Recreating the Country blog
Turning the tide - time for a grasslands revolution
You’ve received a mysterious invitation from a close friend to a grassland party. ‘A what? You think – that’s quirky!'
When you arrive, you’re greeted at the door by your very excited friend, who ushers you into her lounge where four other women from your preschool group are seated.
You give one of them a quizzical look. She raises her shoulders as if to say, ‘search me?'
Your friend claps her hands and says excitedly, “Ladies, you’re here to share in my new passion. You’re here to help me turn back the clock 180 years. You’re here to help me plant my grassy back yard into a low maintenance, wildlife friendly, carpet of beautiful, local wildflowers.”
Does this gathering of young mums sound feasible to you?
Could restoring indigenous grasslands in backyards capture the enthusiastic support of Australians from all walks of life? Is it possible to start a revolution that would see indigenous grassland plants return to the streets and gardens of our nation?
The carbon sequestration benefits of planting millions of deep-rooted perennial plants would be reason enough to support a grassland revolution.
If you're worried about the continuing disappearance of our grassland flora and fauna, you would probably agree that a significant challenge is to develop relatively uncomplicated methods of restoring native grasslands that can be applied on a small or a large scale.
This would empower more land managers, including young mums with small backyards, to restore indigenous ecologies on a variety of Australian landscapes. It is an intriguing challenge that desperately needs some serious thought and some practical solutions.
What follows in part 3 of Restoring Native Grasslands is a catalyst for discussions about how this restoration could be done.
Part 1 of Restoring Native Grasslands, looked at the history of grasslands in Victoria and how our landscapes have changed since settlement in 1835.
Part 2 of Restoring Native Grasslands looked at some larger-scale restoration success stories and what can be leant from them.
Grassland plants fight back – in a nutshell;
Your mission - to plant an island of grassland plant champions and then get them through their first year.
Blow by blow - in bruising detail:
1. Plant islands of indigenous plant champions.
Bellarine Landcare’s Grasslands Interest Group has put together a list of very hardy local grasses, lilies and herbs that are capable of going head-to-head with weedy interlopers. (Thank you also to John Delpratt and Stuart McCallum for your contributions to the list of grassland champions)
Grassland Champions list:
The Grassland Champion’s list presently includes 76 species, from 50 genera, and 22 families that are found in central Victoria. This list can be extended with other hardy indigenous plants which are local to your area.
When the champions begin to take control and improve the soil chemistry, other less hardy plants can be added. The list is in the form of a table that includes other useful information. Click here for the table
Always include some nutrient strippers in your plant list.
Nutrient stripping plants like Kangaroo Grass will help maintain lower nitrogen (N) & phosphorus (P) levels in your island planting.
Plant in groups/clumps of the same species - 10 to 50 plants/clump is ideal. Plant smaller species in larger numbers so they can dominate their given area. See the champions table for the recommended spacing for each species
Why plant in same species clumps? Planting in clumps looks great, is nature's way, attracts more pollinating insects and will produce more fertile seed, giving the grassland champions the greatest likelihood of spreading into surrounding areas.
2. Choose the best place to plant the champions.
Look for helpful indicators of where indigenous plants will best grow.
Plant near remnant grassland plants:
Read more about identifying native grasses here
Choose the best soil for native plants:
3. Avoid planting near invasive weeds like Kikuyu, Couch, Phalaris, Paspalum and Oxalis.
These are dominating and destructive perennial weeds that are best managed with an application of herbicide. Ideally follow up with a cool burn when they die and spray with herbicide again if they reshoot.
Show them no mercy because they will take over the grassland and destroy all your good works. Once they invade they are much harder to control. Using this process, you will systematically eliminate difficult-to-manage weeds, though it is likely to take two growing seasons. Planting grassland plants before these tough resilient weeds are banished, will only result in disappointment.
A note on spraying with glyphosate: Herbicide is a useful tool if it is used safely and intelligently.
The time to spray is when the weeds look healthy and are showing strong growth up to 10cm tall. Allow more top growth before spraying deep-rooted weeds like Phalaris and Paspalum.
(See pictures below).
Kikuyu and Couch grasses die back naturally in winter, so spraying at this time does them no harm. It is better to spray these weeds in late spring or early summer when they are growing strongly.
