In March 2021, after hearing a radio interview about Canberra micro-forests springing up in the inner north, Jennifer Bardsley started the Holt Micro-forest initiative. Supported by a number of other keen residents they’ve been visiting potential sites, creating social media accounts and writing grant applications. They will run a crowdfunding campaign in June 2021.
The Climate Factory chats with Jennifer about her busy family life and why she wants to create a micro-forest.
TCF: What’s your day job? I am currently on maternity leave with our 7 month old baby. I also have a 10 year old and 8 year old son. Family keeps me pretty busy! When I’m not on leave, I am a public servant working in Information Technology.
TCF: What’s a ‘typical’ day look like for you? At the moment night and day merge into a blur, we are still up through the night quite a lot with bub. Generally the morning focus is getting the children ready for school, followed by school drop-off, housework, walking the dog, school pick-up, afternoon sport activities, dinner and bed routines. In between that I try to spend some time with family and on writing, books and the micro-forest initiative.
When you are passionate and persistent, so many things are possible.
TCF: Why are you passionate about volunteering to create a micro-forest in your suburb? My family and I love being outdoors. We love being surrounded by nature. It brings such a sense of fun, adventure, happiness and peace. It’s good for our mental and physical health. We are also worried about global warming and threats to biodiversity. We want to play our part in combating climate change and nurturing the natural world around us.
TCF: What’s asurprising fact about you? Two of my other passions are writing and martial arts. I have recently published my first children’s book ‘A land of muddy puddles’ and I am assistant instructor at a local Tae Kwon Do club.
TCF: Do you have any words of advice about being a leader? And if people are hesitant to have a go at being a ‘leader’ what would you say to them? Be the change you want to see in the world. When you’re passionate and persistent, so many things are possible!
If you want to know was is involved in starting a community micro-forest attend The Climate Factory’s 8 step workshop. Find out more.
From a simple accounting point of view, the answer is $500 per square metre. This figure is based on a $40,000 budget and an area of 800 square metres for the Downer pilot project.
However, the value of a community micro-forest can’t be measured solely in dollars spent. It’s value is far higher than its physical assets.
The micro-forest model draws community together with a sense of purpose and empowers them to make change at a neighbourhood scale. As it grows, the micro-forest will store carbon, reduce park temperatures and provide habitat. These can be valued using the System of Environmental Economic Accounting (SEEA).
Shown below are the physical assets separated from the community assets.
The physical assets built over 2020-2021 were:
26 lineal metres of water harvesting trenches
6 square metres of bog
450m2 of shrub beds with enhanced soil planted
1800 native plants
Recycled timber bench
The project has activated the local community to take pride in their local park and has resulted in the:
Creation of the Downer Parkcare Group
1 formal Community consultation to ensure residents had a say about the future of their local park
1 informal on-site consultation to approve the Landscape Sketch Plan
4 community working bees (all held during Covid19)
Additional working bees led by the Downer Parkcare group.
Looking at the cost per square metre doesn’t take into account improvements in community well-being and connectedness. Amit Barkay, volunteer leader of the Downer Parkcare group says,
I like the fact that it brought the community together more than I envisaged, everyone coming to help, kids, young and old. And the fact that the place has changed in a matter of six months. To the point, that two weeks ago there was a couple who just came with a picnic table and glasses and a bottle of wine, to cuddle on the bench just over there. It was absolutely lovely.
Amit Barkay, Downer.
His neighbour, Leah Moore adds,
… there’s been a miraculous transformation. This park used to be quite bare of trees in the middle part here and through the drought got very dry and now we’ve got this flourish of growth and it’s very very green and our communities got behind it. So we’re all in this together. I like that too. I like interacting with my neighbours like that.
Leah Moore, Downer.
Other future benefits (not currently costed) include climate cooling and a reduction in associated energy costs, carbon capture and enhanced biodiversity.
Blue-print for future park development
At the first community consultation locals identified the three most important criteria to be incorporated into the park landscape plan. These were: habitat provision, water harvesting and nature-based play.
In response, The Climate Factory created a Landscape Sketch Plan for the park with the first stage delivered over 2020-21. Nature play elements, like timber bridges, timber logs and ‘cubbies’ were included in stage 2 of the Landscape Plan. Now the community has the opportunity to raise funds to install these elements.
A model for the future
This project demonstrates a new way of regreening public spaces. Rather than competing for government grant money with many other community groups and relying on government timing (often once per year) – projects can be funded via crowdfunding when a community group is ready.
