On 6 November BSL members visited Alan and Diana Rowe’s Myocum propertry for a farm visit. Ken Dorey reports
As I turned south off Myocum Road onto James Lane the Big Scrub escarpment below Coolamon Scenic Drive loomed high and daunting as the usual lantana and camphor forests covering the slope filled the view. Just as the “where are we going” voices prepared to take over the wheel the unmistakeable colour and texture of a large Big Scrub rainforest planting appeared spreading over the foothills.
The clouds parted and the sun beamed on the Rowe property, even as the sky darkened ominously to the south.
Saturday 6 November was probably not the best day to have a farm visit. The rain that moved across the coast around lunchtime looked to be more substantial then the previous fleeting showers and I’m sure that it deterred many from venturing out as that go-or-not decision time approached. The irony was that the seven people that did attend were welcomed in sunshine by hosts Diana and Alan Rowe and the indefatigable farm visit organiser, Stephanie Lymburner.
Alan began by saying that he and Diana had bought the property in late 2000, for the horse paddock, in Diana’s case, and for the surf views in his case. There never was an intention to buy 78 acres but it begged the question, according to Alan, ”What do you do with it?” Cows didn’t appeal but planting trees while they were still young – that would form a canopy and so allow them to take it easy as they got older – seemed a plan. While the plan worked in the broader sense the work involved was much more than they had expected.
Alan and Diana sought help and advice from Mark Dunphy who recommended that they employ Michael Whaley. Planting begun in May 2001 and, according to Alan, they were able to learn a lot from Michael in those first years.
By 2002 Alan and Diana had begun to collect seed and had started their own nursery so that by 2003 they were propagating all of their own seedlings. Alan collects seed and fruit from the Heritage Parks at both Mullumbimby and Lismore, from roadsides and friends’ properties. Alan says that they did a course on seed propagation with Brad Green, the proprietor of Mullum Creek Nursery, but otherwise they don’t attempt the ‘difficult’ ones, especially the small seeds from the ‘wet’ trees like ti-tree. They also swap trees with other nurseries.
Initial plantings were dominated by cabinet timber tree varieties with a woodlot structure to attract the taxation benefits of an agricultural pursuit; Alan mused that it was a pity that the government didn’t give substantive assistance to those who wished to undertake solely environmental plantings. While the 30 or so recognised cabinet-timber trees are still planted, only about 10 of which are really successful, the more recent plantings have upwards of 350 species incorporated in them. Alan conceded, while Stephanie chuckled, that they were not as ‘pure’, or Big Scrub local, as they should be and acknowledged that the BSL’s position was that only Big Scrub species should be planted in Big Scrub plantings. Of all of the trees planted, including, he concedes, the ones that offend ‘purists’ like Stephanie, Alan believes that he has really only made one mistake – Burdekin plum. The birds spread Burdekin plum fruits widely and they germinate quite readily.
Alan says that they have planted 35,150 seedlings but estimates that there may be as few as 27-28,000 surviving with most of those losses due to wallabies. He plants a box of trees, around 28-30, each planting day, waiting till it’s raining or about to rain so that they’re watered-in. They plant from late March to mid June. Wallabies were a major problem from 2003 until around 2007 when wild dogs arrived in the area. Neighbours have undertaken wild dog control measures and since then the wild dogs seem to have gone: Alan welcomes the return of the wallabies but, perhaps, after they have finished planting.
According to Alan, they have removed a lot of weeds from the planting areas and “further out”. Camphor, ochna, senna, slash pine and, to a lesser extent, privet are the usual weeds targeted but they have the extra burden of thousands of yellow guavas that have spread from an old guava orchard further up the escarpment. Alan also deems cockspur as a weed because of its strangling dominance in every remnant.
Stephanie took the floor for a moment to suggest that she “had a slightly different approach to planting than Alan”. She preferred mixed plantings as opposed to the rows of the woodlot and that she would not plant species inappropriate to the area. She said that her property didn’t have the same issues that Alan and Diana had, which was large vacant areas and the lack of a nearby seedbank of remnant trees or forest to aid in regeneration. She said that had she been involved in a project like this from the start she would have undertaken ‘clump’ plantings, perhaps based around camphors even, and then joined them with corridor plantings, a mosaic that concentrated along areas like creek edges.
While Stephanie’s staged approach seemed a good option it was obvious to me, even before the walk, that Alan and Diana’s ‘boots-and-all’ enthusiasm had produced decisive results. Extensive, dense planting dominated sites all around and there was no sign of any weeds, never mind yellow guavas.