Oxalis is best sprayed at the beginning of its flowering cycle when the plants have just a few flowers. Spraying at this time will kill the many small bulbs (future plants) that are attached to the oxalis roots.
My personal story. As an organic vegetable grower, I have tried hand-weeding these difficult weeds year after year. This involved putting the soil through a sieve to remove any potential growing shoots or bulbs which is a slow and tedious process. Yet, still the problem weeds kept coming back.
I swallowed my disappointment and applied one well-timed spray with 1% glyphosate, the recommended rate for difficult-to-manage perennial weeds, and eliminated them.
To put this spray-rate into perspective; 1% is equivalent to spraying 1 teaspoon of glyphosate concentrate over a 25 square meter area of perennial weeds. The remarkable environmental benefits gained from establishing 5m x 5m of healthy native grassland clearly outweighs my environmental concerns about the use of glyphosate.
Nutrient stripping – a big blow to the weedy interlopers:
Burning the stubble when it dries will further lower N & P levels and adds smoke chemicals to the soil that enhance the germination of many native seeds.
Planting scattered canopy trees at a similar density to the original pre-settlement spacing will create an open grassy woodland and lower soil nutrient levels.
This nutrient lowering effect has been observed to extend at least 1.5 x height of canopy trees from their trunk. Therefore trees reaching a mature height of 20 m will lower soil nutrient levels up to 30 m from the tree’s trunk.
Planting nine, 20 m tall canopy trees over one hectare will eventually return the soil nutrients to a pre-settlement lower levels. (This density was calculated on an average spacing of 30 m between canopy trees).
Note on planting canopy trees:
Canopy trees planted in groups of 5 trees (tree spacing of 3m within these groups) has many advantages:
Planting clumps of shrubs.
An alternative design is to include clumps of indigenous shrubs and understorey trees. This will diversify the sources of food and improve habitat for wildlife. To lower soil nutrient levels, the shrub-clumps and the clumps of understorey trees are spaced at 1.5 times their mature height.
Therefore, a clump of twenty, 5 m tall shrubs, will lower soil nutrients 7.5 m beyond the outer edge of the clump. A clump of 10 understorey trees with a mature height of 12 m tall, will lower soil nutrients up to 18 m beyond the outside edge of the clump. Within these clumps, the plants are spaced at 2 – 3 m.
In this way, a mixed shrubby woodland with grasslands in the open areas could be restored over 1ha of over multiples of 1ha.
Making compost teas.
Microbe-rich inoculations have been shown to stimulate the revival of some grassland species. Microbe-rich teas can be made from worm-juice, compost or manure.
A concentrated tea is made by harvesting worm juice or by placing a permeable bag (e.g. hessian) containing about 9 L (one full bucket = 9 litres) of compost or manure into a 150 L drum of water (40 gallons). (These volumes can be scaled up or down to suit the size of your project).
After one week, the microbe-rich water in the drum is diluted to the colour of weak tea and sprayed over the grassland plants. This is best applied when the soil is moist, on a cool, cloudy or rainy day, in mid-spring or mid-autumn. Direct sunlight will kill the microbes in the tea.
The benefits of inoculating with microbe-rich teas is discussed in;
Restoring native grasslands - part 2
Spreading out from the island plantings
Paul Gibson-Roy and John Delpratt noticed grassland plants spreading well beyond the edges of their restoration sites;
“At all Grassy Groundcover Research Project restorations, native grasses had colonised some tens of metres beyond the boundaries of the original restoration zones and at a large number of sites, forb species had also expanded beyond the restored area”
(Paul Gibson-Roy and John Delpratt. 2015. Land of Sweeping Plains. Chapters 11 & 12.).
When the island planting is established, the exotic weeds growing around the fringes of the island are your next frontier to conquer. The techniques discussed under ‘Nutrient Stripping’ can be used to expand the island planting:
...the backyard planting
About two years had passed since the grassland party and Cathy was surprised at how well her family had adapted to the new backyard. Instead of a regularly mown grassy patch, it was now a accidental meadow with a mosaic of colour.
