The healthier the soils are, the healthier the plants will be.
It’s a saying we’ve most likely all heard before, but according to Sarah Curry who has developed a premium range of mulching and compost products from the family farm at Quandialla, which are now stocked and sold in more than 180 nurseries across Australia, it really is true.
“Plants have so much more immunity and they’re so much stronger and healthier to be able to deal with diseases. I don’t use any fungicides in my garden because I don’t have to. I know the importance of having beautiful soils that conserve more moisture and grow beautiful healthy and robust plants.”
Sarah tells us the story behind the Major’s Mulch products and reveals the exciting new chapter for the business, relocating operations from the family farm to a commercial site, and expanding to include a café, nursery and community garden for locals and visitors to the West Wyalong township.
As a fifth generation farmer, Sarah admits she always had a love for rural life, was her dad’s “shadow”, and has fond memories of gardening with her grandmother. Sarah began university in Sydney, however the country always beckoned, and she transferred to complete her degree in ag science in Wagga. She then went on to work in various agriculture roles, from an agronomist, to creating packages for the commercialisation of seeds for the Australian Wheat Board, before she met her husband Josh, and settled at their farm at Quandialla.
Now a mum to Edward (6), Catherine (5) and James (3), it was in the late stages of her first pregnancy that Sarah perhaps went into a ‘nesting mode’ and decided to mulch the garden while she still had time, and quickly realised the processes she normally went through had become more challenging.
“I was pulling apart these big bales of hay and it was so dusty and for the first time it dawned on me how dangerous it probably was to be breathing in those dust particles and how difficult it must be for people with mobility issues. I thought I’d develop a way of applying mulch to the garden from a seated position, eliminate dust, and something that wasn’t going to introduce weeds,” Sarah says.
After four years of trialling her product, Sarah plucked up the courage to show it to renowned gardening author Dr Holly Kerr Forsyth who was visiting as a guest speaker at the local garden club.
“She was so encouraging and gave me a lot of confidence to be able to launch the business,” Sarah recalls.
“Major’s Mulch” was then launched at the Australian Garden Show in Sydney and from that one event and personal visits by Josh and Sarah, several nurseries initially decided to stock the product.
“I feel like a lot of gardeners both in the city and in regional areas want to support Australian farmers. I think we all share a common value base in that we care for the land and we care about sustainability and the environment…”
Sarah chose to use lucerne and pea straw because they are a premium product, both high in organic nutrients and they boost the organic matter every time they break down. The lucerne hay is made into large bales weighing half a tonne each. They are hammer milled, steamed (which removes any weed seeds), they go through a pellet machine and go into a silo to be aerated and cooled down before they are bagged. The entire process has been happening on-farm, apart from the processing (before bagging) which is done 100km away at a manufacturing centre at Cootamundra.
After having woken before sunrise to conduct some of the operations and bagging process, Sarah eventually opted to employ seasonal workers through a backpacking exchange program, and her father now manages the warehouse full-time.
Having a product that is free from chemicals, only the steaming process, is another driving factor for Sarah to have developed Major’s Mulch pellets and compost.
“I’m really proud of our pea straw too, it’s a by-product from our cropping phase.
“Field peas are an important part of our rotation from a herbicide resistance point of view and they add so much organic nutrients to the soil so we’re not reliant on chemicals. It’s a huge part of our goal to be sustainable on our farm.”
Major’s Mulch compost is really aged and is made up of sheep manure, lucerne hay and wheat straw.
“I find that’s one of the things beginning gardeners do, is buy a cheap potting mix, the potting mix repels water, the plant dies, and they lose their confidence and give up on the gardening thing altogether. Our compost is beautiful and black, and our current pile we are preparing is four years old. It really is important for gardeners to understand how a healthy soil can conserve so much moisture… A healthy soil is a living soil.”
Sarah applies the compost to each garden bed a couple of inches thick in early autumn and early spring so it is topped up for the higher growth periods, while the mulching pellets are used at the beginning of every season.
“The pellets rapidly break down – faster than traditional mulches – they’re quite fine once the pellet expands and settle to form a sponge mulch layer. They still allow the moisture to move through but it holds it more effectively than traditional straw. Being a legume, it is quite delicious to worms, so it needs replacing more often than normal straw.
“The pellets are suited to small gardens and are perfect for pots, the vegetable garden, they won’t smother seedlings, and bulbs grow through it beautifully.”
Not only has Sarah been committed to the Major’s Mulch products, she has created a soils master class that she delivers with Costa Georgiadis in Sydney and Melbourne and at community garden sites, as well as through Central West Farming Systems, and she is also involved in a women’s and youth project.
The “Major’s Point” property where Sarah and her family live is located on the Bland flood plain. The farming enterprise comprises a total of 8,500 acres with wheat and barley crops, manola and lucerne pastures, and South African Meat Merino sheep are run. Sarah says that the livestock component of the enterprise will be phased out later in the year, and with leases and succession plans recently finalised, the expanse of the farmland will also change.
The home on the property has been renovated over the 15 years Sarah and Josh have both been there, and the garden has been designed based on an old zoning system that Sarah learned from her grandmother.
Her vegetable garden is close to the kitchen, and the other garden beds surrounding the house are for annuals and flowering plants.
The next zone comprises trees, hardy perennials, lavenders and rock roses, salvias, and then the third zone is for natives, olives and ornamental grasses, plants with grey and silver foliage.
“Most of the plants are very hardy, even under the entertaining area we have lavenders, olives and ornamental grapes. They can survive long periods with minimal water and most of the garden is watered by recycled grey water. The plants are also very low maintenance and I think that’s important especially when you have kids, you need to select varieties that don’t take up too much time to care for them.
“I have a rose garden that wraps around the verandah and they’re all David Austins because they’re beautiful and tough, and besides one good pruning a year, they care for themselves.”
Sarah reveals that now the business has been operational for some time, expansion has been imminent, and not only will the office and storage operations be relocated into the commercial building in the township of West Wyalong, Sarah is also establishing her own nursery, café, and incorporating a community garden at the site.
Already, the schools, preschool and childcare centre have been approached to be involved in the planting process, there will be cooking demonstrations to show the ways seasonal produce can be used in food preparation and recipes, guest speakers, workshops, and even a collaboration with Somewhere Landscape Architects.
“In starting my own business in town, I really wanted to have the community garden as a genuine give back to the community,” Sarah says.
It’s also apparent the passion she has for gardening and the importance she places on having children involved in the process.
“It really is the perfect way of having the kids outside. They’re playing outside discovering insects and worms and they get a thrill out of growing and eating their own vegetables too.
“I’d love to encourage everyone to try and gardening project, even if it’s just planting some flowers in pots, or a vegetable garden. It’s the most rewarding thing you can do as a family to grow something fresh together and to encourage them to eat fresh produce.”
Words: Rosie O’Keeffe Pictures: Holly Bradford Photography