What's involved in managing a quandong orchard?
A quandong orchard tour was a popular offering at October’s Kurti Festival, where Ian Powell lead a guided tour and shared industry knowledge of growing and maintaining a product bush food plantation alongside Neville Bonney.
Managing a 300 tree orchard that was established by his father Brian in the 1960s, where quandongs are planted with olive trees, Ian agreed that raising new plants was a difficult process.
Having tried many techniques to graft the quandong, Ian said his best advice was “don’t get confident”.
He told visitors to his property that his best result came on a small group of plants, where he had a success rate of 70 per cent. The encouraging result led him to use the same process on a group of 100 plants, when only six worked.
“Planting from seed is equally complicated, with the ambient temperature so important,” he said.
“18C is the ideal temperature. If its 22C or 15C, in two months you will still have a bucket of seeds.
“Then run it as dry as you dare. Too much water and it rots. Too little and it dies.”
On the upside, Ian said once you had a start with the tree, the process becomes so much easier.
“I’m now gaining trees at a rate of knots,” he said.
Ian’s property, located north of Quorn, is well known for the Powells Number One variety, previously called Powells one by one, referring to its location as the first tree in the orchard’s first row.
“My dad was a previously a sheep and wool farmer in the area south of Adelaide now known as Trott Park. He came to Partacoona in 1963 and liked the quandong. He tried lots before he settled on one tree,” Ian said.
“In the late 60s I remember him scraping trees in the shed, propagating quandongs. It was very hard to do, but the tree he planted had great fruit.
“He bought this place and brought the seed with him, setting up a 300-tree orchard.”
Since that time, the original quandong has been used to create Powells Red Screen and Red Supreme.
Quandongs on the property are interplanted with olives. Ian said while it wasn’t his father’s original plan, they do grow well together.
“If he had anticipated filling with quandongs, he would have the olives wider spaced,” he said.
Ian said if you treated the fruit like a regular orchard, you will get the best results.
He said when the quandong is fruiting, the orchard is teeming with insects, and there are lots of ants.
“Diversity is so important. Plant eremophilas to bring the birds back and the small leaf bluebush (maireanna brevifolia) will attract the white cheek honeyeaters and the saltbush blue butterfly.
“Insects are our pollinators. If you spray in the crowns, what else are you killing,” he said.
While Ian hasn’t fed his plants in the past two years, he does water them over winter and spring to ensure they have enough water to flower and set fruit.
He shared his fertiliser regime using nitrate, phosphorous and potassium and said changing the ratios could allow you to train the tree to do what you want it to do. High nitrogen and potassium levels will allow the tree to grow without fruit production.
“When they first come up, I give them a 16-4-20 blend. It’s the relativity between them that is the important thing,” he said.
He is currently using an NPK ratio of 11-10-20. While the nitrogen is fairly low, it allows him to achieve a good colour. The phosphorous is high in comparison to the other elements, but will aid root development and filling of the fruit, while the potassium level will bring lots of flowers.
He encouraged anyone using nitrogen to use nitrate. He said while urea is cheap, without rain you will lose all the benefits, while Nitrate will work without the need for rain.
Water is delivered to his trees once each week, 24l at a time. Through an 1800ppm of 3cm. Ian said any build-up of minerals in the line were cleaned using citric acid, which is also good for the plants. He also shared the importance of keeping the water away from the trunk.
“They are arid plants. I’m giving them just a bit so they don’t get sparse heads,” he said.
As for picking, “you need to wait until the fruit is ripe on the ground or loose on the tree to get the best flavour.” He warned against the temptation of taking the fruit early.
“When it is ready, you must pick the fruit. If you have some that’s off, bin them or give them to the chooks – just don’t leave them on the ground,” he said.
Ian said the biggest challenge in growing quandongs was consistent supply. This year Ian collected 150kg of fruit without the stone. That’s equivalent to 900kg of freshly picked fruit.
“Kept in the right conditions, the dried fruit will last for up to 10 years, but growers get a better price for frozen fruit,” he said. Most recently, that price was about $40/kg.