starter trees

2017/01/10 deej 0

We’ve hit the new year with all the right energy, planting trees. There are all these sayings about trees, like “the best time to plant a tree is ten years ago; the second best time is now” and “a society grows wise when [people] plant trees in whose shade they will never sit” (implying planting trees for the benefit of future generations), and it all boils down to: trees taker a long time to get established. Start them as soon as you can.


Trees (and shrubs, and other deep-rooted perennial plants) are essential for a food forst, or any forest-like permaculture system. They’re also really useful for rehabilitating damaged or degraded landscapes, especially where salinity is a problem (deep-rooted perennial plants lower the water table and reduce salinisation of surface soils by salty groundwater). Many trees are also highly productive, giving a higher yield per area in terms of food value produced than most annuals, often with less care, maintenance, and irrigation.


But trees are harder to get established than annuals. They are longer lived and therefore slower growing, slower to mature and reach productivity, slower to get established. And fruiting (or otherwise productive) tree species are often quite delicate in a WA context, and don’t handle the heat or the dry weather very well. There are exceptions, but usually permies will want to start out by planting some nurse trees, to get some soil bacteria established and shade the ground a little to stop all the moisture baking out of it in the summer. If they fix some nitrogen, or have some other use, all the better. Some of these phase 1 trees will continue on in the final forest system, while others may die natural deaths (fast growing short-lived trees will naturally be senescing when your main canopy starts to mature) or be removed (and mulched or used for timber) to make space in the canopy for the productive trees to grow into.


After three years of trial and error, and research, we’ve got a pretty good handle on what trees work well in the context of the Perth hills (600 – 800 mm rainfall per year, mostly over winter, temperatures ranging up to 42 degrees C in summer and down to zero degrees C in winter, possible light frosts in winter, sandy laterite gravel soils with some clay content, high fire risk in summer) with minimal additional irrigation. So here are some of our top picks for the stage one planting on a degraded site.


  • (1) Wattles. Not all wattles are native to the area, but they seem to behave as if they are. They’re fast-growing, nitrogen fixing, and shade-providing, making them excellent nurse trees for later planting fruit trees. We’ve put in all species with edible seeds, meaning that they’re also a food producing plant: jam wattle (Acacia acuminata), prickly wattle (Acacia victoriae), mulga (Acacia aneura), silver wattle (Acacia dealbata), coastal wattle (Acacia sophorae), and dogwood (Acacia coriacea). Grow easily from seed; fast growing.


  • (2) Empress Tree or Princess Tree (Paulownia tormentosa). These need a bit of babying for the first year or two, but once established they’re virtually unkillable. They coppice well (i.e. resprout from the roots), and they create beautiful deep shade with their large, soft leaves. They’re fire retardant (i.e. they’re hard to burn, and fires will generally stop at them as if at a firebreak), and their flowers are a very good nectar source for bees. Grow easily from seed; fast growing.


  • (3) Jacarandas (Jacaranda mimosifolia) are hardy, tough, and beautiful. Their only real use (other than shade and soil stabilisation) is that the flowers are a good nectar source for bees, but I love them. Flowering jacarandas have always been my marker for spring. Grow easily from seed; fast growing.


  • (4) Illawarra flame trees (Brachychiton acerifolius) need a biut of support through their first summer, and they suffer quite badly from defoliation by grasshoppers, but they’re pretty tough. Their seeds are theoretically edible (were used for food by some Aboriginal groups), but the seed pods contain irritating fine hairs similar to the glochids on prickly pear cactus. They can cause blindness if they get into your eyes, so be careful handling the seeds and seed pods.


  • (5) Honey locust (Gleditsia triacanthos) are similar in appearance to jacarandas, with feathery leaves, but they don’t have the showy flowers of the jacaranda. Their seed pods (and leaves) are useful as stock feed, though; high in sugar and minerals. There is some indication that honey locusts may be nitrogen fixing, although they are non-nodulating – it’s controversial, but they do show many of the characteristics of nitrogen fixing trees, including thriving in low N soils. Grow easily from seed; fast growing.


  • (6) Olives (Olea europea) are not fast growing trees, but they are very hardy. They need very little support after their first year in the ground (although extra water and fertiliser will encourage them to grow faster), and are a commercially productive tree. Propagate from cuttings of known varieties.


  • (7) Casuarina or Allocasuarina species – I’m not actually sure what species the ones we have are, as they self-seeded from local stands. Could be Allocasuarina decussata, or possibly Allocasuarina huegeliana. Whatever exact species they are, they produce copious quantities of pollen for the bees, and the foliage can be used as livestock feed for ruminants. Given they volunteered (self-seeded), they must grow easily from seed, and they do grow fast. I’ll try deliberately planting some seeds this autumn and see how that goes.


  • (8) Frangipani (Plumeria spp.) are surprisingly tough, and can be grown very easily from cuttings. They give good shade, and drop a lot of leaves in winter, providing some good soil-building biomass. I can’t find a corroborating link right now, but the petals of the frangipani flower are edible, and can be added to salads. I have not done any toxicity testing, so eat at your own risk, but I have eaten them with no ill effects.


