Experiences in Establishing a Pomegranate Orchard in WA
My orchard has only been going for about three years. I am sort of a novice orchardist. I have a few observations in case anyone else is planning on setting out on a path roughly similar to the one I have taken. The first thing is: All numbers are bigger than you think. I set out the first day, and I had a thousand cuttings. I thought, well, I will just put them in pots. About a week later I had finished.
The second thing is: Kids don't weed. If you think your kids are going to come out and help you at weeding time, forget it. I have three of them, and they haven't pulled a single weed out yet.
The third one is: Particularly with fruit, more so than with broad acre crops where you can till part of it back into the soil, the whole process seems to be something of an argument with the soil. You are saying, "Come on, do it." and the soil is saying, "No, I won't." In a past life I had to learn about thermodynamics, probably irrelevant to orchards. The three laws of thermodynamics were explained to me thus: You can't win, you can't break even, and you can't not play. And that is pretty much the situation for a fruit grower. What you are trying to achieve mainly is trying to reduce the margin by which you lose.
The approach I have found so far, three years into the project, is that you treat the soil and the tree separately. On the one hand, you are trying to build the soil up, and that can be a long-term project. On the other hand you are trying to look after a tree which is doing its best to produce fruit, and it wants to do it this year, not next year. So you need to look after the tree as a separate issue. We have adopted a totally organic approach, the reasons for which will become obvious shortly.
Following that approach we have been reasonably successful, so far. Certainly in having substantial vegetative growth and some fairly significant fruit growth, most of which I pulled off this year because the trees are too small. By way of example, here are a couple of fruit I just harvested this morning on the way up. Three years ago the tree that I harvested that from was a stick on somebody else's tree. I acquired the stick, it spent one year in the nursery, and this is now the end of its second summer in the ground.
Pomegranates do try their hardest. They are both demonstrative and forgiving. If you do something wrong, they will let you know, but they won't die on you. In fact, a friend of mine chopped the top off one he didn't want and poured creosote on, and it came back stronger than ever.
It is kind of unusual to me that this is described as an unusual fruit. If it is unusual, it is only in Australia in this generation. Every person who has come to visit my orchard has said, "What are those?" or "We used to have those when we were kids," or "My aunt had one in the backyard," or "My parents had one on the farm." Every single person knew of pomegranates when they were a kid, even if they only picked them off the tree to throw at each other. There has been this generation where it has fallen out of favour. It is unusual now, perhaps, but that has not always been the case, and it certainly not the case in many other parts of the world.
Pomegranates are one of the six ancient fruits. They are unrelated, as far as I am aware, to any other fruit. It is revered in myth and legend in many countries. It is typically associated with fertility and health. In fact, modern research is bearing that out. That is actually one of the driving features of my endeavor now.
There are several hundred varieties of pomegranates. We will forget about the dwarf variety, because it doesn't really produce any fruit. I do have a sneaking suspicion that there is a nomenclatural war going on between the Russians and north Asians, and that they are actually describing the same trees. The Russians give them unpronounceable Russian names, and the Indians and Pakistanis give them equally unpronounceable names. We do know that the fruit seems to have originated from that crescent -- from Iran, through Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, north Asia. I have recently imported 14 varieties from the western slopes of the Himalayas, which will be released from quarantine at the end of this week. Apparently, they have done extremely well. Out of the seventy cuttings that were imported, we seem to have lost only two or three. They have handled the crossing of the equator, and the fact that they were dormant for literally two or three weeks only before they had to sprout again, and now someone is telling them that it is time to drop their leaves. They are a very forgiving tree. Perhaps it is a good tree for beginners. If you are thinking of setting up an orchard, and you think it would be good to have rows of trees to walk between and run your hands along and see in the sun in the late afternoon shining through these brilliant tangerine-coloured flowers, pomegranates are probably the way to go.
The best way to propagate is from cuttings, softwood cuttings. Seeds are a waste of time, they will never come true unless you are extraordinarily lucky. You can do layering, if you have the time to do it. But frankly, it is so easy to take cuttings that there is no reason to try anything else. They can also be grafted. If you want to get a larger tree sooner, you might try grafting.
Make the cutting about 20 to 30 cm long, about 5 mm across. Plant it on a slight angle in a potting mixture, leaving one but above the surface of the soil. Water regularly. It was my first mistake in the first year that I didn't water them enough. Out of the 1000 cuttings I had faithfully potted, personally, I lost 200 to 300 due to drying out. In the past year, the cuttings I took from my own trees, I probably lost under 5%. I currently have about 1000 sitting in my nursery block. By the time I get the Indian cultivars done, I will have about 20 major cultivars, ranging from wild pomegranates, seedless pomegranates through ones with fairly substantial seeds, and a wide range of sugar levels and juice levels.
