WANT A TREE? PLANT A SHRUB

line of trees AdnamiraThe ancient trees that stalked across the paddocks when I was a child were my first clue that something was wrong with our landscape.

They started to die.

“Theý’re old” said Dad.  “They’ve had their time.  We just need to plant some more.”

So he planted more.  The Goodradigbee Shire supplied Sydney blue gums in little plastic tubes.  The big trees were eucalypts, and so were the new little ones.  Not the same type, or even a local type but that was what was available.

I lobbied for planting some wattles, because I liked the flowers and the way they’d made a golden line down the valley when we first arrived.

“They don’t live long enough.  They die after five years.” said Dad.

The trees he planted died even more quickly , most of them before they even grew up to the top of their metal sheep guards.  Each guard was expensive and time-consuming to make, requiring two or three steel star pickets and a length of netting, plus a certain amount of tie-wire and cursing the rocky ground. Many of them still sit empty, too much trouble to remove.guards closeup 2

It turns out that trees don’t like to be alone.  They rely not just on the soil and water around them, but also on the small birds that pick off beetles and borers and generally protect them from being eaten.  Those small birds require the cover of shrubs to protect them from predators, among other things.

Each tree that died broke a link in the chain that connected other trees to remnant bushland and their small bird protectors, making the pressure worse for the survivors.

Even those that lived through the first years have struggled just like an “old” tree, with straggling dead branches recording times of dieback and new growth around the trunk showing eucalypt determination in adversity.  young tree insect and drought attack

So replanting lonely trees, while it seemed to be the most direct way to replace shade and shelter in a paddock, was not a solution at all.    It was a massive amount of work for a very limited result.

Dad’s answer was to plant European trees – willows and poplars in particular.   There were a few experiments with cedars, Monterey pines and also honey locusts for stock fodder.  The honey locusts have struggled along and are now getting to be a faintly useful size.  They certainly aren’t going to become the weed they can be in wetter areas.

Essentially, many of the native trees were replaced with exotic ones.   The total number of trees didn’t decline, thanks to Dad’s efforts, but they changed type and now are mostly grouped in plantations.IMG_1901Unfortunately, those exotics were quite hard hit during the long drought from 2003-2009.  They have the advantage of being less fire prone than eucalypts, but they lack the complex relationship with surrounding wildlife that makes a native tree so important.

So I went back to working out how we could plant natives successfully.  The most useful piece of information I gained was that trees couldn’t be planted alone, they needed to be part of a grove including shrubs.   Others were figuring this out too, and their plantations were doing much better.IMG_1030

So it turns out that if we want to protect our old trees, and produce new ones for the future, we have to plant shrubs as well, and the right ones.  My plan is now to develop areas with thick concentrations of trees and shrubs.  If possible these areas will also work as windbreaks, and build links towards the isolated, vulnerable old trees. IMG_0795

When that’s done, perhaps we’ll be able to plant some individual trees, as long as they’re within fifty metres or so of a bird refuge.  Also called a shrub.

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5 comments

  1. Yes, I agree there’s plenty left to learn. I’ve been trying to work out a clear picture of what it is we’re working towards, but in some ways I think we’re going to have to keep trying stuff and see what happens. Little steps, that we hope will take us somewhere we want to go…

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  2. Nice observations. Important to also realise that Eucalypts are light demanding species and the open grown paddock trees have the best form for longest life i.e short and squat with low branching laterals vs tall slender stems clear of lateral branches. Corridors and connections very important as you point out but also important is provision of adequate spacing for full canopy development if we are to ensure succession of true ancients and all dependent species.

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    1. Yes, you’re right. We’re not trying to make a forest, but a healthy landscape with a good variety of native plants. What do you think of Bill Gammage’s argument that the “open grown” ancient trees we see have few laterals because they were raised in thickets, and only as adults had the understorey burned away? I’ve certainly found that around here we can’t grow trees effectively without understorey.

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      1. Shrub thickets would likely provide some protection from grazing animals. You see this on other continents as well where species such as oaks for example will establish in a thicket of thorn bushes. I’m not sure I agree with the statement that..’ the “open grown” ancient trees we see have few laterals’…I think this is too generalised. Certainly many of the older paddock trees that we see today would have had other trees and shrubs growing beneath them before the spread of European agricultural practices. We have a lot to learn.

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