Carmen Holloway is the Garlic Queen of King Island

Have you ever fantasized about dropping everything and escaping to a secluded island? Throwing off the constraints of society, inhaling the salty ocean air, and spending your days outside in the sun: braiding garlic, collecting seeds, watching native bird life, tending to the veggie garden… For King Island local Carmen Holloway, her husband James and their children Evan and Gypsy, this fantasy is their reality.

A small island off the coast of Tassie, King Island is home to less than 2000 people and can be reached only by boat or small plane. In the face of the Island’s isolation, its name is world renowned for its fresh produce and pristine landscapes. However. I think it should also be renowned for Carmen. Because Carmen. Is. Amazing. A horticulturalist, farmer, garlic guru and wildcrafter; she and her family are on a mission to unite the production of local food and natural systems within the many micro-businesses of their permaculture farm. They’ve got bees, chooks, cattle, a native plant nursery, an avocado plantation, a hay-bale and stone house in-the-making and they guide walking tours of their property – all of this with barely an internet connection to speak of.

King Island scenery. Image by Carmen Holloway.
Lemongrass and pineapple sage in the herb patch, overlooking construction of the haybale stonehouse. Image by Carmen Holloway.

Can you please tell us a little bit about yourself, and your life with plants? I’m lucky to have gardening in my blood, something handed down through my parents from the ‘other’ islands – Flinders and mainland Tasmania. Our family always had a big vegie garden, so I absorbed a lot of plant growing knowledge. Since coming to King Island at 26 and reclaiming a rural life from a corporate city existence, I’ve defined a passion for two themes – food plants and locally indigenous flora. They make up the systems that sustain us, so to me, are the most deserving of my time and our precious resources.

I think my love of the Tasmanian forest was imprinted as a four year old, on a 1970 west coast trip in the family Combie VW. A roadside wee stop with my mum took me into a magical mossy ‘other-world’ of luxuriant fallen logs, dappled dampness and sassafrassy smells. There were trips to the snowy central plateau, bushwalks, then as a ten year old on a bush picnic near Launceston, collecting a hat full of fungi in the under-storey, so many colours and shapes they were like jewellery, gone now – just gum trees and gorse!

I loved bushwalking in Tasmania before coming here. There are pockets of intact bush left on King Island and my mission is recreating a native arboretum or ‘botanical sanctuary’ on our farm. Joining the King Island Field Naturalists re-ignited my interest in the natural environment. I learned that temperate rainforest was once widespread on King Island and species which are quite common on mainland Tasmania are now rare and even extinct here – I guess that’s the effect of isolation on an ecological level. Islands typically have less biodiversity, about a third of the species found elsewhere, so are vulnerable to change. Now rare are the Pepperberry Tasmannia lanceolata, Musk tree Olearia argophylla, Sassafras, Atherosperma moschatum. In the 1950’s the last Celery Top Pine Phyllocladus aspleniifolium disappeared from the island. The tree that really intrigues me is the Myrtle Beech, Nothofagus cunninghamii –  there have never been any living trees recorded on King Island but on the east coast there is a cliff where half way down is a layer of burnt trees dated at 120,000 year old and identified as Sassafras and Myrtle Beech! I’ve replanted Celery Top & Myrtle from north west Tasmania which was joined to our island 18,000 years ago.

My interest is in how our food growing systems can function together with natural systems and how they can benefit each other”

That’s why the permaculture concept attracts me, except I like to use non-invasive native species to perform non-food functions, e.g. shade, shelter as they also benefit the natural ecology, instead of introduced species which risk becoming costly environmental weeds.

Can you tell us about your farm? What would we find there? We have a small farm within a large farm. The large farm is where James produces King Island Grass-fed Beef and in 1999 we started diversifying this by planning the elements we wanted around our home, which was then 15 acres of paddock, now ‘The Frogshack’. We enlarged our waterhole, planted the first trees and started adding those other components, integrated with the beef farm and remnant bush. Now we have a thriving and ever-evolving permaculture-style polyculture system with several ‘themes’ and micro-businesses. Our home produce includes a fruit orchard, veggie gardens, free-range chooks and ducks, honey bees, sheep, native firewood plantation, wetland habitat for frogs and birds and our straw-bale & stone house under construction. Our micro-businesses are a local indigenous plant nursery, my ‘boutique’ King Island Garlic farm, a new avocado plantation and a fledgling tourism business ‘Frogshack Farm Walks’. For over a decade I’ve been collecting, researching and trialing garlic cultivars, which have evolved all around the world. I now grow a commercial crop of around fifteen thousand bulbs each year. Along with the popular early season kitchen bulbs for the summer markets my specialty is the less common long storing cultivars to cover the Australian ‘out of season’ time and provide planting stock for fresh garlic all year-round.

King Island has a population of less than 2000 people – what’s it like to live so isolated from the rest of Australia? Yes isolation – its about your own perception really, its very relative to other factors and probably not that different from anywhere else. We are more isolated than some places and less so than many others. One can be isolated in a big city just the same.

