Heath Joske has spent the past six years revitalising his family property on South Australia’s arid Eyre Peninsula with a few hard lessons and a lot of hard work.
Since purchasing a patch of dirt on South Australia’s West Coast six years ago, my inner do-it-yourself enthusiast has stepped into overdrive. With little experience swinging a hammer or operating a drill – my wife often reminds me of how awkward I was with a drill when she first met me – I took on the task of building our growing family a stone home. The build took two years, a lot of frustration, but a hell of a lot more moments of deep satisfaction.
Somewhere inside I was channelling my parents. When I was a kid on the NSW North Coast, Dad built and renovated our homes while working as a surfboard manufacturer, priding himself on handshaping, glassing and sanding. The whole process, doing it all himself. He’d often buy stringerless blanks and glue in fat timber stringers crafted from his favourite wood. Dad grew a plantation of paulownia on our farm, a friend milled it and then Dad would build himself beautiful, chambered timber surfboards. While shaping machines took over the industry, and shapers shipped their boards to glassing factories to finish them off, Dad stayed true to his craft and built every board from blank to finished product, all by hand in his shed.
Mum meanwhile was a fulltime teacher, but also had an incredibly productive garden. Our properties were always on steep hills and the soil was often very hard. Every spare minute Mum had would be spent in the garden, adding mulch, manures and compost to her precious seedlings and fruit trees. Mum would be happiest pottering in the garden all day before hauling home baskets full of fruit and veg to share with the family. Some of my fondest memories are returning home from surfing all morning, heading to a persimmon or guava tree and feasting until my belly was full. Mum taught me the importance of adding organic matter to gardens and what a good work ethic can achieve.
In the first year, I planted around 20 fig cuttings, an olive tree and a mulberry tree. They all died.
So as soon as our home on the West Coast was finished, my focus shifted to growing our own food. I was faced with a different set of challenges here to my parents: low rainfall with loooong, hot and dry summers, sandy soil and a paddock devoid of nutrients, minerals and trees. In the first year, I planted around 20 fig cuttings, an olive tree and a mulberry tree. They all died. Clearly I was going to need to put a lot more love into my garden than what was needed over on the North Coast. I started learning how to compost, built windbreaks from old sheets of iron and brought trailer loads of straw home to spread around fruit trees.
Fast forward four years and there’ve been many lessons learned on the farm. I have discovered the magic of worm farms; all of the greywater from our house now filters through four different worm farms. These produce beautiful rich soil from our food scraps, cardboard, paper and other garden wastes, and turns our greywater into worm juice which is great for vegetables and fruit trees.
Our humanure (poop) is deposited into a composting toilet and sawdust is added. When one wheelie bin fills up, I move it out and chuck a fresh wheelie bin in. When the second bin is full, the first is ready to be emptied on fruit trees as a rich soil that does wonders for the fruit trees. Our local council doesn’t accept cans to be recycled, so instead we bury them in holes around our young citrus trees. As they rust and break down, they add much needed iron to our soil that the citrus love. I’ve also been collecting coffee grinds from local cafés and service stations which is also a great soil additive and attracts earth worms.
We have just set up two bins at our front gate for collecting green waste and fish scraps from the local community. The green waste will be composted and the fish scraps spread between compost piles, fruit trees, vegie beds and to feed the chooks as a source of protein. The waste bins are across the driveway from our honesty box – an old fridge, stocked with eggs and excess produce. It feels terrific to share what we’ve grown with the community and passers-by. Growing up on the North Coast I frequented many a farmgate stall for the best avocados, watermelons, bananas and so much more. It felt real to me, imperfections in the produce made it perfect and the taste was always superior to the bland supermarket equivalent.
In time, the once barren property has proved a good place to grow fruit, vegetables... and kids. Marlow and Ziggy Joske manning the roadside family produce stall.
I also have a large pile of sheep poo always at the ready, spending many hours crawling under local shearing sheds raking up the gold. After big winter storms I take my "rusty ute" (as my two-year-old boy calls it) up the beach to collect loads of seaweed, which is a terrific mulch and fertiliser. The straw bedding in the chook run is full of nitrogen and minerals from their manure and the perfect additive for our compost stacks. Our ducks eat any snails that enter the orchard, poo everywhere (a blessing and a curse at times) and their pond water is perfect ‘fertigation’ (irrigation and fertiliser) for our fruit trees. We have turkeys that scare off other birds and slow the squabbling between chooks and we keep guinea fowl for flea and mite control as well as snake deterrents.
All the fruit trees, vegie patches and poultry however need water and with months on end of minimal rain and no good ground water to access, I needed water catchments. Every building, even small poultry homes caught rainwater, but it still wasn’t enough. I visited a fella growing vegies an hour south from me on land without groundwater too. He’d built a catchment just above the ground from recycled iron and star stakes, gravity feeding into tanks, and then down to his gardens. It worked terrific and cost next to nothing so I started scanning horizons for old sheets of iron and old fence posts. It didn't take long and I had enough materials to build myself a substantial water catchment.
This was another good lesson in just getting into it, not being overwhelmed by the project and, as Uncle Addy would say, “Just keep crabbing away, brother.”
