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Fernglade Farm – Autumn Update (May 2014, Victoria, Australia)

Well, the summer just past was interesting. Heat and drought were constant companions in all parts of the Australian continent other than the Northern Territory. Down in the south eastern corner of the continent the farm here had to deal with 10 days of temperatures exceeding 40°C (104°F) during January and February. At one point in early February a bush fire came closer here than I was comfortable with and I had to evacuate the area.

On a more positive note, over the past few years I have been experimenting with various edible and inedible plants and plant guilds to determine their suitability for this particular environment. The recent summer was an excellent test of those plants and now that the weather has turned cooler and the wet stuff has started falling from the sky again, I’ve been busily replicating the plants and plant guilds over an ever larger area.

Water storages were managed better during the past summer than in previous years and the storage reserves still held 45,000 litres at their lowest point (out of a total capacity of 100,000 litres). In the next six months I’m hoping to increase the water storage here by another 10,000 litres.

The supply of water to plants is crucial during extreme temperatures in order to maintain yields. Many plants simply shut down plant growth during these summer conditions and I’ve been coming to the conclusion recently that the lean period here is during January and February. Even then, there are still plenty of plants which thrive in the hot and dry conditions during those months. It has been quite educational to learn which plants will survive in what conditions given the available top soil, shade and water.

The food forest is becoming hardier with each passing season. Many of the 300+ fruit trees received only about 5 litres of water each on about 4 occasions. Other than that they relied on ground water alone (helped along by swales and water harvesting techniques). I try to keep the fruit trees a little water stressed (within reason) so that they develop more extensive and deeper root systems with each year. The fruit trees which displayed the most water stress were those that had been moved during the previous winter or were in their first year. Some of the larger plum, apple and pear trees showed no signs of water stress at any stage.

I have also learned that all of the fruit trees must be mulched before Christmas in order to keep their root systems cool during the summer and that the herbage must be completely mulched and significantly reduced in height before the start of January. I experimented with maintaining longer herbage (up to a metre high) at some points on the farm to observe whether there was a significant increase in ground moisture at those locations. There was no noticeable difference between those areas and other areas where the herbage had been simply chopped and dropped just prior to January. On the other hand, the increased fire risk of longer herbage is not worth the hassle as it was my impression that most of the bush fires in the area to the south of my farm were of human origin. It is a bit of a shame because I noted that some of the native grasses stayed green during the summer and even produced flowers during February.

Companion planting with the fruit trees with species such as comfrey and borage is a really successful strategy and from observations those trees perform much better than trees without the companions. I’ve been replicating companion planting across the entire food forest and farm and I’ve also started to notice that these plants themselves are also self-replicating.

In these hot, dry Mediterranean summer conditions dense planting is also proving to be a very effective method of reducing water loss through evaporation.

Now that it is cloudier and cooler during Autumn, I’m getting days when the solar power system does not quite produce enough energy to meet demand for that particular day. The day the video below was recorded was one such day. Fortunately the battery storage meets the demand shortfall and the deficit is made up over the following days. Many people forget when speaking about renewable energy sources that whilst being an excellent system, they provide a very irregular energy supply which requires people to modify their lives around that supply. In many ways, it is not dissimilar from producing your own food in that you have to work with the available climate and energy as supplied by nature.

I’m glad that the weather has turned cooler, but what is really great is that the many strategies employed here at the farm are really starting to build resilience.


  1. Love to see another Gourmet Cooker. :) Our pantries are looking much like yours although sadly we are not yet bottling all our own produce.Your demijohns bring deep envy although we’ve got 2/3rds years supply of apple juice (at about 1L a week) bottled from scrounged roadside apples. Glad the bushfire didn’t come too close. I guess that’s a part of life here in Australia but it doesn’t make it any more pleasant.
    Thanks again for sharing.

  2. Hi Jessie. Thanks for the comment. How good is the Gourmet Cooker! I hope your house smells of freshly baked bread too. Some of the produce in the pantry is gleaned from the area here. A few months ago I started picking blackberries for jam in a remote spot that the council doesn’t thankfully seem to spray. I’m establishing an area here for thornless blackberries (waldo and chester varieties). I’ve started adding rhubarb as a source of pectin and as a bulking agent for the jams this year and it’s good. It is amazing how productive those roadside apple trees are. Nice work. Have you tried making apple cider vinegar? I add it to the chooks water and pickle tree onions in it and the brew happily bubbles away in a 20 litre bucket in the laundry with very little thought on my part. I love those demijohns too. Thanks for your thoughts about the bushfires, last summer was closer than I’d experienced before. Cheers. Chris

  3. Hi Chris, I love your updates, thanks so much for putting in the time and effort to share. I have a couple of questions: firstly, how long was it dry for before you got autumn rains and secondly, what plants did you put in your guilds? We’re in the S-W of WA and had 5 months with no rain and had to drip irrigate our food forest.

  4. Hi Lin. Thanks for the comment. This past summer it was dry for about 2 months before it produced some rain at the end of February. The previous summer was similar to yours in that it was dry for 5 months from October to February. There is an update for it here:

    As a general observation, I’ve noticed that the really extreme heat coincides with the extreme UV which ends here sometime in early March. Interestingly, the very well established fruit trees continued growing through those two months, whilst everything else got water stressed.

    As to plant guilds, the following article from January gives specifics plus photos on what is working here and what isn’t:

    These areas have since been expanded to over three times what they were back then – although the new areas don’t look as good right now! What is really interesting is that you eventually get to a point in time on your property, where your plants are well established and they start reproducing in vast quantities and you’re able to then propagate them all about the place. It is a slowly accelerating process of obtaining the plants and then letting them get established and you understanding their life cycles.

    You’ll also notice how closely everything is planted. I leave very little soil exposed to the sun.

    In the food forest, I have been heavily planting borage and comfrey cuttings under the fruit trees. I purchase, beg, borrow and remove as many of these plants as I can get my hands on. Also the herbs from the herb garden are starting to sneak out into the fertile shady conditions of the food forest.

    I read recently that the autumn rains have commenced in SW WA. I hope you received some. Over this side of the continent it already feels like spring as the weather has been breaking records – again. It is interesting that us lot in cool temperate areas are now having to implement dry land strategies just to get through the summers.

    Great questions. Cheers.

  5. Thanks for sharing! You’re doing a beautiful work there. I imagine every year that passes you’ll have more satisfaction from your hard work. It’s inspiring to get these reports and videos.

  6. Hi Br. Curt. Thanks. The farm is getting more resilient and productive with every passing year. It is satisfying the plants actually require less work with each year. Most of my time is now being spent on building and then adapting (i.e. fixing mistakes – or learning from experience) the supporting infrastructure here. Cheers.

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