Recreating the Country blog
It’s the 2020 summer fire season - Australia shouldn't be burning like this
You might be expecting this blog to be about climate change, it could be, but it's not.
Its about how we need to work with nature and manage our native bush differently to get ready for the annual fire season.
We need to change the way we prepare for the summer because its clear that our current strategies are tragically failing us.
Partly the solution lies in fire safe design of rural houses and gardens, but the ultimate solution will be found through adopting Traditional Owner cool burning methods of managing the bush.
Here is a link to an 11 minute video of a Traditional Owner burn near Tathra, NSW. You can watch the indigenous team conduct a burn as they explain the philosophy and science behind what they're doing. Its definitely worth watching to the end.
My radio transmits the troubled voices of the people who are living through the fires. They are shocked but still remarkably resilient and upbeat. Lives lost, houses lost, treasured animals and possessions lost, the bush is blackened and lifeless, yet they’re going to carry on.
This annual bushfire tragedy and how we respond is part of our national identity. We’re a tough and irrepressible people and we’re proud of that
The fire season started very early this year and by New Year’s Day there have been major bushfires in every state. Starting in Queensland and New South Wales in late October and slowly spreading south. By the start of 2020 Victoria and Tasmania were in the fires deadly grip. In November there were also catastrophic fires near Perth, WA and in the Adelaide hills. They continue to burn.
Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra are blanketed with smoke. The ABC news reported on New Year’s Day that Canberra had the worst air quality of any city in the world. That’s worse than New Delhi, India or Lahore, Pakistan.
We saw it coming but we were powerless
What is particularly alarming is that we seem to be powerless to avoid this annual national fire disaster, even though months before it started, a bad fire season had been predicted. What does this say about our ability to plan ahead?
By planning ahead I don’t mean having the fire trucks serviced and thousands of brave firefighter’s skilled-up. I don’t mean advising country people how to get their properties ready for the hot summer.
These are all important aspects of preparing for a fire season but they are still only short term plans, piecemeal and reactionary. It’s like training an army and preparing citizens just in case there is a war to fight. But we know it’s better to avoid war at all costs and not suffer the human tragedy.
It seems that as a nation we are prepared to accept that every year somewhere ‘shit will happen’ - forests will burn, homes will burn and lives will be lost?
That’s tragically not good enough! This piecemeal approach is clearly failing us. We can do better.
The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. Albert Einstein.
It’s not startling news that summer bushfires have been a feature of Australia since settlement. A devastating bushfire burnt nearly half of Victoria on ‘Black Thursday’ 6th February 1851. The loss of property and life was tragic and crippling then.
Since 1851 we have become much more sophisticated in how we fight fires but the end result is still the same, loss of forests, loss of homes and loss of life.
Why do we continue to make the same mistakes year after year, decade after decade and be surprised (horrified) when it’s always the same terrible outcome?
We have failed to make country people safe in their homes and safe in their communities.
Making country communities safe needs;
Fire-safe rating building codes.
We know how to design and build fire-safe homes. Fire proof structures have been well tested under extreme fire conditions by the CSIRO.
See this article on CSIRO testing and proposed new building standards
More and more country people are installing fire safe bunkers to survive an extreme fire event. These are commercially available. I have a friend at Meredith who has had two bunkers installed. She is an avid reader, so the second bunker is for her collection of books.
Fire proofing modifications will add to building costs but they should be seen as essential to country living. Just as house design now has minimum permissible energy efficiency star ratings, buildings in the country should have minimal permissible fire ratings. All existing homes should have fire proofing retrofitted to make them safe.
To avoid a mass exodus from country areas we have to make homes fire-safe
These new costs should not have to be carried by people living in the country. They should be funded through government grants and interest free loans.
It is the government’s responsibility to prevent a disaster stimulated exodus from country areas. People who have a choice will see county living as too risky for themselves and their families, unless they know they will be safe if the unthinkable happens.