Her four-year-old loved running through the wildflowers and watching the white and brown butterflies flutter into the air around her. There was something wonderful about seeing a carefree child, arms raised, eyes looking upwards, red curls twinkling in the sun, following the silent random flight of the fluttering butterflies.
Reimagining native grasslands.
The native grasslands that we have inherited, have been radically changed; by hotter fires, intensive grazing and clearing for cropping. It is likely that there are no examples of the original mix of diverse grassland plants remaining in Victoria.
A sobering thought perhaps, though it does provide the opportunity to reimagine Victorian native grasslands and to invent practical methods to bring them back to our urban and rural landscapes.
Restoring grassland would be a powerful way to lock-up tonnes of carbon and it would restore habitat in the form of grasslands and grassy woodlands for our endangered plants and animals that depend on these disappearing ecosystems. The clock is ticking and the time for action was yesterday!
In Part 2, I explore what we can learn from the people and scientists who have been successful at bringing back native grasslands.
In Part 3, I outline a low cost and adaptable method that could be used to restore grasslands at a small or a large scale. (Coming in December)
Farmers are now beginning to see the benefits
of protecting native grasslands.
Restoring native grasslands and grassy woodlands is a significant challenge that many of us have pondered. There is now a groundswell of scientists and land users who recognise that farming practices developed for the UK and European climates and soils are unsuitable for the fragile soils and more arid conditions in Australia.
This has given rise to the practice of Regenerative Agriculture, which protects native perennial grasses by working with their natural growing cycles. Though, the native grasslands surviving on private property have endured generations of farmers who didn't protect or value them, so these grasslands are likely to be composed of the few resilient survivors that are less palatable to sheep and to cattle.
They are likely to be just a shadow of the plant diversity of grasses and forbs, described earlier in Restoring Native Grasslands - Part 1, as ‘herb rich pantry-lands’ or ‘medicinal herb-lands’.
Irrepressible nature - The Winona story
It is astonishing how irrepressible our native plants are. Colin Seis of ‘Winona’, a farm in the dry central west of NSW, stumbled onto a sustainable farming system that he calls ‘Pasture Cropping’. Using a combination of;
Colin Seis has successfully restored his grasslands. His paddocks now boast over 200 different plant species, which includes a tenfold increase in the original species of native grasses and forbs.
Reminder: A forb in botany is a flowering native herb. It excludes grasses, sedges and rushes, as well as woody stemmed plants like shrubs and trees.
Charles Massy in his book ‘Call of the Reed Warbler’ describes the dramatic changes at Winona;
‘(There is) evidence of true regeneration with the reappearance of highly palatable but long-lost warm season C4 (native) grasses, which are always the first to disappear under traditional set-stocking. In addition, the (perennial) grass and cropping (system) harbours a huge escalation (125%) in insect biodiversity with 600% greater biomass. This has meant that insect infestation and damage to his crops is now negligible.’
Microbiologist Dr Christine Jones was intrigued by the resurgence of native grasslands at Winona and explained why many species had reappeared;
‘… through his minimum soil disturbance, dramatic reduction in the use of chemicals and fertiliser, he has somehow stimulated mycorrhizal fungi health, getting everything functioning. Getting sugars and all that stuff along the row, which is an ideal situation for plants to germinate in.’
Christine Jones’ suggestion that mycorrhizal fungi have been the catalyst for the return of native plant species is important knowledge in the challenge of restoring grasslands. We know that at least 90% of Australian native plant species have a close symbiotic relationship with mycorrhizal fungi. These fungi support their health, through the absorption of nutrients, and they can be essential for their germination, as is the case for over 400 species of Victorian orchids.
Why shouldn’t mycorrhizal fungi also be the catalyst for the germination of many species of grasses and forbs?
We can conclude from the work of Colin Seis’ and others that the seed of many native grassland species, as well as the spores of a diverse mix of microorganisms, may be lying dormant in our soils, waiting for the right conditions to regenerate.
‘Microbes and Plants’ for more insights into the critical role of microbes in our soils.
... for inoculating soil!
A teaspoon of good garden soil, according to microbial geneticists, contains 1 billion bacteria, several yards of fungal hyphae, several thousand protozoa, and a few dozen nematodes. The same quantity of the Biodynamic ‘500’ preparation has an estimated 2.5 billion microbes which include: bacteria, fungi, nematodes and protozoa.