As well as building a pilot demonstration project that can be replicated, The Climate Factory runs online workshops to teach people about the 8 steps to create a micro-forest. Founder of The Climate Factory, Edwina Robinson says:
The 8 step method can be applied to any community regreening project. You could use this method to create a food forest or a pollinator garden, it doesn’t have to be a micro-forest – the principles and the stages are the same.
EDWINA ROBINSON, FOUNDER, THE CLIMATE FACTORY
When participants enrol for the workshop they receive a 46 page Draft Handbook on the 8 steps to create a micro-forest.
Any public asset has future costs associated with its maintenance. However, labour to maintain the space is providing by community volunteers during the first two years of the project. Overall the cost to maintain the micro-forest is low.
Voluntary labour from Downer Parkcare conservation group (currently costed by ACT Government around $41/hour) for weeding, mulching and light pruning.
Reduction in mowing costs to ACT Government – 450m2 less grass to mow
Supply of mulch – currently supplied by the ACT Government for free, and
Tree removal – trees are only removed if they pose a risk to the public.
2019 was Australia’s hottest and driest year on record. Studies show trees can significantly reduce temperatures beneath their canopy and are nature’s air conditioner. So we need to plant more trees, particularly in urban areas as our cities and towns trap more heat than surrounding rural areas.
The ACT Government Urban Forest Strategy aims to increase Canberra’s urban tree canopy from 19% to 30% by 2045.
As temperatures continue to warm, choosing the right tree for the right place is critical. The wrong tree in the wrong place can shade out winter sun, invade drains and cost thousands to remove.
Before you buy a tree, be clear on the role you want it to play. Will it to form part of a windbreak or provide summer shade? In built-up areas, consider how planting a tree will impact your neighbour’s home and garden.
Not all deciduous trees lose their leaves in Autumn. Some hold their leaves into Winter when you crave winter sun. If possible, purchase them in Autumn. Visit nurseries and check out not only leaf colour but when individual specimens start to drop leaves. Or engage the services of a plant broker to source your trees.
Trees vary considerably in their growth rate. A simple rule of thumb, is the faster they grow, the shorter they live. If you have enough space in your garden, consider growing short lived trees plus longer lived species. Melia azederach commonly known as White Cedar is a fast growing deciduous tree native to Australia that may only live to 20 years. Longer lived trees include the evergreen Kurrajong, Brachyciton populneus.
As temperatures continue to warm, choosing the right tree for the right place is critical.
By 2050, temperatures in southern Australia will be 2 degrees hotter and 10-20% drier. If emissions continue unchecked, by 2090 inland places like Canberra will experience temperature increases of 4 degrees and 25% less rainfall. (Note: data based on the Climate Analogue Tool using highest emissions scenario and selecting ‘hottest and driest’ scenario.)
The following seven climate-ready trees are selected for Canberra gardens, based on research by the Australian National University. They will all cope with drought and frost once established .
Lagerstroemia indica x L. faurieri – Crepe Myrtle
While many trees struggled or died over summer 2019/20, in Canberra the Crepe Myrtles looked good. There are a number of cultivars within Fleming’s Indian Summer range, including ‘Biloxi’, ‘Tuscarora’, ‘Osage’, ‘Sioux’ and ‘Natchez’.
‘Sioux’ is one of the smallest, growing to around 4 metres high x 3 metres wide and ideal for a small outdoor space or in a large pot.
I planted three Lagerstroemia indica x L. fauriei ‘Tuscarora’ in my north facing courtyard in Lyneham. These trees are broadly vase-shaped and multi-stemmed and will grow to between 5-6 metres high x 4 metres wide.
Crepe Myrtles have handsome mottled trunks. In the ‘Tuscarora’ cultivar this patterning is revealed at around three years old when the bark starts to shed. These trees don’t like wet feet so it’s best to build up the planting hole with topsoil if your soil is a heavy clay.
‘Tuscarora’s’ leaves turn a reddish bronze colour in Autumn and my newly planted trees lost most of their leaves by winter’s start.
Liquidambar ‘Tiriki’ is a long lived upright tree with a medium growth reaching 10m high x 8m wide. It copes with cold (to -10 Celcius) and hot conditions. ‘Tiriki’ is a Canberra cultivar.
Liquidambar naturally grow in the Eastern USA and Mexico. They exhibit pretty Autumn in the orange-red range. Some trees hold their leaves for a long time into winter. If you are considering this tree, check when they lose their leaves.
White Cedar is a fast growing native deciduous tree that originates from NE Australia and SE Asia. The fruit of Melia azedarach are poisonous, however the ‘Elite’ cultivar is fruitless.
