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.

Mineral supplements for sheep

Australian soils are often described as ancient weathered soils,  poor in nutrient and often have very little organic matter.  Here on the Rock Farm, we take it to another level, with our Ordovican shale bedrock often just below the surface of our thin gravel based lithosols.

There is an old adage  that states ‘if you want to run ten sheep, you feed the sheep until you can run ten sheep’.   This means that the food you feed your sheep becomes the manure that increases your soil fertility until you can run ten sheep.  In essence, your sheep become a vital part of the composting cycle where the imported food is converted to fertilizer.

And when you feed your sheep, mustering becomes a whole heap easier, as they come running to you!

In this good wet winter, our problem isn’t enough food.  There is plenty of bulk in the native grasses at the Rock Farm, but like Burke and Wills, I didn’t want our sheep starving on full bellies.  With mineral deficiencies common, we are experimenting with a salt lick or mineral supplement block.

With the sheep and horses running in the same paddock, we had to pick a mineral supplement that doesn’t contain urea.  Most cattle and sheep supplements contain urea.  Urea is toxic to horses, due to the differences in the gut.  The urea provides nitrogen for the the microflora that lives in the ruminant (cattle and sheep).  Horses only have one stomach (like us), and the urea may cause non-protein nitrogen poisoning.

We put the lick out in the paddock, and soon had the sheep wandering up to check it out.  Actually they were checking out the bucket of oats – and looking for a feed.  The benefits of bucket mustering are obvious when they come when you call!

This is obviously a very broad solution to a specific problem.  With a bit more time and effort, we could put out a range of different specific minerals, and see which ones they take.  This will indicate strongly which minerals our land is deficient in.  We hope to get to this point in the future, but in the meantime, the scatter-gun approach will have to suffice.

As an aside, you can see the bands of dead grass in this photo.  The ground has been sprayed in preparation for planting of trees in spring.  Whilst I am generally against chemical use on the paddocks, this is the most effective way to establish trees.

We spread the oats around the lick.  The sheep crowded around it – and devoured the oats. I am not sure how long it will take them to work out the benefits of the mineral supplements now available to them.  We have gone back a couple of times over the past week to encourage the sheep to check out the lick.

I don’t know how successful this will be – but we will see.  Hopefully the sheep will seek out any mineral deficiencies they crave.  Any minerals their bodies don’t require will pass through the sheep and become part of the mineral bank in our soil.  It will take us time to work out what the best way to manage our resources on the Rock Farm… but that is what it is all about.

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

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/)