The farm is nestled among large gum trees and the fruit trees grow clustered together in tight rows, displaying vigorous good health. There are hundreds of trees and dozens of different apple varieties. For Mark and Margaret it fulfils their passion for collecting and maintaining the old varieties.
The couple planted the first apple trees 15 years ago, and have raised four children in this idyllic setting while adhering to sustainable processes, both in the orchard and their home.
Some of the varieties collected by Mark and Margaret originate from Badgers Keep, a significant heritage apple collection on a farm in Chewton.
“The heritage varieties are where modern apples come from. The heritage varieties help to maintain the integrity of the genetics. And, we believe the heritage varieties have the best quality, colour and taste.”
Margaret grew up in Ringwood, east of Melbourne and spent time working on Uptons orchards in Wonga Park.
“I suppose that was the start of my interest.”
The pair spent time tasting and learning about the heritage varieties and started their orchard with 12 trees.
“We knew we would be able to grow apples here. They really grew and survived with no help. Apples are pretty hardy. There is generally a 99% take when growing,” said Mark.
Their landlord at the time had allowed them to plant more trees, and then later, sold them the cottage, an old dairy, and three acres, divided off from the larger dairy farm that surrounds it.
“In the early days it was a lot of trial and error and talking to other collectors and growers. There are a lot more collectors now than there were then,” said Mark.
The old dairy has become useful for packing and storing the apples and the old yards now have a new collection of plums growing within the fences.
As well as apples, the farm maintains about 80-90 varieties of pear and plum.
At this time of year (late summer), work in the orchard includes netting and getting ready for the March harvest.
“March is a big month. There are a lot of varieties ripe then.”
Generally about 1 tonne of apples is sold at markets and there is always a steady stream of buyers for the young trees from July to August.
Names like Cornish Aromatics and Bramleys, conjure thoughts of olde world kitchens and bubbling pots of stewed apples.
“For some people it is like revisiting their childhood. We have a lady who visits every year to gather a box of Bramleys,” said Mark.
As the number of trees in the orchard has increased over the years, so too has the business side.
Largely through word of mouth, sales have increased and people travel every year to the farm to purchase their favourite varieties. Orders are taken from all over Australia and mail order is the largest method of sale.
Both are hands on in this boutique business and they both like it that way.
“If you get too big, you lose that personal touch,” said Margaret.
“It really was a hobby but now it is more of a business.”
As with any boutique farming business, it comes with its challenges. Intermittently a bird scarer sends a loud, buzzing through the orchard. It sounds more like a rabid cicada, but, it scares away the ravens who like to feast on the ripening fruit. The couple also regularly battle to keep the possums away from the fruit, but both agree, it is just part of living in such a pristine environment.
As we walk the orchard, Margaret and Mark impart an astonishing amount of knowledge about each tree, each variety and what root stock it comes from.
In June and September there is more pruning to be done, propagating and grafting, and the orders of bare rooted trees go out in June.
Their plot is considered small and Mark admits it is an intensive way of growing and probably a harder way but, over the years, they have gathered a great body of knowledge and combined with the high rainfall and ideal soil conditions, they have managed to get the best from the trees every year.
In the 1940’s the weatherboard cottage in which they live, was delivered to the site by a bullock dray from Topiram.
“It was originally the Topiram store and an Italian family moved it here. They established a huge vegetable garden and ran the dairy,” said Margaret.
Around their home is a bountiful garden full of colour and purpose.
Close to the house is a productive herb garden and on the east side is a smaller orchard where the ‘collection’ of heritage specimens grow.
It is from these rows, that cuttings are collected for new trees.
There is one of everything. Cider apple trees, crab apples, with a variety of colours from deep reds to the bright greens of the cooking apples, which are a particular favourite of Margaret’s.
“I think we should promote cooking apple varieties more. They are so hardy,” she said. “Because they have less sugar content, they break down easier in cooking. Granny Smiths, which most people use for cooking, really are a dual-purpose variety. Eating apples, or dessert apples as they are called, have a higher sugar content.”
The apple trees are grown sustainably, and the couple’s interest in permaculture flows through into the orchard. A flock of contented chooks work their magic on the orchard floor, while limited use of sprays retains the good insects while deterring the bad.
Potting mix, made from calf bedding from a local dairy farm and other organic ingredients, is made on site.
Just before harvest Margaret walks the orchard, tasting for ripeness and looking for the changes in colour that signal their readiness.
Future plans are to continue to grow the collection and to importantly maintain the old world varieties for the benefit of the next generation.
The Strzelecki Heritage Apple Farm is open for apple tree sales only in July and August on Saturdays 9am-5pm and Sundays 1pm-5pm. Other times by appointment only.