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.