We have a long driveway, about 120 meters of it – I know because a 100m hose pipe doesn’t reach to the end. That is a lot of real estate. However, on the one side it has a 4m space between the gravel driveway and the fence. So that is a lot of real useful real estate. Our predecessors had a combination of couch and kikuyu grass and the odd patches of agapanthus. It looked real neat when it was mowed and green from the rain. But we had other plans…
Following some biodynamic principles, we wanted to plant a mixture of fruit trees all along the driveway. Imagine how nice it would be when they’re all in flower, or better still, when they’re all in fruit – the kids can just forage on the way back from school!
We had already amassed a small collection of trees in pots from various nurseries, as well as from Diggers Club, which we had then recently joined. In that collection were apples, pears, figs and avocadoes. So with great enthusiasm I set off for the driveway one Saturday morning with a pick-axe, a shovel and a few small trees on the wheelbarrow. We were going to plant 20 new trees this sunny weekend! Great was my dismay when after half an hour of battling to clear the Kikuyu and then another half an hour battling with the pick-axe and the shovel, I had one small indentation of less than 6 inches deep. This was the hardest clay soil I had ever come across. I made the calculation that it would literally take me weeks and kilolitres of sweat and blood to get the 20 holes dug.
So we contracted a local guy with a big powerful Dingo (like a Bobcat) with a huge fitting to drill half a meter wide holes, 600mm deep. Australian regulations are that all services must be buried at least 600mm deep. We daren’t have gone any deeper, because somewhere along that long driveway runs a water pipe, an electricity cable and a gas pipe. You’ll know when you hit water or power (ouch!), but with gas you have no idea, it just quietly leaks out and runs up your bill, never mind letting all that stuff go off into the air. Luckily our wild cowboy Dingo friend – racing against the clock to get the job done – didn’t hit a single obstacle.
So some compost, some of that same soil back in the holes, some rabbit protection screens, some weed mat to smother the kikuyu, a very long irrigation line along the fence and of course the trees and a lot of labour later, and voila! the driveway project done!
Or was it?
Those little trees didn’t grow very well. In fact, some of them are still battling… That is despite compost, regular deep watering, spraying biodynamic preparations, feeding them Seasol and even talking to them. We have since learnt that round drilled holes in this hard clay soil is not a good idea – it makes the roots go root-bound in the clay holes. We learnt a LOT of other things too. And the Avos were a total disaster, but they have their own story coming in a later post.
So after a permaculture / apple growing workshop we attended at Diggers Club in St Earths, which was led by Pete the Permie, we (OK, I) decided we could plant at least one tree between each of the existing trees, especially seeing it is only a single row and they have no competition on either sides from other trees. But this time round, we were going to do it “properly”.
So, off I went to Kerr’s Hire to rent the biggest excavator that I could tow behind my X-Trial. It was tricky to manoeuvre the thing at first – so many controls you have to operate at the same time to move the machine, the cockpit and the bucket at the same time, but I eventually got the hang of it, dug approximately 30 deep and wide holes, and of course, totally annihilated the plastic main water pipe in the process. Do you know how the family can complain when they’re waterless for a few hours? Well, emergency week-end plumber rates later and all was OK. To this day I swear at that spot the pipe wasn’t 600mm deep, but we’ll leave that story right there before my enthusiasm gets dragged into the picture.
We filled the holes with gypsum to break the clay further, a straw layer underneath for drainage, a mixture of cow manure and compost mixed with the soil, and let it lie for two months to settle.
Trip to Telopea nursery
So one Friday I rented a box trailer, which I could only get in Grovedale – which is in the opposite direction, hooked it up to the X-trial at 7:00 and set off for Monbulk on the other side of Melbourne. Spent an amazing time with Pete learning tons and also spending tons on great bare root apple, pear, apricot, peach, plum, persimmon and some other trees on rootstocks that would suit our soil and our area’s climate. Early varieties, late varieties, heirloom varieties – and all strong health grown in a permaculture nursery – really exciting stuff! Loaded the trainer with as much hay as would fit together with the trees and charged all the back, dropped the hay and trees and took the trailer back 5 mins before its due time. Stumbled back home at 6pm. A long exciting productive day.
On Pete’s advice I placed the trees in old bath with wet straw, ordered a massive load of fresh warm organic mushroom compost from Elcho Garden Supplies just down the road from us and worked two wheelbarrows of this into each hole and let it lie for another two weeks.
Then came the exciting time of planting, irrigating and fitting the rabbit screens. At this stage Patricia and the children were visiting family in South Africa, so I could work night and day, and very productively used the playroom as an assembly-line to pre-assemble all the rabbit screens.
This was followed by another massive project – getting and spreading much more mulch!
And with that, the driveway project was done! Or was it?
- Don’t dig round holes for trees in hard clay – it makes them root-bound – rather dig wider, even if shallower holes.
- Place gypsum and some straw at the bottom of each hole to soften the clay and assist with drainage. The straw also becomes compost eventually.
- Let the compost lie for quite a while in the whole before plating, especially with bare-root trees. This avoids getting the roots burnt.
- Get good healthy strong trees, preferably heirloom or organically grown.