A request for training

The last few months for us have been beyond hectic. So much so that this little blog has fallen to the way side due to us simply falling into bed at night from sheer exhaustion.

We’ve sold our excess produce at the Foragers Market in Bulli several times, raised a new batch of little egg birds, fended off foxes, broke new ground in our market garden, been asked multiple times to train different groups of people and taken on a full time role managing a very large IT service (you can’t take the techie out of me). Just crazy!

Last week, we met up with a couple who are passionate about permaculture (like us) and who would like to swap a few hours of work a week with knowledge and training of what we have accomplished. Why not! I said.

So today was the beginning of a practical experience “brain dump” for them. Given that we didn’t go around with pen and paper, these blog posts will serve as a reminder for them on what we accomplished and a summary for you out there about what you can do yourselves.

The morning started out with a run down of what they wanted to learn. We decided to start with a bottom up approach and start with soil … the building block of a healthy eco-system and a brilliant market garden. We looked at the difference between sandy loam, pure compost, different mulches and heavy reactive clays (our primary soil type here). We touched on our “lazy” composting technique along with the how and why it works for us. We also explored our experimental, onsite composting piles and the importance of replacing nutrients from another source if you are selling produce from the land.

Next we started looking at some of the different guilds we had set up. Our key discussion points were around our Plum, herb and Tower of Jewels (Echium) planting and those of our Apple, Artichoke and Foxglove planting.

We then had a walking fruit salad by visiting some of our apple trees as a snack then headed back to the house to start preparing our upgraded chicken tractors (see our original Chicken Tractor soil fertility post) for our new generation egg birds. While our trainees assembled some new, stainless steel treadle feeders, I finished rolling out some dough for bread rolls for lunch, then had a break for morning tea.

The upgraded chicken tractors were secured from fox attack and nice fresh straw was added in, we transferred 35 of our 10 week old chicks to their new pens to grow out before being introduced into the chicken caravan in a couple of months. We’ve learned the hard way that the young birds quickly learn to squeeze through the mesh of the electric fence surrounding the chicken caravan and prefer to escape and scratch in the market garden. Sorry girls, you’re going to be somewhat incarcerated until you fill out some more and you get too big to fit through the mesh! Enjoy your home under the old pear tree for a few weeks.

Once we were happy that they figured out how to use the treadle feeders and that the water was set level, the guys set about harvesting some snake beans. They learned the correct technique for harvesting beans to ensure that the subsequent crops are not affected, then we had a break or lunch.

I mentioned that we needed to turn a few of our roosters into dinner, and our guests decided that they wanted to help and learn… so they learned how to calm the birds, slaughter them humanely, pluck them, evicerate them and de-bone them over a couple of hours. Lots of work!

Once we had cleaned up the meat and rinsed it, we used our post hole digger to quickly dig a couple of holes to bury the feathers and carcasses.

Phew! What a day. Thanks guys for your willingness to get involved and learn things that that most people are too afraid to tackle. I hope you enjoy your ethically grown and much loved rooster pieces. Remember to wait until next weekend to cook them so they are no longer in rigor mortis.

Apple varieties we have available

We constantly get asked what apple varieties we have available on our farm. So, for those who are not feint hearted, here is a list of all the domestic varieties we have available for cultivation (currently 73 to save you from counting). If you want any scions for grafting, let us know and we will let you know if there are some available and when we can ship them. Alternatively, contact us and we can custom grow an apple tree for you on either a super dwarf (2m), dwarf (3-4m) or large (9m) rootstock. Continue reading

What’s the name of that apple?!?! A Peasgood Nonsuch?

We love heritage apples and all this simply means is that the apple in question is no longer grown commercially for the mainstream market. There is nothing wrong with these apples … in fact, most heritage apples have superior flavour and texture over the regular apples you find at the grocer. The reason they are not stocked? Because they don’t last as long in the refrigerator!

“Regular” store bought apples.

When you go to a store today, you will always find apples on the shelves. Fresh and sometimes not so crunchy apples are a staple in our society. But in reality, to ensure that there are apples available all year round, they need to be kept in storage for a VERY long time.

As with all natural things, there is a season for apples. Apples flower from early Spring to mid Summer (late August to December here in Sydney regions). So depending on the variety of apple, you can have fresh fruit from as early as mid Summer through to mid Winter (late December to mid July here). So what about the other months?

