Interview with Chris Findlay – Part 2

Interview with Chris Findlay – Part 2

Part 1 on this interview introduced us to Chris Findlay, who runs a company with Graeme Hoxley called Flora Victoria. Today we continue our chat and learn about direct seeding.

I know of other people who also started with a small amount of seed, and they grew them in a nursery and then scaled up to direct seeding a large area. Did you start your seed production areas by planting or by direct seeding?

If you can get enough clean seed in the first place by using the brush harvester, you can go out and sow a hectare or two straight away, but that’s not always the case. For crops like our Red-leg Grass (Bothriochloa macra) crop, Graeme and I went out and hand harvested seed between Melton and Werribee. It took weeks hunting out little remnants. I think we got 1.4kg after about a month of going out once or twice a week. With that 1.4kg we sowed probably less than quarter of a hectare, and the seed harvested from that produced enough to sow about a hectare.

Some crops we’ve started from a tiny amount of seed. A botanist from DELWP sent us an envelope with less than a handful of Austrostipa sectacea seed and we’ve bulked up a small plot from that. We did the same with Enneapogon nigricans, just started off with a very small amount and bulked it up. We’re now doing this with Panicum decompositum, but it takes years.

How many species have you currently got in crops?

There’s about thirteen crops and some of them contain multiple species. Our Wallaby Grass (Rytidosperma) crops have five species in them, the species that were harvested on site. We also grow seed specifically for Whittlesea City Council, where we’ve got a mixed Austrostipa crop and a mixed Rytidosperma crop. In total we’ve got about twenty- five different species altogether.

photos of different species in your SPA Front to back, Rytidosperma racemosum, Dichelachne crinita, Poa labillardieri, Austrostipa semibarbata.

Different grass species crops. Front to back: Rytidosperma racemosum, Dichelachne crinita, Poa labillardieri, and Austrostipa semibarbata.

Every year, we get our seed tested and certified. We do this because we believe there should be standards in the indigenous seed industry and if people want certified seed at least they know where they can get it.

What does the testing include?

It includes the species of weeds and their percentage present in the sample. It also includes the percentage of chaff (anything other than seeds), so basically the purity of the seed, and how much viable seed there is per weight.

Viability will vary between species. Kangaroo Grass (Themeda triandra) is very low for instance, as you get a lot of empty and non-viable seed and a lot of chaff as well. This makes it more expensive because you’re getting a lower yield, compared to species like Wallaby Grass, where you’re getting anywhere up to 98% seed viability with very little chaff, and so we can sell it for a lot cheaper.

photo of a seed certificate

Seed certificate

What kind of maintenance is required for a seed production area?

The main maintenance is weed control. There’s usually a bit of a break after harvesting, but often it’s non-stop all year. In terms of herbicide control, we’ll be spot spraying and boom spraying using selective and pre-emergent herbicides. By the time we get to late winter and the grasses start to grow and thicken up, we have to resort to hand weeding, which becomes the main form of weed control for two to three months before harvesting.

It’s extremely labour intensive to produce a clean product, and no matter how hard we try there’s always going to be some weeds in our crops. The beauty of having our seed certified is that we can see what we’ve got, and if need be adjust our weed control techniques. Also, our customers can be assured of what they are buying. The main weeds that we battle against are annual grass weeds, so once the native grasses really start growing the only way of getting them out is by hand.

Who are your main customers?

We have clients like councils that buy a small but steady amount of seed each year, and occasionally we’ll get a large project that will swallow up huge amounts like the bund for the Greenvale Reservoir. We did some sowing along the Barwon water pipeline that used a large quantity of seed. We are seeing more seed going into offsets for housing developments and public open spaces. What we’re finding though is the market really isn’t big enough to sustain a viable industry at the moment. If we get a large job we’ll make a profit but if we don’t we’ll make a loss. Our seed production is largely funded by our environmental contracting work. When we get projects that include site prep, sowing and maintenance, it makes producing seed worthwhile.

photos of some of your direct seeded sites you_ve worked on 4 Greenvale Bund

Direct seeded bund (3 hectares) at Greenvale Reservoir using a Wallaby Grass (Rytidosperma) mix

What other environmental contract work do you do?

The main work that Flora Victoria does is weed control in remnant vegetation, mainly grasslands, where really accurate spot spraying is required. We do most of the usual environmental contracting work like woody weed control, planting, cutting fire breaks for environmental burns etc. Direct seeding projects often have one to two years of site prep where we will repeatedly spray and maybe cultivate a site before we sow, and then we might maintain it for another one to two years after we’ve sown.

What are some of the benefits of direct seeding over planting?  I guess the revegetation industry has a long history of growing tube-stock and planting that out, and not really much of the direct seeding.

Direct seeding is a lot cheaper. Take our Poa labillardieri crop for instance. It’s a quarter of a hectare and we used about half a kilo of seed to sow it, so that’s about $165 worth of seed.  Believe it or not people sometimes complain about the cost of our seed, but compare that to planting quarter of a hectare with tube stock! Most people wouldn’t even dream of planting out a quarter of a hectare with native grass.

Graeme and I sowed it in about half an hour, and so that’s $165 and half an hour’s labour. Compare this to planting out five plants per square metre, that’s 12,500 plants, sourcing and paying for the plants, and then the cost of planting and watering them. It’s just a hell of a lot cheaper, over ten times cheaper than planting tube stock and we usually get a plant density of way over five plants per square metre.

How does direct seeding compare to planting, in terms of success?

If it’s done properly, direct seeding is way more effective.  I find plants that have been nursery raised and then planted out don’t live as long, and if you look at a lot of planted areas they’re mulched, so you don’t get recruitment. If a site has been prepared properly and you sow a diversity of native grasses, you can expect to see some ecological succession. You can’t expect this with planting.

For example, if you sow Wallaby Grass with some Spear Grasses and Kangaroo Grass, the Wallaby Grasses will come up in the first year, along with a few Themeda and Spear Grasses. But over a period of five to ten years, Spear Grasses will appear and eventually Themeda will become dominant. We have seen this happen in one of our early projects on a scraped site at The Growling Frog golf course.

With direct seeding you’ll get much higher plant densities compared to planting. Direct seeding aims to replace a weedy seedbank with an indigenous seedbank, and if it’s done properly it’s sustainable with very low maintenance afterwards.

photos of some of your direct seeded sites you_ve worked on 7 Sydenham Park Grassland restoration.

This site in Keilor North was covered in Serrated Tussock, but after several years of weed control a mix of native grasses (Rytidosperma, Dichelachne and Austrostipa) were sown. The total area sown is 15 ha and will be expanded in the future.

What kind of site preparation is needed for direct seeding?

Direct seeding should be considered as a long term solution to ecological restoration, but without understanding the importance of correct site preparation, direct seeding will often either be a temporary fix or be a complete failure. Unfortunately many people who sow indigenous species find this out the hard way, and often we hear disgruntled people say they tried direct seeding years ago and it doesn’t work. This is usually because of one or more of three factors:

  • the seed they have used is not viable,
  • the soil is unsuitable, or
  • site preparation was insufficient to prevent weed competition.