Alan then invited us to take that walk with him through the woodlot, plantings, and remnants, if not the native fruit orchard that was further away. Alan said that he was keen to show failures as well as successes as he’d imagine that we might have similar problems and that we might be able to suggest solutions.
Our first stop was at a recent planting in one of those problem areas where Alan considered that they had had a success (see picture Site One). The area was a “flat swamp” that they couldn’t keep clean. By using a mini-excavator they were able to form a V drain through the area; the underlying clay consolidated the banks. Alan says that a prevailing view is that water should be slowed so as to conserve moisture and inhibit erosion but the slower movement of water through this area only made the site unmanageably wet to plant and weed. From our bridge vantage point we could see water trickling through the formed stream and a well-managed splattering of trees that were doing quite well and which, Alan expects, will form a canopy within 2 years. Alan promised to show us a similar area later for which they had, as yet, no solution.
The trees were doing so well I was moved to ask Alan what his approach to planting is in regard to fertiliser, mulch or water crystals. He conceded that they did initially mulch, especially in the cabinet-timber woodlot, but he went on to say, “we don’t do anything now, we don’t mulch, we don’t use fertiliser pellets, we just stick them in the bare earth, we don’t water and they’re on their own”. It seemed to me that Alan’s harsh planting approach didn’t seem to gel with the TLC, or Tender-Loving-Care, that the trees were obviously getting.
As we progressed on our walk we moved into a well-advanced planting. Alan said that they chose to plant their trees at 1.5 metre spacing so that the site forms a canopy quicker and their work keeping weeds out is reduced (see picture Site Two, page 5). This 2005 planting was doing very well and it was hard to imagine any weeds venturing into this enclosed space. At 5 years of age this felt like a rainforest and it was hard not to be reminded of Rob Kooyman, who did much of the early research on planting densities, who said something like “when trees touch they begin to ‘talk’ to each other and then you have a forest”.
This site had also been modified with V drains to direct water flow and the sides planted out. According to Alan, he had sprayed around these trees with herbicide as much as every 2 months in the first year, once every 3 months in the second year and eventually, all of a sudden, you’ll come in and say, “Well, we’ve captured it”. “In the early years I tend to hammer it [the weeds] and keep it under control”, said Alan, confirming my earlier suspicions that Alan, with that many sprayings, was sneaking in more than his share of TLC.
In response to a question about a tree, Alan began identifying some of the trees we passed. The original question was about the identity of a small-leafed tamarind, a rare tree that Alan says they are lucky enough to have growing at their front gate: they have hundreds of small-leafed tamarinds in their plantings propagated from that mother tree. Other trees pointed out were koda, riberry, deciduous fig, black walnut, red cedar, white beech, red bean, firewheel and, Alan’s favourite, a Macleay laurel. Alan says that planting understorey species, like native ginger and walking stick palms, is becoming more of a priority as the planting grows.
We arrived at a site where the trees had obviously been planted in lines: a cabinet-timber woodlot planted in 2003. Alan thinks that more experience is needed in managing cabinet-timber woodlots as they had only begun to be planted in this area in the late 1980s. While Queensland had more experience with hoop pine and Queensland maple they were in monocultures and, says Alan, monocultures are frightening as all of your “eggs are in the one basket” so that a disease could come through and wipe them out. “Trees don’t live like that naturally”, says Alan; “they have different shapes with different canopies…”
Alan pointed out a teak, hard quondong and a golden ash, all of which had been propagated from trees found on the property. Someone asked why he had only sprayed around individual trees in an otherwise obviously grassy site (see picture Site Three, page 6). ‘Spot’ spraying, said Alan, keeps the grass away from the trees without exposing the soil to erosion and, as Stephanie pointed out, grass is another form of canopy that can help retain moisture and keep the soil cooler.
Alan’s surreptitious extraction of a wild tobacco plant didn’t escape the notice of Stephanie. “Alan has good reason for pulling out this plant”, said Stephanie, “but in some circumstances I’d leave this weed… as they spread and grow upwards they can provide the shade that the planted trees might be getting in nature and, eventually, as the trees get bigger, the tobacco bush is so sun-needy it will die”.
“We actually steered away from planting in this site for years”, Alan went on, “as the soil was so powdery and fine that we were worried about erosion, hence the spot spraying and the volunteer natives, like that large red kamala and teak, left to get bigger on site before the planting; we’re trying to leave everything as stable as we can”.