(Ehrenfried Pfeiffer 1899-1961)
A teaspoon of '500' is stirred into water to produce a dilute microbe-rich tea. This is sprayed onto bare moist soil on a cloudy/rainy day, to avoid direct contact with sunshine, which would kill the microbes. This same practice could be followed with worm, compost and manure teas.
Sophie Small, the remarkable Bellarine Landcare facilitator, has been inspired by the writing of Nicole Masters, For the love of Soil. Sophie writes;
Turning back the clock - microbial action to regenerate native species.
Nicole Masters shares the story of Steve Charter, a rancher from Montana, who grazed his 200 - 400 cows across 8,000 acres of arid land with soils degraded from historical misuse.
Steve adopted Allan Savory’s holistic grazing methods in the 1980s to address the degradation of his soils. But it wasn’t until 2014 when he built a custom ‘slurry’ sprayer and mounted it on an old army truck and started applying materials such as liquid composts, molasses, fish, seaweed, rock salt and worm compost across 100's of acres that he started to see dramatic changes to his property.
“Through action from the bio-stimulants, the once locally extinct native grasses are returning in droves.” The incidence of bare soil was reduced and the grass “in places is knee-high to waist height”.
Steve has treated over 4,000 acres of his property with these products and after many years of trying to recover the health of his land, he finally feels buoyed by the positive changes he’s seen in his soil health and vegetation cover.
Nicole Masters also shares an inspiring story from Western Australia.
Di and Ian Haggerty, regenerative farmers from WA, purchased a degraded block of cropping land, choked with weeds which seemed impossible to remove. They took action by planting crops accompanied by worm extract, applying compost extract and introducing sheep to graze the land.
Two years later three species of native grasses started reappearing and after three years C4 native grasses, genus Setaria, “germinated across thousands of acres. This land had been terribly abused for over 60 years, yet the native seed bank was just waiting for the right signals to germinate.”
(Nicole Masters. 2019. For the Love of Soil. Strategies to Regenerate our Food Production Systems, pub. Printable Reality)
The Grassy Groundcover Research Project
Restoring the diverse families of microbes to the soil appears to be a key catalyst to native grassland recovery, though two major stumbling blocks still need to be overcome;
A system that was specifically designed to overcome these hurdles has consistently succeeded in restoring native grasslands at a number of sites throughout Victoria. John Delpratt, one of the developers of the system, describes its application to restoring roadside vegetation at Woorndoo in two blogs;
Kangaroo Grass communities on roadside reserves - Part 1.
Kangaroo Grass communities on roadside reserves - Part 2.
In these blogs, John also writes about the critical importance of restoring roadside grasslands because of the many aesthetic, practical and environmental benefits they would provide for our nation as a whole.
A proven method
John Delpratt and Dr Paul Gibson Roy have fine-tuned their method through trials and practice. Here is a brief summary of how it's done;
Growing grassland plants for bulk seed production - how is it done?
John Delpratt has offered to describe the process of seed production in a future blog
- stay tuned
You can also read about this method in the excellent book:
‘Land of sweeping plains – Managing and restoring the native grasslands of south-eastern Australia. Chapters 11 & 12 on grassland restoration by John Delpratt and Paul Gibson-Roy.
Though the results of the scalping method are very impressive and the transformation from a weedy grazing paddock to a pure native grassland takes less than twelve months, it requires the coordination of skills and resources that many land managers don’t have available to them.
In Part 3 next month you will read about a simpler, though slower method which is more in the spirit of the wisdom of the Taoist philosopher Tao Tzu;
‘Nature doesn’t hurry, yet everything is accomplished.’
Restoring Native Grasslands - Part 3.
Look out for the Table of Champions - a list of hardy indigenous grassland plants that have the potential to turn the tables on those unwelcome sneaky exotic weeds.
The champion’s list presently includes; 76 species, 50 genera and 22 families from central Victoria.
Restoring native grasslands - where to start?