The task of building the catchment seemed a bit daunting at first with 50 posts to be concreted in and a mountain of iron to fix. This was another good lesson in just getting into it, not being overwhelmed by the project and, as Uncle Addy would say, “Just keep crabbing away, brother.” A month later and I finished it in September… just after our rainy season. Anyway, I was ready for the next good rain… that fell six months later!
I can be slightly obsessive about our patch, trying to bring it into abundance, but I reckon it's paying dividends now. We eat from the garden everyday – not everything, but at least something from the garden in each meal and sometimes the whole meal comes from our patch. I find earth worms wriggling around my fruit trees, and in abundance in our veggie patches. It took me over three years to spot any in the garden here and the first day I did I was jumping for joy! The whole experience has given me a deep respect for farmers, our precious topsoil and the beautiful climate of our planet that allows us to grow all of this abundance.
The poor soil on the property has needed all the nutrients it can get. Uncle Addy Jones and Heath on a seaweed run. Photo SA Rips
Last summer when I returned home from the North Coast with its deep green abundance on display everywhere, I stepped into our orchard and was overwhelmed with how great things were growing in our garden. The vegie patches were absolutely thriving, loaded with tomatoes, cucumbers, capsicum, chillies, eggplant, zucchinis, silverbeet, lettuce, kale, basil, thyme, oregano, rosemary, mint and much more. Our fruit trees were just maturing with fruit on many of them. Our oldest fig tree – “Mumma Fig” – was loaded but not yet ripe. It was the first year of our apricot, nectarine, mulberry and lemon trees fruiting. Lots of other fruit trees were looking healthy but not yet bearing fruit. I felt on fire from all the hard work put in the patch.
Then, two weeks later, I was grinding a sheet of iron for a new chook run and accidentally set fire to my precious patch. I didn't see it until minutes later, by which stage it was too late. It had taken hold. The fire burned 50 acres, including the whole orchard. Miraculously, it didn't burn any buildings down, but nearly all my fruit trees had burned, the fire feeding on the deep mulch and manures.
While initially devastating, the fire has inspired me even more. I've learned about the properties of different fruit trees roots after having to pull them out and I’ve changed my plantings in lots of areas. I’ve discarded fire-loving eucalypts for fire-retardant species like carob, saltbush and boobialla. Life on the land can be harsh at times, but I wouldn't have it any other way. I reckon the deepest satisfaction comes from seeing results after hard work, and what a pleasure it is to care for country and watch it respond.
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One year on from the fire, as we sit down for dinner, the drizzle begins. I'm hosting a barbecue to mark the date and say thanks to some of the people who helped that day. Two of my closest friends were driving past and were first on the scene. They saw the smoke as they neared our property and hooked it up the driveway, pulling up in front of the orchard that was quickly going up in flames. They gave me a horrified, stunned look, then jumped out of their car, grabbed rakes and buckets and got straight to work. They were fearless and fought the fire for the next three hours. I didn’t realise till later they’d both done it barefoot.
Anyway, as the night draws on, we’re getting merrier. Coopers brewery has had a deal this summer – the beers are bigger, 440ml instead of the usual 375 – but at the same price. Anyway, they creep up on you, just like the rain was. Midnight comes and goes and the rain steadily increases in strength and momentum. It’s the middle of summer and we are all buzzing to be getting rain after two months of next to nothing.
The winter just gone I’d had my biggest season of planting. Eighty acres of revegetation; over 2000 native trees, over 200 carobs and a major replant of the orchard after the fire. Those trees were all getting thirsty and tanks were getting low, so the rain is perfectly timed. The celebrations end at around 2am as the rain really picks up. I hop into bed and blissfully drift off, listening to rain on the tin roof.
The next day dawns and it's still raining. Dark clouds set in on every horizon. I'm a bit hungover, but the excitement of such incredible rain has me jumping out of bed to plant some seedlings. A couple of hours later, completely soaked and getting chilly, it's time for a change of clothes and scenery. The rain has gotten heavier and the gauge is nearing our previous record (47mm which conveniently fell one week after the fire last year, soaking the scorched paddocks and giving birth to new life).
A record week for summer rain turned the property green overnight back in January.
I'm excited to see what the swales are doing, so my sons grab their Tonka trucks and put on their wetsuits to take on some serious puddles. I'm amazed at how much water is flowing into them from the road and the hillside. That precious rainfall is soaking underground to hydrate my property for much longer than it would if all that run-off was to keep flowing downhill. The growth and health of the plants on the swale mounds is already superior to the surrounding paddocks, and I can see how capturing and storing all of this extra water underground is so incredibly beneficial to my property.
When the rain stops later that afternoon with 92mm in the gauge, we go for a family bike ride around the property. There is water everywhere, the vegetation is already shining and as the boys take to the biggest puddles on their bikes, I reflect on the past winter's gamble. Spending weeks planting and mulching trees, you never really know if they’ll survive down here. Months on end of no rain and a couple of heatwaves will kill most seedlings unless they are given adequate shade and water. Whatever has hung on this far is going to be fine now. We had great November rain and just as things were getting very dry, this midsummer rain came and soaked the landscape and provided an opportunity for millions of plants to get established.
As we say when planting trees on the farm, "Grow big, grow strong, grow long."
Image Banner: The Joske's have built a house – and a life – on the arid Eyre Peninsula. Photo SA Rips