It usually depends on the weed species you’re dealing with on your site. Some species can be sprayed a few times and the site is ready to sow the following year. With really persistent species you may need to remove the top layer of soil, scalp it like Paul Gibson-Roy does, and get rid of the stuff.

Even scalping may not get rid of grasses like Couch and Kikuyu, as their root systems can grow deep into the soil profile. We had a project down on the coast recently where we did some soil testing, and Kikuyu rhizomes had penetrated a metre or more through the soil profile. Removing all that soil wasn’t an option, so direct seeding wasn’t a viable method of revegetation for this site. Some soils are not fertile enough to grow native grass, and so we recommend soil testing to all of our clients before they embark on a direct seeding project. It’s better to pay a bit of money up front as insurance, and save all the time and money wasted when a project has to be done again, because site conditions were never suitable for direct seeding.

If you don’t have rhizomatous grasses like Couch and Kikuyu, scalping can sometimes be a great option. There seems to be a terrible aversion to soil scalping in our industry though, usually because it is considered too expensive, or topsoil is too “precious”. In our opinion, top soil containing persistent weeds should be considered toxic waste and removed. Once an area has been scalped to remove weed propagules and excess nutrients and a new seedbank has been established by direct seeding, it’s very sustainable. This is because a well-planned project that has been scalped needs virtually no maintenance afterwards, the initial cost of the scalping and replacing the seedbank is more than offset over a ten year period.

Say you’ve got an area infested with Chilean Needle Grass and you’re managing it by spot spraying. It’ll cost you more than twice as much to manage over ten years compared to soil scalping and seeding with a diverse assembly of indigenous species. But even if they had the will, many of our clients are locked into an annual budget and they have to spend it. It’s crazy! If we could change that way of spending money we could have much better environmental outcomes at a much lower cost.

photos of some of your direct seeded sites you_ve worked on 6 Gordon O'Keeffe Native grass turf

Direct seeded native grass turf (4.5 hectares) using a Wallaby Grass (Rytidosperma) mix in Weribee

It’s a very frustrating industry to work in when you’re direct seeding, because most clients don’t believe that direct seeding is a viable form of revegetation. We know that if it’s done properly it can work brilliantly. Look at the work being done by Paul Gibson-Roy. He has successfully sown extremely high diversity grasslands out on the basalt plains that compare to high quality remnants. That leaves some of us scratching our heads and thinking, “Why isn’t everyone doing this?”

The western plains grasslands are facing degradation and extinction, and we could actually be turning it around the other way, by sowing some really impressive grasslands. I don’t know why more councils aren’t sowing high diversity flowering grasslands or grassy woodlands, and making a feature of them every spring.  You know: “Come out to our municipality and see the beautiful wildflowers!” No one seems to be particularly interested and I don’t know why. Surely the people who travel to WA to see the wildflowers would make a short trip to see something similar in their own city?

How do you think we can change this?

I believe that change can only happen quickly if our governments are motivated to make change. This would require some form of lobbying from sectors within our industry that have some political leverage. This was discussed at a conference we attended last year, but we will have to see if anything happens. If good specifications for sowing diverse ecosystems were developed, with an intention to direct seed areas where large scale earth moving takes place, like freeways and pipelines, impetus for a seed industry would be created. Even if a percentage of native grass seed was incorporated into every freeway grass mix, there would be enough demand to boost this tiny industry into something worthwhile. Our tiny little industry, as it stands, wouldn’t even be able to supply a fraction of the seed required, but that way we’d have an incentive to commercially grow native grass seeds. Otherwise we just have to keep plugging away and hope to slowly make change through doing good work and getting the message out there. At present companies like ours who are innovative just aren’t rewarded.

So….we’ve got a fair way to go but at least we know what to do.

Have you got any tips or suggestions for people who want to get into direct seeding?

If people are interested in direct seeding, why not try a lawn? Graeme and I both have native grass lawns and that’s a great way of trying direct seeding on a small scale.

photo of your native grass lawn Bothriochloa macra

Chris’ backyard: all of the green lawn is the native Reg Leg Grass (Bothriochloa macra)

Another option is trying out a small project like a bridge batter. We’ve sown a whole lot of bridge batters in Broadmeadows and for Hume City Council. They’re small scale direct seeding sites and they’ve been extremely successful. They’ve been sprayed out for a long, long time. The way of maintaining those batters in the past was just to come along and spray all the weeds on a very regular basis, so many of them had really good site prep before we started them.

I always recommend people start off small, gain confidence and then once they get a feel for what they’re doing they can scale it up and tackle larger areas with more confidence. And we’re available to help clients with projects of any size, especially with planning, and our equipment enables us to sow larger scale projects quickly and efficiently.

Thank you for your time Chris.

If you would like to learn more about Chris and Graeme’s work you can check out their website at http://www.floravictoria.com.au/ or follow them on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/GrasslandsFloravic/

Thanks to Marney Hradsky for assisting with transcribing and collating the interview.

Interview with Chris Findlay – Part 1

Chris Findlay and Graeme Hoxley run a company called Flora Victoria, and specialise in weed control, grassland revegetation and native grass seed production. They are doing some great work in supplying large quantities of native grass seed for direct seeding.

In this post, I catch up the Chris to learn more about what he does.

Photo of Chris and Graeme

Chris Findlay and Graeme Hoxley. Photo by Adrian Marshall

How did you first get interested in nature?

My grandmother was a keen gardener, so I probably got it from her. I remember chomping into a daffodil bulb when I was a toddler: it wasn’t very nice and I can still remember the taste. As a little kid I was fascinated by flowers. As I got older, I became obsessed with herbaceous borders and cottage gardens, and I started a gardening business.

My father had a property in north eastern Victoria. One spring when I was about 18, I was out in the bush shooting rabbits and I found myself surrounded by millions of wildflowers, I’d never noticed them before, never noticed nature’s garden. That turned my interest away from exotic flower gardening.

old photo of your father_s bush property

Nature’s garden in north-eastern Victoria

How did you get into the environmental industry?

I went to Burnley in 1988 and studied horticulture, and in 1998 I got a job there and developed the indigenous garden with seed I had collected. John Delpratt, one of the lecturers, had students doing research projects on grassland species, so I’d salvage their plants before they got thrown out and plant them in the indigenous garden. At one stage I had over a hundred species of ground flora and I reckon I had about seven species of terrestrial orchids growing there. I was obsessive I suppose.

How did you find studying horticulture for getting into the environmental industry, as compared to studying something like conservation and land management?

Horticulture is a really good background for people going into the environmental industry. The focus on plant identification, plant physiology, botany and also horticultural chemicals and weed control methods are all extremely useful.  When I worked in the Burnley Gardens, a lot of students would come up to me and say they weren’t learning enough about indigenous plants. I’d say: “You’ve got the knowledge, you just need to apply it.”

In 1999 I started Flora Victoria with a girl I met at Burnley, Sabine. Sabine worked in the nursery and I worked in the gardens. Greening Australia would get me to help with their indigenous plant identification training days. I’d show them through the garden and reel off the names of all the plants I had growing.  That’s how I met Jason Summers. He was working for Brimbank City Council and he came to one of my garden tours. On the way out, he virtually pinned me against the wall and said, “I want you to come out to Brimbank and do a grassland garden like this for me.” So Sabine and I got inspired to start up a business to do this indigenous garden thing.

