Tiny communities

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New growth on a red gum sapling.

We’ve been talking a bit recently about when a woodland becomes a woodland. Asher suggested 500 years of growth, but was willing to settle for 50. Perhaps it’s a woodland when the birds think so, when the firetails and blue wrens jump the boundary fence from neigbouring scrub and decide they’re safe flitting from branch to branch. As our earliest plantings grow taller than humans, and the canopies thicken and throw shade, we started noticing an increasing diversity of tiny life. Insects for whom a gum or wattle tree is their universe are finding their way across the paddocks to settle in the emerging plantings. Despite the heat and dry of summer, the trees are heaving with insect life. We recently saw the documentary The Biggest Little Farm about an idealistic (and evidently well-funded!) couple who start a diverse 200 acre farming project outside of Los Angeles. One of the messages of the film is that when you create the right conditions, nature finds a balance. As we walked through the saplings, on one, the new growth and leaves were being systematically devoured by small copper coloured beetles. We walked to the next tree, the copper beetles were present, but as we watched, were body slammed by wasps and carried away. At the next, the beetles had been busy, but now a spider had arrived, and was meticulously wrapping the beetle population in silk. Perhaps these tiny communities are beginning to find the balance too.

Here’s a tour of some of the life on the trees – we’d love your help with identification!

Beetle eats leaf.

Spider eats beetle.

Ants farm aphids on an Acacia.

A huntsman and egg sac.

Leafhopper, with comrades.

Two-spotted cup moth caterpillar.

Case moth cocoon, constructed from silk and twigs.

Ants on twisty leaves. What’s going on?!

Wasp galls on a golden wattle.

Year of Fire: Annual Report 2020

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A melted tree guard shrink wraps a seedling after a fire move through part of the property in January 2019.

2019 began and ended in fire. In early January, some errant fireworks set off by passers-by landed in one of our front paddocks, burning across a couple of hectares of our property. We were lucky. There was little wind, and it was quickly noticed and contained by our amazing neighbours and the CFS. Meanwhile, in Tasmania, fires ripped through the forests, and by spring and early summer, vast tracts of the east coast and Kangaroo Island were catastrophically aflame once again. While we’ve escaped the drought and bushfires that have gripped so much of the continent, these phenomena have served to focus our goals and aspirations in 2019. It’s been a year of learning as we work towards a more regenerative approach: ultimately building soil and harvesting water and carbon in the landscape.

2019 had the dubious distinction of being Australia’s hottest and driest year on record. It got pretty warm in the shed.

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Our regenerative aspirations have been focused by some outstanding events this year. In June, we attended the Deep Winter Agrarian Gathering in Willunga, drawing together 150 aspiring and established regenerative farmers from around Australia to share skills and ideas. Former CSIRO microbiologist and climate scientist Walter Jehne set the tone with a rousing and inspirational keynote on restoring natural processes through agriculture to cool the climate.

The Food Forest’s Annemarie Brookman with Gardening Australia’s Costa Georgiadis at Deep Winter, Willunga.

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Winter work: erosion control in dispersive soils

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Some of the challenges of our landscape regeneration efforts have been both working to restore eroded badlands in some parts of the property, as well as to arrest continuing erosion. To make matters more complex, some sections of the property have “dispersive” subsoil. While the topsoil is relatively stable, when the subsoil becomes saturated it dissolves and begins to move, hollowing out tunnels beneath the surface that ultimately collapse into sinkholes, and eventually gullies. Of course, because it’s all happening underground, tracking or predicting which areas are vulnerable, or already cavernous is tricky.

Over the last seven years, we’ve been gradually working our way around the property installing erosion control structures, based on the work of permaculture-based landscape restoration folk like Craig Sponholtz and Bill Zeedyk. Hailing from the dry southwest of North America, Sponholtz and Zeedyk advocate applying small and slow interventions that use local materials to slow water flows and gradually heal erosion. In the permaculture spirit of viewing problems as solutions, our junk-filled erosion gullies have provided a seemingly inexhaustible supply of demolition rubble, concrete chunks and segments of brick walls that are ideal material for these structures.

