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 11: plant profile: mulberry

2016/06/11 deej 1

Mulberries (Morus spp.) thrive in Perth, and they are (in my opinion) one of the most under-utilised trees which grow well here. Not only are their fruit edible, both to humans and to most domestic animals (all poultry and most domesticated herbivores and omnivores, plus not toxic to carnivores such as dogs or cats), their leaves can be used to feed herbivorous livestock (rabbits, goats, sheep, cows, etc.) as a replacement for hay – i.e. as almost the entire diet of the animal if necessary. The leaves are also used in the silk industry, as fodder for domesticated silkworms.

 

There are three common types of edible mulberry – black (Morus nigra), red (Morus rubra), and white (Morus alba) – although there are 10 – 16 different species in total (or possibly more, depending on your references). Mulberry trees are fast growing when young, and relatively tolerant of shade and of damp conditions. Mulberry trees are either dioecious or monoecious, and sometimes will change from one sex to another. The color of the fruit does not identify the mulberry species – white mulberries can produce white, lavender, red, or purple fruit.

 

The black mulberry is the most commonly planted and most widely known in Australia. It is a medium sized decisuous tree, growing up to 12m tall and 15m across. The leaves are a rich, dark green, 10 – 20 cm long by 5 – 10 cm wide. The fruit, a berry-like cluster of small drupes, is a dark purple (almost black) when ripe. The juice of ripe mulberries will stain skin, clothing, concrete, and most other surfaces, and can be used to dye fabric (producing a pink toned grey-lavender colour). Unripe fruit is greenish-white; crushed unripe fruit can remove mulberry stains from skin or clothing if applied whent he mulberry stain is fresh. Black mulberries are thought to originate from Persia and Mesopotamia, though they are widespread throughout Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.

 

Red mulberries originate from North America, but are otherwise quite similar to black mulberries. The tree grows 10 – 15m tall, occasionally to 20m, and the leaves are rough to the touch, unlike the leaves of the black and white mulberries. The ripe fruit is red or purple in colour, and will stain.

 

The white mulberry is named for the colour of its buds rather than that of its fruit, which can be white or pale pink, lavender, red, or purple in colour. Dark coloured fruit will stain just like the fruit of red or black mulberries. White mulberry fruit is sweeter than the fruit of other mulberries, but often lacks tartness and is somewhat bland. The leaves are larger than those of the black mulbery, 5 – 20 cm in length, and shiny or glossy in appearance. The tree is native to northern China, and has been cultivated for centuries for its leaves, which are fed to silkworms.

 

One other type of mulberry is available in Australia – the shahtoot or king white mulberry (Morus macroura), also known as the Himalayan mulberry. Native to Tibet and other areas of the Himalayas, this is a medium sized, long lived tree. The fruit is larger than that of any other mulberry, sometimes as long as 10 cm per berry. Depending on the variety, the fruit is described as sweet but bland, or honey-like and equal to the black mulberry in flavour. The white shahtoot mulberry has genuinely white or pale pink coloured fruit which will not stain, while the red shahtoot has red berries which will stain. The fruit dry well and dehydrated mulberries are great as a sweet snack.

 

What mulberry trees need:

  • Water – Although drought tolerant once established, mulberries need a decent amount of water when young. Mulberries thrive in areas receiving 600 – 2500 mm rainfall per year.

 

  • Sunlight – Full sun is what mulberries crave.

 

  • Soil – Mulberries like a warm, well-drained soil, preferably a deep loam. he ideal range of soil pH is 6.2 to 6.8, the optimum being 6.5 to 6.8.

 

  • Space – Mature trees can grow up to 15m in diameter, so a minimum spacing of 3 – 4 m between saplings is recommended. Pruning will keep your tree smaller, so plan to manage its growth if needed.

 

  • Warmth – Mulberries are tolerant of cold conditions, although a hard frost could kill a young tree.

 

What mulberry has to offer:

  • Edible fruit.

 

  • Leaves for use as animal fodder.

 

  • Shade in the summer, and rich leaf-litter in autumn.

 

  • A highly durable, easily workable timber. Heartwood is a golden brown, darkening to a medium/reddish brown with age. Sapwood is a pale yellowish white. Very good for wood turning projects and furniture.

 

  • New plants, from seed or cuttings. Mulberries grown from seed can take 10 years or more to bear. Seed should be sown as soon as extracted from the fruit, although white mulberry seeds germinate better after stratifying one to three months before planting. Hardwood, softwood, and root cuttings are all effective for propagation of mulberries, as are T and sprig budding.

 

Images sourced from Wikimedia Commons:
File:Mulberry_1.jpg

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.

 

June 2: Seed Planting

2016/06/02 deej 0

Winter is here. Cold nights (and cold days, too, at the moment!), rain and wet, black soil. Every night there’s the smell of woodsmoke from wood-burning heaters in the neighbourhood, and the deciduous trees are all in the last stages of losing their leaves. The sweetgums are glorious, red and purple and gold. Everything is settling in for a good winter’s hibernation. Perfect time to plant tree seeds.

 

Stone pine seedsI’ve had some stone pine (Pinus pinea) seeds and cork oak (Quercus suber) acorns in the fridge for a couple’ve months, getting the chill they need to start germinating. They’re going to go into the zone 5 woodland, along with the edible-seeded wattles from the last lot of seeds. The first stone pine seed has just cracked open, so it’s time to plant them out, let them start getting the warmth of the winter sunshine as well as the cold. That was today’s task.