Setting up the orchard
Thanks to David who went into a desktop analysis of my situation and drew me a picture which said, rip here and mound it and plant there, which is pretty much what we did. We ripped along the contours. We have two hills with gentle south-facing and gentle east-facing which get substantial amounts of sun. We ripped and mounded and planted just on the up-hill side of the mounds with a drip irrigation system running through.
Planting distances were something which I looked into quite carefully. I didn't have a lot of land, about 25 acres (10 hectares). I have allocated 11 or 12 acres to orchard. The rest is native bush, house, and places the kids can run around in. Being a bit greedy, I wanted to plant as many trees as I could. I went to the literature and found that the Americans typically recommend almost universally a 20 foot by 20 foot grid, a 6 metre grid. Yet the Russians were saying you could do it on a 4m by 2m or 4m by 3m grid. I chose to do it with 4m between rows and a tree planted every 3m along the rows. I am still wondering why the Americans chose their numbers, but I have a suspicion that they want to drive their stretch tractors through the orchard, so they need more room between the trees. A lot of excuses are made; if you plant them too close there will be shadowing or shading of the trees, which will reduce the sugar levels and colouring of the fruit. My trees aren't very big yet, but one of those fruits I showed you was growing directly underneath the canopy. I didn't know it was there, and if I had known, it probably would have been a victim of my early season pruning. We are intending to use reflective mulch to bring the light levels up, to offset any problems from shading. A number of apple, pomegranate and stone fruit growers in the US have been using reflective mulch. It is laid three or four weeks prior to harvest and reduces the number of passes required to harvest the fruit because it brings more of the fruit to maturity at the same time, increases Brix levels and produces better coloured fruit.
Pomegranates are drought resistant. If you run out of water, just forget about it. The tree won't die, but the fruit will fall off or split. It is reasonably frost tolerant. Where I am down at Yallingup we don't in fact get frost. Many areas in southern Russia where the trees are grown are under snow in winter. The trees will survive that. However, if there is a very substantial frost down to minus 10 or 20 degrees, then the trees will be in trouble. They might die back to the root, but it is unlikely the tree will be killed completely.
They are deciduous. It is important in the first few years to prune them to get a vase shape, open them up in the middle, cut out the crossing branches. The fruit does grow on the newer wood, which gives you a hint on where you will do future pruning: cut back some of the old wood to promote new growth. Trees grow to 4 to 6m depending on the cultivar, with a spread of about 3m. We harvest by hand, and I don't think there is any realistic way to do it by machine. Trees can live for hundreds of years.
I mentioned that we have adopted an organic approach. Pomegranates are blissfully immune, almost, to the usual pests, including kangaroos and rabbits. I have had no trouble at all, and we have countless kangaroos and rabbits around. The worst that happens is that the kangaroos do tend to dig around the drippers, looking for moisture. I have not experienced any problems with grasshoppers, aphids, other creepy crawly things. The big issue, as with other organic crops, is weeds. Unfortunately, the kids being no use, and the usual litany of herbicides being no use, A. because it is not allowed, and B. because that is one of the things that pomegranates will tell you. If your spray contractor is putting a foliar spray on your trees, and last year had Roundup in his tank, your pomegranates will tell you about it. You simply can't use herbicides anywhere near pomegranates. After some bad experiences with spray contractors, I ended up buying my own spray system to put on the back of a little truck I have. That has nothing in it other than the foliar sprays I use, and never will.
Tackling weeds is a job for you and your best burr hoe and pair of gloves, and get down your hands and knees. Mulching will help, and interplanting. We have started interplanting this year, now that we have 1200 trees in the ground up and growing. When it is complete in another 2 years time we will have about 3500 trees. The major interplant we are using is Kennedia, which is a native legume, for fixing nitrogen. It is perennial. There are other sorts of green manure we could use, but it is difficult in an orchard when you have surface drip irrigation, pipes everywhere, and tree roots close to the surface. You don't want to be going around tilling and burrowing, cutting up the tree roots and demolishing your irrigation system. We are putting in a bit of tansy and chives to keep the ants and other insects at bay. Organic pest control.
In full production, you can expect 40 to 50 kg of fruit per tree. The average ripe pomegranate, depending on the cultivar, will weigh between 200 to 500 grams, 2 to 5 pomegranates per kilo. We are looking for a Brix level, total dissolved solids level, in excess of 17%. The harvest takes place, again depending on the cultivar, between early and late autumn.