Burnley Indigenous Garden

Indigenous garden at Burnley, developed by Chris Findlay

Why did you start Flora Victoria?

What I really wanted to do was to inspire people to like and use indigenous plants in their own gardens. The idea was to arrange the plants in a really aesthetic way that looked natural at the same time. For example, if you go to a good grassland remnant it’s a patchwork of colour in spring. It’s often hard to recreate that because you just can’t grow a lot of the grassland species, like Burchardia umbellata en masse.

The Denton Avenue Grassland was the first garden we did for Brimbank and we got a really good effect there, we had some gilgais constructed and a fence to keep out the rabbits, and that garden is still going.  Then we did one in Rutherglen Way along Taylors Creek, just downstream from Taylors Lakes. Brimbank City Council let us use their nursery and we grew tens of thousands of indigenous plants, mainly grasses and wildflowers. We also used a lot of stock from Western Plains Flora, and we planted the whole garden.  It was hugely labour intensive and we realised that there must be a better way of recreating a grassland. After that, we looked for easier ways of creating native grass landscapes and started planting at the tops of escarpments and the grasses would recruit their way down the slope. All we had to do was control the weeds.

Denton Ave Grassland Garden

Denton Avenue Grassland

Sabine and I wound up Flora Victoria in 2002 and went up to north-eastern Victoria. She got a job with the Goulburn Broken Indigenous Seed Bank and I ended up working as a trainer and assessor at Goulburn Ovens TAFE, teaching Certificate 3 in Horticulture, assessing subjects in the Diploma of Conservation and Land Management and teaching Indigenous VCAL students. In 2003 I got a job with Native Seeds back in Melbourne and I saw that as a great opportunity to learn about direct seeding.

Was that your first exposure to larger scale direct seeding?

Like most people I was a bit of a skeptic when it came to direct seeding, but within a couple of days working for Native Seeds, I was seeding hectares of native grass, and the following season I was up in New South Wales sowing seed production areas. By the next year, I was definitely sold on direct seeding.  It’s obvious that it works. I’d go around to areas I’d sown the year before and see native grass everywhere. I was a convert.

While working at Native Seeds, I’d go around to the seed production areas that other people were running, mainly farmers and I just had a yearning do it myself.  I really, really wanted to give it a go. I left Native Seeds and started up Flora Victoria again, this time with Graeme.

Soon we were driving around Victoria, harvesting native grass seed in the hope that we would actually get contracts to sow this stuff, and we did!  Then we started the seed production area.

How did you upscale your operation?

We started seed production areas on three other sites before we came across our current location in Keilor. None of these had irrigation, most of them didn’t have enough water for irrigation, and none had any infrastructure. One was in Gisborne, one was in Toolern Vale, and the other was out near Malmsbury. It was during the drought as well, and they were too far away from home. Eventually we got wind of some land down in Keilor; we made arrangements with the owners, Mike and Michelle, and all of a sudden we had about 12 hectares of irrigated ground covered in weeds.

early photo of Keilor SPA 2008

2008: 12 hectare site in Keilor covered in weeds

early photo of Keilor SPA 2014

2014: with established seed production areas

We got a few crops going using seed we had harvested from within a few kilometres. There was no established market for selling native grass seed locally, but we figured that wasn’t going to change if seed wasn’t readily available. So we decided to go out on a limb and grow native grass seed and see if we could develop a new market. Not the best way of starting a new business, but we thought it was worth the gamble.

Where did you source your grass seed initially?

Most of the crops were sourced from the Keilor/Werribee Plains. In the past, we’d scouted right around the western side of Melbourne looking for weed-free areas to harvest grass, and we used that seed for our crops. Some of the seed was sourced from roadsides, some from private land. The grasslands that provided a lot of the original seed for our crops have disappeared under housing and industrial development or roads.

The source for our Chloris truncata crop is now a playground in a housing estate. The seed for our Themeda triandra crop came from Laverton in an area which is about to become an industrial estate.  It’s kind of nice walking around looking at the crops and thinking that we managed to save some genetic material from grasslands that either no longer exist or probably won’t exist soon.

photo of Keilor SPA

Flora Victoria’s seed production site in Keilor

Some of the parent seed was harvested by hand, mainly because that way you get the cleanest seed. You can put a harvester over something that looks clean and it can end up being full of weed seed. That’s why we’re reluctant to harvest remnant grasslands these days. Our standards for seed purity have become so high in our seed production areas that we don’t want to harvest anything weedier than what we grow. It can also be a pretty destructive process. I’ve seen the damage done to remnant grasslands by repeated harvesting and thought, “This can’t be any good”. I would see Ptilotus macrocephalus that had been squashed under harvester tyres, and over time many grasslands became weedier and weedier.  I wouldn’t harvest from any of those remnants anymore because I don’t want to cause damage, and our seed production area is one hundred times cleaner.

Stay tuned for part 2 of this interview, where I learn about direct seeding.

If you would like to learn more about Chris and Graeme’s work you can check out their website at http://www.floravictoria.com.au/ or follow them on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/GrasslandsFloravic/

Thanks to Marney Hradsky for transcribing and collating the interview.

 

Interview with Damien Cook – Part 1

Damien has been working in bushland restoration for 30 years and is a keen naturalist. I first met Damien about 8 years ago when I worked at Merri Creek Management Committee. He gave us a tour of Waterways, which is a 40 ha urban wetland that he helped design and revegetate. Waterways is spectacular –  chock-full of uncommon and threatened indigenous species. Damien has extensive knowledge and experience in terrestrial and wetland restoration and management.

We met at Waterways for a chat.

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Damien Cook at Waterways – a restored wetland that was previously a paddock of phalaris and gorse.

Hi Damien, thanks for catching up. Let’s start with how you got interested in nature?

I grew up in Springvale when there was still quite a bit of bush around. Our house was probably the first house on the street and we had echidnas that used to come in. You’d hear the chooks going crazy and you’d go down and there would be an echidna. So Springvale was pretty different then – this was in the early 70s.

Back then with a mate of mine, we got a copy of a book called Wild Food of Australia by a husband and wife team called the Cribbs. That was one of the first wild food books that came out. I remember getting a hold of that in about grade 6 and trying to find plants we could eat in the bush.

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There was quite a bit of bush where now there’s the Dingley bypass and all those other roads – that was all still bush with bandicoots all through it. My grandpa used to rent a little land off Heatherton road – they had a market garden and I used to spend a lot of time there, just hanging out in the bush, chasing bandicoots.

How did you move from being interested in nature to a career in restoration and environmental management?

I initially started to think I’d go more into zoology – I was always going around chasing lizards, snakes, frogs and bandicoots. But I failed maths in HSC so I couldn’t get into science. I ended up getting into a course called Environmental Assessment and Land Use Policy.

I pretended to do that for a while – I wasn’t that interested in the academic stuff and I got into blockading. At the time there was quite a lot of logging of old growth forest going on at Brown Mountain in East Gippsland and in south-eastern NSW. And so in the late 80s I got into the activism side of things a bit. Since I was always at protests and not going to lectures, I dropped out of uni.