When faced with a daunting challenge like restoring native grasslands from a patch of bare earth or a paddock full of exotic weeds, sometimes the wisdom of a great sage can light the way forward. I couldn't do better than the often quoted words of the Taoist philosopher Tao Tzu;
‘The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step’,
His well-chosen words help to shrink the broad focus of a big challenge like grassland restoration, to a goal that is much more achievable. Though in the context of grasslands, Tao Tzu might have said;
‘Restoring a native grassland starts with sowing a single seed.’
Glimpses into the past - What history can teach us?
The year is 1883, a little over forty years after Victoria’s ancient and fragile landscapes first felt the pressure of thousands of hard-hooved animals. Pioneer Edward Curr witnessed that indigenous grasses were already in rapid decline;
‘The most nutritious grasses were originally the most common; but in consequence of constant over-stocking and scourging the pastures, these have very much decreased, their places being taken by inferior sorts of weeds introduced from Europe and Africa.’
The signs of degradation and loss could be seen at the beginning. Edward Curr describes a destructive and careless system of farming that would have caused the loss of many plant species and the ecologies that they supported.
What John Batman saw
John Batman sailed into Port Phillip Bay and walked ashore at Indented Head on the Bellarine Peninsula on 29th May 1835. He wrote in his diary;
‘…nearly all parts of its surface covered with Kangaroo and other grasses of the most nutritive character, intermixed with herbs of various kinds.’
It’s surprising that Batman was able to make these enthusiastic observations in late May, which is a time when the spring blooms of wildflowers are long gone and most indigenous plants are dormant. Many are hidden underground as tubers or grasses and herbs that are no longer looking at their best.
Two days later, after a 32 km walk east from Point Henry, Batman described the vegetation on Mt Bellarine;
‘…very rich light black soil covered in Kangaroo Grass two feet high and as thick as it could stand, good hay could be made in any quantity. The trees were not more than six to the acre, and those small sheoak and wattle. I walked for a considerable extent and (it was) all of the same description.’
It’s likely that Batman had one eye on the rolling hills of the Bellarine Peninsula and the other on marketing his proposed new settlement to the members of the Port Phillip Association. We know he promoted the landscapes around Geelong very well, from the tidal wave of new settlers that arrived soon after his deceitful and fraudulent 'land purchase' from the Traditional Owners, who would never have agreed to hand over the lands of their ancestors.
The changes to grasslands were swift and overwhelming
The rapid changes to the vegetation around Geelong are shown by the early loss of an important staple food of the Wadawurrung. It took only four years for the women of the Bangali Clan of the Bellarine Peninsula to report that the Yam Daisy, once plentiful and widespread, had already become difficult to find.
This same intense grazing pressure from flocks of sheep, their population doubling every three years, would have affected other plants with edible roots like the Chocolate Lily, the Bulbine Lily and all the species of orchid. We know that the sheep were so fond of these edible roots that they unearthed them by digging with their hoofed feet.
The leafy herbs would have also succumbed to this new and much more intense grazing pressure of sheep and cattle. Only the toughest and least palatable of the native grasses and forbs would have survived this severe level of disturbance. The plants had evolved with kangaroos, wallabies and emus that grazed more lightly for a shorter period and then moved on, creating a grassland mosaic of different ages and lengths.
A more recent story illustrates how gradual change can be just as devastating to grasslands. The Sunshine Orchid, Diuris fragrantissima, described as dizzyingly beautiful, was so prolific in the western suburbs of Melbourne that it was known as 'Snow in the Paddocks'.
An indigenous woman could dig enough of its sweet tubers in one hour to feed her family for a day. This regular harvesting with digging sticks made the soil loose and spongy, according to early settler records - a far cry from the hard and compacted basalt soils west of Melbourne today.
Before the 1950s, locals would collect large bunches of the orchid blooms for their fragrant flowers. These orchid rich soils were ploughed, scraped, compacted, subdivided and finally built on. Now there are only 37 closely guarded Sunshine Orchid plants left alive in a location that remains a well-kept secret.
A 'new' fire changed the vegetation
The termination of Traditional Owner management practices would have also changed the composition of the ground flora. Early settler descriptions of the burning practices on the Bellarine Peninsula give important insights into their cool burning method;
‘…their burning practice was random enough to maintain a wide variety of plant species and to keep the woodlands of the Bellarine Peninsula open and grassy.’
