t look like the demand for olives and olive oil are likely to drop significantly any time soon. And of course, olive trees are beautiful, graceful trees which never fail to make me happy when I see them. One of my fondest memories from travelling in South America was the 100 year old olive grove in Lima, Peru; gnarled, old trees which had clearly been pruned and trained so that they could be easily harvested. They were in this tiny park on a median strip in the middle of a huge, super busy road, but they were still so peaceful and majestic. Yeah. I like olive trees.

 

We use olive oil for almost everything ourselves, and we go through about a litre of the stuff every six weeks. Sometimes a bit more, if I’m doing a lot of baking that month (yes, you can replace the butter in most recipes which call for butter with an equivalent volume of olive oil). Since the average yield for a mature olive tree is anywhere from 30 -80kg olives per year (averaging about 45kg per year for a ten year old tree), and the oil yield ranges from 12 – 21% (but averages around 18 – 20%), I worked out that six olive trees would more than cover us for our olive oil needs, and another six for all the table olives we can possibly eat. So I planned on twelve olive trees. We have seven in the ground already, so I went to order the remaining five – and promptly ordered twelve instead, because.. well.. olive trees are so lovely and I wasn’t sure which variety to get more of so I got three of each. The varieties we have are: Kalamata, Koroneiki, New Norcia Mission (a variant of Frantoio), and Manzanillo. They last week (ordered from Mission Horticulture, who were great), and will be going into the ground this week.

 

The other joy of olive trees is that the tree is remarkably multifunctional. The foliage can be eaten by ruminants (and pseudo-ruminants like rabbits), although due to the tannins it isn’t hugely nutritious. The raw fruit can be eaten by poultry and pigs, and I can’t vouch for the nutritional content but the chickens seem to love raw olives. Weird birds. They’re not harmful to ruminants either, although not necessarily beneficial, so you could keep just about any livestock under olive trees. The leftover press cake from pressing out the olive oil can also be fed to ruminants or poultry, and there are studies to show that it is actually reasonably nutritious, high in protein and energy. The tree is evergreen, and provides a lovely cool shade which still isn’t deep enough to kill grass or flowers grown under it. Trees which are big enough are eminently climbable, with smooth, greyish bark which is a delight to the climber (yes, I climb trees at any opportunity). The timber (from pruned branches of course – who would cut down an olive tree??) is a beautiful golden colour with grey-green highlights, and is good for turning. And of course, olives and oil.

 

We’re not planning on producing olives or olive oil commercially, although we could.  The recommended planting density for a commercial orchard is anywhere from 100 – 500 trees/ha, but in a dehasa style system that would be lower. Maybe around 50 trees/ha, and livestock at 1 – 4 dry sheep equivalents (DSE)/ha. We’ll produce enough for ourselves, and once the trees are mature we may produce enough for friends and family. But that doesn’t change the fact that olives are a pretty good bet for a changing climate and a world poised to head into some tough times over the next few years. They’re tough, adaptable trees, and they thrive in our soils and with the fierce Australian sunshine while producing amazing food. They’re an example for the rest of us, really.

 

* DSE is the standard measure used for livestock density in Australia. A lactating ewe with twin lambs is about 2.4 DSE, a goat is about 1.5, and a cow is about 10 DSE. The measure refers to how much pasture an animal needs to eat each day to maintain body weight and health. DSE are not used for poultry or rabbits, but are sometimes used for emus and ostriches as well as the standard cattle, sheep, goats, alpacas, etc.

 

 

 

 

mozzarella, asparagus, and pomegranates

2016/11/06 deej 0

It’s been a busy couple’ve weeks. Summer is here with a vengeance; we had our first 37 degree (Celcius) day yesterday, although it’s back to a more pleasant temperature today. I have my first sunburn of the summer, because I’m a very silly cat and failed to put sunscreen on before heading out to the Asparagus Masterclass at Edgecombe Bros in the Swan Valley on Friday.

 

Brilliant class, in spite of the sunburn. We started with a brief history of the winery and the local area, and some morning tea. Then all 16 of us tromped over to one of the asparagus patches and harvested several kg of fresh asparagus – and ate probably as much again. The gentleman facilitating the class said to eat as much as we wanted while we picked, so we snacked on freshly picked raw asparagus, which is delicious. Almost the flavour of fresh garden peas, or avocado; nutty and slightly sweet. Our harvest was lightly poached, and then BBQed with olive oil and salt while we enjoyed a wine tasting and tapas platter in the courtyard of the Edgecombe Bros cafe/winery, in the shade of flowering olive trees and grapevines. It was the perfect chilled out lazy summer afternoon. Then we gorged on BBQed asparagus with shaved parmesan, chased with muscat soaked figs in chocolate. I love the floral, fruity flavours of muscat grapes and wines, so combining that with dried fig is just.. nom. I may be in love. They sent us home full of delicious things and sunshine and wine, with a complimentary recipe pack.

 

The actual info about asparagus boils down to: asparagus is actually really easy and quick to cook. You can eat it raw, and like most vegetables where that’s the case, it should really only be lightly cooked if you’re going to cook it. If you can snap the stem easily by bending it, it’s fresh and tender, no matter what the diameter of the spear is, as younger or smaller plants produce thinner spears which are just as delicious as the thicker ones produced by bigger or more mature plants.

