Acorn Planting – The first experiment commences

Several people have asked me why we are planting non native deciduous trees on our property.  I have a complicated answer, and it largely comes from a recognition that our landscape has changed.    The Rock Farm is not native bush.  Even the native forests north of our property are different from when Europeans first saw them.  The land the Rock Farm is in was managed with fire by the Ngunnawal people over thousands of years.  It is our responsibility as custodians of this beautiful property to manage it and set it up for our future.  Our aims by planting non native deciduous trees are to:

  • Protect our property from bushfire,
  • Improve our soil health, and
  • Provide sustainable agriculture in a woodland like setting.

A friend of my father, John, has spent all his life planting trees on his property in the southern highlands.  He estimates that he has planted around 35 000 trees of all types on his farm that produces top quality beef cattle.  John has planted stands of native eucalyptus, pines and oaks, and has been able to watch the trees grow and observe the effects on the soil.

Now in his eighties, John is convinced that deciduous trees are best suited for improving the soil and reducing fire risk.  One of John’s favourite oaks is the Daimyo Oak (quercus dentata).  This is also known as the Korean Oak or Japanese Emperor Oak, and is known as a fast growing specimen tree.  John has observed this to be the case, with lines of Daimyo Oaks out pacing several supposedly fast growing native species planted nearby at the same time.  We filled many paper bags with acorns from some of John’s trees.

John also directed us to collect acorns of the Californian Swamp Oak (quercus lobata) from Mouat Street in Lyneham.  This is the largest of the north american oak trees, and does well with hot dry summers and cool wet winters.  This magnificent tree can live for 600 years.  This is just around the corner from where our boys play hockey, so with a few of their team mates pressed into service, we soon had filled several more bags with acorns.

Armed with plenty of acorns, we started to put some in the ground.

We are trying a mix of strategies.  The first one is direct seeding.  I am trialing planting a bunch of acorns in the ground where I want the trees to grow.  The acorns were planted in late autumn, just below the surface, the majority in small gullies like below.   I am planting the trees well away from established natives such as the eucalyptus growing in the far right of this photo.  The observant will notice many young trees growing around this tree, and these will also be preserved to protect the headwaters of this gully and provide native habitat.

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As you can see above, we have been putting a lot of garden prunings into our gullies. These prunings from pin oaks and peppermint gums will provide mulch and protection for the young oak trees to grow.  I selected a small flatter area where soil had been deposited and placed the seeds in the ground.  I repeated this in several sites over several small gullies.

The plant below is a sweet briar (rosa rubiginosa).  It is a weed, but like weeds it is fulfilling a niche that was once carried out by native plants.  It is spread by birds that eat its berries as their native food supplies are no longer abundant.  I am slashing and chipping out these weeds, but am also conscious I need to ensure habitat for these birds.  I thought I would also use some of them as part of my experiment.

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This paddock has only been grazed by Kangaroos for the past 18 months.  The grass under the sweet briar is thicker, and more lush that the surrounding areas. So what I have done is plant some acorns at the base of these plants.   I hope that as the young oaks establish, the sweet briar will afford them some protection from grazing.

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What I didn’t expect to find as I planted some of my acorns was this beautiful frog also using the sweet briar to shelter in.  I am not sure, but I think it is a Green and Golden Bell Frog (litoria aurea).  I was extremely pleased to find this little fellow, and relieved that I hadn’t sprayed the sweet briar to kill it.

Some of the other acorns we have placed in moist potting mix and put in the fridge.  We are waiting for some rain to increase our soil moisture before we plant these acorns out.

People have asked me why I haven’t grown the seed in a garden bed and then planted out the seedlings?  There is a couple of reasons.

  1. Research suggests that trees planted in their final site respond better than those that are transplanted.  There is no stress on the fragile root system of the plant that sometimes happens when plants are moved.  We have observed this ourselves at our last property where trees planted from seed did far better than young seedlings that we nurtured and watered over a long hot summer.
  2. Plants that are transplanted require watering to establish.  This is difficult and time consuming, especially on a rural property where we have to hook up a water trailer in order to bring water to the plants.
  3. Hares.  The European Hare is extremely territorial and will cut off any plant that appears in its patch with a trunk as thick as a finger or less.  For some reason if the plant grows from seed, it is far less likely to see the young tree as a threat or incursion on its territory and is far more likely to leave it alone.
  4. We are lazy and haven’t set up a suitable garden bed yet.  This is a work in progress (we currently have our chooks working on our first garden bed – see below)