This is where the genetics of an apple are very important. Early fruiting varieties (such as the Israeli variety ‘Anna’), mature early in the season but in doing so sacrifice their ability to be stored long term. But is their flavour affected? No way!

Generally speaking, if an apple is ripened on a tree before it is harvested, it is capable of developing mind blowing flavour. But to store an apple long term, certain characteristics need to be taken into account. Mainly the acidity of the fruit and its sugar level.

If the sugar level in a fruit is too high, it ripens quickly. When you buy a “floury” apple from a store, this texture is due to the apple being stored with a higher than normal sugar content and then while in storage, the sugars get converted into fibre too quickly … hence the “floury” texture.

But a fruit with too high an acidity, generally produces a tartness which most customers find unpalatable. So there is a fine balance between when to pick and how to store. Actually, there is a real science behind it as apples need to be stored in a climate controlled environment to ensure peak condition.

Heritage apples

In today’s economy where we have grown accustomed to having everything we want when we want it, eating in season foods has fallen by the wayside. This means that anything that cannot be stored and transported long distances falls out of flavour. Most restaurants and food businesses don’t change their menu based on the season, which means that only food which can be sourced all year round are available. But if you are so inclined, there are some small operators (ourselves included) who are dedicated in ensuring that some of the most flavoursome apples are available to farmers markets in season.

At this time of year, some of the larger varieties are ready to harvest. These are the mid season fruits. The likes of Red Delicious, Pink Lady and Granny Smith are no where near being mature enough to harvest in our region; this means that these varieties on shelves are almost 12 months old.

When it comes to flavour, two of our all time favourites ripening now are the Gravenstein and the Peasgood Nonsuch (yes this mouthful is its real name!). The Gravenstein is an old European apple variety which originated in Denmark. It has a beautiful rich red skin with little spots all over it, white flesh and tastes nothing short of divine. It has a slight tartness (indicative of high acidity) but is complemented with a good deal of sweetness when tree ripened. It is great fresh and is excellent for cooking as it keeps it shape well.

Similarly, the Peasgood Nonsuch is a great cooking apple but is better known as a saucing apple, creating a really smooth puree that complements soooo many dishes! This one though is a bit of a giant in the apple world, regularly 50% larger in size than a red delicious, meaning it is around double the weight too! We have included one in the photo above.

So next time you buy an apple, have a think about what it took to get to your table. Visit your local farmers market to find someone nearby who grows fruit in season … you will never regret the flavour. Ask to try something you don’t know. Remember, local farmers (generally) enjoy their job and would love to talk to someone who appreciates the effort they put into providing quality produce.

What is a dwarf apple?

Apples - Jonathan

Apple trees are pretty amazing. They have been part of the diet of nearly every nation since pre-history. Why? Because they are absolutely delicious … well … the one’s we eat that is.

If you grow an apple tree from seed, you might be disappointed. Firstly, it will take around 8-10 years until it fruits and secondly it will probably taste nothing like the apple it came from. This is because nearly every apple needs to be cross pollinated with the pollen of a completely different variety of apple tree. This is why apple trees you buy are grafted.

There are two parts to a grafted tree: the Rootstock (the part that grows in the ground) and the Scion (the variety you want to grow).

When you want to create another apple tree, lets say a Granny Smith, you need to not only find a scion of Granny Smith to use, but you also need to determine what rootstock you want to graft it to.

The choice of rootstock used will determine a number of factors of the resulting tree. Some f these factors are:

  • Overall tree height
  • Tree vigour (how quickly it grows)
  • Disease tolerance or resistance
  • Drought tolerance
  • … etc.

In Australia, there are a number of rootstocks that are better for the home garden. For example, common rootstock names are MM102, MM106, M26, M27, MM111 and B9. One of the best websites for all things apples is www.orangepippin.com

Courtesy of the rootstock we have chosen for our Super Dwarf Apple Trees (M27), each apple tree will:

  • grow to around 2 metres tall and 1 metre wide
  • mature in 2-3 years rather than 4-5 years
  • grow between 3-5 kg of apples per tree when mature
  • can be planted as close as 1 metre apart to create a hedge
  • can be grown in large containers

The main drawback to using this rootstock is that it has a shallow roots system (which is why its good for pots) so needs lots of regular water and a stake to hold it up.

Creating a new apple tree requires that the grafting be done during the Winter using dormant wood or in Summer using budding techniques (more on these in another post later). Here is a series of images we took during last Winters’ grafting session…

Collect your scion wood and store it

Our scion wood is collected once trees are dormant. That is when all the leaves have naturally dropped form the tree. We collect short lengths of around 20-30cm of pencil thickness. These are bundled, labelled, wrapped in moist paper towel and then refrigerated (in plastic bags) until they are needed.

