Sammy Ringer


Australian Bushfoods Magazine

I attended a bushfoods workshop not so long ago in which a very wise man in the new crops sector challenged the attendees to be honest about whether bushfoods were a ‘serious business’ to them or simply a hobby.

Despite the fact that I publish a magazine on bushfoods, I had to admit that I was a hobby farmer – and not even a very skilled one at that!

One day, my acre and a half will be substantially planted out to bushfoods. At present, it’s a rather embarrassing blend of useless exotics, local bushfoods and some rather timorous experiments (all right, I can’t grow arid species in my sub-tropical rainforest setting – but it was worth trying).

While I was sitting mulling over my hobby status, the speaker went on to assure us all that hobbyists had a very important place in the sector. Much on-the-ground, hands-on research is done by hobby or leisure growers. Some people who begin growing a species for fun find there is a viable business in their hobby. And there’s an interesting and important thing about enthusiasts - they tend to try to enthuse others – thus spreading both information and interest in our native foods.

I have tried to be a bushfood evangelist, encouraging my friends to try new discoveries (sometimes with mixed success), using every trick in my book (including guilt) to get neighbors to replace their exotics with natives you can eat and latching onto any chef within latching distance to extol the virtues of Lemon myrtle, Quandong, Riberry….

But what of my ‘farm’, with its hobby label? I have learned much from it – mostly I have learned that you never stop learning. Some of the things I have discovered may seem self-evident and overly simplistic but they were certainly lessons I had to learn first hand.

Non-local species.

Looking back I realise that much of the knack in species selection is common sense. I love the central Australian bush tomato (Solanum centrale) but I was just a tad naïve to think I could grow it in my high rainfall area. They languished, they straggled. The geese finally put them out of their misery. I have a stubborn Muntari (Kunzea pomifera) which longs to be in the sandy soils of southern South Australia. One day, perhaps, I should dig it out and send it back where it belongs for I doubt very much it will ever give me fruit.

Sun (and water)

Trees have a funny habit of growing. And growing. To the numerous scrub wattle (Acacia melanoxylon) on my block were added a host of wise and not so wise species which gave wind protection, shelter for winged beasties and shade. And more shade. 

I now have to hunt out areas of full or even semi full sun on the block - or create them with a little creative chain-sawing. A number of my bushfood species are no longer getting as much sun as they need and this will impact markedly on their growth and fruiting. I am left with the choice of treating these bushfoods as rather unhappy ornamentals or becoming ever more ruthless with those shade-creating trees which are threatening to make my entire block an understorey. But - I hear you say - aren’t some of those same bushfood species understorey plants in the wild? Yes, indeed they were - but there is growing evidence that a number of species bear earlier and heavier with a good doze of full sun. Some (Davidson plum comes to mind) need some protection in the establishment period but really hit their stride when they hit the 2-3 year mark and get their heads into the sun. Please note that this is an observation largely based on anecdotal evidence. 

The second hard lesson I have learned is to observe and use some common sense before planting. The Maleny area had suffered a number of ‘dry’ seasons when I first began planting and I simply didn’t give enough thought to those spots which might become water-logged during the more normal wet. They did. They are. I have transplanted almost all of the hapless plants to higher, drier areas, with mixed success…better to put them in the right spot first!

Preparation and Spacing

I was a bit haphazard with my preparation - my soil looks so good I was sure it could grow anything. At the very least, do a pH test. Better still, dig some deep holes and see where the clay starts - and what sort of clay it is. Many a first-timer has watched his treasured grove prosper for a year or two - and then hit clay. Some species can handle it, many will simply put on the brakes.

I gave 2-3m spacing to most of my trees without thinking of their eventual shape and their speed of growth. Hibiscus heterophyllus is not only a fast grower - it’s a sideways grower at that! With apologies, I have pruned my drunk looking H. heterophyllus back to one upright. I plonked a Brown plum pine (Podocarpus elatus) in between two Syzygiums without a thought to its eventual size. It’s a slow grower so the two Lilly pillies have a bit of a respite - but one day there’s going to be some stiff competition for airspace amongst this trio! Not the sort of thing to encourage fruiting.

Despite my many mistakes, I’ve enjoyed almost every moment of this hobby. So much so that I am going to take the lessons learned and put them to use in a larger, commercial planting. I’ll make more mistakes no doubt - but not twice.