The last of the Weeding Tools

Many years ago, when we still lived in town, we bought a weeding tool from the local hardware shop.  Recommended to us by a friend, it was elegant in its simplicity, and fantastic for digging out weeds.  As a bonus, it also makes preparing garden beds a breeze.

The tool was a patented Australian design, but after years of use, we were unable to tell its make.  The local hardware shop has long since been replaced by Bunnings, and the cheap weeding hoes they stock are next to useless in comparison.

We are reluctant to use chemicals for weed control on the Rock Farm. There are times when selective use of chemical is the most effective method to bring certain weeds under control, however we prefer mechanical removal of weeds if possible.

Our original tool is still in good service, we decided that in order to make weeding the paddocks a whole family affair it would be better if we all had access to a proper weeding tool.  Thankfully Jo tracked down the type of weeder we owned, and the company’s website after some diligent searching.

The tool is a McAtool, made just a couple of hours down the road at Robertson.  It is simply the best tool we have for chipping out thistles, serrated tussock and even sweet briar.

The website is here: https://www.mcatool.com.au  And the good news is, it lists other pruning and gardening tools as well.

We quickly ordered three new McAtool Maxis, and somehow also a McAtool Mini.  And it was lucky we did, as we found out that the company is in the process of shutting down. I am not sure everyone shared my enthusiasm when the new weeders arrived though!

 

The tool is remarkably effective at chipping out thistles and serrated tussock.  It can be used either way up, with a narrow chipping wedge handy at cutting thistles off below the root ball, or a wedge to lever out tussock.

I wouldn’t say it makes chipping a breeze – it is still a good workout.  I figure it is a good substitute for gym membership!

The real challenge is still finding the opportunity to get the whole family down in the paddock for some cooperative weeding efforts.  It seems something else always pops up… Perhaps I need to find some new motivation now we all have a McAtool available for use!

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Ripping Lines for Soil Health

With the tractor repaired, I was keen to press on and continue our journey along the path of improved soil health.  My next project was to test the effectiveness or ripping lines in one of our flat paddocks.  I have previously experimented with ripping lines on some of the slopes late last year, and the initial results are promising.  Moisture is remaining in these contours for longer than other areas, and we are starting to see green bands along those rip-lines.  See story here: https://rockfarming.com/2019/01/13/school-holidays-on-the-rock-farm/

The paddock for this experiment is a 1.8 hectare flat alluvial plain, with deep soil.  This flat area is the best soil on the Rock Farm – but in a short cloud burst we had before Christmas (35mm rain in 30 minutes), water sheeted across this paddocks. Barely any of the water soaked in before it made its way  into the creek.  (https://rockfarming.com/2018/12/17/of-droughts-and-flooding-rains/)

The paddock was heavily grazed for a week.  Then I spent an hour or so chipping out thistles and the odd serrated tussock to get the paddock ready for ripping.

A couple of hours with the tractor pulling hard in 2nd gear low range, and the rippers had opened up the soil in the 1.8 hectare flat.  I ran the lines about 5 metres apart, in a concentric spiral.   In areas where the soil was compacted, the rippers barely scratched the surface, however in other areas they penetrated a good 30cm or more into the soil.

The purpose of this is two-fold.  It aims to aerate the soil, increasing the microbial activity within the soil, thereby improving the availability of nutrients for grass.  It also allows moisture to penetrate deep into the soil, reducing run off and storing moisture in the soil for longer.  Pat Coleby is one of the many authors who recommend ripping lines along contours and I thought it was worth the experiment.  The main difference is she recommends ripping after rain… but with barely any rain falling this month, I figured I was best to see if we could open some of the soil up and ensure if any rain does fall, we could capture it.

Interestingly another technique to aerate the soil relies on grazing management.  As cattle eat the longer grass, the plant’s roots die off, and as they rot, the soil is opened up allowing earthworms to do the hard work.

