I was also finishing a degree at the time and once completed, I looked around for office work. Surprisingly, my degree in politics, history and philosophy did not help me in finding work around Cygnet, and to bring in income I turned to the dream of growing organic vegetables for fun and profit.
I knew very little about horticulture, and began my journey with a rake and a spade and a lot of enthusiasm. The first garden was small, dug by hand and planted a bit at random. It did work, though, and the first time I sold produce from the garden was a very happy day!
But fifteen dollars worth of garlic does not get you very far, and expansion became my focus. I also read a whole swag of books on organic and market gardening. My garden expanded and my techniques improved. I discovered why hoes were the essential tool in pre-industrial agriculture (think of the implications of the phrase 'hoedown'), and after 18 months I was able to afford a rotary tiller to hasten the work of cultivating soil.
And then a couple of years ago I bought a share in a tractor, and I expanded again to other parts of the farm, and this year I am leasing a couple of acres from a friend on the Huonville road, so the trend of learn-apply-expand is continuing.
Today we’ll be talking mostly about this land we’re standing on, so I’ll run through a few of the pros and cons of the block. It seems in farming there is a flip side to almost everything, but the first pro I think stands alone, and that is that this place is beautiful. It’s a lovely place to work everyday, watching the seasons come and go and the years pass and almost everyday having a little ‘wow’ moment — ‘you’re allowed to do this for a living?’
The soils here (and in most of Cygnet) are a quite heavy, shallow clay — that’s why it’s such a good apple growing region, because the apple trees like having their roots down into the clay. For a gardener, clay is good and clay is bad. Clay is bad because it’s shallow, it turns to cheesy glue when it’s wet, and it’s like brick when it’s dry.
But clay is also good, because it holds onto things, especially water and nutrients, so it’s a great base to build good soils.
For water, here in Cygnet we average 700mm of rainfall a year, which is relatively dry. However, as you can see, this property has a fair amount of stored water, so I can weather dry periods quite easily.
But the slope is good because it means the garden is very well drained, and this is especially important over winter — on a flat block in this climate you often simply cannot farm it in winter as it is too wet. So I have very good drainage here (but remembering the clay holds on to moisture, so it’s the best of both worlds). Also, the garden is sloped toward the north, and over the cooler months this has a beneficial effect for the garden. Because of the slope, the garden actually catches more sunlight and heat than a flat block. The winter sun is right low over the hill and the slope faces that way, so I get better growth in winter here than I would otherwise.
This slope is also a factor in the microclimate— it catches the sun in winter, but frost also is inclined to slide off it. Other factors for this microclimate are proximity to the ocean, and with Port Cygnet only three kilometres away it is quite temperate. We also have the surrounding hills. The range to the west protects the garden from the strong prevailing north-westerlies, and combined with the other hills to the east they create a bit of a sun trap over summer, where the temperature here can be several degrees hotter than Cygnet — good for the corn and the tomatoes!
I could quite easily talk you ears off about so many things — soil health, fertilisers, composts, organic principles, harvesting for market, varieties and climate, poly tunnels— but I’ve decided to focus on what I see as the three key ideas that govern this farm.
The first concept can be applied generally to Tasmania and the Huon, and this is the concept of Seasonality.
Cygnet is at 43 degrees south, and this means we have a quite dramatic seasons. This seasonality is caused by the fluctuating amounts of sunlight shining on the southern hemisphere. This year, the shortest day (June 21st) is 9 hours and 49 seconds long and the longest day (December 22nd) is 15 hours and 21 minutes long, so that’s a difference of more than 6 hours.
So at the moment all that extra sunlight is giving us summer, and the soil is warm and the days are long and plants are growing like mad, and gardening is easy. But we are already sliding down the slow decline of sunlight hours now, heading for winter, when plant growth gets slower and slower and pretty much stops when our days fall shorter that 10 hours long. For us this year, we drop below 10 hours of daylight on the 8th of May, and we only start to get more than 10 hours of sunlight again on the 7th August, so for us that’s 3 months of the year —one quarter of the year — where we are dealing with very slow growth.
So these extremes of sunlight cause our distinct seasonality here, and dictate how and when we can plant what crops, and therefore what we are able to have available to us as fresh vegetables at any given time of the year.
This awareness of seasonality is particularly important when we’re talking about cropping over winter, during that really quite dead three months May-August, and what it means for this farm is that I’ve been very busy for the last 6 weeks sowing crops that will be providing me income in July and August….
Which leads us neatly to our second key idea for the farm, which is Succession Planting.
So why didn’t I sow the whole patch at one time? Well, apart from the fact that would be a huge job, it would also mean that I ended up with around 2,500 ears of corn ripening in the same week. And as the aim of the farm is to provide vegetables for sale to local people every week of the year, I would most likely be unable to sell that many ears in one week.
So what I have done is worked out what is the earliest I can safely sow corn and get a crop, and the latest, and planted successions over that time. This approach to succession planting applies all over the farm, so I’ll repeat it:
What is the earliest I can sow and safely expect a crop? What is the latest? Ok good then, I will sow between those times, in quantities that will provide me with a good supply of vegetables over the viable season.
Corn is a good, simple example of succession planting, as the season for it is so tight: for me in this microclimate there is a five week window for planting, which equates to a five week harvest…..each week from mid-March to late-April I should harvest 8 rows of corn, or about 500 ears.
And in fact these big beet plants are the fourth succession this season, as I started sowing beets in October; the third planting is currently ready for harvest in the other patch. So you can see the idea here…I sow beets regularly over the season (seven times in total), and have a regular supply over the season, rather that just one big sowing that ripens all at once….
So that’s succession planting, which is a key part of our last focus: Intensive Growing.
Physically, there are three tiers of beds, and each bed is approximately 6 metres long. Each bed is 80 cm wide, and is separated from the next bed by a 40 cm path. I have tiers rather than long beds as the paths act as catchers for all the stuff sliding down the hill; without them there would be much more erosion….as a side note, in my leased patch on the Huonville Road, the beds are 50 metres long, because the land there is relatively flat. It’s also spacious, and farming there is a very different kettle of fish to farming here. Here, space is limited, very limited, and in order to make an income of a parcel of land this size, the plantings need to be intensive.
There are two ways in which the plantings are intensive in this patch: firstly they are closely spaced, and secondly, there is rapid turnover of beds.
So the idea is to jam the veges in as close as you can, depending on the size of the plant at harvest, and ensuring that each plant has enough soil, water, sunlight and nutrients to grow strongly. Intensive.
What happens is that as soon as a bed has been harvested out, then I hoe out any crop residues and weeds left in the beds. The residues are then raked out and put on the compost windrows at the top of the garden. I then leave the bed for roughly ten days, as this breaks the lifecycle of a nasty cutworm that lives hereabouts. Then the bed is hoed over lightly, composted and fertilised, and either sown with seed or planted out with seedlings.
This way, the maximum amount of vegetables are produced from each bed in the garden, and depending on the succession of crops through any given bed, each bed may contain between two and five or six crops in a year. For instance, tomatoes are planted once, and are in the ground for a long time, but something like rocket I’ll be planting up to 20 or more times a year, constantly harvesting and finishing beds and sowing new ones.
So this is the intensive garden: jam-packed with plants, with constant succession plantings at quantities and times that reflect the season….pretty good fun!