This headcut just keeps moving, despite the perennial grasses and good ground cover.

One of the sections that we’ve avoided is a notorious headcut that our DIY soil tests showed us boasted slaking soil that disintegrates when moist and subsoil that was also more saline than other locations around the farm. With saline subsoil, most plants wanted to avoid getting their stabilising roots down. Tree-planting was also fraught, survival rates in the saline subsoil and cracking grey topsoil were low and  the very process of digging a small hole for a seedling can be enough to expose the subsoil so that next time there was a downpour, a sinkhole would open and swallow the seedling, tree guard and all. With the headcut moving about a metre a year and also widening, we thought it was time to get stuck in. At the very least, we’ve discovered that doing something is better than doing nothing and the act of getting in there and digging around allows for more accurate monitoring and effective intervention. Continue reading

Deep Winter comes to the Fleurieu!

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Joel dusted off his design degree to contribute a logo to the gathering.

Each winter since 2015, aspiring and established small-scale and regenerative farmers and their supporters and allies have gathered somewhere in Australia as part of the Deep Winter Agrarian Gathering to share ideas and inspiration for their projects and enterprises. In June 2019, this convergence drifted westwards to be held in Willunga, South Australia, and we were delighted to participate.

150 aspiring and established regenerative farmers, growers and their friends gathered in Willunga, SA, for the Deep Winter Agrarian Gathering.

The tone for the convergence was set with a keynote from former CSIRO microbiologist and climate scientist Walter Jehne, who spoke on the role and responsibility of rebuilding soil carbon and water cycles through agriculture and land management. Through his inspiring presentation, Jehne drew on indigenous land management as described in the work of Bill Gammage and Bruce Pascoe to also establish a precedent for the capacity of Australian soils to hold significant amounts of carbon and water.

Walter Jehne, in full flight.

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Yarnauwi Treefest 2019

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A serial tree-planter manages to synchronise his outfit with the colouring of Eucalyptus occidentalis.

A couple of days before this year’s tree planting, I rang our friend and regular tree-planter Jeremy, and told him that three out of four family members were sick with the flu and we were thinking of cancelling this year’s planting weekend. He didn’t accept that proposal, effectively telling us that tree planting would happen regardless of our involvement, that between his family and another they would take care of catering, rally the volunteers and get the trees in the ground.

It has always been an aspiration of ours that the farm might offer a place for people to be able to develop connection with the landscape through collaboration on land-based projects – “where people and the landscape can restore each other”. I hope that Jeremy’s response, and the support of our friends and community over the last seven years of tree-planting is an indication of this aspiration in development. In this spirit, this year we were also delighted to host regenerative side projects such as Steven Hoepfner’s seed ball regeneration experiment, and provide a waterway for Sue and David Speck’s sedges, and a forever home for Greg Wood’s trees.

Steven’s seed ball project: local provenance bundles of seed and nutrients distributed across revegetation zones to germinate when the conditions are right.

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Nightlife in the Country

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A little while ago I received a motion camera, triggered by movement and able to shoot in complete darkness with an infra-red flash. I mounted it on a fence post, scattered some food scraps in front and left it for a week. Over the week it’s offered us a fascinating window into the life of the farm.

Curious kangaroo

Boxing match

The fight gets out of hand

Persistence is rewarded

Very curious kangaroo.

Unsurprisingly, the hordes of kangaroos feature heavily. They graze through the day and night, occasionally box, and one problem-solver has multiple attempts at reaching  the enticing leaves of a mesh-guarded sapling. Continue reading

Saltbush city limitless

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At this time of year when it hasn’t rained properly for about 6 months and even the hardiest of our native trees and shrubs start to wilt, we say thank heavens for saltbush. This family of plants are the Australian climate change gardeners’ morale booster – the hotter and drier it gets the more they seem to leaf out, attract beneficial insects, tower in size over anything else and improve the conditions for other species.