This all changed soon after 1835 when fires across the Victorian landscape became much hotter. This would have had a substantial effect on all native plants.
In February 1851, one-third of Victoria endured perhaps its first destructive wildfire for millennia. Many flora and fauna species would have declined and disappeared under the unfamiliar forces of this new pattern of uncontrolled and hotter fires.
Note on studies of historic fires: Core samples of lake sediments show that carbon levels increased dramatically soon after the white races occupied Australia. These studies provide clear evidence that the practice of strategic Traditional Owner cool burning prevented the out-of-control hot fires that have become a familiar and devastating manifestation of our Australian summers.
Do we know what our local vegetation looked like before 1835?
To give you a sense of what was here before, native 'grasslands' could have been more accurately described as 'pantry-lands' or 'medicinal herb-lands'. This is because the Traditional Owners managed grasslands for their traditional uses as food and medicines, as well as the ecologies that the diversity of plants supported.
Some of our best examples of remnant grasslands are found on roadsides, sustained by annual CFA burning to create firebreaks. Though, their practice of spring burning favours some plant species over others that need autumn burns, less frequent fires or cooler burns. This can be seen at the Rokewood cemetery, which is dominated by native herbs like its famous Button Wrinkewort, Rutidosis leptorrhynchoides, and has fewer native grasses. The annual spring CFA burning pattern has prevented grasses and some forbs (definition below) from flowering, setting seed and reproducing.
This isn’t a criticism of the fine work that generations of country firemen and women have done to maintain this grassland and reduce fire risk locally. Their work has helped us understand how different patterns of burning can favour various plant species.
Considering the dramatic changes in grazing pressure and burning temperatures since 1835, it’s probably not possible to find pristine remnant grasslands, exactly like those that were present two centuries ago. My own view has changed and I am now tempted to say that the composition of modern remnant grasslands is likely to be quite different to what was here pre white settlement. I feel we have very likely lost more species than we like to admit and the species grouping within plant communities has changed significantly. So here it is in a nutshell;
‘The remnant indigenous grasslands of Victoria, that we consider being in good condition, are likely to be floristically quite different to the grasslands that existed before the white races arrived in 1835?’
(A forb in botany is a flowering native herb. It excludes grasses, sedges and rushes as well as woody stemmed plants like shrubs and trees.
Here is this handy rhyme to help you appreciate an important difference between a sedge, a rush and grass -
'sedges have edges and rushes are round, grasses have elbows that bend to the ground')
To some of you, this may be an heretical statement, to others I’m likely stating the obvious. Though, it leads nicely into my next suggestion;
Perhaps it’s time that we accept that we can't turn back the clock to a time before 1835. We should protect all surviving grasslands of course. The time has come to create new, robust and ecologically diverse modern versions of the 'lost grasslands of Victoria'. If we lay the right foundations and manage them with Traditional Owner style cool burning, Mother Nature will step in and guide its evolution towards a healthy sustainable balanced mix of species.
Tao Tzu has something wise to say about this proposition as well;
‘Nature doesn’t hurry, yet everything is accomplished.’
In Restoring Native Grasslands - part 2, you can read the success stories of scientists and farmers who have restored grasslands.
In Restoring Native Grasslands
- part 3, I’ll set out a simple method of replanting native grasslands.
Here is a glimpse of part 3;
You have returned home from a community meeting, inspired to plant a native grassland on your own back lawn. After a morning of weeding, you have carefully removed all the grass from a patch the size of your four-year-old’s paddling-pool, so that it’s now loose bare soil.
Your grassland champions from the nursery are well-watered and ready to plant, and a group of friends will soon arrive to be part of what promises to be the beginning of a new era. An era when the local plants begin to return to backyards across the country.
Curiously, you have a 2 kg bag of white sugar to spread on the soil before you plant. Sweet ??!!
You and your friends are part of a new nationwide movement to restore the lifeblood of the land – by planting back the remarkable plants that have made Australia so floristically unique.
For some background reading on grasslands -
Grasslands. Why we're losing the battle to save them
Stephen Murphy is an author, an ecologist and a nurseryman. He has been a designer of natural landscapes for over 30 years. He loves the bush, supports Landcare and is a volunteer helping to conserve local reserves.