Visiting Phil and Lindy Thomas

I must admit I have a problem with certain magazines – people write articles, the readers go out and do what is suggested and it doesn’t work. We’ve been here around 20 years – when we first came here the idea was to have a bit of everything that we thought would grow in the area mainly to feed ourselves but if there was a bit of surplus left to sell or process then that would be good. I suppose over the time we started out like a lot of other people when they first hear about all these wonderful unobtainable things. You spend half your life and half your savings and put them in and they either die, or worse than that, they probably fruit and taste like nothing, so you then spend 5 years trying to dig them out. We’ve just recently rediscovered wine making and have found that anything is palatable if you turn it into alcohol, so now we think that some of those things we were going to get rid of, we might just leave them!

We had a major set-back 6 years ago when the house we had been owner-building for 14 years burnt to the ground. That took maps, information, books and all sorts of things including rain records for 14 years. So we’re only now just starting to get back on top of things. We moved back in 12 months after the fire. We didn’t have a lot of windows, no internal linings, only some doors. We then decided we needed some WWOOFers (willing workers on organic farms). Over the last 4 years we’ve had about 140.

Eighteen months after the fire when we went around having a look at some of the fruit trees there was a block of mangoes which I had planted just prior to the fire, every single one had been ringbarked by rock wallabies. I think there was about 40 different rare mangoes so I lost interest in things for a little bit – I think I saved 2. We’re now back on the final stage of our rebirth and we’re getting back into livestock so we now have a few different breeds of chickens. Even after 20 years we don’t have all the answers – there are still a lot of questions – your combined knowledge here is more than mine will ever be so hopefully you’ll be able to tell me a few things today – pleasantly I hope!  We used to have a lot of bracken and ageratum but by improving the soil with lime and dolomite we got rid of it.

We have 3 cows and produce our own milk and they calve every year usually which gives a regular supply of beef – we have a couple of sheep and lambs and we seasonally buy a 6 week old pig and have that for Christmas but the shed is in dire need of repair so we didn’t get a pig this year. We get in a load of sawdust and lock up the sheep at night.  Sheep and goats are particularly susceptible to intestinal worms on the North Coast because of the high temperature and high rainfall so it also reduces the pasture contamination. Once a month we scrape all that up and add some shredded cow manure, chicken litter and put it in the first compost heap. We build one, a week later it gets turned into the middle and a week later, it gets turned back over again and two weeks later we use it. From start to finish is 4 weeks so those English books that tell you that you need 12 months for your compost to mature are not true.

The trees get a bucket full every time we go around. We use it fairly fresh around the fruit trees, a little more 'aged' in the vegetable beds which are pure compost. A lot of research has shown that compost is most active when its just finished – when you leave it lying there, you might get earthworms moving into it but its lost a lot of its goodness. There’s beneficial fungi and microbes in there so if you left it for a while, they would probably die out.

Sheryl Any footrot in this area? Phil No we have Suffolk and they seem to be fairly immune to footrot and they’re apparently the best eating.

 We’ve decided to go into organic egg production because we’ve now got onto some good organic feed and we have just got 2 dozen day old chickens and that will be the nitrogen booster for the compost. The brown ones are a commercial one called Lohman, they spend their entire life laying eggs and not eating very much. The white ones are an old-fashioned type called Light Sussex and we put an Indian Game male over a light Sussex female to breed our own meat chickens. Commercial meat chickens are 6 weeks old when they are despatched to KFC. We also have silverlaced Wyandotte and by using a Brown Leghorn rooster over a Silverlaced Wyandotte hen at day old the males and females are different colours so you can get rid of all the males at birth. Use a Gold over a Silver – doesn’t matter what they are and sex them at a day old. Our feed comes from Aus Organics west of Toowoomba.

