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Cape Tribulation Farm Stories

Establishing a Permaculture Exotic Fruit Orchard
 – a Perspective Helped by Hindsight.

By Alison Gotts
Published in 'The Exotics' - Rare Fruit Council of Australia Magazine, 2002

So you have a few hectares, and you want to plant some fruit trees. Why not plan your orchard using permaculture principles so that you create a ‘permanent agriculture’ system rather than a lawn with a few straggling citrus trees trying to compete with the grass, and chemical fertilisers washing off into the nearby creeks?

The first permaculture orchard I saw – I can still remember I was shocked at how untidy the whole thing was – it was like a forest. We had to step over logs and duck under branches and around piles of organic debris to get from one side to another. What a revelation - I had not recognised my need for imposed order and raked boundaries. Now visitors to our farm probably feel the same way. Walking from the front gate to the house the path goes through our ‘food forest’. Everything in it is edible – and what a mess it is too! So here is some of what we have learned about growing exotic tropical fruit trees using permaculture principles.

Aim for all-year-round production

This can be harder than it seems in the tropics, when all the South East Asian species want to produce fruit in February and March. Luckily the South American fruit seem to have a different biological clock and fruit in the winter months. So though you may not be that thrilled with the gluggy taste of the Yellow Sapote – it fruits in July – a terrible time for fruit availability so it is worth its space in the orchard.

I have really come to value the fruit which arrives in the winter months. The Yellow Mangosteen is another one – normally this would be rejected by most home gardeners as being too acid, but it fills the gap. Pommelo would be a must. And what a surprise the Davidson Plum has turned out to be - these are rainforest trees which have edible fruit so we planted some through the orchard and they fruit in the winter time. The flavour of the fruit is fantastic and makes a beautiful sauce and jam, which has turned out to be very popular. We now have another 100 trees in the nursery, ready for planting in the next wet season. So don’t plant just the fruit you like – plot out the fruiting times and have something available for each month of the year.

Don’t automatically choose commercial cultivars

The requirements of a commercial grower will be different to somebody growing fruit for their own use. The fruit I think of would be Rambutan – we grow seedling Rambutans because we wanted them to be strong enough to stand up to the cyclones when they came. And sure enough our choice was vindicated when Cyclone Rona blew through in 1999 with wind speeds up to 250 per hour. Our seedling rambutans were still in the ground, though a little tilted. But the grafted lychee planted next to them (we had won it in a rare fruit raffle) was gone – not a remnant left. It was hard to believe that a 5 metre tree had once occupied the space.

Another reason why we chose seedling Rambutans over the grafted varieties available was the taste. Commercial selection was aiming for a fruit where the flesh came away from the seed easily – it was seen as consumer friendly. Unfortunately the taste was not as good. We were lucky to be able to browse through our neighbour’s commercial Rambutan orchard and eat every variety they had. It turned out our favourite tree was a seedling. The taste was stunning – really sweet, acid and tart all at the same time – but the flesh did not come away from the seed. This turned out to be a bonus – you could chew on the seed for another 10 minutes and really feel as if you were getting good value!

However there was a down side to planting 10 seedling Rambutan – some of them turned out to be males, which do not produce fruit although they flower profusely. I had to go back to my Year 11 biology to remember what a male flower looked like as opposed to a female flower. We must have been lucky as only 7 out of the 10 have turned out to males. Six months ago we chopped them back to a stump and left them to sucker. Now we are grafting and budding to these suckers, using bud wood from our neighbour’s commercial cultivars so we will have the best of both worlds – a wonderful root stock – and three Rambutan trees which at least three different varieties on each tree. A gourmet choice.

Space trees to suit your needs – 1 metre from drip-line is generally sufficient.

Commercial recommendations provide for much larger planting grids – for Rambutans a 10m X 10m spacing was recommended to us. But we have planted much closer than that and intermixed the trees with other species which have a different shape, to make the most of the space. As a home grower, space is probably at a premium so you don’t need to leave space for large tractors and sprayers to operate, and it probably won’t matter if the tree only produces 500 fruit instead of 800 if it had been given more space.

We have deliberately interplanted Mangosteens and Salaks as a way of maximising space. Although it will be interesting to see how things develop in a few years as some of the Salak fronds are starting to invade the Mangosteen canopy which could be tricky when picking Mangosteens as the Salak leaves are so prickly. But they can always be pruned. But the Salaks are never likely to shade out the Mangosteens and being a palm they are rather partial to a bit of shade from the Mangosteens anyway.

You do need to consider the height of the trees when you plan your spaces not just the spread. It seemed like a good idea at the time to interplant the Mangosteens with Coconuts – the coconuts would grow much higher than the Mangosteens and help provide some canopy shade for the young trees – a lovely filtered light coming through the fronds. And this worked for the first ten years. Then the coconut trees were 20 metres high and the shade was becoming a problem for the Mangosteens. They were now mature trees and needed more sunlight than they were getting. It was pretty exciting cutting down the Coconuts down with the little chainsaw bought to prune fruit trees. So exciting in fact, that we have decided to leave a few of the Coconuts to grow amongst the Mangosteens because the chance of them taking out 10 Mangosteens when they fall seemed quite high.

Next time – Part 2 – Considering the location for particular trees; putting animals into the orchard; mulching - for and against.

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Last updated November 6, 2014