I think island isolation comes in various forms – it can be physical, psychological or economic and can be positive or negative.”

Physically island isolation means we are limited in what many others take for granted – being able to spontaneously take the car or train and travel anywhere, anytime and to anyone. Unless you can swim 90km the only form of travel to King Island is by light plane – the ship takes only freight. We have to pre-plan any trip, decide in advance what we might want to do, book a plane, a car, organise accommodation, THEN think about the fun we want to have. That includes the not so fun trips too – dentist, doctors, shopping etc. And should I mention internet isolation outside our ‘capital’ Currie? On the positive side, we are only 45 minutes from Melbourne – by plane. We also have lots of beaches to ourselves, peace & quiet, big sky, loads of open green space, wildlife, safety, space to breathe good air, very little crime, no overcrowding, no rabbits, no foxes, no McDonalds. Lack of typical distractions leave room to concentrate on bigger things. I tend to feel the isolation much more in the winter when the weather is dreary, so there is climatic isolation, but that would be same as an oppressive tropical climate somewhere else. So, happiness is a state of activity and for me about observing seasonal change in the environment – noticing things grow and evolve, watching creatures and their habits.

What’s a typical day look like for you and your family? Work is very seasonal and could be many things, each day is different. Once the kids are organised and off on the school bus, the poultry and guinea pig lawn mowers are fed, then we can be working on any number of things – house building is a major one at the moment, or it could be cattle work, planting veggies, trees or garlic, weeding, harvesting, cleaning and marketing garlic, office work & planning, bushcare, orchard maintenance, harvesting, cooking, hosting visitors, cleaning, nursery work, school activities, seed collecting, developing businesses plans or resources, financial work! – THEN the kids come home and its domestic life.

What kind of plants would we find at your nursery? I grow local native species, mostly for re-vegetation of farms, or the golf courses, public land or private coastal gardens. I use local seed or cuttings which I collect from wild plants on our farm and around the island. This is called ‘wildcrafting’. There are eucalypts, paperbarks and tea trees, acacias, many others including coastal and rainforest species. I grow the rarer or more difficult ones to plant on our property as well as smaller shrubs, ferns and groundcovers, anything that is native to the island. The rarest local native I’ve planted is a Shining Dogwood Pomaderris paniculosa subs paralia. The only one specimen known to be left in the wild on King Island was discovered at Cape Wickham Lighthouse by myself and two botanist friends while doing a vegetation survey for the new golf course, growing on an open dune side, so obvious it was overlooked for 30 years!

The potato patch scrambles before the strawbale and stonehouse site. Image by Carmen Holloway.
Carmen's Australian native Frogshack Plant Nursery. Image by Carmen Holloway.
Stevia and Vietnamese mint in the herb patch.

Do you live in a close-knit community? Yes definitely though sometimes that can be a two-edged sword – like any group living in close quarters there are always issues to sort but generally people are very friendly and help each other when it counts. The island dynamics are changing now with a tourism boom and a higher percentage of absentee owners from the mainland.

How important is sustainability and self-sufficiency to Island life? To live on an island you need to be resourceful and resilient. A generation or two ago most people lived almost totally from what they could produce on the land – a very tough life. Now we have more access and have become more reliant on many outside resources, but local production of our needs is very important, from an economic and environmental perspective. Hydro Tas has a unique hybrid electricity plant here, five wind turbines and a solar system which services the island and greatly reduces our need for diesel power. We rely heavily on volunteers for lots of things like ambulance and we make our own entertainments. The are no clothing shops here but we have a great Op-shop which recycles clothes and household bits, run by the Senior Citizens. At household level, many people grow their own veggie gardens and farm their meat or hunt from over-abundant wallabies. Our local beef industry has learned the perils of foreign ownership of our processing plant and new abattoirs are almost underway, this time with a large component of local input and ownership. This will see grass-fed King Island Beef and our agricultural future back in our own hands.

King Island is world renowned for its fresh produce. How big of a role does local food play in your life? ‘Paddock to Plate’ is very real way of life for us. I’m very conscious of food miles, for me cleanly grown pesticide and herbicide-free ‘locally grown’ over-rides ‘organic’ which can be from far away and sometimes lacks important nutrients. Our environment here still allows for living off the land, we can still hunt or farm our meat and there is space to grow our fruit and veg. Our family aims to grow much of our own but we don’t draw a line at buying when we need to or miss out on things like chocolate, coffee or spices.

We are aware of nutritional deficiencies in our soils and know that to be healthy we need to get those elements from somewhere. We then look for inputs, ideally local if possible like kelp, and beneficial fertilizers which won’t harm our soil life, e.g. we choose poultry manure or rock phosphate over superphosphate.”

How is your life now different to when you were a child? I didn’t live here as a child so many things are different. I don’t have to wait for traffic lights anymore but I can only travel 50km in any one direction. I have to get on a plane to go to the dentist or the cinema BUT I can go to the beach any day I like… a different one depending on the wind! I do miss mountains, good forests and big rivers.