Amusingly, fig trees don’t make this list. People think that figs are tough and hardy, and they are – once established. Getting them there though.. they have to be babied through their first 2 – 4 years in the ground with extra water and a lot of care. We have killed four baby fig trees learning this.


Pomegranates should be a good option, as long as they are in full sun. So far our pomegranate experiments have not done well, because we mistakenly thought that full sun in Europe would = some midday shade in WA. Not true. After 2 years of not growing and barely surviving, with permanently yellow leaves, we gave in and dug the 2 baby pomegranate sup, and moved them to a full sun location to see what would happen. One didn’t survive the transplant, but the other is thriving for the first time ever and actually growing. I’ve ordered some more young trees, which will go into the ground when they arrive in nice, sunny locations, and I’ve planted some seeds from a supermarket fruit to see what happens. If they germinate reasonably easily, I may import some new genetics from the US and the middle east in seed form and start playing with pomegranate breeding.


Apples, pears and quinces do remarkably well if provided with a bit of additional water in summer (not much water is needed to keep them alive, but they need it regularly – twice a week). They do summer complete defoliation from the grasshoppers though, so either spray them with insecticide (neem oil is great) or net them. Guinea fowl do help keep the grasshopper population down, but they don’t provide sufficient control to keep the trees alive without spraying or netting.


The next experiments (currently in seed trays, hopefully germinating soon) include moringa (Moringa oleifera), graceful honey myrtle (Melaleuca radula), and bottlebrush (Callistemon spp. – locally collected seed). We also have poplar (Populnus nigra) and willow (Salix spp.) cuttings growing, to plant out this autumn, and some lilly pilly (Syzygium smithii) seedlings in the ground to see how they go.


The experiments never end though. I want to try putting in some tagasaste (Cytisus proliferus, also known as Chamaecytisus palmensis) and leucana (Leucaena leucocephala), and some black mulberry (Morus nigra) seedlings. I’d like to try some riberry (Syzygium luehmannii) plants too, if I can find some.


tree cover

2016/02/19 deej 0

Not every landscape “wants” to be a forest. Although forest gardens are a staple in the planning diets of many permaculture enthusiasts, there are (or were) lots of other complex, balanced ecosystems. For example, there are savannahs, based around perennial grasslands and large herds of grazing animals, as well as shrub and wetland ecosystems. Forest gardening is actually a slightly controversial topic in sustainability/ regenerative agriculture/permaculture circles because so many people simply pick it up as a default without looking at what works best for their location.

It’s important, I think, to keep that in mind and to challenge your biases when designing a system. Observation is key – as in so many things. Look at the natural wild or re-growth areas near your site to see what the landscape “wants” to be – is it forest? Woodland? Shrubs and dune vegetation? Savannah?

Chittering (where we are), when left to itself, becomes a shrubby, fairly open woodland, with a dispersed canopy layer. It has the potential to become forest, but the native sclerophyll (drought-tolerant, fire-loving) vegetation doesn’t lean easily that way. We have the great good fortune of having half the property vegetated with re-growth bushland, what looks like about 20 years worth, so we can see what our exact site “wants” to be. Our site plan is based on that: a fairly open savannah-woodland, with “clearings” (sparser woodland, still with shade cover in summer) for grazing animals, and denser, more forestlike areas as well.

Of course the species we’re selecting are based on our needs and wants, rather than simply being whatever evolved in the area and survived the European settlement. I do want to grow some native plants, but most of the useful Australian natives I’ve researched are from the East coast. We have a few species of wattles in already, and I plan to plant sandalwood, quandong, and a few lilly pilly varieties, as well as macadamias. But the next round of planting, to get some tree cover across the open area which will be orchard and paddocks, is mostly poplar, mulberry, carob and honey locust – because they’re are tough, well adapted to the local climate, reasonably fast growing, and edible to livestock. Mulberries and carobs have the additional benefit of producing edible fruit and seed pods respectively, too.

I also have several loquat seedlings (or possibly guava – they look like loquat, but the friend-of-a-friend who gave them to us claims they were growing under his guava tree, self-seeded). And we’ll be ordering some assorted trees from the Ballingup Small Tree Farm, to supplement the ones we’ve grown form seed and/or cuttings and/or been gifted as seedlings.

Further to this whole planting plan, getting some tree cover on, we’re planning a planting day at the beginning of May. Last time we had a planting day it was just the two of us, and we managed to put 70 saplings into the ground – so this time I thought we’d invite people up for a permablitz, to help plant trees. Lots of digging, but it’s pretty straight-forward and very satisfying. I put a Facebook event up, so do RSVP and come along. 🙂

If enough people come, and are interested, we may do a seed-ball creation run with The Machine.


2015/12/03 deej 1

I’m sure anyone who reads these posts regularly knows that we’re pretty keen to increase our menagerie, but I don’t think I’ve explained clearly why that is. It isn’t just for the milk and meat that we want to get goats and a cow, although they are part of the reason. It’s for the soil.

