Thornleigh: farming on the Island since 1890

Where are we in October?

We have started growing in a small way in the first garden which was cleared of weeds and green manured over winter with oats and woolly vetch. Ten beds have been laid out and planted with organic seeds – including radish, turnips, carrots, silver beet, baby pumpkins. Pete the head chef at Capella loves our produce and is our first customer. He picks the produce himself and serves it fresh that night to his guests. Farm to plate as good as it gets.

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Thornleigh Produce!

The orchard on the property goes back about 100 years. Over winter we cleared many of the old fruit trees of undergrowth and pruned many of them back hard. The peaches you see here are on an old tree in the second garden that has been liberated from undergrowth and vines which were crowding it out. Doesn’t it look happy!

Peaches liberated from the undergrowth

Organic fruit fly traps have been set around the orchard. By next season we should have controls in place for a good crop of peaches and plums.

Things were going so well that Brenden and I decided to open up the second garden which was covered in kikuyu and thick with sugar cane. With help from Nobbs, his son, and his fleet of tractors, the second garden was tilled and ready for planting in two days. Brenden and I planted corn and summer green manures – cow pea and French millet. We will keep conditioning the second garden with green manures until we are ready to expand production beyond the first garden.

Clearing and Tilling

Another welcome addition to Thornleigh is our new bee hive brought to us by Jack Shick. Jack says it is already one of his best performing hives and we have about 8000 happy bees who roam around Thornleigh and Stevens Reserve and now call Thornleigh home.

New residents of Thornleigh
New residents of Thornleigh

Newsletter April 2014

We live in a world that has practised violence for generations – violence to other creatures, violence to the planet, violence to ourselves. Yet in our garden, where we have nurtured a healthy soil-plant community, we see a model of a highly successful, non-violent system where we participate in gentle biological diplomacy rather than war. The garden has more to teach us than just how to grow food.

– Eliot Coleman
Four Seasons Harvest

Starting an Organic Market Garden

The big news since the Friends of Thornleigh visited the property in January has been Robert and Brenden’s three day intensive Milkwood Permaculture course on ‘How to Start an Organic Market Garden’. The course ran for 3 days at Milkwood Farm near Mudgee and covered every aspect of small farm organic market gardening – from developing the business and marketing plan to site preparation and organic growing techniques.

Brenden at Milkwood studying the art of incinerating bones and wood for phosphorus and calcium
Brenden at Milkwood studying the art of incinerating bones and wood for phosphorus and calcium

The teacher, Michael Hewins, is involved in a small 2.5 acre farm in Dural called ‘Common 2 Us’. Between what we saw and learned at Milkwood and heard about Common to Us, we are convinced that Thornleigh has a bright and productive future ahead and will make a real contribution to the Island’s sustainability.

Brenden outside the woolshed classroom during a break.
Brenden outside the woolshed classroom during a break.

Assessing our Site

One of the very first steps for building an organic market garden is assessing the site. We are fortunate that Thornleigh has its farming heritage to fall back on and the foundations are already there. The property is just the right size for a small market garden. The site aspect and topography are just right and the surrounding trees and forest (some natural, some man-made) provide excellent protection from wind and harsh weather. This, together with the Island’s temperate climate, creates an excellent micro-climate for growing produce.

We have continued work repairing garden infrastructure with fencing restored on the northern boundary (between the nursery and Hazel Payten’s place), and a gate installed on the boundary with the nursery. A large number of bags containing used peat moss, which had found their way onto the property from the former nursery operation, were returned to the nursery site. A second gate has been added to the fence on the southern boundary adjoining TC Douglass Drive.

The soil at Thornleigh is obviously good stuff, but we need to take a look inside to find out whether it’s ready for vegetables after lying fallow for so long.

Soil samples have been forwarded to SWEP Laboratories in Melbourne for analysis to determine their nutrient and PH levels (acidity/alkalinity). Water samples from the two wells will be forwarded shortly to determine its suitability and how we might need to treat it for irrigation.