In Canberra, Melia azedarach ‘Elite’ grows to a similar height and spread to Liquidamber ‘Tiriki’ – around 10m tall by 8m wide. Glossy green foliage emerges in spring along with fragrant lilac flowers. Autumn foliage is golden.
The Chinese Elm, Ulmus parvifolia is an elegant medium-sized deciduous tree. You will need a decent sized garden for this beauty as it grows to around 13 metres high x 10 metres wide. Ulmus parvifolia is long lived with a moderate growth rate. It has decorative bark and the green foliage turns yellow in Autumn.
This is a sturdy evergreen Australian native with green glossy foliage. It grows slowly and may only reach 4 metres high in 10 years. I recommend using this tree as part of a windbreak or where winter sun is not required.
I’ve successfully grown this tree at the Banksia St, O’Connor wetland.
Summer 2018/2019 was Australia’s hottest summer on record and temperatures have risen by over 1 degree since records began in 1910. It’s likely most of Australia will be hotter and drier in the future.
Many Australian homes are poorly designed and don’t consider the local climate.
Wherever you live, there are many things you can do to create cool outdoor spaces that improve your health and well-being. Studies shows the more contact with nature, the better we feel.
Whether you own a home or are renting, creating a cool haven adjacent to your place will keep you cooler on hot summer days and nights.
Plants play a key role in keeping our gardens and homes cooler and viewing bright green leaves feels uplifting when the surrounding landscape is yellowed. Thermal imagery demonstrates trees can reduce surface temperatures by as much as 10 degrees.
Here’s 7 points to consider when creating a cool outdoor haven.
Find out more about your local climate – for example, Canberra has a climate of extremes – hot dry summers and cold winters. In Canberra, the emphasis should be on maximising summer shade and in winter maximising sun. Temperatures of -7C in winter are not unusual. This will influence the trees you grow – in most situations, deciduous trees will be most appropriate.
Assess the soil on your site. Is it clay, loam, rocky, mainly sand or other? Aim to amend existing soil not remove it. Ideally you want to turn your existing soil into a sponge that can absorb water and carbon – the best way to do this is to start composting your household’s food scraps. Once they are broken down you can incorporate them into the soil. If you are low on space, a bokashi bucket is small enough to fit into a kitchen and breaks down material with no odour.
Add locally sourced organics like fallen leaves, coffee grounds (plenty of cafes bag these up each day) and manure. And use a thick mulch (75-100mm depth).
If you live in a dry climate, irrigation is critical to creating a lush outdoor space, however, check out the water restrictions in your local area. If you own your own home, consider installing rainwater tanks or building a grey-water treatment system.
The most efficient way to irrigate is to use drip irrigation rather than sprinklers. Other options include the use of wicking beds or sub-surface irrigation using water harvesting. If you use grey water from the shower or washing machine, choose cleaning products that are safe for the garden and avoid splashing edible leaves with grey water as it can contain E.coli.
Ponds can create a cooler feel and the sound of running or spraying water is soothing. For renters and apartment dwellers create a pond in a large pot with a number of wetland plants and gold fish. Including a pump will reduce the likelihood of mosquitos and algal build up. Gold fish provide splashes of colour and are a tough low-maintenance pet.
Well-designed in ground ponds will provide habitat for frogs, dragonflies and birds will enjoy bathing in them in hot weather. Insects can drown in buckets of water or deep ponds so provide shallow saucers filled with water and gravel to give insects like bees and lady birds a drink.
If you are creating a potted haven, think about how you will keep your plants watered in hot weather? Containerised plants dry out very quickly in hot weather and may require watering twice a day. Check if there is a tap handy. Using wicking or self-watering pots help ensure plants stay watered at their roots.
If your only option is to garden in containers follow these steps for a greater chance of creating a great outdoor space that you want to hang out in.
Repurpose or buy the biggest container you can for growing shade trees. The minimum pot size for a tree that’s around 1.5 metres tall would be about a 40cm diameter. Think about the weight of the pot too, will you be able to move it around once it has soil in it?
Buy quality potting mix and look for the Australian Standards tick of approval on the side. Use water holding crystals to trap moisture near the plants roots.
Choose plants appropriate for your area and consider multiple functions of plants – if you are choosing a tree consider: will it provide shade in summer and allow sun through in winter, does it bare fruit and does it have flowers attractive to pollinators?
Consider incorporating a ground-cover around the base of your tree. When the ground-cover begins to wilt – investigate if the potting mix is dry. The best way to test this is with your finger.