It was interesting to rip a section of a much smaller paddock that the cattle had been in a couple of weeks earlier.  Whilst they had compacted the soil around the water trough, in the areas where the grass had been tallest (and since eaten), the rippers penetrated deepest, and didn’t turn the soil over.  This is a sign of deep friable soil – the best kind.  This encourages me that we are doing good things for our soil health, and that our soil rotation is working.

Now I just have to keep my fingers crossed for rain!

School Holidays on the Rock Farm

School holidays are in full swing on the Rock Farm.  The boys have been turning petrol into noise on their motorbikes, building tree houses in the gum trees, and playing in the dirt.  They have also been learning a few other skills such as fencing, planting trees, repairing said motorbikes and fixing broken water pipes.

The holidays have also been a wonderful opportunity to catch up with friends and family.  This, in conjunction with a series of extremely hot days, has slowed the normal rate of progress on the Rock Farm, and that isn’t a bad thing.  We have enjoyed the opportunity to slow down and enjoy good company, and the odd quiet afternoon, with the air conditioner on, in front of a movie with the family.

The ongoing requirement to repair our fences continues.  On one of the cooler mornings, The youngest helper and I replaced a small section of fence.  A few days later the whole family helped run hinge joint around a small 2 acre triangle paddock near the house.  This will allow us to bring the sheep into this paddock and hopefully contain them!  It was pretty hot work, and it times tempers flared due to Hangry boys.  The result will be a handy little paddock allowing us to keep a closer eye on the sheep.

We have been lucky to experience a couple of summer storms this season.  With a bit of moisture in the soil, I thought we would get away with planting out some acorns that had germinated.  These oaks are Daimyo Oaks (Quercus dentata), also known as Japanese Emperor Oak or Korean Oak.  These trees have large leaves, and are part of our plan that should see the Rock Farm renamed “Oak Park” one day.  The oaks draw nutrient from deep in the ground, provide shade thus retaining moisture, and the leaves return the nutrient and organic matter to the soil when they fall and mulch.

Then it was back onto the serious business of making tree houses in some existing trees!

The summer storms often provide short bursts of heavy rain that mostly runs off.  Any technique that increases the amount of rainfall captured into the soil is to be tried.  One technique, pioneered by P.A. Yeomans and recommended by Pat Coleby is to rip lines along contours, opening up the soil allowing moisture to penetrate deep into the ground.

Our last property (the original Rock Farm) had deep rip lines put in by the previous owner.  These lines trapped moisture and were clearly the greenest part of the property on satellite images.  Trees benefited from being planted in the rip lines, as their roots could seek out the moisture stored in the cracks of the rocks.

Unfortunately the old single tyne ripper wasn’t up to the tough Ordovician Shale that underlies our fragile slopes.  Only a few lines into it, a large rock twisted the tyne worse than before.  Despite several attempts to gain leverage, I was unable to straighten the tyne.

The good news was that leaning against a tree, forgotten by owners previous, a double tyne ripper was leaning against a tree.  It had been there so long, a tree root had grown over a tyne, vastly complicating my efforts to put the ripper on the tractor.  It took my wife and I a good hour to eventually get the ripper fitted… but it was worth the effort!

And the result was success!  Using a piece of clear pipe filled with water and threaded on the ROPS, I was able to get a reasonably accurate contour ripped across the slope of the paddock.  It took a little while for me to get the draft and raise response where I was happy with it, but the old tractor performed flawlessly.  The rip line was only 150mm deep – but that was deeper than the soil and into the rock layer.   Now I just need it to rain to test the theory.

The school holidays have also had the boys learning some other important lessons.  They are still young enough to play in the dirt – and were enthusiastically making tracks for matchbox cars when they received last call to come in and have a shower before bed.

The final throw of the digger resulted in an unmistakable gurgle and their construction rapidly filled with water.  After years of observing me, they correctly recognised that they hadn’t found a fresh water aquifer just below the surface, but rather a poly pipe.  I took some solace from the fact that the rapidly appearing water was our non-potable water supply to our garden and toilets… not our precious house supply that runs under the ground only a couple of metres away.

