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Fernglade Farm – Mid Summer (January) 2013 Update

What a difference six weeks has made to the food forest here! The change in climate between cool and wet to hot and dry happened in less than a week during early October and since that time there has been no significant rainfall. The rain probably won’t fall here now until about April based on past experience and records.

The abrupt change surprised me and I took a while to come to accept that the climate had altered here that quickly, but after this realisation I undertook to heavily mulch all 300+ fruit trees. The purpose of this is to keep the plants’ root systems cool and reduce the evaporation of ground water. The mulch does have the adverse effect of scavenging nitrogen from the top soil which causes further stress to the fruit trees, but this is only temporary and the impact is much less than the stress caused by the loss of ground water due to evaporation.

Many of the days have been well in excess of 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) with strong winds and this has had a drying effect on the plants. Twice now this season because of the extreme weather I have had to provide about half a bucket of water to each fruit tree. Water supplies are limited here as the soil is too well drained to hold water in a dam or pond. As an interesting side note, where bentonite is used to line dams to assist with the retention of water, yabbies (a native freshwater crayfish) move in and dig their burrows, which then ends up draining the dams.

The only fruit trees which have died here so far are the very young which were planted in wet conditions and just don’t have the established root systems which can effectively forage for water and nutrients in these drier conditions.

The sunset shows just how much smoke particles are in the air due to bush fires

Some of the berry beds have had to be abandoned because I’ve found that the raspberries in particular are too water intensive and I am also at fault because they were established too late in the season for their root systems to have fully developed and the mulch just wasn’t deep enough.
The herbage under the trees in the food forest has died back. Some exceptions to this include plants of the borage family which are companions to many fruit trees here as well as the more ‘weedy’ species such as plantain, dandelions, cats ears and sow thistle which all seem to be quite hardy and are providing fresh greens for both myself and the visiting wildlife.

Predation of the fruit has been extreme this year and I have virtually donated my entire crop of several hundred nashi pears plus stone fruits to the local wildlife as they are clearly also struggling with the drier conditions. It was fortunate for the wildlife that it has been a bumper year for most of those fruits. Apples, citrus, berries and olives are some of the remaining fruit which has avoided this predation. It is the long term design here that the food forest forms a dense canopy which will make predation more difficult for the local bird population.

Some of the berries have produced bumper crops of excellent tasting fruit including: jostaberries; gooseberries; strawberries and currants. However, because of the extreme heat, some of those berries are starting to ferment on the bushes if not picked in time.

The herb garden and raised vegetable beds are doing very well in the heat, although they are the most water intensive plants in the entire system. Some of the vegetables do however have a tendency to bolt to seed and I have been kept busy removing the flowers and seeds to get a bit more life out of them. Other plants such as the guavas (pineapple and strawberry), tomatoes and geraniums (pelargonium species) are enjoying the hot conditions!

It has been a mixed bag really, however, the stress to plants in the food forest is increasing. Some hard decisions have been made and it would be nice just to get some rain.


  1. Gosh…you are doing a great job Chris…I love watching your news…I am newly on a wild property and have been learning from everything you put on the internet.

    Look forward to you receiving rain and more news about how things are going there!

    Thanks so much, Rosy

  2. Hi Rosy. Thanks. I wish you well for your wild property, make sure you let us know how it goes. Regards. Chris

  3. Thank you for your updates on your food forest. We live in Northern Tasmania and we have a dry summer (3 months) with very little rain. Good to hear that heavy mulching should help and to leave the weed species in place (too hot to get out there and dig them up anyway! ;) ). Again, thank you for your tireless efforts to help educate the masses…we, the masses, appreciate it incredibly :)

  4. i was thinking about how to design our food forest in the place we are buying and the effects of predation – and i had the thought that we should let at least one of each sort of tree grow to its full height whilst keeping the others at an easy picking height – hopefully that means the large ones that form part of the canopy are more subject to being picked at (whilst also attracting bird poo for the whole garden) and the small ones hopefully get left alone – an idea ive been toying with anyway.

    good read – i just searched google for more on your place

  5. Hi narf7. Thanks. Yeah, heavy mulching is the trick. I’ve even started trialling planting straight into deep woody mulch with herbs and berries and these seem more resistant to heat stress on extreme hot days than those planted in compost.

    Hi almeister. Hopefully you don’t have wallabies at your place as they prune all of the lower branches in the food forest? The herbivores will go for the smaller fruit trees that you are thinking of, so you have to fence / hedge those trees (or that whole area). I support a family of magpies and kookaburras (both are carnivores) which usually clear off the other fruit eating species but they can be a bit slack sometimes. Decoy fruit tree species are worthwhile planting too if you have the space as this fruit will be eaten in preference. Most of the native birds prefer sour tasting fruit (like the kangaroo apples here), so maybe try some seedling cherry trees which are very drought hardy once they’re a couple of years old. Growing a cherry tree from seed is a very cheap activity.