We need to encourage people to live in rural areas to take the pressure of our swelling cities. The extent and severity of bushfires can only become worse as global temperatures continue to rise, so its important that the choice of living in the country is a safe and viable one.
See this article on innovative designs for bushfire safe housing.
Building on past successes - social support systems
Community Fireguard in Victoria saves lives, as does the Community Fire Units in NSW and the Community Fire Safe program in SA. These programs are voluntary but the people who participate are far better prepared.
A Fire Authority trained guest speaker helps set up the framework and explains how it works. Members have property inspections and advice on how to improve fire safety. They set up phone support networks and have regular social meetings. They help each other prepare for a fire event both physically and emotionally.
Country communities are known for their willingness to help neighbours in times of need. Wouldn’t formalising social support systems like these fit our country ethos? These social support programs should be broadened to include every family living in the country. It should be seen as an essential (dare I say compulsory) part of life in the bush.
This link will take you to Victoria's Community Fireguard program
Radical change to landscape and garden design around country homes
Landscaping around homes can reduce fire risk. This means planting gardens and fire barriers with deciduous trees and watered gardens to create cool air in hot weather and enhance fire safety.
Australian native trees are designed to burn. The myrtle family (E.g. eucalypts, melaleucas, bottlebrush and tea-tree) all have flammable oils in their leaves. Most native species have evolved with fire and need fire for their reproduction. Having flammable native plants close to homes is dangerous.
Native windbreaks can lessen fire risk by significantly reducing wind speeds but they have to be sited at sensible distance from homes and be well maintained.
See this blog on 'Farm plantations can reduce bushfire risk'
Native gardens are a delight near a home but they can add to the fire risk if they become overgrown and woody.
See this blog on 'Managing native gardens for fire safety in southern rural Australia'
In contrast non-native deciduous trees and vines have a cooling effect on air and are difficult to burn. Deciduous trees will also trap and cool embers. Why aren’t deciduous trees used to protect homes? They could be strategically planted in the north and west fire danger sectors.
See this blog on - Deciduous trees can provide crucial bushfire protection in rural Australia
Radical change to fuel reduction burning.
There is plenty of anecdotal evidence from the first settler diaries that devastating fires were rare when they arrived.
‘No newcomer reported the big killer fires typifying Sydney’s margins today’.
(Gammage B. 2011, The Biggest Estate on Earth. How Aborigines made Australia. P242)
The Australian bush that they found looked different to the bush that we know today. The plants were the same but the landscape was more open. It was like a ‘nobleman’s park’ because it was managed in a different way by Australia’s Traditional Owners.
Traditional Owner (TO) burning is cool and sensitive to the vegetation and the wildlife that live there. It’s described by indigenous people as ‘healing the landscape’ because it nurtures life in all its diversity. It may seem simple, but it was a sophisticated and powerful tool that they used to keep the bush open and safer.
With TO fuel reduction burns Air quality isn’t affected because cool burning gives off white smoke (mostly steam) and keeps most of the carbon on the ground. Hot fires produce black smoke which is full of carbon and unsafe to breath.
Click here to read about a house and sheds that were saved by Traditional Owner burning in the Hunter Valley on January 6th 2020
A Traditional Owner burn at Cape York where burning has been practiced for over 60,000 years. Photo Dale Smithyman
Read more on the Traditional Owner burning method here
This blog describes a Traditional Owner cool burn
Ancient Australian culture - the traditional skill of cool burning
After the fires we will be ready to talk about change?
There is a lot of denial, anger and compassion being expressed by Australians about this current bushfire tragedy and we know it’s not over yet. When the nation has worked through its grief it will be appropriate to do some ‘rational analyses’ of the extreme disaster we have witnessed.
We have to move beyond the national attitude that the fire season has to be endured. It’s time to see the practical benefits of Traditional Owner vegetation management practices and begin to adopt them. Home and property designs should be upgraded to provide a safe refuge. We have to start preparing for a warming climate with its predicted weather extremes.