On the coolest part of the property we planted Nashi, Sub-Tropical Plums and a few varieties of Apples - Anna, Einshiener, Golden Dorset, Tropic Beauty. We have an Apricot because you never know, they might actually be wrong about global warming and we might head to another ice age and I’ll be the only person on the Tweed with apricots!  If you haven’t planted an Ice Cream Bean then I suggest you don’t – they’re a noxious weed. Good for mulch but impossible to get rid of! If your fruit tree doesn’t crop, you hear Nurserymen say you need another for cross-pollination but I think some trees just take 3 years to crop or so.

George I have a Cherry of the Rio Grande that flowers like mad but probably only 2% actually fruit.

Phil  I’ve always liked the idea of a soil test but I’ve never liked the price so I probably spent the first 15 years just doing what people said I should be doing in organic gardening and permaculture magazines.  When you are given a fertilizer guide and it says that you should be adding 100 gms of this or that to your Mangoes in September, it always assumes that the condition of the soil is universal around the world and that’s what they need but we know it’s not, so 3 years ago I decided to get some soil tests done  - I tested the pH myself with a popular home test kit myself but the tests came back differently.

Sheryl There is no world standard in soil testing – I discovered this because we have a friend who is in this field and he discovered this because clients would send off the same soil samples to different laboratories and they would return different results and the machine he works on cost $400,000!

Phil We decided to go with Tony de Vere from Brookside Laboratories at Highfields which is just past Toowoomba – costs $77.00 per sample – he then sends them to America where they are analysed using the Albrecht method which is the latest 'in thing' and as I understand, Albrecht was around in the 40’s and 50’s in America and he was another of those people who were ignored in his time. What he did was take different samples of soils, put them in a centrifuge, and flung everything out so all he was left with was soil and he then started to add things to them until he found an ideal growing medium and he came up with a formula which he calls base saturation and basically you’ve got things in percentages so it should be 68% calcium 12% magnesium 5% potassium etc.  Albrecht says that everything will grow at 6.3 so there is none of these Blueberries need a pH of 4 and Olives need 7. Everything is in balance so when you read magazines that say you should put 4 tonne of lime or somebody else says you need 2 tonne of dolomite – lime has only got calcium in it and dolomite has calcium and magnesium and if you don’t know what you want, then you’re wasting your time.

The figures that come back from Brookside Labs are just a jumble of figures to me but fortunately there’s a lovely company called Nutritech on the Sunshine Coast that take those figures and at no cost to you interpret the results. I tested the soil where I grow Persimmons in Nov. 2000 and it was way too low on everything - Nutritech give you a star rating and it was one and a half stars and the standard goes up to five so it was poor.  I’d done all the things that people had told me to do – I’d applied mulch and compost and years ago I used pelletised chook pellets so I used some of Nutritech’s products and some other things which were acceptable for an organic farm as not all of their products are (we are certified Organic with NASAA and have been since 1995) so this year we had another test done and everything is up in the medium range where it should be and now they’ve given us a wonderful 4 star rating so if Albrecht is the be all and end all, then we’re pretty close to where we should be.

We’re now looking at what we’re short of and that is Nitrogen and Potassium and they’re a bit hard to get organically – it’s alright for those of you who aren’t as you can chuck out a bag of Urea and I think that Urea is a wonderful product in that it is pure (unlike pelletised chicken pellets that could have growth hormones, antibiotics and goodness knows what else in them). You can stabilize Urea just by composting it with sawdust and this would be a nice source of Nitrogen for you if you don’t grow organically. We can use blood meal, fishmeal and a few other things but they’re very low in Nitrogen. With Potassium we can use Potassium Sulphate but preferably not directly on the ground so we compost it. It’s acceptable under organic standards but there are limitations to the amount you use and whether a soil test tells you that you need it. If you don’t need Sulphur, then you wouldn’t use Potassium Sulphate. I think the best value and source of Potassium is actually molasses as its nice and cheap but we can’t use it directly as it’s not organic but we do put it through our compost heap.

The other things we’re short of are Manganese, Copper, Zinc and Boron so I’ve bought those in a pure form and because my roots are mathematical and not esoterical like the bio-dynamic people, I’ve scaled it back to what a tree needs and how much to put in the compost so theoretically my compost is balanced which is what the plants need, whereas in the past with pelletised chook poo and compost, when the results originally came back, the phosphorus was almost off the scale and the plants don’t use it - there was no nitrogen and no potassium. Our phosphorus is slowing coming back to what it should be.