The good news was that it wasn’t my fault.  So I had if not enthusiastic, then certainly guilty helpers to:

  • run to the dam and isolate the pump (long way down hill)
  • run to the tank and isolate the tank (long way up hill)
  • dig a much larger hole to expose the pipe
  • measure the diameter to check if we had the right fittings (which we did – good planning Dad)
  • carefully cut the damaged section of pipe out with a hacksaw
  • replace damaged section with a joiner fitting
  • run back to pump and turn it on
  • run back to tank and turn it on
  • watch and check for leaks

It was the quickest I had ever replaced a pipe – and I barely raised a sweat… In fact I did a lot of not much except pointing, and asking for tools, most of which live in my pipe repair tub.

As the sun set and the light faded, we turned the water on and held our breath.  It worked!  All in all it was a pretty good outcome – the kids learned some important skills, and I realised how grown up they are becoming.

Farm Chemical Disposal with ChemClear

One of the risks when buying a farm is what you find when you start going through the shed.  Farmers have an ability to see value in hoarding any thing that might possibly be useful. When they move, often much of the stuff is left in the shed as it “may be useful” to the new owner, and the shed on the Rock Farm was no exception.

Whilst we may have unearthed some fantastic treasures, we also found some skeletons.  One that has caused me the most worry was an old chest freezer packed with old drenches, herbicides and pesticides.  What was worse is that may of the chemicals were stored in old food and drink bottles and were unlabelled.  It was something that made me extremely nervous, especially with young kids visiting the Rock Farm.

Disposal of old chemicals is a real problem.  Whilst DrumMUSTER provides an avenue to recycle clean agricultural chemical containers, it is much harder to find an avenue to dispose the chemicals themselves.

And so it was a bit of a relief when I found ChemClear.  ChemClear provides a collection and disposal pathway for unwanted agricultural chemicals.  Whilst my collection was too small to make it worth registering for collection, I was extremely pleased to learn that they come to our regional council transfer station once a year.

I had been counting down the days until this morning, when ChemClear came to our regional transfer station.  I gratefully loaded up the ute with the toxic collection of goodness knows what.  The most concerning were the old food and drink containers with different coloured liquids in them.  I also had a large tub worth of expired animal drenches and a couple of 20 litre chemical drums with no labels, other than an ominous POISON stamped in the plastic.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I arrived, but the ChemClear team were ready for me.  As soon as I had pulled up, a team of appropriately dressed staff were unloading the chemicals and sorting them.  They told me that some of the chemicals would be recycled, but others would be destroyed, mostly through incineration.  They took them all, with the only question asking where I had heard about the program.

And the cost? Absolutely free.

Well not quite.  I did have to travel to our regional transfer station, some 60km instead of the 5km to our local transfer station, but it was a small price to pay.

I did then race home and take the old freezer / chemical store to our local transfer station.  It cost me $25 to dump the unit, where they assured me the fee was used to recover the refrigerant….that is if it had any left after 40 years or so of rusting away in the old shed on the Rock Farm.

I am extremely happy that our farm is a lot safer, and I am happy that the chemicals won’t cause a problem either for my family, visitors to our farm, or the greater environment.  If you have any old chemicals lying about, do yourselves a favour and check out when the ChemClear trucks are coming to your local transfer station.

A dry spring on the Rock Farm

My last post was about managing weeds during the spring growth.  Unfortunately the hoped for spring rain didn’t eventuate.  Even as parts of the State are getting some of their best rain in months, we have managed a paltry 3mm.  It is better than nothing, and might give the clover the break it needs to set seed!

Our property has an interesting arrangement where the road access comes in and past the house to the paddocks. Like all roadsides / laneways, this is rarely grazed, because of the inconvenience to traffic.  But it was the only part of the property the cattle hadn’t grazed and every bit of grass is precious at the moment.

Several fences needed to be fixed up, and water provided before I could contemplate putting the cattle in the laneway.  Even so, I still used temporary electric fence to allow the cattle right up to the garden – a treat they all enjoyed!

In fact the cattle were so happy to have access to the special grass near the garden, they hardly noticed me sneaking in close for a Selfie!

