Update on tree planting – Three months in

Three months have passed since we were fortunate to have Greening Australia plant our bottom paddock with seed for thousands of trees.  I thought we would take a wander around our paddock and check out the progress.

The planting was a relatively simple process (see here: https://rockfarming.com/2016/11/03/how-to-plant-trees-lots-and-lots-of-trees/).  After preparing the site, seed was directly planted into small furrows, planted along contours.  We then herded the sheep out of the paddock and closed the gate.

This summer has been hot – at times extremely so, but we have managed to get the odd storm or two.  A couple of weeks ago we also enjoyed one day of steady rain that filled our rain gauge a wonderful 24mm.

Whilst initial glances over the paddock don’t show much progress, a close up inspection reveals plenty of young wattles and eucalyptus starting to strike.

The kids enjoyed checking out the plants – and so did Kruz – the most wonderful new addition to our family – but I’ll write more about him later.

I’m no expert on identifying the seedlings, but the seed planted had a good mix of Blakey’s Red Gum (eucalyptus blakelyi), Red Box (eucalyptus polyanthemos) and Yellow Box (eucalyptus melliodora).

It also had plenty of wattle seed too, such as Silver Wattle (acacia dealbata).

The tree I have been really looking forward to finding is the Drooping Sheaoak (Allocasuarina Verticillata).  This tree is habitat and food for the Glossy Black Cockatoo.  I found another young tree in our top paddock, bringing the total number on our place to 6, but sadly haven’t found any seedlings in our furrows yet.

That said, the trees seem to be going well.  The weeds are also starting to compete, and I know that I will eventually have to slash between the rows of trees to give them a fighting chance…  best I get me a tractor!

How to plant trees… lots and lots of trees…

One paddock on the Rock Farm is typical of many others in this area.  Cleared and heavily grazed in its past, it is showing evidence of years of abuse.  Areas of sheet erosion and poor soil cover meant this was a paddock in desperate need of restoration.

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One of the first things we wanted to do to that paddock when we bought the property was to plant trees in it.  With no knowledge of how to do this, we thought it best to seek out the experts.

When it comes to planting trees, few do it better than Greening Australia.  We soon found ourselves speaking with Ben Hanrahan, and he explained that our site would be perfect for their Whole of Paddock Rehabilitation (WOPR) program.  https://www.greeningaustralia.org.au/project/whole-of-paddock-rehabilitation

The program aims to plant belts of native trees along contours with 40-50 metres between each belt.  In addition to providing habitat for many species of birds, the program also improves soil structure, reduces salinity and provides shelter and additional food sources for stock during times of drought.  It is designed to increase biodiversity and habitat for native animals and also improve outcomes for graziers.

It fits well with our aim for “sustainable and ecologically sound stewardship of our property, that creates an income and food source…”  So we signed up.

The first step was to mark the contours.  Ben came out with a specially calibrated tool and marked the contours on the property.  We then sprayed the belt in Autumn and again in Spring with glyphosate to kill the grass.   Whilst I am not a fan of broad scale use of herbicides, in this case it will ensure a far greater strike rate with our trees.  The glyphosate did make large brown stripes in the paddock over winter, which contrasted with the bright green grass (and our super cute lambs).

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Spring it is time to plant.  Normally this is done in September, but with the unusually wet season, the paddock has been too boggy to work.  We finally got the spring spraying done on Melbourne Cup day, and the seeding was done two days later.

Greening Australia Whole of Paddock Rehabilitation

The seed used is a mixture of seeds from trees native to this area.  We also have a some trees from other areas that are being included as part of a trial to do with climate change resilience.   The seed hopper is designed to accept two types of seed, with one distributing the very fine eucalyptus seeds, and the other distributing the coarser wattles and she-oaks.

Greening Australia Whole of Paddock Rehabilitation

A disc turns over the soil, and the seed is pressed into the soil by the trailing wheel.  This places the seed in the ideal place for germination.

Working in tandem, Ben and Hayden were able to get to work quickly.  Four rows of trees were planted in each belt, totaling around 10 kilometres of tree lines.   It took them most of the afternoon, and whilst it doesn’t look like much now, I can’t wait to see what happens over the next few years or so.

Now we wait.  Part of the deal is we keep stock off the paddock for five years, to allow the trees to get established.  We will need to control kangaroo numbers, and keep the sheep from pushing their way through the fence.  It won’t happen overnight, but it will go a long way towards making our grazing enterprise more sustainable into the future.

A huge thank you to Ben and the team at Greening Australia for helping us achieve a better outcome for our native birds and animals, and our stock.

