Monday, July 4, 2011

Our bush orchard

We are starting to plant out a bush orchard on our property line. We tried to do this about two years ago, but the neighbour's goats decimated anything we tried to grow there. One lone Grevillea (copper rocket) and an Ivory Curl tree survived the relentless stripping, until we decided to start some serious caging.

The trio of goats died unexpectedly after the Queensland floods, which wasn't an uncommon thing amongst property owners in this region - we lost 3 healthy chickens too. With the eating habits of the goats a thing of the past though (not being heartless, just practical) we're trying to get plants established in time for the Spring flush of growth.

So what's exactly contained in our bush orchard, and what do we hope to achieve with it?

Mandarin in fruit; delicious and nutritious
~ but not native ~

Well it's certainly not like an orchard of European varieties of fruit trees and shrubs, which most backyard gardeners are familiar with (apples, oranges and berries). Rather, it will have only native varieties which produce a crop of native fruits. Some of them can be used by us, in jams, dried or eaten fresh, but for the most part we wanted this bush orchard for the native animals.

Before I get into the whys about the orchard, I wanted to show the layout and some of the plant varieties we've selected. They're only very small at this stage, but still worth recording for future reference. The first plant, is a Davidsons Plum. Feel free to press on the link for more information.

The fruits of these plums are not as sweet as their European counterparts, but are reported to make a most excellent jam. Something I'm very much looking forward to trying in the kitchen. Another plant we selected for the purpose of stabilising the soil however, is a sandpaper fig.

We hope to propagate it at a later date, for planting along the banks where we get some powerful water flows in storm season. Why is it called a sandpaper fig you may ask? It's leafs actually feel abrasive like sandpaper, and indigenous Australians used it to refine their wooden hunting tools. You betcha, I'm going to get a piece of wood and try this out for myself, only when the leafs are a little bigger!

Next is a peanut tree which is a rainforest tree, but shouldn't grow too big in this belt of trees.

The nuts inside the fruit are said to taste "nutty", but we wanted it specifically because it's a native food source for birds and a lot of nocturnal animals we don't get the opportunity to see much of, like bushrats and bandicoots.

I also have a Burdekin Plum which I haven't planted yet, but it's also a favourite of fruit bats apparently. Before anyone asks if I'm crazy for wanting to attract fruit bats (Flying Foxes, otherwise known for their ravenous appetite for all things fruit) to our garden, the European trees (like paw paw and bananas) are going to do that anyway. Our native bats which are really quite adorable, actually prefer native fruits over European varieties. We wanted to cater to their natural diet. We'll still have to take measures to protect our other fruit trees, but we're hoping the "lure" to better food is going to keep them happily occupied.

Lemon Myrtle
sourced from local markets

The Lemon Myrtle or backhousia citriodora, is another bee and bird food source, but it's also a great herb to use in cooking. We're hoping to be able to substitute the leaves from this tree, instead of using bay leafs. After all, the bay tree can get quite big in the ground. A more native solution is going to meet the need with less impact to the environment.

In fact, any impact that will be felt in our bush orchard will be one of mass fertility as every possum, bandicoot, wallaby, bird, bat, echindna (yes, we get those too) and many other native animals, feast and drop their dung! This is what we want. We want native animals, filled with native food, dropping their gorgeous native dung absolutely everywhere. They will be our little beasts of burden, carrying their fertility around the property and hopefully spreading it around the region too.

But what about the layout? How does it all fit together? First, our property boundary which is noted by the neighbours white fence below: this faces approximately west. The trees are in a northerly facing line.

A row of new natives in amongst the old

Even in winter, the sun is low enough to penetrate the canopy for secondary plants - or lower growing shrubs such as grevilleas, westringas and rosellas. All plants we hope to add more of once the trees get a bit more growth on them.

At this stage it's just a straight slope too, but we're already dropping leaf material, branches, dead grass and soil on the contour to create swales. These are not intended to be engineered for precision, or to catch and store large amounts of water. They're more to alter the energy of water running straight down the hill and to capture at least a small amount of moisture to last through times without rain.