As we passed through another cabinet-timber woodlot Alan pointed out the silky oaks (see picture Site Four, page 6). They’re getting too big and towering over everything else, as does the brushbox; “I’m a bit over silky oaks and brushboxes at the moment”, he said. “When we first planted the woodlots we planted rows of the same species thinking that that would make them easier to harvest but I now thing that trees of different shapes grow better together. This 2002 woodlot doesn’t need much work now”, Alan said “we planted them at 3 metres across the row and 2 metres down the slope”.
Further along Alan indicated a red cedar. “It’s one of the biggest mysteries around as there isn’t a fruiting red cedar within kilometres”, he said; red cedars are a wind-borne seed. “This is the first really big fall of blue quondong fruit that you see on the ground. We collect them when they are older and cover them in a box with leaf litter. We don’t crack them open but keep them moist and about a year later they will come up”, Alan said.
We soon came to what Alan says was one of the few original remnants on the property, the centre of which boasted the biggest teak tree on the property. Alan said that the decision to kill a strangler fig growing on the teak had been a hard choice but they’d decided to “mess with nature” (see picture Site Five, above). They also killed a cocksburr thorn growing through the teak. Alan pointed out the emerging pepperberry seedlings as he explained that they were one of the best regen species they have; they repotted such seedlings in their nursery for planting elsewhere. “I pick out 30 or 40 a year and I don’t even have to propagate them”, he said.
From this point we could see that above Alan’s carefully managed plantings, where the escarpment steepened, camphors and other nasties dominated. “We call that area the jungle and with good reason”, said Alan. “I go through and poison camphors, cutting and painting the smaller stuff like senna. ochna, corky passionflower vine, white passionflower vine and yellow guava and then I plant hardy natives, ones that I can get a lot of from my nursery, like native tamarind, pepperberry… things that will grow under canopy or in semi-shade without too much fuss. I also plant understorey species like cordyline, walking stick palms and native ginger”. Alan went on to say that in the wet areas he plants melaleucas, palms, callistemons, pink euodias, Francis’ watergums… “I’m working my way back up there, believe it or not”, he said. “If you don’t have cows then that is what you get – it’s a choice: cows, trees or weeds”.
Moving closer, looking into the ‘jungle’ (see picture Site Six, left) Stephanie identified several natives growing amongst the grass and weeds – pittosporum and macaranga. “Even if you go under the camphors you will find natives like guoia, red kamala and umbrella cheese trees. If you’re really lucky you might find pepperberry or native tamarinds”, said Stephanie.
Where we stood, steel posts marked the ‘jungles’ boundary, the remains of an old wallaby fence. Alan said that they had originally erected wallaby fences around their plantings but that they were a “total failure” as the wallabies “just push through”. We also guarded individual trees with about 1,300 guards: “We don’t have a wallaby problem at the moment, we have a tree guard problem as we don’t know where to put them all”, says Alan. The 300 wire mesh guards had been cut into two metre lengths and twisted back to form a circular cage, costing about $7 each while there were around 1,000 plastic guards.
Moving back down into the plantings Alan took us to their “best original remnant” that had been “choked by vines”, with the emphasis on vines and Stephanie’s side-ways look I suspect the ‘vines’ may have been the native but otherwise disparaged and prickly cocksburr thorn. He identified a rose marara, hard quondong and rough-leafed elm as well as a flowering Hodgkinsonia ovatiflora, “a very pretty tree” that he has “collected a lot of fruit from”. An area of hundreds of seedlings caught Alan’s excited eye. “That’s more pepperberry seedlings and if you’re careful you can pull them out with the fruit still attached and transplant them”, he reiterated. A fruiting native tamarind prompted Alan to offer a taste of the fruit to any takers. “They’re very sharp”, Alan offered moments before the predicable “oooh!” from the one taker. “I tried making jelly from them last year but it turned sugary after 4 months which probably means that I didn’t cook them well enough”.
As we walked through the remnant water dripped through the canopy – it seemed the dark clouds may have moved down the escarpment after all.