The first species we have had success with, Old Man Saltbush (Atriplex nummularia), grows in inland areas of Australia. Its seeds were traditionally used as a food source for Aboriginal people, and the leaves are also edible and rich in protein, antioxidants, and minerals. It’s commonly used as a livestock grazing plant, which was one of the reasons we planted it, as a high-protein green fodder source at times of the year like this when there is not much else for stock to eat.

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Old Man Saltbush is extremely drought and salt tolerant and apparently lives for more than 100 years! It accumulates salt in its leaves as it extracts water from the soil so can help to reduce salinity. It is very deep rooted and can access moisture and nutrients out of reach of other plants, making those nutrients available to other surface plants via grazing. Its roots travel up to 5m deep and 10m wide to access nutrients and moisture, as well as having surface roots to collect light rain and bind soil. It also sequesters carbon in the soil.

It is fast growing so can provide shelter within a few years to other plants or stock, and works well grown as a hedge/windbreak. I am keen to grow it as a hedge border around a vegetable garden in future as it attracts beneficial insects as well as blocking wind. It seems to grow fine on our heavy clays, though I note it prefers the dryer ridge to the more low lying winter waterlogged areas. And it has such nice grey-blue shimmery leaves! And kangaroos don’t seem to touch it! So much to love. It really is a hero of the plant world.

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Woody trunk after 3 or 4 years growth

Another species we’ve been very grateful to be acquainted with is Creeping Saltbush (Atriplex semibaccata). We planted it on the disturbed slope next to our shed site as a way of stabilising the soil and avoiding erosion and it has thrived. It forms a dense low mat of up to 1.5m diameter, tolerates high levels of salinity and salt-laden winds, tolerates drought, has an edible berry, reduces soil temperature, and provides habitat for beneficial insects. On some of our hottest and driest summer days, it was green and covered in blue copper butterflies!

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Creeping away

And it now seems to be coming up “by itself” (maybe with the help of ants moving fruit around) in a couple of other spots around our shed, not minding growing in gravel at all. This year we are planning to plant it on our gully walls in the hopes of stabilising those slopes, increasing habitat and creating a living mulch around other trees and shrubs.

 

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Colonising the shed site

Finally, we are always overjoyed to see Ruby Saltbush (Enchylaena tomentosa) popping up by itself in various paddocks around the farm with no help from us (via birds or sheep perhaps). Again the small red fruits are edible, again it is ridiculously hardy tolerating drought, salt, and sand.  Sheep love eating it, but unfortunately they leave nothing behind! And the green leaves are such a sight for sore eyes in this driest time of year.

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We feel we have only just started on our journey experimenting with saltbush, and look forward to encouraging this family of perennial plants to be our allies on the path to increasing productivity and biodiversity.

Treasures from the deep: more curated gully junk

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Despite a long silence from us, there’s still lots going on at Yarnauwi, not least our ongoing attempt to clean up historic dumping in our erosion gullies. We feel like we’re closing in on the last 30 metres or so of junk to clear and now we’re so close to finishing it can sometimes be difficult maintaining motivation! While most of the material remaining is steel or demolition rubble, both of which we recycle or repurpose, there are still pockets of wonder in the form of various plastic domestic items. Happily, the plantings established in previously cleared areas are now well-established and working to stablise the exposed gully walls as well as restore them as habitat and an ephemeral waterway. We’ll write with more updates soon, but in the meantime, enjoy these treasures from the deep.

Specimen #51: Plastic clown launcher from a “Dandina Sky Dancer”, released in 1995. This particular clown is from the Italian Masque series of the toy. Intact toys from this series in original packaging are available online for a mere US$75.00. (Thank you to Pascelle for the ID, see comments below)

Specimen #52: Wobbling bear in winter attire.

Specimen #53: Battery operated toy train.

Specimen #54: Lightly soiled Boggle Junior console, dating from around 1988. Some cosmetic wear and tear.

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Not ‘if’, but ‘when’: planning for fire

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Melted tree guard on a eucalyptus seedling.

