Visiting Marg MacAdam’s Fig and Mulberry Orchard

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Marg’s orchard is located at Morayfield in the Caboolture district.  She has been growing figs for about 25 years and has recently started growing mulberries commercially.  She has approximately 150 fig trees at the moment and approximately 60 mulberry trees that are presently bearing fruit, plus another 75 planted out.  She runs and operates the orchard solely, but her husband generally helps with the picking of the figs for about three weeks around about March during the very heavy picking period.

She also has about 50 mature lychee trees and 20 mature pecan nut trees.  She used to sell the lychees but found that the cropping of this particular variety, Tyso, was irregular, as was the seed size.  These trees were planted about 25 years ago and this was the variety that was recommended then.  The other major problem with lychees is that unless the orchard is fully netted, the flying foxes and rainbow lorikeets think the fruit belongs to them.  Marg’s orchard is not netted and given the irregular cropping, it was not worth the expense of netting it.  So she concentrated on her figs instead.

The pecan trees are also large trees now and the cockatoos raid these each autumn.  They normally bear good crops though, particularly if the winter has been cold with a few frosts, so she normally manages to harvest enough to spread around and sell some.

She only grows one variety, the Brown Turkey, which came from good root stock and seems to grow well in the conditions in her orchard.  These are mid to late bearing figs which she harvests from February to April.

Marg initially started selling her figs by taking them around on consignment or selling outright to fruit shops on the northside of Brisbane.  She then started to sell them through the Brisbane Markets and she also used to send them via airfreight to an agent at the Sydney Markets.  These days she sells via a few select fruit shops, a few restaurants and direct farm gate sales.

One of the biggest jobs with the fig orchard is the pruning which Marg does in late winter.  As a general rule of thumb, she prunes two thirds of last season’s growth.  As figs generally only grow on the new season’s growth, this is necessary to maintain good crops and keep the trees to a good size for picking.  After pruning, Marg selects the best cuttings for propagation.  This is also a big job, and this year she has tried the cuttings in the bag method to try and establish a good root system.  In previous years Marg has done the cuttings in the traditional method.  Generally with the traditional method, a lot of leaf comes through, but often the roots aren’t developing and the cutting will rot out.

During the farm visit, the figs were just coming out of their dormancy, so they really just looked like dead sticks.  But in a month’s time, they will be loaded with leaf and fruit so Marg said you really should have another visit and see the difference.  It was an opportunity however to see one of the main pests of the fig tree, the fig leaf beetle, in action early in the budding season.

This beetle and its larvae will decimate a tree and ruin the year’s crop if not kept in check.  As Marg tries to use no or limited pesticides, early in the budding season is a crucial time to eliminate as many of these beetles as possible.  The beetles are slow flyers and easy to catch as their general defence is to drop off the tree if touched.  She goes round each tree about 4 or 5 times a week and catches the beetles in a small bucket with oil in the bottom.  This simple method kills the beetle and avoids having to use pesticides.  Any eggs that have been laid or larvae that have hatched, she just squashes.  There was never a known predator bug of the fig leaf beetle or its eggs or larvae, but after years of growing figs and avoiding heavy spraying, Marg’s orchard seems to have generated a beneficial bug which attacks the eggs and larvae.  This bug however, only seems to emerge a couple of weeks after the fig leaf beetle has emerged, so the hand harvesting of the fig leaf beetle early on is crucial.

In the humid sub-tropical climate from Spring to Autumn, the trees are also susceptible to rust, so regular spraying of copper oxychloride or mancozeb helps keep the rust in check.  Failure to do this will see the leaves drop off the trees before the fruit has matured and thus reduce the fruits ability to ripen. Marg pointed out that the soil in the surrounding bushland on the property is quite poor, coastal, sandy, loamy soil.  However years of mowing and mulching have produced quite a contrast to the soil in the orchard which is generally much deeper and richer than the surrounding bushland.  Early in their life, the young fig trees were attacked by nematodes and borers, which Marg attributes largely to the poor soil initially combined with periods of bad weather.  However with the enrichment of the soil over many years, the problem of nematodes and borers has been kept to a minimum. When the fig season starts, picking takes place every day for about three months.  Figs are one of the oldest fruits known to mankind and are regarded as one of the super foods.  They have the highest alkalinity of any fruits and vegetables.  Basically what the experts say about our diet today is that a lot of the food that we eat is high in acid, and you need to get the balance right, just like the garden or the pool.  Neutral is good.  So figs, in that regard, help bring back the balance if you have a lot of acid in your system.  Figs are very high in calcium, potassium and fibre. For fertilizers, in winter when they are dormant, Marg gives them a little feed of lime.  Then in spring and summer she gives them an application of a general all-round fertilizer plus several applications of sulphate of potash. The only fertilizer Marg had put on the mulberries this year was blood and bone.  After the trees have finished fruiting she will prune them, as, like the figs, they will only fruit on the new season wood.  It is also the best way to keep the trees in manageable condition as otherwise they would grow too large.

Marg was asked about the bird problem, but said it wasn’t really much of a problem as there were so many figs, and the lorikeets, the pest of the lychee, only seemed to like the little immature figs late in the season, and because the trees were kept low with the pruning, the flying foxes weren’t much of a problem. She was also asked about fruit fly, but said even though fruit fly was present in the orchard and occasionally stung the fruit, she was told years ago by the DPI that an enzyme under the skin of this particular variety seemed to stop the larvae from developing, and that advice seemed to be right.

Marg’s newest crop of mulberries was right in the middle of harvesting during the farm visit.  Visitors were invited to pick the fruit, which should just drop into your hand when ripe, and taste it.  Marg has sold her mulberry crop this year to an ice cream and sorbet maker.  They are the common black mulberry but are from a good root stock with a great taste. Marg said that they grow like weeds but are a beautiful tree with loads of lovely fruit.  Mulberries have been used in some cultures, eg China for centuries.  In China most of the mulberries are used for food for silkworms for the silk industry, and most of these trees are the white mulberry, as this is the silkworm’s favourite variety.  There are quite a lot of different varieties, red, black, white and pink.  Japan and India are also major mulberry growers.

The mulberry leaf has also been used in these cultures for centuries for medicinal purposes, for tea, as a food and also as feed for stock.  The mulberry leaf makes a wonderful dolmade which Marg said she would show us how to make later in the day, and also taste some she had made the day before. She showed the visitors how to make mulberry leaf tea by microwaving a couple of leaves for a minute or two, then crushing the leaves when they became crunchy and steeping them in boiling water for a couple of minutes.  The resultant tea had a very smooth, silky taste, probably something to do with the fact that they are the basic ingredient in the production of silk!

Marg was asked whether you could change the flavour using different fertilizers.  Don indicated that you need to get the right genetic material, but potash and calcium will help.  They are a pretty tough tree once established. Sheryl said you never really get the ultra sweet black mulberries like the temperate types.  Marg seemed to think the white mulberry was extra sweet just like a lolly, but she thought the tang of the black mulberry was better.  Ken indicated that Sulphate of Potassium increases the sweetness.

After touring the orchard, visitors then did a bush walk through Marg’s property, then came back to the shed where they tasted the dolmades made from mulberry leaves and were then given a demonstration by Marg on how to make them.  Marg then showed the visitors her pruning equipment and one of the native bee hives on the property.