Mulch your plants – mulch reduces the amount of water evaporating from the pot. Make sure you move mulch aside to checkwater has penetrated below the mulch into the potting mix.
Choose plants that can cope with a hotter, drier future. Check out climate model projections for your area. Climate modelling shows Canberra’s climate in the future will be more like Dubbo and Gilgandra – a 4.5 hour drive north of Canberra.
Choose layers of plants – groundcovers, climbers, shrubs and trees – this will help create lots of evaporative cooling in the garden.
In order to create a lush feel around your home – consider incorporating plants with large green leaves. These might be plants you can grow in your pond in sight of your living area.
Incorporate seating into your outdoor space – a place to unwind, sip on a favourite drink, observe wildlife and interact with those you share the house with. Leave your phone, ipad or laptop inside – this is time to unwind.
Seats don’t need to be expensive – an upturned crate with a cushion can provides a great place to perch.
One of the best ways to keep your home cooler on hot days is to cook outside. Alternatively, ditch the cooking and make a salad or a Buddha bowl.
The Climate Factory and the Downer ParkCare group raised $20,000 to build a pilot micro-forest at the Cole St park in Downer. Over 180 individuals and businesses supported this initiative.
Edwina Robinson, Landscape Architect and Founder of The Climate Factory says, “planting trees is one of the simplest things we can do to address hotter, drier climates. Trees cool the environment, provide habitat, absorb carbon and improve property values.”
The $20,000 raised will pay for community engagement, development of a Landscape Sketch Plan, soil improvement, 1500 climate-ready native trees, shrubs and groundcovers and a water cart to keep plants watered during the establishment phase. The Downer ParkCare group will maintain the space and will have a say about other features they’d like to see in the park.
Robinson formed the social enterprise, The Climate Factory, in 2019 after Canberra experienced its hottest summer on record. She says, “Bureau of Meteorology records show January 2019 temperatures for Canberra were 6 degrees above average. I knew I needed to do something. So whenever I think, why the hell am I doing this, I remind myself I’m doing this for my adult children and my unborn grand-children”.
Robinson says she wouldn’t have had the confidence to launch her social enterprise and Crowd Funding campaign without the support of the Mill House GRIST program.
The Climate Factory will work with tree and native plant experts to create a climate-ready plant list for a public space. They will choose plants with low flammability and that can cope with hotter, drier weather.
Native plant nurseries will start growing plants before the end of the year with the first planting day scheduled for April 2020. Robinson says “hopefully it will be a mild Autumn and plants will get a great start”. Supporters who pledged $25 or more will be invited to the first planting day in 2020.
In October 2019, Robinson and Lachlan Richardson, Bluebell 2509 installed a micro-forest of 300 native plants across the road from the Cole St Park. They are looking forward to working with the Downer community to watch both micro-forests grow.
The Climate Factory is looking for partners and sponsors to build a micro-forest in a school in one of Canberra’s urban hot spots in 2020. Robinson says, “The Climate Factory will use land surface temperature maps created by CSIRO to help work out which Canberra schools need micro-forests the most. We will work with students and teachers so they can learn about the values of forests and together design and build a micro-forest and show them how to maintain it.”
Service One, a 100% community owned bank, kicked off the fundraising with $5000. The other official sponsors are:
Gold Sponsors$1000 Light House Architecture and Science Federation Financial Silver Sponsors $500 Bluebell 2509 Tim Smith Bronze Sponsors $200 WECAN TreeCreate The Tree Man Canberra Magic Kitchen Robyn van Dyk Katherine Horak Bernadette Law Alastair Crombie Robbie Kruger Baily Hepple Maryanne McKay Suzanne Moulis
In 2010, I bought a Canberra fixer-upper with no garden to speak of. The front garden boasted two non-fragrant roses, an oleander (despised from my childhood) and a Liquidamber street tree.
As a young Landscape Architect student I was besotted by Edna Walling. Acclaimed as Australia’s first landscape architect, Walling was an unconventional woman. She ran a landscape design and construction business from the 1920s , built her own cottage and created an English style housing development in Victoria, named ‘Bickleigh Vale’.
The first essay I penned at the University of Canberra was
about Miss Walling’s design style. English born, she determined the location of
Silver Birches by scattering potatoes on the ground.
With a new garden to
design and plant on a budget, I decided I wanted a grove of white trunked Silver
Birch (Betula pendula). Underneath I
would grow rosemary and Grevillea.
Note: the rosemary (tough bugger that it is, thrived) but the Grevillea ‘Deua
Flame’ died one by one.
Birches have a reputation for thirst – but the Millenium Drought was over and I knew I could gravity feed water from an upstairs bathroom, if needed.