The pure fruit market, just delivering it to fruit shops, is kind of short term. Anyone who knows about pomegranates realises that even someone who has a great passion for a variety of fruits will think that it is a wonderful fruit but it is a rotter to try to eat. It is hard work. You get in there with an apron and rubber gloves and it takes the enjoyment out of a nice afternoon with some fruit. I couldn't really justify to the tax office the enjoyment I get just from wandering up and down the orchard with the late-afternoon light coming through the beautiful tangerine flowers, so we looked for other things to do with it. Juice, obviously, is one of them.
There is an enormous amount of medical research over the last 3 to 4 years coming out about pomegranates, published in a wide range of journals. A large number of patents have been granted on new drugs derived from fractions of pomegranates. Essentially the claims that are being made, with fair medical evidence, to date, are an anti-oxidant level four times that of green tea or red wine, anticancer and antimetastatic functions, an alternative to hormone replacement therapy. It does actually contain an estrone which is identical to estrogen. Someone raised this with me recently, saying that estrogen is linked with breast cancer. The properties in pomegranates which are being used as a replacement to HRT are quite separate from the estrone, and the amount is small. The fractions that are required to produce these pharmacological products are derived from the skin of the fruit, from the juice, and from the seeds, which is why we are getting a variety of fruit, some of which contain fairly large seeds, because that is where the oil comes from. Getting the seeds out from inside the arils, which are the little red buds that have the juice in them, is in itself another problem, but we will work our way through one problem at a time. At the moment all the pomegranates that are going into the pharmacological supply industry are coming from North America, so we do have an out-of-season advantage by developing an industry in Australia able to supply fresh fruit. We would be looking to setting up some post-harvest processing, as well, to extract at least the three parts: to separate the juice and concentrate it; separate and perhaps extract oil from the seeds; and to separate the husk or skin, as well. And then deliver that to the pharmacology plants.
There are other traditional medicinal uses, but I think the ones that are going to drive the market and appeal to people, if the pomegranate industry exists, can develop the same sort of marketing that the wine industry has, which says, this is not only enjoyable, but is extremely good for you, look at all the Frenchmen and Italians eating enormous quantities of fat and following it with red wine and they are all healthy. We need to try and do the same thing and promote pomegranate juice as something which is particularly good for you. That would build up a fairly substantial market.
There are other processed goods that can be derived from pomegranates: molasses, jam, cordials - it is a genuinely red cordial, no artificial colouring needed. It is the basis of Grenadine, for anyone who wishes to get into the liqueur business. There is in fact a vintner down in Cowaramup who is planning to develop his own label of Grenadine. Tea, it seems you can make tea out of anything. You can use both the leaves and the rind to produce ink, and tannin, for tanning leather. There is almost no part of the plant that can't be used. I wouldn't recommend using the bark and the roots, because that means the end of the tree.
A mature tree could easily produce in excess of 100 cuttings per year to produce new trees. I pruned 600 trees last year, and could easily have put in 3000 or 4000 cuttings, except I didn't want to get involved with all the potting. Those 600 trees at that stage were only one year old. When my orchard is complete, I could produce 100,000 cutting per year. If the market can be demonstrated, the industry could be propagated quite simply. Given that conditions in Australia are right, given that we have a southern hemisphere advantage, and that there is very little other southern hemisphere production (a small amount in Indonesia), I think that the outlook for the pomegranate market could be extremely strong.
If anyone wants pomegranate cuttings, I will have cuttings in July. I have seedlings now.
As part of one of my arrangements with one of the drug companies, I will be committing to a three-year project to develop the optimum organic orchard husbandry protocol for Australia, in order to produce pharmacological grade fruit. That also will be made available to other growers in Australia. To give you an idea of what we are doing already: foliar sprays, using azotobacter nitrogen fixing microbes on the leaves; also vermiliquid, fish oil, kelp, trace elements, and molasses. They are all used as foliar sprays. On the ground, just mulching. This year we will be slashing every month to cut down seed heads, and push the grass onto the rows where the trees are growing. We are doing remineralisation using rock dust and rock phosphate as part of a long-term strategy of building the soil back up. Investigating, haven't concluded, the use of zeolites as a means of enhancing the trace element buffering.
Where I'm growing 3500 trees might seem like a lot, I'm kind of land-locked. I can't get any more land, I won't be able to do any more trees. If the industry takes off, it is not a commercially sensible production that I would go into producing a label of Grenadine, for example. I can certainly supply fruit to people who want to, or to the drug companies. I can help manage the process of consolidation of growers here, post-harvest processing and shipping of semi-processed product to the drug companies.
There are a number of producers of juices we could talk to; combinations of pomegranate and apple or orange juice is a possibility. I have spent some time designing a gadget to overcome the problem of getting juice out of a pomegranate. I think there may be some kind of a yuppie market, where you buy three pomegranates and one of these little gadgets and take it to the office and spend a while bashing the fruit on the table and then ramming in the gadget and putting it over a glass to make your health drink for the day.