“The rain is getting heavier so we might have to do a runner”, Alan said, “but first I’d like to show you the problem area I alluded to at the first bridge site”. Taking us to another wet area in the base of a gully-stream (see picture Site Seven, page 8) Alan explained that the Department of the Environment and Climate Change (DECC) wouldn’t initially give them approval to form a V drain in the base. “What we did do was to remove the groundsel and lantana, leaving things like rushes, mistflower and crofton weed. A big storm in 2005 that delivered 500 mm in 36 hours ripped out all those shallow-rooted plants and removed about 2 metres of soil”, Alan said. “We believe that if we had been able to make a V drain and plant along the edges this might not have happened”. He went on to say that the main difference between this site and the bridge site was that here the base was sediment and not clay. “There is no base here: we hope to get the excavator in and try some options like placing old car tyres or V drains. We’re not sure why we never got earlier approval; perhaps they thought that we couldn’t manage two areas at once or they though that this area was a frog habitat”, Alan mused. “The scale of the erosion is quite embarrassing but I think that it is important to show our failures as well as our successes. The soil here was originally at the same level all the way to the other side and now it’s gone, it’s down to rock in some places, and all we did was cut-and-paint the lantana and groundsel.”
Despite Alan’s obvious concern and embarrassment I couldn’t see that too much damage had been done. Soil had been removed and redeposited further down the gully into their nursery dam but one would have to wonder why such a depth of silt was in one place in any event. One could only imagine the soil losses that occurred when the escarpment was cleared 100 years ago for timber. The road above us was called Possum Shoot Road because it had been a place to ‘shoot’ the logs down the escarpment so that the oxen teams could then drag them to Byron Bay and the waiting ships. Later clearing for grazing or bananas would have triggered further huge soil losses that may have created these deposits. Taking a longer view, the escarpment erosion over millennium may have formed the larger foothills of ‘fine soil’ where Alan, at an earlier site, had left grass to consolidate the planting. I thought that, in view of the greater good that his works were achieving and of the relatively minor damage done historically, he had no reason to be embarrassed.
Braving the rain we headed to the nursery: 2 igloos nestled picturesquely in a valley glade. Diana opened the door into the first impressive nursery which, she thought, was rather sad. “We use to have seedlings all over the benches and on the ground”, she said. As someone pointed out, as the trees had been planted, it wasn’t sad but rather fulfilment! Coast Guard Netting Services (Ballina) had built the nursery: a trencher was used to bury and secure the netting. While the 2002 nursery was starting to “fall to bits” Alan thought that it had served its purpose, propagating 30,000 seedlings. At the moment, Alan said, he works about half an hour a day in the nursery – “more before that while I was building it up, but I work around 35 hours a week on the property”.
Alan and Diana then gave us a tour of the nursery, pointing out the pepperberry, hoop pine and sandpaper fig seedlings that had been pricked from the ground and transplanted into tubes. Other tubes had large seeded species like white apple, crystal creek walnut, red boppel nut, black bean, bunyah pine and black walnut planted directly into them. Someone spotted a large triffid-like seedling erupting from a box of potting mix (see picture right and Candle Nut below) – “that’s a candle nut”, said Alan, “Stephanie doesn’t approve!” Candle nut is a north Queensland species as is the nearby Atherton oak, further illustrating Alan’s eclectic taste.
Alan uses native potting mix from the Top Spot nursery, Bangalow. It comes without fertiser so he mixes a handful of Osmocote slow release fertiliser into a bucket of potting mix. The actual medium for seed germination though is a mixture of coarse river sand and perlite. “You keep planting seeds. Sometimes I plant a whole tray of something and nothing comes up but you keep trying. Some things you just can’t do and other things you can. Sometimes they don’t work and next time they do”, Alan confessed.
As we climbed from the nursery and into the open the clouds parted and the sunlight beamed onto the dripping leaves and brilliantly green horse paddock below. A short walk back to the stables and we were able to continue our conversations over a cup of coffee and slices of Stephanie’s delicious home made cake.
Thank you, Alan and Diana, for a wonderful and interesting afternoon.
Farm Visits and Field Days
BSL attempts to hold at least one field day and one farm visit each year, usually shortly after the publication of a newsletter. Both farm visits and field days are great venues for people to learn more about the Big Scrub, wildlife and bush regen techniques.
Farm visits are only advertised in the newsletter and/or by email and direct mail to members. While non-members are welcome the day is deliberately low-key to allow as much interaction and as many questions as possible. The day has no formal structure – except for a cup of tea/coffee to finish.
Field days are advertised in the newsletter and free media. Often the day will have a particular focus and may have guest speakers. Field days usually have a formal structure, larger groups and may incorporate a BBQ lunch.