That said, we will try transplanting seedlings.  There is nothing like experimenting with a range of strategies to determine which is the most effective way to establish trees to improve soil.  It is all part of the adventure, and I love it 🙂

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Tree Strategy at The Rock Farm

Trees are an essential part of any healthy ecosystem, but in Australia a robust debate rages about whether to plant native or introduced species.  With the assistance of Greening Australia, we planted thousands of trees at the original Rock Farm (see here).  Our new property has a good mix of native and introduced deciduous trees, which provide an interesting comparison.

Whilst there is no question that some introduced species have become real problems, this doesn’t mean all introduced species are pests.  Far from it.

The indigenous people of our area used fire to create grasslands and woodlands that attracted game.  The landscape was managed, but the use of fire had created changes in the nature and types of trees that were abundant.   The native deciduous trees died out, replaced by fire tolerant eucalyptus.  Today it is only in Tasmania that the only native winter Deciduous Beech (Nothofagus gunnii) remains.

These woodlands provided tall straight trees such as the Red Box (eucalyptus polyanthemos) and Yellow Box (eucalyptus melliodora).  These trees were highly valued by the early European settlers for their timber and the land was soon cleared, leaving small stands of less desirable timber such as Brittle Gum (eucalyptus mannifera) or Red Stringy Bark (eucalyptus macrorhuncha).

Our property was probably cleared not long after the first European settlers came through in the 1830’s.  We have an old stone ruin that is well over 100 years old, and around it are some equally old English Elms (ulmus procera) and some fruit trees.

What is remarkable is looking at the ground around these Elms and comparing it to the open paddocks.

Within the leaf litter of the Elms trees, we see lush, green growing grass.  As we move away from the trees, the soil dries out and the grass is dry and stunted.  Lush grass like this is extremely unusual in our area this autumn which has been extremely dry.

This experience isn’t just our own.  It is explained in an excellent book Broadscale Permaculture: The Mill Post Experience by David Watson.  David explains that there is merit in planting both native species and introduced species.  David’s property isn’t too far from the Rock Farm, and we found his book an inspirational study into how to employ permaculture principles on a larger scale.

Deciduous trees provide the following advantages over native eucalyptus:

  • They help reduce the fire risk to a property
  • They bring nutrients to the surface and make them accessible to the soil microbes
  • They provide shade reducing evaporation
  • They are delightfully cool to sit and work under on a hot day

The photos above show the green grass under the leaf fall of the Elm trees.  They also show the double fenced tree lines between paddocks.  We are extremely fortunate that the previous owners invested a lot of time and effort in establishing healthy wind-breaks of native and introduced deciduous trees along many of the fence-lines.  This is an excellent foundation on which to build on.

The trees have now grown to form wonderful shelter breaks – as seen in this google-earth view below.

Elms Trees

The only problem with the English Elm is that it produces suckers that can form impossibly dense thickets (mid right of google earth image above).  Stock will keep the suckers in check, whilst they are little, but  they can get out of hand.  A better tree would be the Scotch Elm (ulmus glabra) which doesn’t grow from suckers.

We are fortunate that many trees on the Rock Farm are natives.  These can be seen by the darker green colours in the lines of trees above.  The native trees provide food and shelter for many native animals, and fill important roles in our environment.  With many dozens of eastern rosellas living on the Rock Farm, I am confident we are providing a good balance of native trees for habitat for these beautiful birds.  I also find natives such as wattles are particularly good at stabilising degraded or damaged soil, and I am actively encouraging their growth in gullies and other areas with bare soil.

The hard part is getting young trees established, and in my next post I will share some of the tree planting techniques we are trialing.

More information on David Watson’s experience can be found here: http://www.millpostmerino.com.au/product-page/millpost-a-broadscale-permaculture-farm-since-1979

Hey Cow!!

One of the most important goals we have for the Rock Farm is to ensure that we leave it in a better state that we received it.  I am really excited with the soil analysis results we received last week, as it will provide a scientific bench mark that we can use to measure our progress.

Whilst the soil analysis reveals the mineral composition of the soil, it doesn’t reveal much about the biological health of the soil.  This microbial activity is far more important, and if we can get this balance right, we will be doing really well.  It is inspiring to read of people who have used various techniques to actively build top soil and repair the health of their land.  Somehow I believe the key to our survival is in the health of our soil, because from it we derive all our food.