 

My last foodie course (I have a weakness for these things, I love learning new food things almost as much as I love learning new gardening things) was two weeks ago, at the Roleystone Family Centre. We went there to learn how to make fresh mozarella, from Megan Radaich of www.foodpreserving.org. The class was fantastic, really informative and easy to follow – and it resulted in delicious cheese. Things I didn’t realise: mozarella is a fresh cheese, like ricotta, and you can only make mozarella using non-homogenised milk. Most cheeses can be made with homogenised milk if you add calcium chloride to “fix” the proteins which are torn up by the homogenisation process, but the calcium chloride interferes with the stretching process in mozarella making, so you end up with dry, non-stretchy cheese which is a lot more like ricotta than it should be.

 

Mozarella is also the easiest cheese I’ve tried so far except ricotta. Combine milk and citric acid, heat slowly to 32 degrees C, add rennet and leave to set. Once you have fully set curds, cut the curds then heat again to 42 degrees C. Gently remove the curds from the whey with a slotted spoon, and place into a microwave proof bowl. Microwave for 30 seconds, then kinda massage lightly to get some more whey out. Repeat the microwaving and massaging step 2 – 3 times, until the cheese gets sort of shiny on the surface and stretches easily. Put it into iced salt water (10% – 20% brine) for about 15 minutes – and it’s done. Eat that day for best flavour.

 

To continue the foodie theme, I’ve been obsessed with pomegranates for the last couple’ve weeks. No food-preparation course to blame on this one; it’s mostly because of my last major assignment for my university course. The paper I wrote was about the economic feasibility of dehesa style agroforestry in WA, looking at which trees would be effective options. Turns out, pomegranates are one of the best. Highly productive, fruit within 2 – 3 years of planting from seed or cuttings, and the fruit commands a relatively high price even if sold wholesale to retailers, for the fresh fruit market or for juice. And of course you can make pomegranate mollasses from it. Pomegranate mollasses, which is actually sour-sweet rather than just sweet as you might expect from the name, is one of my more recent discoveries. I bought some on a whim, and have been adding it to things and testing it out. I highly recommend that people try it. It adds a balanced sweet-sour note to savoury dishes – a teaspoon or two in a thai curry, for example, rounds out the flavours better than anything else, almost like a fish sauce. I think what I’m saying is that it’s full of umami flavours, but it doesn’t overpower other flavours the way many umami things (garlic, mushrooms, tomatoes, fish sauce, ..) can do.

 

We’re just starting to get to the point where we can put in some long term productive crops here. The apples are going in a few per season (apple trees are expensive! especially heirloom varieties which have to be shipped over from Tasmania or NSW), so in a couple’ve years we should start getting decent apple crops. I just need to get our cider-making skill sup to scratch by then, since cider and cider vinegar are two of the products we’re planning to produce. But aside from some small scale production of fresh fruit (we’ll end up with more apricots than we can possibly eat from our three trees, for example, but it’s not going to be a major product either), we haven’t 100% settled on our production niche. I’m leaning towards dates, pomegranates, pomegranate mollasses, and balsamic style gourmet vinegars. (Oh, yes, there will be grapevines. I checked yesterday, and in the space we have allocated for them, I think we can fit 60 vines. So we might try our hand at making fortified wines as well.)

 

Anyway, that’s where we are at the moment. Everything is flowering, and the geese are starting to get their grownup feathers. The baby chicks are getting bigger every day, and the adult chickens are doing their chickeny thing. I found a blutongue lizard in the chicken coop this morning, sharing their breakfast (eating his fill while the chooks watched from the other side of the coop), so I might need to keep an eye out for him. Bluetongues are gorgeous, and I’m super glad we have a couple living near the house (they decrease the incidence of snakes), but they do eat eggs so I’ll just encourage him to keep out of the chicken coop. It’s sunny, and the breeze is blowing past the roses and bringing me rose scents, and life is pretty good.

Spring Planting

2016/08/21 deej 0

It’s been a busy weekend. As well as finishing off a literature review around implementing dehesa style agroforestry in Australia, for my uni course (once the paper is marked and returned, I’ll put it up here in the Resources section), I’ve planted 17 trees. The bare root trees from Heritage Fruit Trees arrived, so there’s been a lot of digging and planting happening. Five more apple trees for the orchard, five pears and two nashi pears planted in a new little pear grove, and another five stone fruit trees for Zone 1 behind the house.

 

Zone 1 includes the herb garden at the front, the roses, the chicken coops, the somewhat-in-need-of-repair vegetable garden, and most of the stone fruit I’m putting in. There are going to be almonds and cherries around the vegetable beds, to give summer shade for the veges and for people, to make it a pleasant space to be in. Between the vegetable garden and the house I’m planting a miniature hedge maze, made up of productive fruiting plants (plums, peaches, nectarines, persimmons, lily pilly trees, sloes, mulberries, and damsons) and some livestock-friendly fodder plants for cut and carry animal feed (willow, hibiscus) all trained into a hedge form. It’s a challenging mini project, because the soil in that area is very poor and very compacted, with a lot of rock in it. But what’s life without a few challenges? It’ll be beautiful when it’s all in.

 

All the trees are budding, and the almond is in full flower already. It’s definitely spring. The chickens are all laying again, and the wildflowers are out. Any day now we’ll have to harvest the beehive.

 

Meanwhile, K has been in the workshop, building a pair of Japanese-style sliding doors for our media room / meditation dojo / guest bedroom. The wood stain is going on as I type, and they should be ready to go up tonight or tomorrow. Very exciting. (The room didn’t get doors fitted when the house was built because we wanted something special, and also because the doorway is not a standard door size).

 

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