King Island sounds like paradise – I wouldn’t blame you if you never left! Is it a strange experience when you visit mainland Australia? No not at all – King Islanders are by default generally rather well-travelled but some things do seem to get stranger every time we go. We have to re-learn a new Metro ticket system every time and I forget that people don’t like to make eye contact when they pass you in the street. Smart phones and earplugs have killed the atmosphere in backpacker hostels, the kids have to remember not to leave their things laying around or they may not get them back and we have to remember to lock our cars and accommodation when we’re away. Go back a few years though and it probably was quite different – James has a good story of driving in Canada as a young Agri-Exchange student, while waiting at some traffic lights in Calgary he said to his passengers “I’ve never driven through traffic lights before.” They were horrified!

What are three things you hope your kids learn growing up on the land? Respect and responsibility for our resources, they are often finite and limited, be aware of what is required so we can ‘have’. Two – don’t take things for granted, everything has to come from somewhere. Three – look after our food chain. That just seems essential and logical to me. Humans have always depended on it. Factories can’t create food, they can only use and change what grows naturally.

If you could make a garden with three plants, what would they be? Simple. Garlic, a Cox’ Orange or Granny smith apple tree and grass to graze some chooks.

What is your favourite season? Hmmm… always a toss up. Each season has its own pleasures, THAT’S the real joy of living on the land. Late Winter is out – farmers go into survival mode here with the cold wind and rain. Though I do love Winter Solstice when that Sun is finally on the turn back! Summer is a great time to be on an island – those beaches again! A toss up between Spring – that’s an exciting time when everything is waking up again, all the birds are nesting, the orchard is full of blossom and promise for the new season, the garlic is bulbing and sending up scapes. The weather can’t decide what to do but we’re looking forward to things drying up. I think though its Autumn – those warm, humid, still days, morning mists, huge rainbows and dangerously grey skies just so nice to be working under. It’s an incredibly productive season for me.

It’s when all the ‘salt of the earth’ unsung, true-friend vegie heroes germinate – the alliums and brassicas and the broad beans, the stuff that’s going to tough out the winter and be there for you when you really need it – in Spring, the traditional Famine Season.”

It’s also when my favourite plant goes in the ground – garlic, say no more!

Name a skill you wish you had. How to live three lives concurrently!

What qualities in people do you admire the most? Patience. Kindness – being able to walk in another’s shoes. Resourcefulness, being happy with less.

What’s your favourite thing to do in your free time? Bushwalking or wandering around our own property observing changes, watching our trees grow, the birds.

What was the last thing you read? I could lie and say ‘War and Peace’ but no I’m such a plant nerd, it was three books simultaneously – ‘A Field Guide to Tasmanian Fungi’ by Genevieve Gates & David Ratkowsky, ‘Garlic Feast’ by Janice Sutton (which just won ‘Best Self-Published Cookbook’ in New York! The third was Elizabeth Gilbert’s ‘Signature of All Things’.

If you were a plant, what would you be? Would I be a mushroom, where I could creep around far and wide in the earth and only pop my head up when the weather suited me? Or an old sassafras tree in an ancient cool temperate rainforest? No I think it would be… a GARLIC PLANT – with a memory at least ten thousand years old, having travelled all the corners of the Earth, dined with kings, slaves, conquerors and magicians, seen great civilisations rise and fall, can replicate myself at least 5-fold and after all that can still look good and continue to live forever.

What would you be doing in an alternate life or career? Maybe a travelling biologist but the malaria would be annoying! No, this is my alternate life and career and I’m happy with that.

What is King Island’s best kept secret? It’s amazing birdlife but don’t tell everyone or they’ll all want to be here!

Carmen Holloway and James Hill operate a number of micro-businesses from their Permaculture farm on King Island which is located at 1049 Grassy Rd, Pegarah, King Island. For more information contact Carmen through her website, King Island Garlic or to find more information about King Island, check out their tourism website. Here’s a list of all Carmen and James’s ventures:

Farmgate Garlic ‘Boutique’ – (A quaint self-serve roadside shed) Seasonal sales, during summer/autumn. Garlic Braids & loose bulbs. Cultivars vary through the season.

Mail order King Island Garlic from January each year to all state (exc SA & WA).

Produce Of King Island Market – King Island Garlic at the market roughly each month in Currie.

Frogshack Farm Walks – Personally guided walk of our property and alternative house (under construction). For visitors wanting something a little different, to suit individual interest & time – advance booking essential.

The Frogshack Nursery – local native revegetation plants grown to advance order. No public sales at this stage. Seed collecting or propagation workshop available subject to season. Advance booking essential.

Pink turban garlic. Image by Carmen Holloway.
New garlic shoots peeking through. Image by Carmen Holloway.
Ali de Pays du Gers, a French Creole garlic. Translates to 'garlic from the countryside of Gers'. Image by Carmen Holloway.
King Island coastline. Image by Carmen Holloway.
Garlic! Image by Carmen Holloway.
On the rocks at King Island. Image by Carmen Holloway.