School holidays is an exciting time for the kids.  As they get bigger, their commitments grow too, with sporting camps keeping them busy for the first week.  These are fantastic opportunities for them, but I also love seeing them get creative in the shed.  Of course the dog is in the thick of it too, causing equal measures of delight and frustration at her efforts to help.

Speaking of the shed, our region is often windy in Spring.  Very windy.  And the old shed was looking a little worse for wear, with several sheets of corrugated iron roofing sheets looking like they wanted to lift off.   The shed is of unknown vintage, and in the fine tradition of most Australian farms, it has been made of second hand recycled iron and fencing wire.   It gives it a certain charm, but would be a huge inconvenience if it was actually destroyed.  A little bit of preventative maintenance was in order.

The advantage of so much sunny weather meant that I was able to replace some of the very loose nails with new roofing screws, without the risk of rain making the roof treacherous. I fabricated some brackets and purchased a harness to provide some comfort whilst working aloft.

And then there was the garden.  Neglected and in need of a bit (lot) of work, it was time to get the chain saw out for some ‘pruning’.  With a garden that is around 2.5 acres, there are always trees to prune.  The black wheelbarrow made the carting of the firewood size pieces a lot more manageable.

All the other branches and lighter sticks and twigs were thrown on the back of Myrtle – the big red truck, and taken down to the paddocks.  We found a remarkable sight.  Under similar tree prunings, deposited in the paddock six months earlier, we found growing lush, green grass and clover.

I think there are three possible reasons for this (or a combination of all three).

  1. As the branches break down, they release nutrient into the soil,
  2. The branches provide a physical barrier stopping kangaroos from eating the grass (this paddock has no other stock in it), or
  3. The branches provide shade to the grass, making what little moisture there is more effective.

Thus encouraged, we will keep putting our prunings into the gullies and over bare soil.  It is great to see positive results for our efforts.

On the Rock Farm, the only place where the grass has been most prolific in its growth is the garden.  With the current season being so dry, it feels such a crime to simply cut the grass with a mower.  But, the grass was getting long, and the snakes are coming out.  So I got right onto my next job, and brought in the one horse power self propelled mower model.  Best part is, you don’t have to sit on it as it gets to work – but that can be the best bit!

Spring – The grass is growing and so are the weeds!

Spring is a wonderful time on the Rock Farm. The warmer weather, coupled with the little bit of rain has caused a dramatic turn around on the Rock Farm.  Grass that was basically dormant over winter has started to grow.  Whilst the soil remains terribly dry, the grass is optimistically hoping to shoot up and set seed before the summer dries it out completely.  The garden is even starting to look a little unkempt, and I have put the battery charger on the mower, in the hope that it will get a run in the next few weeks.

But it isn’t just grass that is growing.  So are the weeds, and one of the most persistent and troublesome in our area is serrated tussock (nassella trichotoma).

Over winter the stock have grazed the paddocks thoroughly.  This makes the unpalatable tussock easy to locate and target.  It is hard work to manually chip out – and whilst it is our intention to use this method in the future, we need to reduce the amount on our property to manageable levels.

The most effective control of the tussock is a good permanent pasture.  Competition from healthy plants keeps the tussock in check. However once tussock is established, it is very difficult to get rid of.  It sets a large seed bank, and the seeds are dispersed by the wind, allowing the seed to travel a long way before settling.

Whilst I am generally loathe to use chemicals on our property, in the race against serrated tussock, it is the most cost effective method.  It is far quicker and easier than chipping out individual plants, and we hope to get on top of our tussock in the next few years.  Once we have it under control, we hope that aggressive chipping of identified plants will maintain our paddocks tussock free.

Our spray ‘rig’ is an interesting mixture of apparatus cobbled together.  A 12 volt pump provides the chemical / water mix through a jet spray nozzle.  A trigger on the nozzle allows control of the spray to spot on individual plants.