I then got a job as a Bush Regenerator with the National Trust. They had this Save the Bush program, so I started pulling out weeds. One day my boss, Jenny Francis, said to me: “You’re pretty good at plant identification – we should start going for survey work and writing management plans to use some of your knowledge.”

And I said: “Nah, I’m not good enough to do all of that sort of stuff.”

But she insisted and really encouraged me and so I started doing botanical survey work and writing management plans for bits of bush, as well as restoration plans.

How did you build up your plant identification skills?

I used to take plant specimens into the National Herbarium of Victoria in Melbourne. Dave Albrecht was one of the botanists there at the time and I think he got sick of me taking in plants for him to identify. So he pulled out a couple of the old Handbooks to Plants in Victoria by Jim Willis. They looked like little bibles and they just had the plant keys, no pictures.

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This was pre- Flora of Victoria and the handbooks were quite challenging to use. But Dave taught me how to key plants out. I then started to hang out with the Field Naturalist Club of Victoria. In particular there was this old guy, Tom Sault, a classic old naturalist. You could take him anything and he’d identify it – like a piece of seaweed or a plant or an insect or whatever. So I hung out with him a fair bit and learnt a lot.

I think with learning plants you can get people to point stuff out to you, but the way you really learn is to key them out and work it out yourself. Yes, it’s a hard slog.

What did you do after the National Trust?

I worked at the National Trust for a while and after that I started my own little consultancy. It was called Holistic Ecology and I did a bit of work for Melbourne Water and a few other clients. I didn’t even have a car – I used to ride my pushy out to sites and do surveys.

I did that for a couple of years and then a mate of mine, Mark Adams, said he was going away for a year and wanted me to look after his indigenous nursery. I’d already been fiddling around growing indigenous plants in my backyard, but that got me into growing aquatic plants on a large scale. At that time Brendan Condon and I ran Mark and Lynette’s nursery for a while.

Then Mark said to us: “You know, there is going to be so much work in this field. I’m not going to be able to grow all the plants – you guys should start your own nursery.” And that’s when we started the nursery at the South-eastern Treatment Plant. That was the birth of Wetland Ecosystems, now called Australian Ecosystems.

Have you always been interested in wetlands?

I’ve always liked mud, even as a kid. I think wetlands are a really interesting ecosystem – they’re so changeable. If you have expectations when you go to a wetland they will be dashed and destroyed, because a wetland is different every time you go there. I love the adaptations of wetland plants – it’s a really harsh environment going from being bone dry to fully inundated, and the plants have got all these really cool little tricks to help them survive.

Were you thinking about the need for large-scale wetland restoration when you started Wetland Ecosystems?

At the time Melbourne Water had this Healthy Bays initiative, following on from a CSIRO study where they identified the need to reduce the amount of nitrogen going into the Port Phillip Bay. They wanted to cut down the amount of nitrogen entering the Bay by 1000 tonnes a year. If this didn’t happen, then we’d have ended up with really bad red algal blooms – the bay would have been toxic and you wouldn’t have been able to swim or fish in it.

The main sources of nitrogen were runoff from urban areas and the Western Treatment Plant. The Western Treatment Plant got upgraded and they managed to remove about 500 tonnes and the other 500 tonnes they had to get out of storm water. So Melbourne Water started to retrofit the storm water systems coming out of old suburbs with wetlands to suck out nitrogen and phosphorous. With a storm water treatment wetland you can get about 90% of the nitrogen out of the water.

So all of a sudden, almost overnight, there was a huge demand for indigenous wetland plants. Before that, growing wetland plants was a niche thing where someone might buy a couple of hundred plants to stick in their pond. They were pretty heady kind of days – we were growing two or three million plants every year and we had planting crews of 50 people.

What have you learnt from your wetland plantings?

There were a few years where we were doing a lot of wetland plantings. I realised after a while that there’s only so much you can do in a storm water treatment wetland, in terms of ecological restoration. They are very often fundamentally artificial systems which are designed by engineers to treat water. Natural wetlands in this part of the world pretty much always have a wetting and drying cycle, where they draw down or completely dry out over summer and fill back up over winter or spring, and the plants are adapted to that cycle.

Engineers often design wetlands so that they are full most of the time and they don’t really allow for any draw down. This means you end up with monocultures of large, robust plant species such as River Club-rush (Schoenoplectus tabernaemontani) or Tall Spike-rush (Eleocharis sphacelata), because the conditions are so stable. These wetlands do provide some habitat, but they’re not as good as wetlands with a natural wetting and drying cycle.

And so this Waterways project, where we are, was really good because we put in these little habitat wetlands. In addition to storm water wetlands, we had these little rain-filled, wetting and drying wetlands where we were able to plant 14 rare and threatened species. They have all done well and survived, whereas if you had put them in a storm water wetland they just wouldn’t survive because of the lack of that wetting and drying cycle.

habitat-wetland-at-the-waterways-1

Rain-filled habitat wetland at Waterways

Can you tell me about the restoration project at Waterways?

Sure. Waterways is a 40 ha restoration project located on Mordialloc Creek in Melbourne’s south- eastern suburbs. This project came about with the development of the housing estate called Waterways. This housing estate needed wetlands for storm water treatment, as well as large areas of open space for the abundant wildlife in the region. Waterways is located between two large conservation reserves: Braeside Park and Edithvale-Seaford Wetlands.

We (Australian Ecosystems) designed planted the wetland. This project was funded by the developer and Melbourne Water. The combination of our extensive experience in wetland restoration, with the generosity and willingness of the developer to try something different meant that we could be a bit more ambitious in our restoration works.

How many species did you put back here?

It was probably the most diverse revegetation project I’ve ever been involved in. We grew and planted 223 species, and at least 95% of them established really well.  I’ve seen seedling regeneration in most of those species.

Prior to European settlement, the Waterways estate area was part of the Carrum Carrum Swamp, which was a vast wetland complex. We used local reference ecosystems as benchmarks for restoration, in terms of species diversity and cover.

The main habitats we restored at Waterways are:

  • Open water bodies supporting submerged aquatic herb fields
  • Marshes
  • Swamp Paperbark shrub-lands
  • Seasonal rail-filled wetlands
  • River Red Gum grassy woodlands
  • Tussock grasslands
craspedia-at-quadrat-3-uncropped

Abundant Billy-buttons (Craspedia paludicola and C. canens) in restored tussock grassland at Waterways

Why do you think the revegetation here has been so successful?

The first few years of weed control were very critical. It was a high density planting, mostly about four to six plants per square metre. With the high diversity of species, we were able to fill in all the different niches so the wetland would fill itself in over time.

We even put in so called native “weeds”, like Senecio and Epilobium species. Some people say it’s a waste of time planting these, but if you get them established, they take off and instead of weeds coming up on any bare patch of ground, they come up. They might proliferate in the first couple of years but they will eventually go back to a more background level.

Another thing we did here was intentionally introduce native mosses and lichens to try and get some cryptogamic crust happening.

How did you do that?

We gathered moss and put it in a blender – you can grow moss just from a cluster of cells. We then mixed this with water, put it in a fire fighting backpack and sprayed it around. I’m really impressed at how well it has gone.

So how does it feel coming back to a place like this? To a revegetated wetland that you’ve had a major role in creating?