While we will always need trained volunteers to fight fires, we should also be transitioning to a large trained workforce, lead by indigenous men and women, to conduct TO cool burns. This TO method of burning would be part of a new philosophy of working with nature rather than 'fighting' against her.
Nature can be a devastating enemy as we know. Wouldn’t we prefer nature to become our powerful ally?
The exciting prospect of designing and planting your own nature-strip or native garden and how it can be done.
Individually designed nature-strips have the exciting potential of being colourful mosaics of personal expression. An organic form of street art that could define a street, a town and a municipality. A barren grassy strip is a clean slate, an empty canvas, just waiting for an artistic declaration.
Just imagine a quiet street where the nature-strips are a patchwork of diverse leaf and flower colour, each a statement of personal preference, each as different as the people who designed and planted them. The occasional mown grassy strip would become a pause, a full stop in the storyline of the local street-art
Edwina Jones, a resident of Victoria Park (a town near Perth), took advantage of the $500 Council grant, that supports replanting of nature strips to low water-use native plants. She is delighted with the result just two years after planting;
“The birds came and there are bees as well. I’m standing in it now and I can see bees on the Fan-flowers (Scaevola sp). There’s a gravel path through it and I love seeing schoolchildren trip through it on their way to school and I get a lot of comments. It can really change a feel of a street to get nice-looking verges. And it doesn’t take much to look after, you just have to do a little clipping to make sure the plants don’t get too high
Here is a link to the City of South Perth's [PDF] 'Greening our streets, Street Verge landscape Guidelines'. https://southperth.wa.gov.au › docs › 1-residents › services › verges › stree...
Designing your own nature-strip/native garden
A visit to your local native nursery will open windows into the possibilities of how your own creativity can be expressed
Look for contrasts in leaf colour and leaf shape. A native garden will always look exciting if there are vivid differences between the foliage of plants. Flowering then becomes a fabulous bonus, but not the making of a garden. It will always look extraordinary even without flowers.
The best way to visualise this at the nursery is to place the plants you like side by side to see if there is a clear contrast in foliage. If there is then you’ve made a great start to designing your native garden in the nature-strip
In nature, plants of the same species always grow together. Nature mass plants them to ensure their survival, landscapers copy this feature because it looks strong, bold and stunning. This is particularly important with small plants and grasses but it holds true for shrubs and trees as well.
Smaller plants can therefore be mass planted in much larger numbers. For example a square meter of garden (1 m x 1m or 0.5m x 2m) could hold 100 plants of a small herb like Chocolate Lily, Arthrapodium strictum, if planted at 10 cm spacing. In contrast a square meter of garden would only accommodate one shrubby grevillea.
The limiting factor is the size of the garden. A small garden like a nature-strip could be overpowered by a mass planting of one or two species of shrubs. Mass planting smaller grassland plants among a few ‘hero’ shrubs/trees allows for a lot of diversity in the small plants and makes a striking feature of the ‘hero’ or attractive shrub or small tree.
Some grassland plants ‘hibernate’ over winter
Something to keep in mind is that some of the beautiful lilies, flowering grassland herbs and orchids die back over winter, waiting to put out their fresh leaves and flowers the following spring. This adds a wonderful element of surprise to your garden. It also creates a bare patch over the cool autumn and winter months.
You may need to mark these bare patches with a small stake as a reminder not to dig or plant new plants. Leaving it bare and adding a light mulch will look good and allow space for these spring spectacles to return, invigorated by their rest.
You will also find that the other flowering herbs and grasses in your garden will seed into these openings in the garden, making it more natural and informal with every season.
Plant a diversity of plants – this is ideal but not essential in a nature-strip
Diversity of plants in a nature-strip/garden supports more insects and more birds. Small reptiles and frogs will also make a home if you add some rocks and logs.
Simply put, more species of flora = more species of fauna.
In a home garden this design feature is important to bring in a diversity of wildlife. The different flowers and flowering times providing a variety of foods for a variety insects. This intern supports more bird species.