Just recently I read a suggestion that organic matter has a more important role in nutrient uptake and nutrition of plants than actually what is there and we’ve always had incredible organic matter levels – betwen 7 and 10%. Organic matter is a big buffer so that if there are excesses or deficiencies then that buffers it a bit – it also holds the moisture in there and keeps the weeds down. One of the first pH tests we had done on some Mandarins came back with a reading of 4.05 and the guy from the lab rang me up and said that he’d never seen any soil with a reading that low and the Mandarins would die within a week if we planted them without liming. This was originally old banana country and bananas and sugar cane are basically grown hydroponically – the soil’s just there to provide a medium for the roots to grow in and it’s jut a matter of applying a water soluble nutrient which I why conventionally grown bananas have no taste.

The other thing we’ve just into is Compost Tea  - I’d like to have it tested but its $240.00 to do the full bacteria/fungi growth etc. The more you read about it the less they seem to be telling you about how to do it! Basically all I’ve got is an aquarium aerator I borrowed, half a dozen airstones which were 80 cents each and the stainless steel drum I picked up that someone had put out on their footpath for one of those clean-up days, I asked the guy and he said he had used to use it to make yoghurt and no longer needed it. Basically we have a Hessian bag of compost suspended in there with a little Molasses, Fish Emulsion, Seaweed and Humic Acid and it’s aerating nicely and after 3 days we put it out around the trees.

People who are writing articles are usually salesmen and they tell us the wonders of rock dust, zeolite, compost enhancers etc. and I don’t dispute that the things they are saying are true but I rang up a guy about a compost inoculant and said that I already make compost what would the benefits be? He said that it was to put the bacteria in and I said that it would probably already be in there anyway, and he said, oh no, so I asked him what he was composting and he said sawdust and urea and they are two sterile materials – there’s no life in them so of course in this situation you would benefit from a bacterial input. CSIRO put out a little book on composting and they said that if it is working properly, then adding activators is like adding a grain of sand to a rock slide.

The most successful thing we’ve had that grows really well here is Coffee – last year we harvested about 100kgs – this year it’s been atrocious because it’s been so hot and dry and we’ll be lucky if we get 30-40 kgs. Hand harvested coffee will always hold its price so we’re not talking about what goes into Nescafe or Bushells. Basically there’s two types of Coffee – Arabica which is the gourmet coffee and Robusta and it’s called Robusta because its robust and tastes like mud! It’s usually machine harvested or in Third World countries they’re still hand harvesting it. Good Arabica grows on good soil is hand harvested at its prime and it needs to be picked and processed very quickly which we do and once you’ve got it to the dry bean stage you can pretty much keep it indefinitely. Once you’ve done that you have to roast it and most people say you have to consume it within 24 hours so at the supermarket it’s probably been there for 3 months so I don’t think it’s worth the spending your money on!

Coffee grown in this area is naturally low in caffeine. Coffee grows true to type from seed and there’s very little variation between them so there’s no use going in and finding the best tree as it’s all pot luck. There was a lot of coffee grown around here in the old days – ours comes from the local school. There’s a guy in the Dept. of Ag who is really pushing coffee in this area. I’ve just planted two new named varieties – one is supposed to be dwarf – trouble with coffee is that it gets 4 metres tall – we’ve tried pruning and it just suckers and the side branches just keep going out – they only crop on the ends – you can’t kill a coffee tree (one of our Fruit Club members did!)  We had a wwoofer who had dug out a tree (thinking it was lantana) so when I found it I just put it back in the ground and it grew again! If you put a coffee tree through your shredder and it has beans on it then where they land on the ground, it’ll grow!

