Well, it’s a pretty niche topic for a comic, but with some recent time at home, Joel’s been working on this illustrated tale of our relationship with a particular weed: Rapistrum rugosum, or as it’s fondly and commonly known, turnip weed, giant mustard or bastard cabbage.
2022 also marks 10 years of our work with this patch of ground, so perhaps there are more comics to come! Enjoy!
As regular readers will be aware, when we bought Yarnauwi 9 years ago, there were just 3 trees (Eucalyptus camaldulensis) across the 47 acres. The area was originally managed by the Kaurna as a blue gum/pink gum open woodland with red gums dominating the creek lines. Then almost all trees and vegetation were removed after colonisation and the land was primarily used for cropping, cattle and sheep grazing for over 100 years with subsequent compaction and drying out of the landscape, disappearance of most native grasses, and creation of erosion gullies. More recently, the paddocks were sprayed out annually and re-sown for hay production, and rubbish was deposited in various locations around the property. Rainfall is in the 450-650mm range, and natural regeneration has been greatly hampered by the hundreds of resident kangaroos. Given all this, it is little wonder that for the first 6 years of our relationship with the land we saw virtually no fungi/mushrooms, and when we did it would only be in association with mulch brought in from outside and spread on some of our early plantings.
Since about 2018 we have seen a steady increase in fungi in various areas around the property. Of course, what we see is just the fruiting body or sporophore of vast underground networks of hyphae/mycelium that pop up to reproduce when the conditions are right (enough rain and warmth). They generally like organic matter, water, and minimal disturbance, and are a sign of healthy soil, so we had been hoping that over time they would start appearing with improved land management strategies.
Fungi come in all different shapes and sizes, and perform a range of ecological roles. Many are ‘mycorrhizal’ – meaning they form a symbiotic relationship with the roots of a plant, attaching on to the roots and greatly extending them, providing soluble nutrients and water to the plant in exchange for sugars from the plant’s ability to photosynthesise. It has been estimated that over 90% of native plants depend on fungi, and plants can only grow taller than 2 metres if they have a fungal partner to supply water, nutrients and communication. So if you like trees and plants, you should thank their fungi friends for providing so much unseen support! (Much like women and carers in our society!)
Many other types of fungi are ‘saprotrophic’ – meaning they break down and recycle nutrients in decomposing organic matter and turn it into soil. Fungi and termites are the only two things on earth that can break down the lignin in wood. They are the recyclers of forests. Again, they underpin the health of almost all Earth’s ecosystems.
A few years ago we started noticing what looked like balls of horse dung near some of our bigger planted pink gums (Eucalyptus fasciculosa) and blue gums (Eucalyptus leucoxylon). They were popping up after heavy summer or autumn rain events as a hard ball, and then over time decomposing into a powdery mess of spores as the sac eroded or split open. It turns out that these guys are mycorrhizal, and from the Pisolithus genus (probably Pisolithus arhizus). Their common name is the ‘Dyeball’ or ‘Horse Dung Fungus’, and the spores can indeed be used as a natural brown-gold dye. They are native, common, and found around the world.
Pisolithus in various states of decay
Starting in winter 2019, we started noticing a profusion of little orange-brown mushrooms popping up in patches of soil bared out by kangaroos underneath some of our planted trees in our fenced off revegetation areas. They have been coming back year upon year now and have spread to new areas. They are from the Laccaria genus, which contains many species that are very difficult to tell apart. They have a white spore print, have white-tinged gills underneath and are very delicate. Their common name is ‘The Deceiver’ and they are mycorrhizal. A fungi expert once told me that they are an indicator of degraded soil that is trying to recover. Sounds about right!
The Deceiver in action
A huge Eucalyptus camaldulensis trunk came down in a storm many years ago and has lain rotting on the ground ever since (where possible we allow things to rot and form homes for flora, fauna and funga and become new life rather than using it as firewood). We had never previously noticed any fungi breaking it down until this year when we discovered a diversity of fungus species. We had a white jelly appearing out of cracks in the wood, Tremella fuciformis (Snow fungus/White Brain), which is apparently parasitic on the mycelium of other fungi. We had multiple species of tiny Mycena popping up, both out of the wood and out of leaf litter on the ground. We had a large red-orange Gymnopilus with its gorgeous conical shape and rusty brown spore print, which a mycologist friend suggested may be Gymnopilus purpuratus but more investigation is required. Even the Trametes coccinea (Scarlet Bracket), one of Australia’s most common and widespread species, was having a go deconstructing one end. Had they been there for years and we hadn’t noticed, given some only fruit for a few weeks, or had the log finally been there long enough for airborne spores to find it?
