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Syntropic Tree Planting at Green Duck Farm

On the June long weekend, a motley crew of volunteers gathered at Green Duck Farm to plant the first six rows of a syntropic system into the old pistachio orchard. The weather forecast threatened up to 80mm of rain, which scared away some of the campers. But around 40 people showed up, almost half of them children and teenagers.

Syntropic farming is based on the idea that there is more collaboration than competition in nature. Plants help each other survive and thrive. Developed in Brazil by Ernst Götsch, it is a system of agroforestry, which relies heavily on high diversity planting of perennials and annuals, quick growth and cut-back of pioneer species to accumulate biomass, chop and drop, as well as water retention to improve the soil. Syntropic systems are designed with our understanding of succession in mind. We grow what we can now, often including weedy species, to create the conditions to grow what we want later on. All stages of the syntropic succession include productive food plants.

While Syntropic Farming was developed in a tropical climate and soil, many experiments in temperate climates and on drier land have proven the concept works in other regions of the world. Have a look here for an impressive example in an Australian dryland region.

At Green Duck Farm, Amy and Shane had ripped six lines into the soil of the abandoned pistachio orchard they inherited from the previous owners. Most of the trees in this orchard have reverted to rootstock or had died, but some were identified as grafted survivors with the potential to still bear fruit. These were kept in the lines, while rootstock and dead trees were chain sawed out. These planting lines are on contour to improve water retention. The space between them allows for access with a vehicle for maintenance and potential watering, and is wide enough to run animals later on.

All successional stages were planted at the same time, from eucalyptus and weed species as pioneer plants, to oak seedlings and stone fruit seeds for long term production. Many tree seedlings were co-planted with support plants. Then the whole system was heavily seeded with many different types of seeds acting as the seed bank. These will come up when conditions are right for them, creating diversity and long-term succession. As a last step, both sides of the planting lines were heavily mulched with whatever biomass we had available, from pine prunings to straw.

The weekend itself was magical. The rain came at night, while we were warm, safe and dry in our caravans, tents and swags. The days were balmy and mostly sunny. The children were running wild, playing and creating art, helping to plant, cook and teach each other skills. They also ate more burnt marshmallows than anyone should in one weekend. The fires kept us warm, with one being big enough to burn right through the 30mm of rain we did get overnight.

We ran an interesting social experiment for the food this time. As this was a free event and the numbers were unpredictable, we just asked attendants to bring supplies. Some brought seeds, tools or toilet paper. Others brought homegrown fruit and vegetables, a cooked dish, or snacks. We didn’t need a kitchen team slaving all day, the food just kept appearing, and we all ate well for the entire weekend. This is the power of community.

We also used this opportunity to plant a memorial tree for our tallest tree, Thom Scott, who passed away at the end of last year. Thom had chosen a macadamia tree to be remembered by, which will feed us and the the black cockatoos in the future. RIP Thom.

As with all great camping weekends, we forgot to take enough photos and video footage, but some impressions can be found here.

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