A few evenings ago, someone set off fireworks on the road beside our property. Embers from the fireworks landed in the grass on the property boundary and quickly took, spreading through the dry summer grass along the fence and down a drainage line. Thankfully, our neighbours quickly noticed and set to work with their own fire unit while awaiting the arrival of the police and Country Fire Service. The blaze was contained with minimal damage, but it’s stimulated us to revisit our property plans and consider how we’re designing for the inevitability of fire.

Scorched earth and singed trees.

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Attempt #1: Cape Jervis to Victor Harbor via Heysen Trail

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I’ve always wanted to do a multi-day hiking and camping adventure, but having a 3 year old and 6 year old has put a hold on that dream…until now! Joel offered to look after the kids so I could attempt the first 4 days of the Heysen Trail, which is South Australia’s long distance walking trail that extends for 1200km from the Fleurieu Peninsula to the Flinders Ranges. I think my main goal in doing the trip was to put myself in a situation where I would need to rely on my own resources more, and in doing so improve my resilience, problem-solving and decision-making skills.

The section I wanted to do was the first leg along the spectacular southern coastline of the Fleurieu. The guidebook describes it as “Starting at the port near the small town of Cape Jervis, the trail traverses steep cliffs, rocky inclines, wooded valleys, a long sandy beach, two conservation parks, a dense forest, and a magnificent waterfall before ending near Victor Harbor, one of South Australia’s most popular seaside towns”.

It also states “A challenging walk, this leg of the Heysen Trail is rugged and potentially dangerous, with few flat sections. Walkers need to be experienced, have a high level of fitness and be well equipped. The trail’s proximity to the Southern Ocean means rapid, unpredictable weather changes are frequent”.

It’s fair to say that the main preparation I did in the lead-up was watching many YouTube videos of North American “thru hikers” demonstrating such things as how to pack light, how to pack a pack, hygiene on the trail etc. A fascinating subcultural vortex to be drawn into! I also thought that carrying 20kg+ children around the farm and on bushwalks was good training, and also did some big day walks in the lead up.

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What went in the pack: in hindsight, a lot of food!

I borrowed lightweight camping gear from friends and packed sparingly, and my “base weight” (weight of gear and bag excluding consumables) ended up being 9.35kg. My consumables of food and water added up to 7.61kg, so I totalled almost 17kg which went down over time. Some sites I looked at said that total pack weight should be no more than 20% of your body weight, others said 1/3 of body weight, which puts me between 14.4kg-23.76kg. In future I would try to get it down below 15kg. I definitely ended up packing too much food – I ate less on this trip than I do on a normal day at work in an office! My main regret was a packet of pumpernickel bread which weighed 500g and went untouched…the bagels were lighter but dense enough for a lunch so were a better option. Also could have reduced the muesli bar/nut/dried fruit snacks – but kept the chocolate! I welcome advice on how I could have reduced my load further…


Joel and the kids accompanied me for the first few kms until Land’s End, where we saw a big pod of dolphins feeding on fish. A group of these dolphins kept me company as I headed around the cape, through dunes and in and around multiple windswept rocky coves with occasional shacks interspersed with designer homes and always a view across to Kangaroo Island. I startled a brown snake and nearly trod on a shingleback lizard, before coming down the hill to Blowhole Beach where I saw my first humans for 12km.

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View down to Blowhole Beach

The final part of Day 1 involved a 3km punishing uphill ascent through sheoak and pink gum scrub of Deep Creek Conservation Park, and then I pushed on another 2km down to a wet and green little valley where I camped the night at Eagle Waterhole. This is a walk-in only campsite with a sleeping hut with basic beds, rainwater tank, and picnic table, and a great place to spend the night together with lots of kangaroos, blue wrens, and galahs. Alas, I also developed my first-ever ear infection in the night which made for an unusual sleep despite my super comfy sleeping set up.