I think it’s the best job satisfaction you could ever have. I’ve always liked the practical side of things. I still feel now that you can write a management plan and it just sits on someone’s desk. Maybe they will read it, and maybe they won’t.  But if you’re out there working in the bush, you’ll see the results of what you’ve done. You can plant a tree and come back in 10 or 15 years and it’s got birds living in it. We planted all the wetlands here, and now there are frogs and birds living in them.

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Magpie Geese at Waterways

Waterways was a paddock of gorse and phalaris 18 years ago. I can’t see any gorse, there’s a little bit of phalaris – not much. I can’t see many weeds. I can see there’s a really good native plant diversity – a whole bunch of different native sedges and grasses. You can hear that the frogs are happy and I’m happy!

Stay tuned for part 2 of this interview, where I learn about some of the projects Damien is currently working on.

If you would like to learn more about Damien’s work you can check out his website at http://rakali.com.au/

Interview with Damien Cook – Part 2

Part 1 of this interview introduced us to Damien Cook who has been working in bushland restoration for the past 30 years. Today, we continue our chat and learn more about Damien’s work.

What are you currently working on?

I worked at Australian Ecosystems for about 15 years and about three years ago I had some family matters in Castlemaine I had to deal with. I was going back and forth from Melbourne to Castlemaine and I couldn’t do the travel any more. So I started to base myself more in Castlemaine and became a silent partner in Australian Ecosystems. I then started a new business, Rakali Consulting, with my wife Elaine Bayes, which has focused on working in remnant wetlands in northern Victoria.

From doing this work we realised that a lot of the Ramsar wetlands up around Kerang are in really bad condition. There has been a lot of tree death because of the way that water has been managed in the past. So now we are working on a wetland revival project looking at trying to reinstate correct wetting and drying cycles in those wetlands, and also replanting species that have been lost out of those systems.

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Tree death in north-western Victoria

What caused the tree death?

Up in north-western Victoria there’s a lot of red gum swamps. The red gums can grow in the swamps because of the natural wetting and drying cycle. When irrigation farmers came along they would use the wetlands to dump water they didn’t need, and so the swamps would hold water for longer than they naturally would. The swamps would also be filled for duck season in March – a time of year when they would often naturally be dry.

So you had these trees standing in water for prolonged periods of time. And at the same time you had quite a lot of irrigation going on around those wetlands – bringing up the salt water table. I did a rough calculation – in the North Central Catchment Management Authority area alone there’s about 13,000 ha of dead red gum swamps. Some of them would be quite hard to restore because they’re so salty. But there’s at least 7,000 ha that are pretty straightforward to restore.

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Avoca Marshes in the 1940s (left) and 2009 (right), note the extensive tree death that occurred over this period. This is one of many swamps that had tree death caused by prolonged flooding, water-logging and salinity.

How did they change from keeping the wetlands full all the time to environmental flows?

Part of the shift was brought about by the millennium drought which dropped water tables down, and resulted in water becoming much more expensive. We also had a shift in how we viewed wetlands. Instead of just seeing them as places we filled with water because you might be able to shoot ducks there, there was more of a focus on wetland restoration and environmental watering. Now it’s illegal to dump water in them.

The North Central Catchment Management Authority does a lot of environmental watering. They have also been engaging the local Indigenous groups, including the Barapa Barapa, to be involved in land management and planning watering for cultural purposes. This includes things like being able to grow indigenous plants for harvesting for medicine, and watering wetlands that are important hunting grounds.

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River Red Gum wetland in north-western Victoria

What are you working on to restore the wetlands?

I’m planning to write a blueprint for restoring wetlands in north-western Victoria. I’m also working with the local Indigenous groups, and landholders up there, doing some plantings in the wetlands. Over the last couple of months we’ve planted about 2000 red gums in one of the wetlands – that’s about 100 hectares. We’ve done a lot planting of understorey species too.

I’ve been able to plan the plantings around the environmental watering. It’s great knowing that when we do a planting that in a couple of weeks time there’s going to be water going in there – it takes a bit of the chance out of it all.

Something that I’ll focus on over the next few years is the idea of complementary actions around the watering. Environmental watering has been happening as a concept for the past 10 or 15 years, but more needs to be done than just putting water in to some of these wetlands.

A lot of the wetlands up there have very little indigenous seed bank, because they’ve been drowned out or gone through periods of salinization. If you’ve got a depleted seed bank and you’ve got pest plants and animals, you’ve got to tackle those issues as well.

If you’ve got carp coming in when you are doing environmental watering, you can put a carp fence in at the inlet and only let in the small carp, which will often be eaten by the cormorants and pelicans. Other complementary actions include controlling pest plants and animals, as well as putting some plants in to kick start seed banks and regeneration. Water is a precious resource and we want to make the best available use of it in restoring these wetlands.

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Birds roosting in dead trees at Hird Swamp near Kerang

Do you have any suggestions for people who want to get into wetland restoration?

I suppose the most important thing is just to look at stuff. Observing wetlands is the best way to learn about them. At Rakali Consulting, we run two courses a year. One’s a 5-day residential wetland ecology course at Kilcunda. We cover geomorphology, hydrology, and basic plant and animal ecology of wetlands. It’s to give people managing wetlands an understanding of basic ecology. We also run a 3-day wetland plant identification course that’s spaced out over 6 months.  We visit the same wetland in spring, summer and autumn to see the changes.

I think there will be more opportunities for people to get involved in wetland restoration. Bush regeneration has taken off. Twenty years ago if you’d said there were going to be hundreds of bush regenerators employed, people would have just laughed. Twenty years ago there was no profession – it was just a couple of people tinkering around. Now it’s quite a big industry.

Wetland restoration will take off more, particularly with the concept of blue carbon.  We now realise that wetlands are really important carbon sinks – a lot of wetlands actually store more carbon than tropical rain forests. If we’re going to be serious about tackling climate change, and arresting the loss of biodiversity, we need to be restoring wetlands and managing wetlands better. The more bush regenerators who can start learning about wetlands – the more opportunities they’ll find to do that kind of work.

Thank you for your time Damien

If you would like to learn more about Damien and Elaine’s work and the wetland courses they provide, you can check out their website at http://rakali.com.au/

Of weeds and habitat

Natives are good, weeds are bad

 This is the mantra of the bushland manager.

I first learnt this mantra when I started in the industry about 13 years ago. I can’t remember exactly where I learnt this, but it can be explained by the plot of Independence Day, or pretty much any other alien invasion movie:

Alien invasion of Earth: It starts off with humans hanging around being awesome.

Weed invasion of Australia: It starts off with Australia’s bushlands hanging around being awesome (plants and animals from Australia are also referred to as ‘native’ or ‘indigenous’).

 

Alien invasion of Earth: Then aliens arrive in huge spaceships.

Weed invasion of Australia: Weeds arrive in huge ships, brought by European settlers.

 

Alien invasion of Earth: Everyone is like “Oh crap! Aliens!”

Weed invasion of Australia: Everyone is like “Oh crap! Weeds!”

 

Alien invasion of Earth: Aliens start to invade and mess shit up.

Weed invasion of Australia: Weeds start to invade and mess shit up.

 

Alien invasion of Earth: Humans fight to conquer the aliens.

Weed invasion of Australia: Bushland managers fight to conquer the weeds.