The (amazing) secret life of Mistletoe

One of the legacies of buying a block that has previously been cleared for grazing is that many of the remnant trees are heavily laden with mistletoe.  Mistletoe is a parasitic plant that has a bad reputation however is a fascinating part of the Australian ecosystem.

Mistletoe’s bad name originated because too many mistletoe on a tree will eventually kill it.  The problem is not having too many mistletoe but of not having enough trees!  When you delve a little deeper, Mistletoe play an extremely important role in not just providing food and refuge for birds, but also for improving soil health too.

This Red Box Tree (Eucalyptus Polyanthemos) is heavily laden with mistletoe

There are around 90 species of Australian Mistletoe.  Australian Mistletoe has evolved with the Mistletoebird (Dicaeum hirundinaceum), which feeds almost exclusively on its fruit.  The fruit is decidedly sticky, and passes through the bird quickly.  The bird has to rub its backside against a branch in order to remove the seed from its cloaca.  This usually happens to be in an ideal spot for the Mistletoe to grow – typically a nice sunny place with a good outlook.  And it guarantees a good supply of food for the bird.

The Mistletoebird loves branches with a good vantage point, hence remnant trees become heavily infested

The fruit of the mistletoe is an important Aboriginal food.  Commonly called Snotty Gobble, the fruit is a sweet, sticky treat that looks exactly as it sounds.  You split the seed out of its pod, and eat the inside.  It is extremely sticky – which explains how the seed can be deposited by the bird in the most ideal place for germination.

Whilst this tree is suffering from the mistletoe, the soil under the tree is in excellent shape. There are also many young saplings growing around the tree to support future mistletoe growth

The Mistletoe sheds its leaves prolifically.  Unlike the host trees, which hang on to their leaves and thus nutrients as much as they can, the Mistletoe is far more likely to drop its leaves.  This creates areas of much richer nutrient under the tree.  In this photo, you can see the greener grass under the tree – largely as a result of the extra nutrient from the Mistletoe.  The Mistletoe is an important contributor to soil health.

Can you save individual trees? Yes you may, but it can be dangerous and may not worth the risk

But eventually too much Mistletoe will choke the tree.  This Red Box tree has only one branch that is still alive.  I have considered lopping the dead part from the tree, but it would require me to climb the tree and lop the majority of the crown from the tree – far beyond my capabilities with a saw.

Instead my strategy is to encourage the younger trees to grow.  This will ensure that there are plenty of host trees for the Mistletoe to grow in.  By encouraging many trees to grow, the Mistletoe will be spread among the trees, and won’t overwhelm any single tree.  As I mentioned earlier, the problem isn’t too much Mistletoe, it is too few trees!

Encouraging stands of timber to grow, between grassland areas is our best defence against trees being killed by mistltoe

The other neat thing I found today was our fourth Drooping Sheoak on the Rock Farm (allocasuarina verticillata).  This amazing tree has its own story that I will  share soon.

I must thank our friend Amber for her insights into the secret life of Mistletoe. Her knowledge of all native plants is truly encyclopaedic.  There are also a couple of really neat books that have helped me discover the amazing diversity in the plants on the Rock Farm.

Woodland Flora – A field guide for the Southern Tablelands, by Sarah Sharp, Rainer Rehwinkel, Dave Mallinson and David Eddy. (2015)  It is available here: http://www.publish.csiro.au/pid/7609.htm

Grassland Flora – A field Guide for the Southern Tablelands, by David Eddy, Dave Mallinson, Rainer Rehwinkel and Sarah Sharp. (1998)  It is available here: http://www.fog.org.au/grassland_flora.htm

The best portable chook tractor

I’m the first to admit that chickens are not my thing, but the quality of eggs you get from happy chooks has to be tasted to be believed.  With a well fenced orchard doubling as a chicken run, keeping chooks at The Rock Farm was a simple decision.

Aiding our decision to keep chickens was a couple of young entrepreneurs who offered to look after the chooks.  In exchange they would sell us the eggs.  It seemed a good deal – although I haven’t had the heart to break their business model by charging them for the chook food!

How to make a lightweight chook tractor

Over the past couple of years, our herd of chickens had grown to over 12 chooks and 4 ducks.  But all was not well in the chook world.  Slowly our egg production had dwindled to nothing.  We had also lost a couple of chooks and a duck in interesting circumstances (they were drowned in their pond).  With a randy drake the most likely suspect,  we needed to do a bit of housekeeping.