One technique to improve soil health I mentioned in my last post was grazing management.   André Voisin  and later Allan Savory developed what we now call holistic management or cell grazing where soil health can be improved by how you graze the land.

Cell grazing involves heavily grazing small areas over a short period, followed by a long rest.  It is expensive to set up, requiring lots of small paddocks (fencing is ridiculously expensive and water must be provided to all paddocks), and time consuming to manage, as stock need to be rotated frequently.  We are lucky in that the new not-so-rocky Rock Farm was initially established to spell race-horses, so has several small paddocks that we can use for this purpose.

And whilst we have beautiful Wiltipoll sheep to graze our paddocks, sheep prefer eating short grass.  They won’t eat the longer grass, leaving it to go rank.  And I refuse to waste precious diesel slashing long grass for it to mulch back into the soil.

So enter the cows!

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We recently purchased 15 Normande cross weaner hefiers.  Their breeding and the reasons why we chose them is another story entirely. The short story is we wanted quiet cattle, and they had to be any colour other than black!  The Normande is a French beef breed, but you might see that these cattle have an amazing heritage with the best of many breeds in their blood lines.

But for now, they got right on the job.

Allan Savory recommends a stocking rate of around 60 head per hectare, which is extremely high.  The cattle will heavily graze the paddock, eating everything including weeds.  Then when the paddock is rested, everything has a chance to recover.  Normal set grazing sees the cattle eating their preferred grasses, and avoiding the weeds.  This eventually leads to a paddock full of weeds that needs expensive sowing to return to pasture.

Just off our yards, we had a small 1/2 hectare paddock, that was perfect for serving two purposes.  It allowed us to spend a week socialising the cattle and it allowed our soil improvement program to get right underway.  Whilst our stocking rate is about half recommended by Savory, we were soon quick to see the results.  Serrated tussock that had been hidden in the long grass was quickly revealed, making it far easier to hack out.

The small paddock was the perfect place for the cattle to be introduced to the Rock Farm.  I set up a water trough in the yards, and kept them in overnight after they arrived.  The cattle were also drenched on arrival, as our paddocks have been free of cattle for a few years and we want to ensure that our worm burden remains low.

For the first week, I fed the young cattle in the yards and let them have full access to the small paddock adjoining the yards.  It was remarkable how quickly they stopped running away from me and started walking towards the yards with only a gentle word or two of encouragement.  In the space of a couple of days, I was able to comfortably push them into the yards by myself, with the minimum of fuss.

I did all my mustering on foot, at a slow measured walk.  I found that walking slowly calmed the cattle down, and they rarely would run away from me.  The cattle are remarkably sensitive to your body language and where you are looking.  A long stick really helps as an extension of your arm, allowing you to direct their movements.  The cattle are also curious and soon were happy to watch me as I watched them eat.

These beautiful cattle have settled it quickly.  We have started moving them around the Rock Farm, and they are learning that a gentle walk is all I want from them.  I am madly trying to fix up fences in the small paddocks in order for me to establish a good rotation for them – it is all good fun.

In the mean time, they are doing a fantastic job keeping the grass down whilst the tractor rests in the shed. And that isn’t a bad thing!

Soil Analysis – Results are in

Our long awaited soil analysis results came back this week.

Our samples were taken in two different areas on the farm.  The first sample was collected from our alluvial flat.  This paddock has been previously used to crop lucerne, however has been left fallow for several years.

The other sample was taken from our slopes.  This paddock has a very thin topsoil, on a base of Ordovician Shale.  This has quite a different mineral analysis, indicating that it requires different treatment.

Why is it important to have a look at the minerals present in our soil?

“You can trace every sickness, every disease, and every ailment to a mineral deficiency.”

– Dr. Linus Pauling, two-time Nobel Prize winner

This message has been reinforced by Pat Coleby, who believes that modern farming with its huge chemical inputs is not only unsustainable, but it intrinsically damages soils heath. If your soil is unhealthy, animals will be unable to access the minerals in it, and they will get sick.

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The Results:

Now the trick is for us to work out what we need to do.

And this is where it gets really difficult.  I am open to all ideas.  Please have a look at the results in the attached pdf document and let me know what you think.  Page 1 is the alluvial flat, and Page 2 is the shale slope.