 

Alien invasion of Earth: Pew! Pew! Pew!

Weed invasion of Australia: Pew! Pew! Pew!

 

Alien invasion of Earth: Lives are lost.

Weed invasion of Australia: Native plants are lost.

 

Alien invasion of Earth: The human race survives, but is changed forever.

Weed invasion of Australia: Bushland in Australia survives, but is changed forever.

 

Australia is full of awesome plants and animals, and some bat-shit crazy ones too (we do have the most dangerous animals in the world!)  Most of these species can be found nowhere else, and our ultimate goal in bushland management is to conserve this weird and wonderful mix of species and environments.

And so bushland managers arm themselves with knapsacks, loppers and chainsaws to fight the weeds and save the natives from destruction.

This approach assumes that removing weeds will benefit our bushland. However, some weeds have been in Australia for a long time, and our native animals have started to adapt and use them as habitat.

Some examples include:

  • Blue Wrens and other little bush birds use Blackberry and/or Boxthorn as a food source and as shelter
  • Yellow-tailed Black Cockatoos eat seeds from Pine Trees
  • Golden-sun Moth use Chilean Needle Grass as habitat and potentially the larvae feed off the grass
  • Southern Brown Bandicoots use Blackberry as shelter
  • Gang Gang Cockatoos eat Hawthorn berries
  • Corellas eat Onion Grass bulbs
  • Sacred Kingfishers make nests in Willows and Date Palms

If you have any other examples, please post them in the comments below.

So…should we declare that the war on weeds over?

Shall we hang up our loppers and knapsacks, and return home to our loves ones and families?

Should we start to use that dirty ‘N’ word to describe our former foes? Naturalised?

Or will this type of thinking lead to a dystopian future – where ‘weeds’ run rampant and compromise the integrity of our bushland – the same integrity for which we have fought so hard to conserve? Will this lead to the bushland mantra being twisted into some sort of Orwellian propaganda slogan?

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Natives are good, weeds are better?

I don’t think that the war on weeds is over.  Weeds definitely do encroach on native plants and threaten ecosystems. However, weed control needs to be done in a way that doesn’t negatively impact the animals that use them as for habitat.16f2ui

Rather than removal, think replacement

When we come along to fight the war on weeds, we may be removing the last stronghold of our native animals.

Too often we assume that whatever remains is better than a weed-infested landscape.

The main reason that native animals use weeds as habitat is because there are not enough native plants around. Vast areas of bushland have been wiped out, and the only place that some animals can hide is in the weedy blackberries and boxthorns.

From my interview with Brian Bainbridge, I’ve learnt that it is vital to monitor your bushland to see what plants and animals you have (both weeds and natives). With this information, you can start to see how your management might impact these species (in both good and bad ways).

Instead of just looking at your bushland in terms of ‘weeds’ or ‘natives’, you can think in terms of habitat. Brian has a keen interest in birds, and observed that small bush birds like dense, shrubby vegetation. This is the exact type of habitat that blackberries and boxthorns provide. By replacing these weeds with suitable native substitutes, Brian was able to keep the bush birds in the landscape.

The ‘war on weeds’ idea is not defined in terms of what is being created, but by what is removed.

What about other types of animals and habitats?

If you have a keen eye and are very patient, you can spend time observing your bushland to see how it is being used by native animals. But since this takes time, here’s something that we prepared earlier (click on table for a larger view).

Well, actually this was put together by Chris McElhinny and co, who wrote a fantastic review of 56 studies in south-eastern and western Australia to identify animal-habitat relationships in forests and woodlands. Since most bushlands can be described as forest or woodland, it’s a great study that can help us identify which habitats are used by different animals. If you have other types of bushland,  (e.g. grasslands or shrublands), then check out the vegetation layers that are relevant for you.

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Habitat that animals use in forests and woodland in south-eastern and western Australia, with ways to increase habitat. (Excerpt from McElhinny et al. 2006. The ways to increase habitat are my own suggestions). Click on table for a larger view.

Any bushland can be grouped into several layers from the ground all the way to the tree canopy.

Within each of these layers are several habitat attributes – these are things that animals use as food, shelter or breeding.

Generally, when there is more of an attribute, there are more of the animals that use it for habitat. But just because you have a lot of one attribute, it doesn’t guarantee an increase in that particular species. They may not be able to reach your bushland, or there may be other factors at play.

Ecosystems are complicated, and increasing habitat attributes will only increase the likelihood of certain species occurring. It’s no silver bullet.

In the far right column of the table, I’ve added a few suggestions on how to increase these types of habitat in your bushland. If you have any other suggestions, please post them in the comments below.

The following describes three different ways you can use this table to identify and manage the habitat in your bushland.

  • Look at your weeds – what type of habitat do they provide? If you have animals that use these weeds as habitat, are there suitable native species you can introduce while you stage the weed removal?
  • Look at your bushland – what habitat is there and what can you do to improve the habitat? More shrubs? More logs? Are your trees too small for hollows? Maybe you need some nest boxes in the meantime?
  • Look at your bushland – based on the habitat you already have, what animals should be there? Maybe some animals can’t reach your patch of bush?

Creating habitat is a much more fulfilling goal than just removing weeds

 

Interview with David Franklin – Part 2

Part 1 of this interview introduced us to David Franklin who has been working on restoring native grasslands over the last 8 years. Today, we continue our chat and learn more about David’s work.

After David and I finished our cups of tea, we headed out to one of David’s sheds where he keeps his machinery.

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Maps of David’s property

What kind of machinery do you use for sowing and harvesting?

We have three main machines: a mechanical seeder from Greening Australia, a brush harvester for grasses, and a machine that sows small plants (plugs).  Because the mechanical seeder requires you to mix sand with the seed, I’ve been working on another seeder that doesn’t need sand.

Paul Gibson Roy from the Grassy Groundcover Research Project realised that they couldn’t use agricultural seeders to sow native plants, as the seeds are very light and sit in the machine without moving through. So they developed their own seeder. This one can be used to sow up to 25-30 different species together.

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Greening Australia’s mechanical seeder

The box at the top is filled with a mix of seed and very fine sand – this gives is some weight and carries it out a long slot at the bottom of the machine, where it drops out in a sheet. It is time-consuming and hard work because we need about a cubic metre of sand for every hectare we do, and it takes about 10-15 minutes to mix each load.

Sometimes the sand is wet, which makes it difficult to mix the seed and it travels slowly out of the machine. And then coming to the end of the day, the sand dries out so you’ve got to vary your sowing rate to make it consistent.

With this machine you’re looking at up to 6 hours to seed 1 hectare using 3 people.

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Direct seeding the Alcoa site at Moolapio in September 2011

How much seed do you use per cubic metre of sand?

We’re sowing up to 55-60 kilograms a hectare of mixed species, but that’s not pure seed. We don’t  clean the seed as it’s too time consuming, and so some of it’s still on the stalk. But we do put the stalks though a garden mulcher – this doesn’t damage the seed and it chops up the stalks so they mix with the sand.

At the moment I’m working on trying to make a better seeder with an engineering firm in Geelong. This one uses air to pull the seed through so that we don’t have to use sand. This should speed up the time it takes to sow a site considerably. It’s like one of the agricultural air seeders.