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Eagle Waterhole campsite

On Day 2 my sister joined me, and we hiked across the rest of Deep Creek. Some sections were more burnt out and open, while others were closed in scrub or creeks with mini-waterfalls, and some near-vertical uphill climbs where Emmie tried to motivate me by falsely saying “You’re almost at the top!” over and over as the path kept climbing. We spotted an echidna and so many shingleback lizards. IMG_2175

I did find it challenging walking with an ear infection on top of the heavy pack, I couldn’t hear out of that ear and the pressure changes of going up and down slopes was intolerable at times, but we made it to Tapanappa Campground. Here I came across the only other Heysen hikers I saw for the whole trip, a couple who had walked the entire trail from the Flinders and were almost at the end. It was so nice to exchange knowledge about campsites, clean water and other tips and have a sense of camaraderie with others on the trail.

The pain in my ear was pretty intense that night, so I stayed at Glenburn Cottage down the road where Joel and the kids were holed up with Joel’s parents. I felt like I was cheating, but it didn’t lessen the length of the walk, and I certainly appreciated the good company, oven-baked dinner and dessert, and hot shower. Joel excelled in his role as “Trail Angel”, and the support he provided reminded me that no achievement happens in isolation and to always appreciate inter-reliance with others.

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Stringybark forest near Glenburn Cottage

On Day 3, I headed down out of Deep Creek Conservation Park through some of the nicest pink gum/yacca landscape I had encountered, smelling so good after the light rain.

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The view down to Boat Harbor Beach was amazing, and I had one of those moments where everything comes together to create perfection – the light and clouds were stunning, my panadol had kicked in, multiple pods of dolphins were frolicking in the waves below, and the view swept up this beautiful forested river valley.

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Tapanappa Creek at Boat Harbor Beach

From here the trail went in and around a few more coves before a 5km section of Tunkalilla Beach which was also a revelation. Steep hills to the left, crashing waves on a secluded beach to the right, and in between farming homesteads with pasture adjoining sand dunes. From here the path took a near vertical 100m climb up a hill on private grazing land, had to use the fence to pull myself up and I can’t imagine doing it in reverse! After crisscrossing some sheep grazing land, the trail then followed a dirt road for several kms before winding up at Balquhidder station where a camping area has been set up with a rainwater tank. And there my journey ended, 48km into the 72km walk. I decided it was prudent to get my ear seen by a doctor, as it didn’t seem to be healing while pushing the rest of my body to its limits.

I also realised a short way into the walk that, despite the guide book calling it a “3-4 day” walk, the way the campsites and water locations are laid out it would be difficult to do in that time frame. I was going to have to walk almost 29km on my third day to make it to the next water/camp site at Waitpinga, to then do 15km to get to Victor on the final day. I know I can do 25km in peak physical condition on a single day, but not sandwiched between other long walking days. Even the long distance Heysen hikers I came across were doing it in 5 days and just pacing themselves due to the slopes involved, I think around 15km is ideal per day when doing multiple days in a row.

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While the trail was well-marked for the most part, I was pleased at my map-reading skills and ability to predict how long it would take me to complete each section. I was also pleased with my walking pace and my body’s ability to keep up with the demands placed on it (not including you ear!). I made some good decisions along the way, and enjoyed being fully in control of my situation. I think next time I would prefer to hike with someone else for the duration, especially given the isolation of the trail and lack of other hikers, but I also enjoyed walking at my own pace and taking breaks when I needed to which is a real novelty when usually parenting.

I feel like I should be feeling more disappointed that I didn’t achieve my distance goal, but I don’t feel disappointed at all. The challenge was only against myself, and it was my first effort at hiking/camping and many useful lessons were learnt. I consider it a practice test for next time!

My advice to anyone who is considering doing this trail is that a walking stick is an absolute must, and don’t underestimate how much paracetamol you may need! It’s a great way to see some otherwise inaccessible parts of our beautiful region, and I think the only way the trail could be improved is for there to be more walkers on it.

Thanks to everyone who supported me in my endeavour, particularly Joel, Asher, Annika & Emmie, and also those who lent equipment and advice xx