Gymnopilus in various stages of development, possibly Gymnopilus purpuratus
However the most exciting fungi development this year has been the sudden arrival and proliferation of the Onion Earthball (Sclerodermacepa). Again, from seemingly out of nowhere, presumably with spores blown on the wind and mycelium quietly developing unnoticed underground, this winter almost every single one of our larger Pink gums (Eucalyptus fasciculosa), Blue gums (Eucalyptus leucoxylon), Eucalyptus occidentalis, and Drooping Sheoaks (Allocasuarina verticallata), was sporting an abundance of these yellow balls in a circular formation under the tree’s canopy. They start like a hard tennis ball with a thick yellow peridium, which then breaks open into lobes through exposure to the elements. Inside are millions of tiny dark-coloured spores that blow away as the sporophore disintegrates, going on to seek out new partners. I collected spores from several parts of the property and a mycologist at the SA Herbarium analysed the spores with a microscope – she confirmed the spores are large, globose, 10-17 µm diameter, and have scattered spines – confirming it to be Scleroderma cepa. This is a very good species to have as it is ectomycorrhizal, forming a symbiosis with the tree by attaching to the outside of the tree’s roots and greatly enhancing the tree’s ability to survive in a hostile disturbed landscape, as evidenced by the successful growth rates of the trees surrounded by Earthballs. It appears as though our only trees which are growing successfully are those which have formed a partnership with a Scleroderma (or given the symbiosis, perhaps the successful trees are leading to larger and more successful mycelium networks so we see a greater abundance of sporophores around these bigger trees). Either way, we cannot possibly express how grateful we are to these humble little yellow balls which apparently believe in restoring a woodland at Yarnauwi!
Scleroderma cepa (Onion Earthball) at various ages and stages.
We’ve also had Schizophylum commune (Splitgill) ‘spoil’ our silage, with these beautiful furry cream/brown tiered sporophores bursting through the plastic wrapping all over some of the bales of silage. They are breaking down the woody organic matter contained within so keen are they to get recycling. This species is also common and found around the world, being one of the first to colonise dead and damaged wood. A word of warning, if you do see the Splitgill, try not to breathe it in as it may be pathogenic and has been linked to skin and lung problems in immuno-compromised people in other countries.
This year has also seen the return of a significant number of field mushrooms (Agaricus species). We have always had a few Agaricus around the place, but they seem to be yet another thing that kangaroos and insects devour, and by the time we saw them they were usually either eaten or heavily disintegrated by the rain. This year we seemed to see more fruiting bodies before anything got to them, and generally always in our fenced off revegetation areas which used to be grazed but no longer are. Given the variety of sizes, colours and cap shapes, it’s been hard to identify if they are all one species, but those I’ve tested have a brown spore print, and the pileus/cap is almost always radially fibrillose. Some Agaricus are edible while others are toxic, and there are many different species which occur in Australian farm paddocks, so we would like to give these more study next year and find out if they could be another farm-foraged food option.
And finally we’ve noticed a few other random little tiny mushrooms within a fenced off area that was burnt by fire a few years ago. We’re not sure what they are, but would certainly like to find out. The first one has a very smooth pileus of white to pale orange colour, is approximately 3cm diameter, has a ring at the base, white gills and a brown spore print. It may be in the Stropharia genus but more investigation is required. The second one is tiny, gilled and with an interesting pattern on the cap.
Tiny little things, the two on the left are probably Stropharia.
In summary, as the third kingdom of life on earth, fungi are giving us a lot to think about and explore at Yarnauwi. As well as appreciating them for their inherent biodiversity value, we also see them as a window into the world of what is going on underground. The more we learn, the more we realise there is to learn, the more we realise we don’t know, and the more we realise can be affected by our management decisions and actions. Our next goal is to work on improving fungal networks in our grazing paddocks (currently annually slashed for fire prevention or left fallow as we don’t have any stock, and increasingly dominated by annual grasses and wild brassica – though on the upside small birds love the protection and habitat this affords them!) Fungi are a huge part of a healthy living soil which we need so we can draw down carbon through perennial plants, improve nutrient and water cycling in the soil, reduce erosion, provide healthy pasture for livestock, and support increased abundance of all kinds. Fungi are the foundation.
Thanks to Pam Catcheside for her generous advice, and to various iNaturalist users for suggesting or confirming species identification. All errors are the author’s own.Readers are encouraged to log their own fungi observations/sightings on the ‘Fungimap Australia’ project on iNaturalist, to become part of Atlas of Living Australia data.
Nine years ago, our community of friends and family stepped onto a soggy and windswept paddock and began their first year of tree-planting at Yarnauwi. Despite the disappointment of early failures, they’ve returned every winter since and in 2021 our friends returned again, taking the tally of trees and shrubs planted to almost 7800 since 2013.
After planting about 1000 trees a year for the first few years, we now have the luxury of reducing our plantings to a few hundred, filling in gaps and tweaking projects. This year, the focus was on developing a shelter and habitat belt around the front paddock and filling gaps in the emerging woodland of our “wilderness zones”. In honour of long-time friend-of-the-farm Anthony, currently constrained by lockdown interstate, we also planted several rows of Old Man Saltbush on contour through our silvopasture block.
Over the last nine years we’ve learnt a lot. With the right guards (corflute for humidity, mallee mesh for kangaroo protection) we’ve significantly increased the survival rate (from almost 0 to about 70-80%) without supplementary watering. Although we still have plenty to learn, we’ve learnt much more about reading soil and aspect, and matching the right plants to the right spots. After a subdued, Covidian planting last year, it was wonderful to welcome volunteers back to Yarnauwi and for the first time, there were moments when it felt like working in a woodland, rather than the open paddock of almost a decade ago.
We’re so grateful to our friends and family for their support and belief in the future. We look forward to seeing what the next nine years may bring.
There’s been so much growth and change at the farm over the last year that we really wanted to share with our team of volunteers and supporters. However, with everyone staying in their postcode this holiday weekend and farm tours suspended for the foreseeable future, we thought we’d put together a little video so you can still enjoy the big skies of the Fleurieu! Take care, and we hope to see you back under the trees soon!
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.
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.
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 →
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.
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.
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.
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 →