Scion wood

Store your rootstock correctly

When your order of rootstock arrives, unpack it as soon as possible and put it in a medium that keeps the roots moist but not wet. We use moist wood shavings.

Grafting rootstock

 

Graft, tape and label your trees

There are different ways to create a grafting union. You can use a knife or specialised grafting tool. The following images show a grafting tool which uses an Omega cut. You can see how the rootstock and scion meet almost perfectly.

Grafting notch with tool Graft unionGrafted, tied and labelled

Here are two boxes of trees grafted and ready to be planted out.

Newly grafted trees

So the next time you nibble on an apple, think about all the research that has gone into creating the wonderful fruit you are eating.

Cider Season … It’s here and we’ve started processing!

There are two things we are seriously passionate about … chickens and apples.

Now while I could talk about either topic for hours, today was all about the amazing bounty of fresh Summer apples … and turning those little gems into cider!

There are plenty of online sites out there that describe the ins-and-outs of making cider. So we won’t do that, rather, lets see how we go about making our cider. Here is a rough summary…

  1. Collect apples
  2. Clean apples
  3. Cut and juice apples
  4. Pasteurise the juice
  5. Clean and dry the vat
  6. Mix in the yeast
  7. Ferment (stage 1)
  8. Siphon and bottle
  9. Ferment (stage 2)
  10. Drink and enjoy!

Collect apples

There are a lot of different aspects you need to consider when choosing apples for cider. For us, we use a juicy fruit which has a nice crisp flavour but not too sweet. We have visited hundreds of feral apple trees and found some favourites. The fruit from this tree is no exception. It is a small tree, standing only 3.5-4m tall with an upright habit, but every year, it is laden with so much fruit that the branches are always bent under the weight of them. The fruit with a red blush was on the outer branches, exposed to sunlight, whereas the green ones were well covered with leaves and did not receive any direct light.

This year, we collected around 30kg from this one tree. Not bad for a freebie!

Clean apples

We always give our apples a good wash before juicing them. We fill a tub with water and add around one cup of vinegar. When we put the apples in, we remove any leaves and ensure that there are no seriously damaged fruit. This little tree has never had any fruit fly or codling moth in all the years we have visited it. We can only dream of having such luck on our new farm! *sigh*

Cut and juice apples

To make sure that there are no wriggling surprises in the apples, we slice them through once. After going through around 10kg of the apples, there was not a single insect larvae found! So we stopped that and just juiced the whole fruit for the last 20kg. We use a regular juicer, which means that there is a foam created on top of the extracted juice due to the aeration produced by the spinning juicing disk. You can use a pressure juicer if you want, and this won’t produce the foam like ours.

 

Some common fruit problems.

Apples, like all fruit, are not always perfect straight from the tree. When fruit growers harvest their own fruit, they have to grade them. The best fruit is sold as fresh edible produce and the rest are either fed to animals or juiced. As we harvested our fruit from a feral tree, the only care taker was Mother Nature … and while She can create some amazing things, Her idea of pretty is not the same as ours. Here are a couple of ailments you might find on feral fruit…

Bird or Fruit Bat Damage

Feral apples are a great food source for wild animals. Even in managed fruit crops, orchard growers need to ensure that their fruit is protected from all sorts of critters and insects alike. In our up-coming orchard, we need to contend with protecting our crop from rabbits, wombats, kangaroos, fruit bats, possums, fruit fly, coddling moth and birds (especially cockatoos) to name the worst offenders. It’s a delicate balance. But fruit that has been attacked by animals is still salvageable for cider as long as the fruit flesh has not been damaged. Simply cut off the affected area and juice away. The following images are examples of bird damage (note the pitting) and  of fruit bat damage (note the smooth scrapped sections) respectively.

Fungus and bruising

Some fungus is only skin deep. This particular fungus is a dry rot. It sets in under specific conditions and creates small indentations in the skin of the affected fruit, covered with a dark scab like substance. Although it looks horrible, this is a purely an aesthetic issue. When you cut through the flesh, only the bruising affects anything below the skin. You can remove these parts of the apple, but as we pasteurise our juice, we leave it on.