Though in a patchwork of street nature-strips, it would be an attractive feature if some are planted with large clumps of native/indigenous shrubs and others focused on masses of one or two species of native herbs or lilies. The overall street effect would be a delightful mosaic of height, texture and colour. The Superb Blue Wrens and other small insectivorous birds would certainly add their tick of approval by moving to the clumps of shrubs.
Let’s be sensible
Councils have restrictions on what you can plant on a nature-strip often for good reasons.
Some councils encourage planting nature-strips
More progressive Councils like the Victorian Cities of Monash and Moreland support planting native plants on nature-strips and may assist with a list of recommended local plants, Read more on this link>
Perth Councils are supporting the planting of native plants on nature-strips because they use much less water than grass. Read more on this link> Western Australian Water Minister Dave Kelly (now Premier of WA) said climate change was continuing to impact Perth's water supplies and communities needed to adapt and evolve;
“I congratulate the cities of Mandurah, Vincent and Stirling and the Town of Victoria Park for their work to help households establish waterwise verges,” he said.
“I encourage other eligible councils to take advantage.
“More than 40 per cent of household water use in Perth occurs outside the home.
“Establishing native plants also adds to the liveability of our communities by adding visual appeal and creating habitats for local wildlife - all while having a cooling effect on our streets.”
Approach your Council with caution
I prefer to plant first and ask for forgiveness later. After all it’s our responsibility to maintain the nature strip and planting with small indigenous plants is clearly an effective form of maintenance.
By all means make cautious inquiries to gauge your Councils policy on planting nature strips. However if you find your Council has a conservative policy, asking permission may result in unhelpful red tape and a list of illogical concerns. When it looks great there is not likely to be any opposition. They may even see the many benefits and start recommending it to other ratepayers.
Locating a source of hardy local plants
Most garden nurseries stock Australian native plants and a few plant species that are local to your area. If you want to expand your plant list, add more diversity (wildlife will thank you) and buy more cheaply in bulk, try:
Some beautiful and hardy plants for your nature-strip, including suggestions from nature-strip gardener Peter Van Haeff.
Don’t be put off by the botanical names, just cut and paste them into your search engine and hey presto, you will have instant pictures and descriptions. Pictures of some are shown below - the names will appear when your mouse hovers;
Ground covers: Atriplex semibaccata; Brachycome multifida; Carpobrotus species; Chrysocephalum apiculatum; Correa sp.; Enchylaena tomentose; Grevillea sp.; Hardenbergia violacea; Kennedia prostrata; Xerochrysum bracteatum.
Herbs: Calocephalus citreus; Convolvulus erubescens; Geranium sp.; Linum marginale; Nicotiana suaveolens; Pelargonium sp.; Ptilotus sp., Xerochrysum viscosum;
Lilies: Dianella species; Anigozanthus sp.; Arthropodium strictum;
Grasses and Sedges: Austrodanthonia sp.; Austrostipa sp.; Lomandra sp. Poa sp., Themedia triandra,
Shrubs: Small Acacia species (e.g. A. acinaceae; A. glaucoptera); small Banksia sp. small Callistemon sp. (e.g. C. 'Little John'); Correa sp.; Crowea saligna; Dodonaea viscosa; Goodenia ovata; small Grevillea sp.; Indigofera Australis; small Melaleuca sp.
Small trees: Acacia sp.; small Allocasuarina sp.; Bursaria spinosa, Banksia sp.; small Eucalyptus sp. (e.g. E. platypus; E. preissiana, E. torquata, dwarf E. leucoxylon); Grevillea sp.
When to plant
The ideal time to prepare and plant is winter and spring when the soil is moist. It’s much easier digging and the plants shouldn’t need watering until summer and ideally won’t need watering at all.
Preparing the site for planting
Start off small and manageable in the first planting season.
1mx2m is a good size and it will look like a beautiful garden in the grassy nature-strip. Add more and think larger as you gain confidence.