A new lightweight chook tractor was decided as the best means to separate our chooks, and provide all the benefits of portable weed control and fertiliser application.   Importantly Jo found a wonderful design that looked like it might work for us.  And it did!

The basic design uses electrical conduit cut into lengths and looped to form a lightweight self-supporting structure.  The joints are cable-tied – although the base requires holes to be drilled into the conduit to hold the joints together.

How to make a lightweight chook tractor

After laying out all the pieces, measuring the required lengths, and even going so far as to mark the ends in colour coded markers, my virgo wife had the main structure completed in little more than half an hour.

How to make a lightweight chook tractor

It was then time to fit some chicken wire to the structure.  Jo used wire around the base and bird netting over the top.  An old bread crate makes a roost, and a plastic tub a nesting box.  The only real complication was in getting the door to work, but Jo accomplished this with no fuss.

How to make a lightweight chook tractor

The tarpaulin isn’t fixed to the tractor – otherwise it would become a kite.  It provides the bulk of the shelter for the chooks.

How to make a lightweight chook tractor

The final part of the exercise was to separate the ducks from the chooks.  During this amusing exercise, we realised that we had not one, but three roosters masquerading as chooks.  Now, even I know enough to realise that roosters don’t provide much in the way of eggs.  We eventually separated the chooks, the ducks and the roosters into their respective homes.

How to make a lightweight chook tractor

With so many roosters, no one was going to be happy, so one was euthanized.   His carcase was buried under the roots of a newly planted fruit tree, where we hope that he will provide a great start to the young tree.

On the plus side, the girls are much happier in their new accommodation.  I just hope that as we emerge from the depths of winter that the hens resume laying.  I am looking forward to enjoying farm fresh eggs once again.

Improving soil health – Repairing bare soil on the Rock Farm

As short time custodians of the Rock Farm, we have a responsibility to leave our land in better shape than we found it.  It can be a bit daunting, but we have found many people  and read several books that have helped us start this journey.

The Rock Farm is in a region of Ordovician shale – and the soil best described as thin, gravel based lithosols (soil consisting of unweathered or partly weathered shale fragments).  The land has been previously cleared, and heavily grazed.  When the grass or ground cover is broken, the fragile soil is lost forever leaving bare patches of earth where nothing grows.

Cleared land with evidence of sheet erosion

In the few years before we bought the block, the stocking rates had been significantly reduced.   This allowed an explosion of young sapling trees in one paddock.  The old remnant trees were surrounded by many saplings – which was very pleasing to see.

This Red Stringy Bark has many young saplings among native Poa Tussock

The bare soil however was a problem.  The first priority was to stabilize the soil – and protect it from further erosion.   The easiest way for us to do this was to simply spread lawn cuttings around over the bare soil.  The cuttings protect the soil from wind and animals walking over it. The cuttings also over time will break down, releasing nutrients into the soil.

Leaving garden clippings or trimmed branches to break down and provide organic material to the soil

This is not a quick process.  In the hot and dry or cool and dry climate of the Southern Tablelands, this organic material will take years to break down.  But in the mean time, we hope it will provide shelter to allow grass, shrubs, even weeds – anything to grow.  In the mean time, the plant material provides homes and food for many native beetles and bugs.  These in turn increase the number of insect eating birds that visit our place – a real win-win scenario.

Three years on and the light shrub clippings have broken down and grass and weeds are re-colonising the soil

This is a patch that in 3 years, has broken down and is showing signs of colonisation by grass and weeds. The weeds are a sign that the system is out of balance – but repairing.  As the soil improves, the grasses will out compete the weeds (we hope).

Even bigger trees can benefit from protection too

It is a technique I use all the time.  I now cut green timber for firewood (see previous post), and I spread the small green branches over bare soil.  Within a year, the area is a hot bed of insect activity, with many small grubs and beetles munching their way through the bark and leaves, creating a rich organic soil.  The trees soon recover from the branch or two that I lop off, and the added bonus is the richer soils.

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The leaves quickly break down – these branches have been cut less than six months and are starting to decompose

Of course this process only works on small patches and it takes a long time to come to fruition.  Its best feature is it costs next to nothing – and uses natural processes.  To dramatically increase soil fertility quickly, you need to conduct soil tests, and import fertiliser – preferably an organic or natural compound.

There are many different fertilisers that can be used – but I will discuss these in a later post.

If you are interested in further reading, check out:

Pat Coleby – Natural Farming (http://farmingsecrets.com/experts/pat-coleby/)

Peter Andrews – Natural Sequence Farming (http://www.nsfarming.com/)