A big challenge for us will be finding resources on the Island to provide nutrients to the soil. Organic market gardens on the mainland have access to all the nutrients and minerals they need but shipping large quantities to the Island will be prohibitive. Here’s an example of lateral thinking learned from Milkwood:

Plants need phosphorus for cell division and development of new tissue. Phosphorus is also associated with complex energy transformations in the plant. Adding phosphorus to soil low in available phosphorus promotes root growth and winter hardiness, and often hastens maturity. An organic gardener on the mainland would solve phosphate deficiency by adding phosphate rock from the local farm store. At Thornleigh we can avoid shipping costs and act sustainably by burning and crushing animal bones to source phosphate (and calcium). In fact, this is just the bone in good old ‘Blood and Bone’ fertiliser.

What’s Growing

The passionfruit which Brenden planted in January have started to flourish with the recent rains. And the old banana grove in the first garden is making a strong comeback.

Some of the old avocado trees threw off a large crop recently. We think these trees might be the heritage ‘Duke’ variety from California which has been described as the ‘heirloom of heirloom avocados’. The variety was popular in the early 1900’s but it didn’t transport well because of its thin skin. Many of the modern varieties such as Haas are now grafted onto Duke rootstock because of Duke’s resistance to Phytophthora root rot. If we are right about this, the avocados at Thornleigh will be one of only a few known remaining gardens in the world with this variety of avocado.

Over winter we will be planting a cool season green manure in the first garden. Green manures help to restore bulk organic matter and fix nitrogen from the atmosphere back into the soil. The green manure will be slashed and ploughed back into the soil before preparing beds for vegetables. In summer we will plant a warm season green manure on the second garden and in parts of the paddock to improve nutrition and suppress the kikuyu.

We are pleased that the Board has given approval for the importation of a large number of citrus trees which we will start planting over the next 12 months.

Our Heritage

A lovely photo of Thornleigh has been located in a photo album recently donated to the Island Museum. The album was assembled by Harold Rabone, an early Island historian, as a gift presentation for State Governor, Sir Dudley Rawson De Chair, who visited Lord Howe aboard HMAS Melbourne in September 1927. The album contains a commentary on Island life and history plus many superb photos of the Island. (Harold Rabone was a gifted photographer, as well as being a capable writer.) The photos are mostly scenic, but some show activities like unloading the ‘Makambo’, fishing parties, island picnics and Islanders’ homes – including the original home at Thornleigh.

Thornleigh in September 1927
Thornleigh in September 1927

During his most recent visit Robert unearthed an old newspaper article from The Town and Country Journal (March 1908) which included the following description of Thornleigh:

“…islanders, even when they give scarcely any attention to the matter, easily keep their clearings well stocked with maize, lemons, peaches, passionfruit, apples, tomatoes, Cape gooseberries, cucumbers, melons, guavas, pomegranates, chokoes, grapes, beetroot, cabbage, pumpkins and other types of vegetables. But in some cases, notably in that of Mr Phil Dignam – a former resident of Goulburn, N.S.W. – extra care and skill have resulted in the formation of gardens that are indeed pleasant to see. Huge quadrangles have been chopped out of the dense dark-green forest, and the deep chocolate soil artistically laid out in a succession of neat square beds, that are fenced off from each other by straight-clipped hedges of oleander, 10 ft high and 30 in thick, which shield the gardens from high winds.”

This description has been added to the history of the property currently being written. It is Robert, Lindy and Brenden’s greatest hope that they will be able to recreate this amazing ‘picture’ of the property so that residents and visitors can again enjoy Thornleigh’s agricultural bounty.

Our Next Issue

In the next issue we will talk about our plans for water infrastructure, the meaning of results of the soil and water testing, how we are going to manage fruit fly so we can bring the old fruit trees on the property back to production, and more about David Jeremy’s cataloguing of the hundreds of old photos found at Thornleigh.