The chemical we use is a mixture of Flupropanate and Glyphosate.  This is mixed with water, dye and a surfactant. In the photo, you can see the red dye.  The surfactant breaks the surface tension of the water like a detergent, allowing the chemical to cover the leaves of the targeted plant for maximum effectiveness.  These chemicals are not great at all for the soil, or the microbes and earthworms that live in it.  This is why I really try to just spot spray the tussock, and minimise overspray as much as possible.

The boy’s buggy provides the 12 volt power, and the means to pull the little trailer around.  With 120 litres of spray onboard when full, it helps to make sure you start pointing down hill, as it is hard work on the clutch starting out!

After 12 months of sitting, my nozzle had seized up.  After pulling it apart, and cleaning and lubricating it, it worked a lot better, however had a small leak when the pump was running.  I decided that the easiest fix would be to install a switch near the steering wheel allowing me to turn the pump off from the drivers seat.  I found an old driving lights wiring harness, complete with relay, in the shed and soon had my ‘in seat switch’ in operation.

I also needed to lower the hitch height of the trailer in order to bring it to a more level ride.  I had a few ideas in my head, but eventually found an old steel post of around the right size.  Thankfully I also found a couple of long bolts in the shed, and soon had re-fitted the hitch.  The trailer isn’t level, but it is a lot closer than it was.

It takes me between two and three hours to spray out all the chemical in a tank.  I find it easiest to park the buggy and walk around when the tussock is thick.  For dispersed plants, I am able to wiz around and squirt from the comfort of the driver’s seat.  Who said weed control couldn’t be fun!

Whilst the weeds are slowly being brought under control, the rest of the Rock Farm residents are enjoying the warmer weather.  The cattle are getting quieter, however the sheep haven’t forgiven me yet for being vaccinated and the lambs marked last week.  But it sure is fun watching them all 🙂

More information on serrated tussock can be found here:  http://weeds.dpi.nsw.gov.au/Weeds/Details/123

The weather breaks

The Rock Farm has been fortunate to receive a little bit of rain over the past couple of days.  A cold front that blasted the South West has made its way across the country, bringing cold moisture bearing westerly winds.  A steady 20mm of rain over two days followed up on 7mm received a week ago.  It is amazing to see how quickly things change.  Hills that were a lifeless brown a week ago now have a green tint.

I now have the delightful problem of having to put the car into 4WD to get up the driveway!

If there is one thing that cold wet weather brings on, it is lambing.  And no one summed it up better than Dog, in Murray Ball’s timeless Footrot Flats.

I knew our girls were close to lambing, but it must be a cruel twist of nature to lamb in the worst possible weather.  I took the opportunity of a short burst of sunshine and went for a little walk around the paddock.  I was delighted to find five new lambs to three very proud ewes.  I hope these little lambs, and their yet-to-be-born brothers and sisters find enough shelter in the paddocks to pull through the last few weeks of winter.

The cattle are curious animals, and we love having them on the property.  This photo was taken a day or two before the rain, and you can see how happy they are to see me with a couple of bales of old pasture hay.  This morning I moved them to a laneway.  They must have been hungry, as they stuck their heads down and started eating as soon as they walked out of the gate.  They’re still in pretty good condition all things considered and are pretty happy to see me – especially if I come bearing gifts!

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Whilst the grass now has a green tint, it is still too cold for it to grow.  Like everyone in the district, I hope we get follow up rainfall to build moisture in the soil.  It is the deep soil moisture that will be the difference between a good spring, and some difficult decisions.

The little bit of moisture has been a good thing.  It has allowed us to plant a stack of acorns.  We planted acorns from locally sourced Daimyo Oaks (Quercus dentata) and Californian Valley Oaks (Quercus lobata).  The Hamilton Tree Planter was the perfect tool for the job – however it was abundantly clear that only the top 5 centimetres of the soil was damp.  Underneath it was bone dry.  This is part of our plan to use deciduous trees to enhance the soil health on The Rock Farm.

We have also planted some native seedlings.  Our local real estate agent donated some seedlings to members of the community for National Tree Day.  We gratefully received a Yellow Box (eucalyptus melliodora) and my favourite tree, a Drooping Sheoak (allocasuarina verticillata).