George What about the variety where all the beans ripen together? Phil I'm not sure that that is possible; I’ve just planted some of the new commercial varieties.  In fact I’m thinking of getting my wwoofers to dig the trees up, bring the plants back to the house, pick the beans off, then they can take it back up the hill and replant!!!! This method would restrict next seasons growth, we could prune the top off for a bit of mulch as well as doing a bit of root pruning!!!

Sheryl Do you have a small roasting machine? Phil Yes I do and we also have a hulling machine.  A roaster that will do around 250gms of coffee is worth around a $1000.00 and 250gms of coffee will last you 10 minutes – no – 3 days! There is an organic roaster in Brisbane. I use old popcorn machines which you can get in garage sales for $5.00 and I then add a bakebean/spaggetti tin on top so for $10.00 I roast 280 gms of coffee and it takes between 8 and 10 minutes depending on whether it’s summer or winter. I know what colour coffee I like so when the colour is right then I tip it out. Put a wedge at the rear of the machine (coffee beans are heavier than popcorn so that’s why you have to get the airflow going so what happens when you put it on an angle it actually flips it over the top so once the coffee starts roasting then it gets a little bit lighter and you get some air in there, you get it popping like popcorn. When it’s the colour you want, tip it out onto a tray and dunk the tray only into some water (don’t wet the beans) as it’s critical that you cool the coffee as soon as you can after because if you leave it, it is still roasting and it starts developing the off flavours – if you want mild, then do it only 5 minutes – Turkish you would leave it in for half an hour until it’s black and smoking! I’m thinking of patenting these popcorn machines!! Then once you have cooled it down, you need to grind it and drink it as soon as possible. The problem with using a conventional oven is the movement. The problem with using a rotisserie is that you cannot see inside.  Somebody was telling me he used a BBQ rotisserie but it was taking him half an hour.

George Somebody was just telling me that they use their microwave. Phil Here’s some coffee we picked 3 days ago which we put into a bucket of water and ferments and we leave it there for a week or two. We wait until the slime/mucilage has gone from the outside of the bean, then stick them out on the rack – that’s the green bean stage – and at that stage you can more or less store them indefinitely. Connoisseurs tell us that 12 months after it’s picked if you roast your coffee then that it’s coffee at its best. It must be true because somebody said it was!  George Have you tried putting an aerator in there too? Phil No, I haven’t. Peter You can leave the beans in there too long can’t you? Phil I’m sure there’s a critical time length but …I then put them out onto shade cloth which I have on an old wire bed to dry in the sun and I just hose them down again. The final stage which is the most difficult one and another expensive machine is taking the parchment off  so you then end up with a tiny little bean which when roasted puffs up one and a half times its size. I use a Kenwood Chef with a mincer attachment and just take the cutting blade out – basically the commercial ones work on a corkscrew and they rub against each other – chaff comes out one way and the beans come out the other way. If you have a liquidiser with a plastic blade which are impossible to get these days, then you could do it with that. Whoever the first person was to process coffee and got a drink out of it, I don’t know why they would be doing what they did! Sheryl When you’re storing them; do you add anything that takes up the moisture? Phil No, I just store them in hessian sacks underneath the house – they will take on and release moisture so before we put it through the hulling machine, we’ll put it out to dry for another day.

Lindy  We grow Fuyu Persimmons – 2 years ago we bagged them and did really well, last year the birds realised what was in the bags and the crows ate a good third of them and this year we’ve made nets for them. Phil  In the early days I believed everything I read  and people told me that you needed more than one variety because they needed a cross-pollinator and we did that and then I read that if you had cross-pollination, they were more likely to produce seeds so in the last couple of years we found they were getting more and more seeds in them so the ones I knew that were not Fuyu I’ve taken out and moved somewhere else during their dormancy – you can’t kill a Persimmon tree. I moved them a long way away.  The first year the Fuyu were the first ones to come on and we didn’t get any seed then in later years we were getting seed so we wonder whether that might be it. We’ve used both paper and cloth bags and as Lindy says the crows ripped through the paper bags and pecked through the cloth bags so we’re now going to complete exclusion. We grow pumpkins, cucumbers and rockmelons in toilet rolls (cut in half) in a plastic tray and when they just start to get soggy, we plant them out which minimises transplant shock. Egg cartons are much shallower.

