Wildlife No bull

Published 02/01/13 | by Chris Owen’s

Take a slab of pasture, fold in propagation skills, a handfull of volunteer labour and simmer for twenty years, and you have my recipe for revegetation

I purchased a two acre paddock that was an occasional home to a large bull in Lysterfield South in 1991. I was assured by the real estate agent the adjacent land could never be developed and would ultimately be purchased by the state government to join Churchill Park with Lysterfield Park. The block was elevated and exposed to the southwest in particular, with no vegetation except for scattered patches of Microlaena stipoides (Weeping Grass) among exotic grasses and therefore very windy.

In the early days the budget was tight and I therefore taught myself how to propagate. I joined the Knox Environment Society (KES) in order to volunteer at the community nursery and expand my knowledge. The KES and their commercial arm, Operation Revegetation, have been a force in the region for 30 years and have literally grown millions of plants as well as providing environmental advocacy, while putting the profits back into environmental projects both locally and beyond. In the meantime, Parks Victoria took over management of the land adjacent to my property that was acquired to link the parks and took notice of my early revegetation efforts. Parks Victoria supported my interest in propagation by identifying and offering a disused polyhouse and promptly arranged delivery and even assisted with installation.

I started with trees and large shrubs to modify growing conditions before adding the ground layer – where there is competition from trees, weeds are much less of a problem. Privacy was also a significant consideration so the block boundaries were densely planted. However, due to fire considerations, vegetation was kept unnaturally low on the north side especially close to the house. But with plenty of moisture over the last 2 years, and high light levels, ongoing problems with weed invasion have been the result.

As the garden vegetation was establishing, attention turned to the valley on the other side of the fence and with a core of six stalwart people, a friends group for the parks was established. Over a period of 10 years the bare areas of the creek along the 100 hectare park valley were revegetated. ParksVic got the occasional grant (before budgets were gutted), which helped fill in the remainder.

There have been plenty of challenges along the way with wet conditions in the early years resulting in holes that filled up with water whilst you were trying to get the plant out of the tube. Later, Victoria’s 12-year drought made planting a hit and miss affair with little follow up watering possible and therefore variable results of success. Several large trees died but were left to provide habitat and hunting perches for kookaburras and butcherbirds.

Mistakes were many and included plantings of indigenous species such as Weeping Grass and, surprisingly, the climber Clematis microphylla. The Weeping Grass produces copious seed most of which eventually germinates and therefore invades every gap and even grows up through shrubs, herbs and tussocks especially Lomandra filiformis, Xanthorrhea minor and Patersonia occidentalis from which it is impossible to extract. Clematis also sets a huge amount of seed which germinates everywhere and on the edge of the garden it is not noticeable until it flowers. By this time it is either smothering plants or pulling over trees during wet periods. Natural enough processes in the bush, but annoying in the limited confines of a garden. Other challenges include kangaroo poo which has a large seed load and as it breaks down, seeds of pasture species germinate in previously weed free areas.

However, successes have also been many. I have been able to establish seed banks of many locally rare and threatened plants and provide propagation material to help with plant diversity at the KES nursery.

The biggest success however is measured by the return of the wildlife, which has been substantial. In the early days small skinks, frogs and birds including Willie Wagtails and Black Shouldered Kites were notable “spots.” These days these pasture specialists are rarely seen, however they have been replaced with a good compliment of bush birds including breeding kookaburras, fantails, cuckoo’s, thornbills, thrushes, whistlers, honeyeaters, parrots and the occasional raptor. Buff Banded Rails have also raised young in the garden. Over the 20 years, 75 species of birds have been recorded.

Other wildlife has also returned including kangaroos, Black Wallabies and the occasional antechinus. Resident Brushtail and Ringtail Possums, Sugar Gliders and an assortment of bats including Flying Foxes also visit, and strip the plum tree when it is laden with fruit each spring. Other residents and visitors include echidnas, bluetongues (both), snakes (mostly Copperheads and White Lipped), Long Necked Turtles and eight species of frogs. Bluetongue lizards and frogs set up home in the polyhouse in summer living under boxes of plants and providing free pest management services. Specific species of animals are also encouraged with several ponds and nest boxes. All this supports the contention – if you build it they will come. A close connection with a large park system does not hurt either.

Over time a new understanding develops regarding plant species requirements and you learn to work with the plant rather than try to force it to grow where you want. Many small or delicate species are overwhelmed in most areas of the garden. Observations of natural conditions reveal some of these plants only grow at the base of a large eucalypt where not much else will grow.

As the vegetation matures, the difficult to maintain species have taken hold and in some cases volunteered: these include Rock Fern (Cheilanthes austrotenuifolia), Yam Daisy (Microseris lanceolata) and orchids such as greenhoods (Pterostylus ssp) salvaged from a nearby quarry and sun orchids (Thelymitra spp) salvaged from the Lysterfield dam wall prior to re-engineering.

My intention has always been to try to re-establish a version of natural bush, controlled to satisfy fuel load requirements on the north side and also to have a range of vegetation mixes to encourage wildlife. I have had the ultimate inadvertent compliment paid, with one visitor asking if I intended to clear the bush at some point!