The Yellow Box is a magnificent slow growing tree, considered the best native tree for honey production.  It prefers areas of better soil hence, in this area, large areas of yellow box woodland were cleared to make way for pastures.   The timber is dense and resistant to decay, and was used for railway sleepers, posts, poles and for timber bridges.  It is great to be re-introducing this tree to our property.

The Drooping Sheoak prefers dry shale slopes.  It is just about the sole food source for the glossy black cockatoo, which is rare in our area.  We had seven of these trees on our last property, but I haven’t found any on the new Rock Farm.  Kangaroos find this little tree irresistible, hence we made tree guards to give it a fighting chance.

Special thanks to Chris and Gin from McGrath Real Estate for their generous donation to the community for National Tree Day.

New (kind of) Stock Yards

Owners of livestock must be able to handle their animals safely, and one of the most effective ways to do this is with a set of stock yards.

Yards typically used to be made with whatever material was at hand.  We visited these old yards in northern South Australia a couple of years ago.  The yards were made with Cypress Pine hauled from the Flinders Ranges, and the wires were old telegraph line.  The cattle were mustered into a square yard. If stock were to be handled, horsemen would rope the cattle and they would be brought to the Bronco Rail for marking.

The steel yards on the Rock Farm might be much more modern, however due to a number of reasons, they were in need of a major overhaul.  Before the cattle arrived, it had taken me several hours, lots of grease and much motivation with a hammer to get the crush to operate.  The yards had been placed on the ground with little consideration to levels, and whilst the basic layout was sound, I wanted to update the yards to ensure many more years of safe and low stress cattle handling.

With a short notice visit from my parents announced, the time to re-design the cattle yards arrived.  My father has years of experience in the beef industry, including designing cattle yards.  It was the perfect opportunity to harness his experience and my brawn… well the tractor’s brawn.

We had a good look at the existing layout.  My proposed design sketches were quickly discarded as I hadn’t taken into account the simple fact the crush is worked from the left hand side.  I had designed yards with a clockwise movement that made it difficult to operate the crush.  We agreed that an anti-clockwise movement of the cattle was far more suitable.  I also studied the NSW DPI page on Cattle Yard Design, but ultimately it came down to a simple examination of the materials at hand, and the site available.

The first stage was dismantling the existing yards.  This involved removing a few pins and many cobb and co wire hitches.  With a collection of mis-matched panels and various old gates, it was an interesting exercise.

Once we had removed the old yards, we spend a long time digging out and leveling the ground, appreciative of the tractor doing most of the heavy work.  Cattle will naturally run uphill, so the slope on this site isn’t a problem.  What we needed to do was make the slope consistent through the length of the crush and race.  With the slope consistent, we started re-assembly, again using the heavy lifting ability of the tractor.

Reassembly took a lot longer than I thought.  We have managed to get most of the panels to line up, but the hard work is getting the sleeves for the pins to align.  We had to grind off a couple of the sleeves to make the panels fit, all made slower due to a few hours lost fixing the pull-starter on the generator.

We concentrated on getting the drafting gates, crush, race and forcing yard all aligned and in-situ.  We found an old balustrade in the ‘resource centre’ which we cut up to manufacture new pins and anchor pegs in lieu of too many cobb and co hitches.  The main section of the yards are pretty much fixed now, and are much more solid that the previous version.

We still have work to do on the holding yard, and I hope to get onto this in the near future.  The final component will be to put a sight barrier on the yards.  This will remove distractions and help move the cattle around the yards.  I also hope it will make the yards sheep proof, so I don’t need to build a second set of yards for the sheep.

And what do the stock think of all this effort?  At present I am still a few weeks away from getting the yards ready for stock work.  The cattle are busy mowing and mulching our small horse paddocks.  The sheep seem to hang around in this area too, happily making their way around the farm as they seek the sweetest grass.  Some of the ewes are getting quite heavy with lamb, and I will need to have the yards ready to vaccinate the ewes soon.  Nothing like a bit of time pressure to finish a project!

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 🙂

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