5000 trees! Grow West planting at Rowsley

The annual planting day for Grow West was this Sunday. Grow West is an alliance of catchment, landcare and environmental groups engaged in revegetating areas of degraded farmland between Bacchus Marsh and Ballan. The main work is constructing a revegetated wildlife corridor linking key state parks.

The southern link crosses the Parwan Valley, to link the Brisbane Ranges park with Werribee Gorge state park. This year we were planting on the Lakeys’ property at the northern end of that corridor. Last year the planting day was at the other end of the Valley, on Yaloak Estate.

Looking over Parwan Valley towards the Brisbane Ranges
Looking over Parwan Valley towards the Brisbane Ranges from the planting site. Apologies for the poor quality pictures in this blog post, I only had my cheap camera phone with me.

The Lakeys are trying to revegetate some of the unproductive, overgrazed hillsides on their property, and plan to use the rest for producing beef and lamb from native grass paddocks. They also hope to open a bed & breakfast, so perhaps in future some of us volunteer workers can go back and admire the trees we planted over a relaxing weekend!

Looking west toward the Ironbark block of Werribee Gorge state park. The square-ish block at centre right was planted out in 2004.
Looking west over the site toward the Ironbark block of Werribee Gorge state park. The square-ish block up the gully at centre right was planted out in 2004.

Here’s some of their explanation of what they are doing, from Grow West’s volunteer notes for the day:

“We were in search of a property that needed some TLC and was an ideal location to develop our farm business,” said John. “With the support of Grow West and Melbourne Water in 2013-14, we planted over 25,000 trees along the waterways and developed a series of strategic wind breaks. We also direct seeded 22 hectares of hill country with endemic native species.”

John and Tristia’s whole farm approach to restore the non-arable areas of the property, fence out waterways and plant strategic wind breaks will provide enormous benefits to not only the environment, but to the productivity of the farm as well. “Rabbits and weeds are the biggest battle we have on the farm. We started tackling these issues at a whole farm scale, and soon realised that a neighbourhood approach was required. With our neighbours on board, we are seeing a reduction in rabbit numbers and an increase in grass coverage on the farm, which in turns increases the productivity of the farm,” said John.

The hillside we were planting was the side of the lava flow that caps the ridgeline between the Werribee River and Parwan Creek. On top of the escarpment, there were patches of relatively deep basalt clay, whereas on the hillside the soil was richer and blacker, but full of stones of all sizes.

The track down the hill has a cutaway showing the soil (or is that stone) profile of the hillside
The track down the hill has a cutaway showing the soil (or is that stone) profile of the hillside.

Some months earlier, the whole hillside had been sprayed. Perhaps a bit too early: Paterson’s Curse (Echium plantagineum) had sprung up everywhere in thickets. We were told a biological control (probably a moth) had been released, but hopefully if our plantings take off they will overshadow these weeds anyway. There were also a fair few Paddy Melons of both species (which I didn’t think grew this far south, but there you go). And thistles, weedy Geraniaceae, and others such as a f****** Bathurst Burr that used my leg as a pincushion…

2015-07-19 10.09.31
The Paterson’s Curse is going crazy, and you can see a patch of Paddy Melons lying in the furrow at right.

On the escarpment slope, spear grasses (Austrostipa species), Kidney Weed (Dichondra repens) and Ruby Saltbush (Enchylaena tomentosa) were slowly spreading in the areas not totally dominated by Paterson’s Curse. The bulldozer operators who had ripped triple furrows in the steep slope also had a direct seeding device on the middle ripline, so in some areas various wattle seedlings could be seen already popping up above the weeds. I think I heard John Lakey say 15 kilos of seed had been used, and someone else said this cost maybe $1500 (if I heard right; or was that $15000?).

Tall spear grasses rise in patches above the Paterson's Curse sward
Tall spear grasses rise in patches above the Paterson’s Curse sward

Directly seeded plants do not have a high germination rate, but those that do grow should mostly do well. Apparently, they will continue germinating here and there for maybe the next seven years. Their taproot will be able to head straight down for the water table. Transplanting from tubes has a higher initial success rate, but damage to the root system can lead to problems later, with more plants suffering premature mortality in bad years.

Probably the biggest question I have about this operation is whether the poison spraying was done too early. The proliferation of weeds in sprayed areas is not uncommon: broad-scale spraying creates a vacuum, which nature abhors and fills, naturally, with whatever seed is sitting there in the seedbank. Nature doesn’t know what is or isn’t a weed! But of course spraying has to be done when it can be done, going on the weather and the availability of contractors.

Nevertheless, in time this hillside is going to look great, restored to something like the native woodland it once was. Trees like Red box, Yellow gum, Red Stringybark, Drooping Sheoak, will make up the overstorey. A scattering of smaller wattles, saltbush and kangaroo apples will fill out the lower storey. Spear grasses, weeping grass, and no doubt some remaining weeds will cover the ground to some degree. Once the trees give some shade and drop leaf litter (and pull the moisture out of the soil) we can expect a lot of bare rock and dead wood to be a major component of the groundcover – perfect for small animals and microbes.

Here’s Grow West’s species list for the day:

Species list for the planting
Species list for the planting

And there were a couple of super-tough Tree Violet shrubs among the basalt boulders, clinging on amazingly through it all for who knows how long. I’m going to have more to say about this amazing plant in future posts!

Tree violet on the edge of the escarpment, wind blasted but still hanging on among the rocks.
Tree violet on the edge of the escarpment, wind blasted but still hanging on among the rocks.
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