 

cork oak acorns, plantedI’ve also planted another load of vegetable seeds, mostly beans and a few different squash. The tomatoes have all sprouted, and realy need planting out, and the eggplant and capsicums have started sprouting as well now. The peas I planted are well on their way to taking over the world, triffid-like, and I’m hoping they survive long enough to produce peas! In the past I’ve had a lot of trouble with snails every time I’ve tried growing peas; they’re just too delicious, apparently.

 

the new towel railOn the house front, our achievement for yesterday was to put up the second towel rail. It’s been sitting there waiting for weeks, and it finally went up last night. There was much rejoicing. We celebrated with a bubble bath, and chocolate biscuits.

 

Corvy (the newest addition to the menagerie, a little black kitten we adopted to be a companion for George) fell in the bath, but he wasn’t too fussed about it. No scratching and clawing to get out, he was just a bit unsure because he couldn’t reach the ground – and a bit cold once he got out, until he was dry again. He was more careful after that, though, and stayed next to the heater to finish drying off instead of scrounging for chocolate biscuits.

plant profile: pomegranate

2016/04/15 deej 0

Pomegranates are a traditional Mediterranean fruit, along with olives, grapes, figs, plums, dates, and apples (yes, plums and apples are traditional Mediterranean fruit). It’s an attractive, multi-stemmed shrub or small tree, growing to be 6 – 10 m tall, with glossy green leaves and brightly coloured flowers which can be quite showy in some varieties. The fruit are quite large, between an orange and a grapefruit in size, and coloured pink to orange when ripe. There are multiple cultivars with slightly different fruit characteristics.

 

The seeds of the fruit are surrounded by individual ‘bubbles’ of red or pink, juicy pulp. Seeds are eaten whole, with the pulp. As well as being eaten fresh, pomegranates are often juiced to produce not only fruit juice but also various syrups  (grenadine, pomegranate molasses), pomegranate wine, and vinegars.

 

Pomegranates can be grown as single trees, as hedges, or even as bonsai. They are both self-pollinated and pollinated by insects, though cross pollination results in better fruit set. The seeds germinate readily, although most commercial propagation is by hardwood cuttings.

 

We have two pomegranates planted so far, mainly because they are a traditional Mediterranean food plant and one of the objectives for Gallifrey Forest farm is to produce as wide a variety of climate-appropriate foods as possible (and economically plausible) on a small acreage. They’ve been in the ground for 3 years, but the location we chose for them originally wasn’t a good one – unlike many plants not native to Australia, when people say that pomegranates like full sun they mean even in summer in WA full sun.

 

After three years of sickly baby trees which didn’t grow and had yellowish leaves most of the time in spite of all the soil amendment and fertilisation we could apply, I decided that they had to be moved. Within days of moving them to a new, sunnier location near the figs we’d just planted behind the workshop, they were growing new, bright green leaves and looking happy for the first time ever. The rabbits or kangaroos got to the new, bright green leaves and growing tips before we got to putting wire tree guards around them, but they are growing back and still looking happy. If I hadn’t seen them mooching along looking sick for so long I’d almost believe that pomegranates were one of the hardiest plants I’ve tried growing. Apparently part shade in the early morning and mid to late afternoon is way too much shade for happy pomegranates.

 

In any case, now that they look like they might survive to one day fruit, it occurs to me that pomegranate-based balsamic vinegar could be a taste sensation – regular pomegranate vinegar is delicious, as is regular (grape-must based) balsamic. Combining the techniques used to produce authentic 7 year aged balsamic with the complex flavours of pomegranate fruit could be a thing. Now we just have to create a market for it. 🙂

 

What pomegrataes need:

  • Water – Not too much of this, but they do need watering. Like figs, they’re more delicate than you expect during their first year or so in the ground, and need regular water.

 

  • Sunlight – All of it. Literally full sun all day. This is not an understorey plant.

 

  • Soil – They seem to be happy with anything, but free draining is best.

 

  • Space – Pomegranates are technically a large shrub, not a tree. They grow outwards as well as up, and they will turn into a spiny thicket if you don’t keep them pruned and trained.

 

  • Warmth – Pomegranates don’t like frost, especially when young. But they can usually survive a light frost.


What pomegranates have to offer:

  • Edible fruit, useful for juicing as well as eating fresh or making syrups and vinegars. There are lots of different varieties of pomegranate trees, which vary in the flavour and appearance of the fruit, but all varieties (even the ‘ornamental’ ones with tiny dwarf fruit) have delicious edible fruit. We have one ‘Wonderful‘ and one ‘Rosaveya‘ planted.

 

  • Landscaping – these are tough, low-maintenance, pretty little trees.

 

  • New plants, from seed or cuttings (hardwood cuttings 25 – 50 cm long, treated with rooting hormone).

Images sourced from Wikimedia Commons:
File:Pommegranate_tree01.jpg
File:Pomegranate_fruit.jpg
File:Punica_granatum_flower.jpg
File:Granadas_-_Pomegranates.jpg
File:Pomegranate02_edit.jpg
File:Punica_granatum_%28Jardin_des_plantes%29.jpg

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