The beginnings of a swale, which is just dead grass at this stage

The area above was the first section we actually developed when we first moved here, before the goats arrived. It has an emu bush (front) a westringia (mid) and small gumnut (rear) for honeyeaters and bees. The large dried gumnuts are great for craft, or just to have around the house for decoration:

I'm sure the ones which are left on the ground, turn into great humus eventually and make great hidey places for bugs and microbes too! Which is one of the reasons we're actually dropping the branches to make swales, rather than burning them off which seems to be a common practice in this area. Even though natives tend to decay slowly (especially eucalypt material) it's important to note we're not growing European trees here. The aim of this orchard is to feed the natives, which includes insects and microbes - burning off plant material, only robs the soil of it's evolutionary entitlement.

Felled acacias and eucalypts
but the dark-brown bark of the ironbarks remain

It's part of the reason we've also left some natives in this belt too. Endemic to this area (or use to be before land clearing and development took over) were ironbark trees. I love these trees with their gorgeous rough bark. The cockatoos love this tree for the very same reason! It's a great hidey place for bugs and when you've got a beak built like a commercial sized nut-cracker; you've got no problems stripping back the bark to get at them!

We are looking forward to seeing how this bush orchard develops and the interaction the native plants have on the soil. We've planted straight into natural dirt here, with only compost and gypsum added to help with acclimatisation. We hope to see the grass recede eventually to the shading of the natives, creating natural humus that only this landscape can appreciate fully.

Our garden bandaid over a massive cut and fill site

In stark contrast however, look at this area in-front of our house: the garden is maturing slowly to keep the soil in place, but it's not designed to feed natives. It will be a pretty garden and it has multiple purposes (all vital and functional) but the inputs in this patch of land were enormous!! First the earth mover which cut the land for the house to be built, then we had to erect the retaining wall and plant out; now we're tweaking the drainage to avoid water wiping out the garden again, like it did in the horrendous floods we experienced late last year and earlier in January.

Compare that to our efforts in this bush orchard, and it's laughably minimal. We've only had to remove a few spotted gums and acacia saplings (by hand) mown the grass in the growing season and mulched with bark. Eventually we won't have to mow this area at all - the system will look after itself.

Which is why Dave and I are looking forward to seeing how this experimental plot goes. We don't mind working hard, but we also don't like working against nature either. Been there, done and doing that, LOL! We hope to learn a lot from this new form of gardening, so that we can actually grow better European food trees as well.

There is much to learn from our native predecessors.


  1. Thats a lot of information Chris. Thanks for sharing it. About the bats, I don't know if you have flies like we do (or other nasties) but bats are excellent for that. Also bat guano happens to be a very precious commodity (price wise). For us, we can just build bat houses which we hope to do soon. Our non food trees are mostly natives to our area and the bats just need encouragement. Are your bats not thought to be helpful?

  2. Hi Linda, it's great to hear you're going to be encouraging the native wildlife to your patch of land too.

    The Flying Foxes I'm refering to (bats) are exclusive fruit and nectar eaters. In the countryside where farmers grow commercial crops, they often wage war with these bats to save their livlihood.

    Even backyard growers have to go to great lengths to protect their bananas and paw paws from being munch on by these (I think) wonderful creatures.

    If the side of your house or top of your car happens to be on one of their regular flight paths too, you'll get regular (and quite large) splattings of black bat poo. They're just a bit of a nuisance (like possums getting in your roof). Most people would rather they stayed away, than cause a nuisance.

    I know fruit farmers pretty much loathe them though.

    We do have smaller carnivorous bats (I've seen them at dusk) and they tend to nest in old trees with little holes, so we're keeping a lot of old trees around for them too. :)

  3. Interesting. We don't have that type of bat around here as far as I know. Just the carnivorous ones. Infact other than mice and bugs, nothing really bothers our fruits and veg. Bats are a good antidote to that.

    I know you'll keep us updated on the progress of your orchard. Do tell if you see a bat!

  4. I'll defintely take photoes if I can. They're quite a large bat, about the size of a cat. But they're so gentle and placcid in nature. I guesstimate that a minimum of 12 months to two years however, before plants are large enough to fruit and attract them.

    I'm really looking forward to the warmer weather. I've put in quite a few more plants that I want to see grow. :)

    Some natives can grow quite fast.

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