Phil We’re starting to establish Pinto Peanut around each fruit tree – it’s a bit slow to establish but once it’s established, we won’t need to do any hand weeding. I did an article for your newsletter on Pinto a while back.  We’ve made an Elder Flower champagne and an Elderberry and Banana Wine but I find them a bit rampant so I get stuck into them with a chainsaw (Elderberry can be a weed). We use concrete Besser blocks for our raised vegetable garden and this seems to be the way to go – we tried timber and a few other things. Last year we had trouble with the birds getting the strawberries so we got some of this bird scare tape from Greenharvest and it seemed to work – the red and the silver make them think there’s fire or danger and they go away so we decided to move into 2002 so we got disco balls and painted every other square with red nail varnish.

Sheryl Have you tried mirrors that Kasper uses? Phil No, but I'm sure it would help. We plant everything on contours – we peg out where the trees will go, stick in a peg, put compost down first, newspaper and chip mulch on top, pull the stake out then put the plant in. We’re putting in a particular Lemon Myrtle (Backhousia citriodora) which has more beneficial oils and less of the off-flavours – from Limpinwood Nursery just outside Murwillumbah. We have two types of Davidson Plums – I have some of the North Qld type which grows out in full sun and is a lot more vigorous and fruits at a different time of the year. Some of the Jaboticaba came from Paul Recher’s place.

Another popular misconception is that the ground under lantana is magnificent – I had the soil tested to prove that it isn’t. When we clear a piece of land of lantana, we either sow millet if it’s spring or oats if it’s autumn and we do this immediately and anybody can come back here and check the creek and it will be clear there’s no erosion or soil loss in the wet season and it also increases organic matter. It’s a temporary crop and I don’t think it will re-grow next season. We don’t irrigate (except for the Blueberries). We have 40 hectares but they measure it on the flat and as we have 90 degree slopes we have about 300 hectares. Jude Get a horse. Phil  I don’t like horses because they do a lot of damage to the ground  and you don’t need a donkey when you’ve got six children!!!  Rainfall is 1800mm.

We’re making up total exclusion netting against the fruit fly following Dr. Dick Drew recommendation (he’s an Entomologist with the DPI) We get netting which is 1.8mm x 1.8mm cut the four corners off and put another strip around it and drop it over the entire tree and it’s the only thing that works so my plan is to keep all my trees down to that size and make a few more nets each year. They cost me $25.00 each –  I got the netting from Vinyl Plastics at Beenleigh.  Use 50% shading. It doesn’t matter if you have a gap at the bottom as fruit fly doesn’t go underneath and birds haven’t been a problem. The other thing we do to discourage fruit fly is to use bait traps and I went through all those complicated contraptions of cutting coke bottles in half and siliconing them back together and eventually I decided that the easiest thing to do was to put a hole in the top (Phil uses a small plastic drink container that has a blue lid). My tops are all colour coded according to the bait inside, so its easy to replace them. I found Wild May very good but don’t know if you can get it anymore. I’ve tried Bovril, urine, yeast – refer to my article I wrote in your newsletter a couple of years ago. In the NASAA bulletin there is a bait that has been approved in organic agriculture. (It is called Nu-Lure and will be available through Grow Force, Primac etc in 20 litre containers in November).

Soil pH should never be used as a guide to calcium requirements – base saturation is the appropriate guideline. Magnesium has more impact on soil pH than calcium so reducing calcium and increasing magnesium through excessive nitrogen will raise soil pH. Liming requirements based on pH levels are irrelevant in this context as calcium can still be deficient because magnesium has more impact on pH, if you reduce the calcium you can actually get a reduction in the pH if you use the wrong one.


Article compiled by Sheryl Backhouse


Authored by: 
Phil and Lindy Thomas
Sourced from: 
Sub-Tropical Fruit Club of Qld newsletter Oct Nov 2002
Date sourced: 
Oct 2002