Soil Test Results Apr 18.pdf

The good news is there are plenty of options available to us.

1. Lime / Dolomite

In Europe, animals were traditionally yarded over winter, and their manure spread as fertilizer in spring.  In autumn, lime was spread to maintain the soil balance, and to release the phosphorous.

In Australia, with milder winters, stock are grazed year round.  Artificial phosphorus as in superphosphate is commonly used as a fertilizer, in lieu of animal manure.  A long history of using superphosphate, without addressing the calcium or magnesium balance through lime or dolomite,  locks up a large range of minerals, rending them unavailable to livestock.

I think the quickest course of action on our slopes will be to spread lime (Calcium Carbonate) or dolomite (Calcium and Magnesium Carbonate).  This will help address the release the phosphorus. It will also increase the pH of the soil, and this will allow other trace elements to be available to the livestock.

2. Aerate the soil

Pat Coleby  has said that “an aerator is one of the most valuable aids to soil regeneration that we have” (Natural Farming, Pat Coleby).  One way to do this is by using a Yeoman’s plow or Wallace aerator to aerate the soil.  This will allow rainfall to penetrate into the sub-soil.  P.A. Yeomans developed what we now call the Keyline System which places great emphasis “on the creation of a soil environment that rapidly accelerates soil biological activity”

http://yeomansplow.com.au/8-yeomans-keyline-systems-explained/ 

Properties that have followed the Yeoman’s principles have been more drought resilient, and have eliminated soil erosion.  The name Keyline was given to a particular contour that is found in all headwater valleys. This provides the basis for farm layout or design, in our case we will have to work within existing infrastructure to make it work for us.

Interestingly as an aside, healthy soil should absorb the first 80% of rainfall.  One wonders if part of the reason we get such devastating floods is because our soil is compacted and hydrophobic.

3. Grazing Management

Another technique we can use to improve our soil is through our grazing management.  If paddocks are intensively grazed for a short period of time, and then rested for a much longer period, many benefits can be observed.  We hope to implement a form of cell grazing on the Rock Farm, pioneered by André Voisin  in France, and further developed by Allan Savory after observing the effect of migrating animals on the grasslands of Africa.

When a paddock is heavily grazed, several things happen.  The top soil is disturbed by the action of the stock’s hooves or feet.  The tall grasses are eaten, and long roots of the plants retreat.  The animal’s manure releases much of the nutrients held in the grasses back to the soil.

When the paddock is rested, the seed bank that is in the soil is activated, encouraging new growth in the disturbed soil.  As the long grass roots retreat, they provide access for water and air to penetrate the soil and avenues for earthworms to pass through the soil.  Dung beetles and earth worms process the manure, turning it into a valuable fertilizer for the soil.

Whilst optimum rates for stocking are around 60 head of cattle per hectare or 450 sheep per hectare during the intensive grazing period, a long rest period of 6-12 months mean the overall stocking rate is much lower.  This will also require a much greater investment in fencing, however with the benefit of several small paddocks on the Rock Farm, we should be able to utilise parts of this technique.

4.  Planting Trees

Trees – importantly the right trees – can help remineralise soil.  The most effective trees are deciduous, as they draw minerals from deep in the ground and return them to the soil as their leaves mulch after falling to the ground.  Deciduous trees can also help reduce the fire risk to a property.  Our property has some magnificent old Elm trees, with glorious lush green grass growing underneath them.  Unfortunately our trees are English Elms, which tend to sucker, and in a couple of places have formed dense thickets.  Scottish Elms are just as beautiful and don’t sucker.

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Eucalyptus trees are important habitat for native birds and have their place too, however they tend to draw moisture and minerals from the surrounding soil.  They also have a nasty habit of dropping branches, especially on fences!

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We will continue to plant trees on the Rock Farm.  It is an extremely satisfying activity and we hope that one of our legacies will be the trees that will continue to grow for future generations.

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Research, Research, Research

In the meantime I will continue to research what is the best possible outcome for our property with respect to its mineral requirements.  I acknowledge that I am extremely fortunate in that my main objective is in learning as much as I can, without the burden of trying to support my family with my farming enterprise.

If anyone has any more ideas on how to increase the soil fertility on the Rock Farm, or has any insights into our soil analysis, I would gratefully accept your views in the comment section below.