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David’s air seeder

When I first started direct seeding, I didn’t have enough Wallaby Grass to sow out in the field.  The seed was precious as I only had a small amount, and if I scattered it on the ground it would be a waste. So instead I decided to sow it in the nursery to grow plants (plugs). This resulted in a much bigger population than just spreading it around. But I had a bit of a problem – who was going to plant all those plugs? I then developed a machine that could mass-plant plugs. In the first year we sowed 80,000 plugs with this machine.

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David’s plug planter

The planter has 6 belts at the top with little PVC pipes stuck to them.  You load up the pipes with plugs. The belts move the pipes around the tray, and they pass over a hole with a tube going down to a tine at the bottom.  The tine makes a slot in the ground, and as the belt winds its way around, the plugs keep dropping down.

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The top of the planter where the plugs go

When we planted the Wallaby Grass, we set the planter to plant every 20 cm, with 20 plants to the square metre. It actually takes longer to load the plants than it takes to plant them. It would take us 7 or 8 minutes to load up about 360 plants, and about 2 minutes to put them in the ground. At this pace we could sow 2000 plants an hour.

How do you grow enough seed for large-scale direct seeding?

With the Grassy Groundcover Research Project, we initially collected seed from roadside remnants, but this wasn’t enough for direct seeding. So we grew plants from this seed in the nursery and planted them into poly-boxes. From there, I made some raised garden beds to grow even more plants. After that, I made some in-ground beds with weed-matting. The weed mat was used to control the weeds, but it also makes it easy to vacuum up all the seed that drops.

I don’t use poly-boxes anymore because I don’t need them – I get enough from the raised beds and the in-ground beds. The poly-boxes dry out too quickly and the potting mix breaks down too easily. Both my raised beds and in-ground beds where I grow my herbs and forbs are irrigated and this prolongs the flowering season, which means you can get more seed from the crop. For the larger crops of native grasses, I grow them like a normal agricultural seed crop, with no weed matting and no watering.

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In-ground and raised seed production area beds

What are you growing at the moment?

I have about 30 species in the ground. There are a few things on the go in the nursery which I’ll plant into the raised and in-ground beds. I also have some larger crops in the front and back paddocks.

At the moment I have about 500 Clover Glycine (Glycine latrobeana) in the nursery, which I’ll plant in the raised garden bed. This is a threatened species – you can only find the odd one in roadside remnants. Last year I grew a seed crop and I was getting between 200-300 pods every second day. I ended up with 56 grams of pure seed, not pods, just the pure seed.

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Clover Glycine in the nursery

A few of the species I’ve got growing in beds at the moment include Smooth Solenogyne (Solenogyne dominii),  Featherheads (Ptilotus macrocephalus), Chocolate Lily (Arthropodium strictum), Bulbine Lily (Bulbine bulbosa), several Speargrass species (Austrostipa), Grey Tussock-grass (Poa sieberiana), Wheat Grass (Anthosachne scabra), Hoary Sunray (Leucochrysum albicans), and Common Billy-buttons (Craspedia variabilis), to name a few. I’ve even got some Blue Pincushions (Brunonia australis).

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Smooth Solenogyne seed

 

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Featherheads in the seed production area

Last year I grew a crop of Yam Daises (Microseris landceolata) and I managed to get a full box of seed from just a 3.6 m by 6 m in-ground garden bed. I used weed matting and I also had irrigation drip lines under the weed matting.

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A full tub of Yam Daisy seed

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Yam Daisy in-ground bed

I grow my Bindweed (Convolvulus) up a trellis with weed matting at the bottom. It works really well and I can either collect the seed from the plants or from the weed matting.

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Trellised Bindweed

What are some of the larger crops that you grow?

I’ve got a crop of Common Everlasting (Chrysocephalum apiculatum) that I put in at the end of 2014. It’s about 1,000 square metres.

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Common Everlasting crop

 

I direct seeded Lemon Beauty-heads (Calocephalus citreus) in spring 2015 but I wasn’t sure if it would come up. It took over two months and all of a sudden it started appearing. The seed isn’t usually ready to collect until February or March.

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Lemon Beauty-heads crop just starting to come up

I also sowed Common Wheat Grass and Spear Grass in June 2015. The Wheat Grass has come up but I won’t get seed off it this season, but it’s a good result for Common Wheat Grass. Not much of the Spear Grass has come up, but it’ll come up in autumn with the rain – that’s what normally happens. I also put in a grass species mix in September 2015, but this was too late, and it never rained again after that. This will come up in autumn too.

I have a couple of hectares that was scalped in May 2015. Some of this area will be used for a seed production area and on 20 metres either side of the creek I’ll just do grassland species mix.

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Scalped area ready for sowing

I’ve also got a Wallaby Grass crop in the back paddock – about 1/3 ha.

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Wallaby Grass crop – 190 m long by 20 m wide (about 1/3 hectare)

What kind of weed control do you use?

I’ve successfully used a technique called ‘spraytop’, where you put a light dose of roundup over the native grass to kill the annual weeds. It just burns off the top of the weeds and I use 300 ml  to the hectare. It doesn’t kill the native grass but you’ve got to forego your seed for that year.

What time of year is best for the spraytop?

Ideally when the annual weeds are flowering – around about that time, it will burn off the weeds and desiccate them.

Have you done any direct seeding locally?

I mentioned before that there’s not much funding for direct seeding at the moment. So I decided to contact the local shire (Moyne) and offer my services to show them what can be done with direct seeding. There’s a section of roadside in Woorndoo that we decided to work on and create a mixed species grassland. I volunteered my time to grow some plants for seed, as well as getting the local Landcare group involved to collect seed from some of the remnant reserves in the area. The council pitched in and payed for the scalping and removal of the topsoil, this was over 1000 cubic metres of topsoil from a hectare, to a depth of 10 cm. With the Landcare group (about 16 volunteers) we collected over 60 kg of seed from 33 species. This was sown in September 2013 and in the end of 2014 I harvested 15 kg of wallaby grass seed off it. The machine I use doesn’t collect all the seed, it sort of knocks it about, and so some is left on the ground, which is good for maintaining the seed bank.

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Scalped and seeded roadside in Woorndoo

What kind of weed control do you do?

You can see that it’s pretty much weed free, but there is some Capeweed, Fog Grass, Phalaris and Wild Oats that come in from the edges. We’ve had some Scout groups and a Green Army group come and do some hand weeding here, and we’ve got on top of most of that.

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I’ve noticed that most of the grass here is Wallaby Grass, did you sow other types of grasses?

Yes, there’s some Spear Grass as well as Kangaroo Grass (Themeda triandra). There is a bit of Spear Grass coming up and the Kangaroo Grass is just starting to show. With the Kangaroo Grass, all sites I’ve direct seeded are the same – they take 3 or 4 years before you get a lot coming up. The Wallaby Grass that usually dominates the site for the first few years.

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Have you got any tips for anyone who wants to do direct seeding or start a seed production area?

If you are going to collect seed make sure you have the right permits and permission from the landowner. And make sure you’re not harming the remnant areas by collecting too much.