Soil is the heart and the root of any ecosystem, including farm ecosystems. Healthy soil is absolutely essential if you want to grow healthy plants, and produce any sort of yield from the ground. The modern methods of land management call for huge inputs of chemical fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides, and those methods have really big problems. Most of the industrial chemicals we use on farmland are derived from petroleum products – they’re made from oil. And oil is a finite resource which we are going to run short of, probably in the near future. On top of that, the strength of the chemical fertilisers is damaging to the soil bacteria and other soil life (earthworms, fungi, etc.) which keep the soil alive – this isn’t an anti-chemicals rant (because literally everything bigger than a subatomic particle is made of chemicals), but the types of chemicals we use and the concentrations we use are bad for our soils.

You know what’s good for soil? Poo. Good, old fashioned manure. Just like farmers have been using around the world since the dawn of agriculture. That’s why animals have been so important to crop farmers for so long.

At the moment, we have a composting toilet which receives our own poo and the used kitty litter form our cats. That will compost slowly for a year, then go into a hot compost system to kill off any remaining pathogens, then we can use it on our garden (mainly for the fruit trees, just in case). We have the chickens, and the guinea fowl keets, and their poo is going to be very useful in adding nitrogen to the soil; we’re going to put a mobile chicken coop together in the new year so we can rotate the chooks around the property. The real win, however, is going to be ruminants.

We’ve walked out approximate distances, and we definitely have space for 12 – 20 paddocks. The plan is to put in posts marking the corners of the paddocks (which will be quite small), and get fencing to surround 2 paddocks at any given time. We’ll rotate the ruminants around every 2 weeks or so, which should give the pasture time to recover from intensive grazing. This replicates the natural actions of wild ruminants, which bunch together for protection form predators and move frequently to new grazing areas – and it’ll mean that all the plants are grazed equally. The chooks will be 1 paddock behind the ruminants, so they can eat leftover grain (from the supplemental feed we’ll provide to the ruminants), and spread the poo out by scratching around in it, eating maggots as they go.

Step 1 of this plan is marking out the paddocks, and planting some pasture. Step 1A is deciding on the pasture species. this is not as easy as it might seem – who knew there were so many variations on grass? I’m definitely putting in tagasaste and lucerne, and as many varieties of clover and sub-clover as I can get hold of/afford. If I can get some seeds I’ll put in some Lebeckia ambigua as well – a summer-growing pasture legume which doesn’t need extra water sounds like a brilliant option. But then the grasses. I have, at the moment, no idea what I’ll plant. By march I need to have a plan so I can put in the seed order, and then the seed will go in around May to germinate with the first rains and get established. And then I still have to wait at least 3 – 6 months before putting grazers on it in case they just kill the baby pasture before it gets established.

Pasture Plans

2015/09/21 deej 0

The house is finished, except for a few minor items like the concrete for the verandah which hasn’t been poured yet, and only 2 of the 5 water tanks being in place as yet. We are days away from being able to move in. Days!

The valuer is booked for Wednesday morning, to come and verify for the bank that the house is actually there, complete, and connected to the power and water. Then (so the theory goes) the bank pays the builder, the builder hands over the keys, and we move in. Very exciting. But being here in this limbo of not-quite-finished is also very frustrating; it’s so very close now that every additional delay hurts.

To distract myself – not that I need that much distraction at the moment, being mid-way through my first real research project for my Masters of Sustainable Agriculture course – I’m planning some landscaping.

The raw earth where the greywater system and leach drains were dug in and buried is going to be a heat-magnifying desert of red gravel this summer if we don’t do something about it soon. There isn’t time to put in any robust perennial groundcovers, never mind the longer term plan of leafy deciduous trees to shade the area near the house. There won’t be any more trucks driving over the area now, but we’re already seeing the warm summer weather starting. In the time we have left of spring, there’s really only one option which is likely to work: pasture.

Some sort of annual dryland pasture mix, which can hold the soil down and shade the ground a little. Build a bit of organic matter, and get some soil structure happening for the fruit trees I want to put in where the greywater outlets are. It’s close to the house, so I’m thinking stone fruit – all those delicious, juicy, summer treats which attract fruit fly if you don’t watch them constantly and manage it. Annual pastures are quick to establish, unlike perennial pastures and groundcovers, which can take months or years.

My problem is that I know literally nothing about lawns and very little more about grasses in general. I did some research a couple’ve years ago about legumes and symbiotic nitrogen fixing bacteria, but if you were to ask me what pasture plants are best for which soils and climate zones, I’d have no idea. My current plan is to get a range of varieties sold for the 400 – 600 mm rainfall band, for livestock farmers to seed their pastures, and see how I go. But the number of options is a little daunting.

There are dozens if not hundreds of varieties of clover, a handful of native grasses which look promising, and the various pasture grasses sold commercially – of which there are also dozens of varieties. If I could get lucerne established I’d be very happy, but I’ll take anything green at this point in the game.

I’ve contacted a couple’ve rural seed suppliers, and I’m hoping to pick up some seed at the end of this week. I’ll post updates as the project progresses.