    With grafted smaller trees, the rootstock selected is what causes the tree to be small. This is in turn means that you won’t get a huge root system with that tree. This is desirable in a small space like an urban back yard, but if you have the space to plant big trees then bigger root systems means hardier trees. You can sometimes request the types of root stock for a grafted tree as they’re not all the same.

  6. Mate, you’re doing it tough down there, not to mention busy mulching and watering.
    And maybe three months more before it rains. Wow.
    We had three months without rain last spring, without the heat – and we were lucky we had dams full of water; most of the orchard (it’s way too young to be a food forest yet) near died, regardless of daily watering.
    Here’s hoping you get a bit of the wet stuff soon.

  7. Thanks for the posting and honest updates on the trials,lessons and rewards of your experiences. Here in Cary, North Carolina (a Southern USA State), we have had some summers like yours. Record consecutive days of high temps in the nineties + degrees F, more than a few record highs in the 105-107+, drought. Three summers ago, it actually got too hot for most large fruited tomatoes to produce until temps cooled down consistantly below 85 degrees F at night. There was even a summer failure of high summer pole beans for the same reason.. even with farmers using traditional local southern heirlooms. Fir4st time in known memory. Each year I try to consider what the natural pressures may be and try to figure out some solutions or at least how to manage the predicament. Glad to read about others, keep us posted!

  8. You’re doing a great job with really tough conditions. Up here in New York, we get dry summers, last summer being an out and out drought. I only weeded the gardens enough to allow the cultivated plants to survive in competition with the “weeds” (many of which are also edibles) as I too noticed that they served as a mulch of the plants I had planted. It’s good to be flexible about what plants, wild or cultivated, one thinks are desirable, particularly in dry conditions. As for some of the trees and bushes that didn’t make it, don’t feel too bad, as under other circumstances they may well have survived. Here’s to hoping your climate situation improves.

  9. Six months ago here in eastern Missouri in the U.S. we were going through the same hot temperatures (we got up as high as 42C/108F a couple of days and had 11 days total with highs of 40C/105F or hotter) and lack of rain that you are having now. I don’t wish it on anyone and hope you and your farm get through OK. We had little wind here so not much fire; that was well to our west.

    I also do not water established trees. If they cannot make it on rainfall after their first year or two I do not want them. The vegetable garden and some of the more water-demanding herbs I will water. This year I’m planning ways to decrease how much extra water the vegetables need and also adding a tank to collect water off a shed roof for the vegetable area.

  10. Thank you Chris! I was glad to read/watch about your mulching and the nitrogen issues. I had just spent the afternoon hauling nitrogen (stale powdered milk & goat droppings) water, cardboard and mulch and applying in about that order under a pie cherry tree and also applying mulch to a few beds closer to the house in preparation for another anticipated very dry year here in northern Colorado (US). (I think I need to see if I can get a rain barrel too.)

    I so appreciate what you are doing at your place and what I am learning from the information and experience you share!

  11. Hi Les. Thanks for your thoughts. There’s still been no rain here and the sky is smoky because of the Aberfeldy fires in Gippsland which is hundreds of kilometres away (about 55,000ha burnt so far). Glad to hear that your orchard made it through last season. Even the almond trees are looking a bit tired here (they’re in the first year), so I’ll have to get the bucket out again tonight.

    Hi Betsy. Thanks. Yeah, drought is a tough condition for a productive garden. Your observations about the tomatoes and beans in your area are really interesting and you may have to do even more selective breeding in the future. Who knows? I haven’t observed this here with the tomatoes. The beans and peas are dying here, but they are usually early summer producers anyway. I know it is not generally recommended (because of fungal problems) but I water the tomatoes in the early evening so that losses due to evaporation are reduced. Watering during the day here just burns the leaves and weakens the tomatoes. You are spot on about observation as the climate is getting more changeable every year. The seasons are starting earlier and the extremes are, well, more extreme.

    Hi Ceworthe. Thanks for your thoughts. Glad to hear that you’re flexible with the “weeds” as they can be quite beneficial to your garden plus feed you at the same time. Thanks for your comments about the trees and shrubs that aren’t making it here, fortunately it is only a minority at this stage, but it is still a pain. Lets hope for some rain!

    Regards. Chris

  12. Hi Susan W. Thanks for your thoughts. Yeah, you are on the right track incorporating those nitrogen rich ingredients into your mulch. The stale powdered milk will have some really interesting enzymes in it too, who knows they will do, but it should be a good mix. Rain barrells are a great idea too. Hoping your summer isn’t as dry and hot as here. If you have a wet spring, it might be worth applying more mulch as your winter batches may break down too quickly (which is a good thing too).

    Hi Bmiller. Thanks. Yeah, once you get to acceptance, you can start getting on with adapting.

    Regards. Chris

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