This is a great resource about ethical seed collection:

http://www.seedingvictoria.com.au/cb_pages/seed_collection.php

It’s always best to start small, as you can scale up later. You’ll be limited at the start by the amount of seed you can get and that’s ok. Just start with poly-boxes and work up to larger garden beds when you have more seed. It’s the same for direct seeding, just start small and find what size is manageable for you. Every direct seeding area you do is another good seed resource on its own.

You’ll also have to manage your seed crop, and sometimes it will fail and need re-seeding. I’ve had a large crop of Wallaby Grass that I collected 80 kg of seed from one year. There was also another 80 kg of seed on the ground that I couldn’t collect, as the harvester kept pushing the stalks over. The leftover stalks were too much biomass for the crop and it never grew back.

I recommend sowing seed in spring when the annual weeds start to die off and the bit of warmth helps germination. You can also sow in autumn after the first rains, but things won’t really grow over winter.

If your seed doesn’t come up in the first year, don’t give up as it can take time.

I’ve had plenty of sites where it took a while for the seed to come up.

Thank you for your time David

If you would like to learn more about David’s work you can contact him at davidfranklin@grasslandflora.com.au

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Interview with David Franklin – Part 1

Prior to European settlement, the vast volcanic plain grasslands of western Victoria would have been a spectacular sight. They once spanned about 300 km from Melbourne to Portland. Now less than 1% of these grasslands remain, which makes it challenging to conserve and restore them. Remnants often exist in small, isolated patches and are prone to weed invasion. Restoration is limited by the availability of seed from healthy populations.

Over the past 10 years, however, reliable techniques have been developed to restore native grasslands.

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This is not a remnant grassland, it’s actually a restored grassland

I met David Franklin at Greening Australia’s Seeds for Success forum, held at La Trobe University in July 2015. David lives in Chatsworth and for the last 8 years has been working on restoring native grasslands. Chatsworth is located near the middle of the Victorian volcanic plains, and the region has some spectacular remnant grasslands, mostly occurring on roadside reserves.

I got in touch with David and visited his property in November 2015 to learn more about what he does.

SPA Ptilotus macrocephalus

David Franklin

Hi David, thanks for catching up. Let’s start with a bit about yourself and how you got into the industry?

Thanks John. I’ve been in here in Chatsworth nearly all my life – I was about 5 years old when we came. This is a family farm, a soldier settlement my father was allocated after the Second World War. We ran a medium-fine wool merino sheep flock and also did some cropping.

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A spectacular Red Gum on David’s property

I started a native plant nursery about 25 years ago after the wool boom crashed. This was before Landcare took off, and I was just selling to farmers for windbreaks (trees and shrubs). But I always concentrated on local indigenous plants of this region. I started selling a few and it just got bigger and bigger. Then when the Landcare groups came along, I produced a lot for Landcare.

Were you involved with Landcare?

Yeah, around this time I actually started a Landcare group here in Chatsworth, and we had about 15 people in our group. Over a three year program, we got about $80,000 in funding from the government to revegetate watercourses and badly eroded hills. They’re all full of trees now and it has completely changed the landscape – that’s going back 15 years or more.

And so my nursery supplied a lot of these small Landcare groups who were applying for funding before the Catchment Management Authorities (CMAs) came along. In its peak, about 10 years ago, my nursery was growing 300,000 plants a year.

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David’s nursery

Around this time there was a lot of burnout in the Landcare groups – trying to take on too much – and from then on, most of the plant orders came through the CMAs. With the recent budget cuts from state and federal governments, it’s all turned full circle now, and there’s hardly any orders coming through.

So when the nursery started to die down, I had some spare time to learn more about the roadside reserves. I’ve always had a bit of an interest in the roadside grasslands because we’ve got really terrific remnants right out the front here, right to Woorndoo and Wycliffe, and all around this region. So in the autumn I’d muck around trying to propagate some of the grassland species, and in the spring-time I’d learn how to identify the seed from the flowers. You’d have to keep going out there and peg some of the species. This is because you can identify them when they’re in full flower and they look beautiful, but if you go back  2 or 3 weeks later they’re all shrivelled up and I’d say, ‘what was that?’. It was an interesting learning curve.

How did you get interested in direct seeding?

In 2004 I got involved with the Grassy Groundcover Research Project – this was a 3 year research project with Melbourne University and Greening Australia, run by Dr Paul Gibson Roy. They had funding to establish 15 research sites in Victoria to see if they could turn completely altered agricultural land back into native grasslands. This was done by trialling different methods of site preparation and direct seeding techniques to establish a native grassland with a mix of different species.

My farm was one of the sites, and I also grew plants because each site needed access to a seed production area. We initially collected seed from the roadside remnants. This seed was used to grow plants in poly boxes, and the seed collected off these plants were used in the research project. We also used this seed to set up some beds where we could grow more plants for seed production. Having a seed production area really took the pressure off the wild populations. This was a really thorough research project and I’ve learnt so much from Paul.

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David’s seed production area

I’ll always remember when he told me about the scalping. In the first year of the project, there were these 1m by 1m plots with different treatments, including scraping off the top 6 inches of soil. This was fine by me, but in the second year Paul said “This time we’re going a bit bigger. We’ll get a grader in and scalp half a hectare.”

I said “What?”

He said “We’ll scalp half a hectare and mound it up on the side.”

I was looking at him incredulously and he’s looking at me and he’s smiling. As a farmer, the worst thing you could do to grow a crop is remove the nutrient-rich topsoil.

And I said “Yeah right-o, I’ll go along with it.”

Now I think it’s just so logical when you’re growing native plants: by scalping the topsoil you get rid of all the weed seed and also you get rid of the nutrients that the native plants don’t want.

What did you do after the research project finished up?

I then started working for Greening Australia on a contract basis, growing seed and direct seeding, as well as maintaining the machinery.  This was led by Rod White, who is the Grasslands Restoration Officer at Greening Australia. We’ve been getting some great results, and that’s been going on for the past 8 years.

David Fanklin Rod White & James Shaw

Rod White and David Franklin in David’s Common Everlasting seed production area

With Greening Australia I’ve worked on the Alcoa project called Moolapio, in Geelong. They had to get equipment there for sowing, and they needed help to grow seed. So I built a decent transporter trailer to carry a 3-tonne tractor and a seeder. Last year we took the tractor and seeder to Tasmania for a week, and also went down to Bairnsdale. This year we’ve been up to Euroa, and we’ve also worked at the Western Water Treatment Plant at Melton.

 

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Mixing sand with grassland seed for direct seeding

Over the past 3 years, we’ve done some seed growing and direct seeding work with the duplication of the Western Highway between Ballarat and Beaufort. We sowed 4 ha there this year. I grew some plants for seed here in the nursery in boxes, but I was also going up there each year in summer and collecting local seed to do the job.

A lot of these jobs are limited by the amount of seed you can collect, and you need to do some forward-planning for a couple of years to be able to restore a few hectares

At my property I have the machinery to sow large areas of seed. I can also grow a lot of seed here in the nursery and in the farm’s in-ground seed production areas. I’m currently growing 25-30 species on the farm. I’m all ready to do more if we could just get the funding.

Stay tuned for part 2 of this interview, where David shows me around his property and I learn about some of the projects he’s working on.

If you would like to learn more about David’s work you can contact him at davidfranklin@grasslandflora.com.au