Your aim will be to remove, smother or kill any exotic grasses and herbs before you plant your native plants. There are several proven approaches that work well;
Hoe Hoe Hoe
Cut your grass very short (for the last time) and then employ the ‘father Christmas method’ - hoe, hoe, hoe. Chipping with a hoe on a sunny day is a very effective method of killing weeds.
If you find the grasses are deep rooted perennials or they spread from rhizomes (their roots) like Couch and Kikuyu, you may need another method to weaken them.
Solarisation over the sunny warmer months, from September to February, with a sheet of clear plastic, stretched tight and held down at the edges, will cook and kill weeds.
Spraying with a herbicide like glyphosate when the tough weeds are in the flush of spring growth will kill them in a few weeks. I think this is a reasonable method because it’s a once only use and it prepares the way conveniently for a successful planting with its many benefits.
Be safety conscious when using herbicides and spay on a still day to limit spray drift that may damage nearby plants.
Aerating and moistening a dry site
Your nature-strip is very likely to be dry, hard and compacted.
If this is your strip then after the weeds have been removed and before planting, the soil will need aerating (cracking) to let the rain soak in as deep as possible. This will also encourage worm activity and make it easier for new plants to establish.
A low cost, quick, easy method to aerate soil manually is to use a garden fork.
Aerating with a garden fork.
Push the fork in as far as possible, then pull back on the handle a little until the soil cracks.. Repeat this every 30 cm or so all over the area to be planted. Using a fork this way you won’t develop any back soreness. I use this aerating method to prepare for planting my veges as well.
Then water into the newly created cracks until water fills the cracks. Let it soak in for 24 hours.
Repeat this process until the garden fork can be pushed into the soil to its full length. The soil will then be beautifully moist, and well aerated. Importantly your plants be easy to plant into the open soil and they will establish very quickly.
In a normal year if you plant before the end of September follow up watering won’t be necessary. After a dry spring, watering every 2 – 3 weeks may be necessary until autumn
Mulching over the hoed ground will control weeds and conserve soil moisture.
Traditional mulches like straw, wood chips, sawdust and leaf litter may not be appropriate. They will tend to blow over and cover small native plants and they’re also likely need an edging to keep them from spreading over the foot path and gutter.
A shallow covering with one of these mulches up to 2.5cm deep may be a good compromise if you don't mind some follow up weeding.
I chose not to use these mulches because timber edging could be trip hazard to pedestrians and may raise Council’s concerns. I used hessian cloth pegged down every meter with homemade wire pegs and cut slits with a sharp knife for planting.
Another suitable organic materials that doesn’t need edging is old horse-hair carpet underlay. Jute matting, coir matting and hessian cloth are available commercially in rolls.
Mulches to avoid
Avoid using old carpet, sheets of plastic or plastic weed-mat. They don’t decompose and allow the native herbs and grasses to seed and spread naturally on the nature-strip.
Indigenous and native plants don’t need fertiliser
Indigenous and native plants prefer soils with low fertility and therefore don’t need fertiliser. In the poor soils that you are likely to find on a nature-strip this gives them a big advantage over introduced exotic weeds.
A rule of thumb when establishing any native garden is don’t add fertiliser. Keep it ‘hungry’ because this advantages the native plants and weakens the weeds. Whereas adding fertilisers like blood and bone, dynamic lifter and manures will result in lots of healthy weeds and a lot more weeding. It is also toxic for members of the protea family like banksias, grevilleas and hakeas.
Coming home to a smile.
Imagine coming home after a long tiring day and turning into your street where you see your beautiful NATURE-strip welcoming you with a 'smile'. A rich display of Aussie floral heritage and a personal expression of living breathing vibrant street art.
You too could say goodbye to your noisy smelly lawn mower and say hello to the wildlife that adopt your NATURE-strip as their home in the city. You'll be so glad you did.
Stephen Murphy is qualified in Geology and Environmental Management and has been a nurseryman and a designer of natural landscapes for over 30 years. He loves the bush, supports Landcare and is a volunteer helping to conserve local reserves.