Scab and bruising

One the fruit below, you can see a bump with a scabby section on it. This is a form of apple scab, a fungus that again affects the skin of fruit under certain conditions. You can also see bruising under the skin from when we picked the fruit (we were not delicate in the process and had some throwing competitions at some points … great memories but not too good for the fruit!). In the second image, you can see how, on cutting the apple directly through the scab, there is no imperfection in the flesh except the bruising.

 

Pasteurise the juice

Once the juice is in the pot, we move the pot to a stove and bring it to the boil for several minutes. This ensures that the correct temperature is reached to kill off any bacteria from the apples. While you can simply use unpasteurised juice, we are aiming for a consistent flavour. That and the fact that the fruit came from a feral tree on the roadside of a major highway means that we would rather be safe than sorry!

Once the juice has been pasteurised, we skim off the frothy layer and let it cool a bit. The froth will float to the surface and congeal as it cools (apples are high in pectin, which is used as a jam setting agent). Once it has congealed, it is easy to skim off the top with a ladle.

Clean and dry the vat

While the juice is cooling, we clean out the fermenting vat and sterilise it. We are using a 30L vat available from your local brewers shop. We then pour the juice in and wait for it to cool. We supplemented our juice with that from our local orchard, Cedar Creek Orchard, who do amazing apple juice from their trees.

Mix in the yeast

Once the temperature has dropped down, we add the least. We are using a champagne yeast, 10g to the whole vat. This is enough to kick start the fermentation process. Simply add the yeast to the warm juice, stir it through, seal it with a lid and airlock, then let it do its thing for a few weeks.

Ferment (stage 1)

Fermenting is the process of converting the sugars in the juice using microbial activity into either an acid a gas and/or alcohol. There are lots of natural yeasts but we find that using a specific strain is best to ensure you get consistent results. During the fermentation process, the vat will give off lots and lots of gas. We need to monitor the airlock regularly to ensure that there is enough fluid in the S-bend to ensure that no oxygen gets into the vat.

This stage of the fermentation cycle is always good for laughs as, when all is quite in our house, there are random gurgles and bubbles heard from the air lock of the cider vat. We keep the vat in our laundry where the temperature is the most stable and it is well ventilated too. We managed to get a photo of some gas escaping. You can just see it in the image below on the right hand side of the S-bend in the air lock.

Siphon and bottle

(to be updated in late February)

Ferment (stage 2)

(to be updated in March)

Drink and enjoy!

(to be updated in March)

 

 

When is an apple not an apple?

When it’s feral of course!

Apples are nothing short of amazing. To us at Little Field Mice, there is nothing nicer than a freshly picked, tree ripened apple. But did you know that most apples cannot produce fruit on their own? Or that the seed from your favourite apple, when planted, will grow into a tree that produces fruit which is totally different in flavour to its parent? This is because, to produce fruit, nearly all varieties need to cross-pollinate.

Drive down nearly any Australian highway or main road, and unless a new suburb has been recently “installed”, you will find apple trees growing wonderfully on their own. These guys are called “Feral Apple Trees” They won’t look pretty, nor will they necessarily be nice to eat … but they are there and they are all extremely diverse. Sweet, tart, astringent, juicy … there are numerous ways to describe the flavour of apples. But in our heart, feral apples are a hidden gem.

Every year, for the past four years, we have travelled up and down the highways and roads sampling mother natures’ version of an apple. We’ve collected several hundred kilos in our exploits, cataloguing a little over 400 trees and their attributes; some are inedible, others great eaten fresh, some great for cooking while others we have juiced into cider. The humble apple is seriously misunderstood by the average Australian.

This time of year (mid December), there are no fresh apples available commercially. What you are getting in supermarkets are last years’ harvest. The earliest apples will be available on shelves is early January; and only if you are lucky enough to have an orchard nearby that grows heirloom fruit. This is because some apples, while great in flavour, do not store well. Your average store bought apple is mid to late season ripening (March to June) and is picked before being completely ripened on the tree to ensure that it stores better and longer.

We are so impassioned about apples, that we have started a small orchard of heirloom and feral apples. We have reached 126 different varieties this year with some trees surprising us by fruiting earlier than expected! So keep your eyes peeled in the coming months for some special fruit.

Here is one of our Jonathan apple trees in flower a couple months ago. This tree was salvaged from a nursery which was throwing her out along with 11 other apples trees. She has since gone on to produce some excellent offspring (via grafting) and is heavy with fruit ATM. We have had to tighten the orchard trellis to ensure that the branches are secure and don’t break! Bring on apple season!