That Autumn, after removing the roses and oleander and the patchy grass, I planted nine $20 birches into compost enriched soil. I wasn’t as flamboyant as my hero, Walling, the birches were planted in evenly spaced trios.
Three years and a few wet seasons later, the Birches thrived. Lying in my upstairs bedroom I could glimpse their canopies and marvel as the Rosellas performed acrobatic feeding acts dangling from drooping branches.
But success was short lived.
Those nestled close to the house or large shrubs thrived. However, the Birches abutting the western side of the block with its hard, hot drivewayof concrete and bitumen and nothing to buffer blasting summer winds, fared poorly. Their trunks were only half the diameter of the happy ones.
In the back garden, I planted three tubestock of Snow Gum (Eucalyptus pauciflora). They grew quickly to about four metres high, and after a couple of very dry summers I was left with one survivor. Snow Gums suffered a similar fate at the nearby Banksia St, O’Connor wetland where planting commenced in 2010.
Records from the Bureau of Meteorology show that Canberra’s
summer of 2018-2019 was the hottest on record. The Birches branches browned.
This year, nine years after planting, I removed three of
them, and sold the house.
Temperatures in Australia have risen by at least 1 degrees
celcius since 1910. And we know Canberra’s future will be hotter and drier with
more extreme events, including heatwaves and intense rainfall.
Temperatures will not only impact the types of trees we can grow in Canberra in the future but our ability to stay fit and well.
Increasingly evidence shows high temperatures result in increases in violence and mental health presentations. And who wants to exercise when it’s extremely hot? This will no doubt impact obesity levels and associated preventable diseases, like diabetes.
Unfortunately we’ve lost a significant number of trees in Canberra over the past few years and it’s vital to boost our tree canopy with climate-ready species. Note: the ACT Government committed in the 2019 budget to plant 17,000 trees over the next four years.
As I cycled round Canberra in Autumn 2019, I noticed one stellar deciduous tree – the Crepe Myrtle (Lagerstroemia) with its motley bark, multi-trunked stems and vibrant flowers was a stand-out.
Another, under-celebrated tree, the Kurrajong (Brachyciton) has proven to be a great performer. At Banksia St wetland, young plants were attacked by cockatoos (the vandals of the bird world). Those that survived are robust and beautiful.
Creating climate-ready public spaces and gardens will help us thrive in a hotter, drier future. The ANU has been working with the ACT Government to develop a list of trees suitable for public spaces for changing conditions and CSIRO has developed heat maps to identify areas at most risk of heat exposure with vulnerable populations. There are sections of Belconnen, Gungahlin, Molonglo, Tuggeranong, Weston Creek and Woden where communities are at significant risk. No surprises, that if you live near Lake Burley Griffin you will probably be ok during heatwaves.
The CSIRO report recommends planting vegetation and forests in our public spaces, streets and parks as one of the main ways to mitigate future heat. Plants have a more significant cooling effect if we can find ways to irrigate them, using water harvesting.
As a result of the hottest, summer on record I knew I needed to act. So The Climate Factory, was borne.
The Climate Factory is a social enterprise, that designs and builds micro-forests, to ensure we thrive physically and mentally in a hotter, drier future.
I want to shine the spotlight on women I’ve collaborated with recently. They have shown me the importance of building a team and inspired me when I was lacklustre. Together we are creating change at the neighbourhood scale.
Purdie is one of the volunteer leaders of the Watson micro-forest team. They raised $53,000 to build the Watson micro-forest and nature playground.
Purdie’s advice for anyone taking on a leadership role in their community is to:
Do something you care about, and find great people to do it with!
P. BOWDEN, Watson.
The Climate Factory chats with Purdie Bowden.
TCF: What’s your day job? What does a ‘typical’ day look like for you?
I work at DFAT on the Australian aid program, and was previously a lead negotiator for Australia on the United Nations Paris Agreement on Climate Change. I work part time and have two young kids which keep me busy the rest of the week.
TCF: Why are you passionate about volunteering to create a micro-forest in your suburb?
I’ve always cared deeply about the natural world. Creating a micro-forest and nature play area in my local park was a wonderful opportunity to connect more closely with the community we live in, and build something tangible. When I saw Edwina successfully raise funds and create the Downer Micro-forest, I thought why not do it in Watson.
TCF: What’s a surprising fact about you?
I’m a trained yoga instructor, but haven’t got around to teaching yet.
TCF: Do you have any words of advice about being a leader? And if people are hesitant to have a go at being a micro-forest leader’ what would you say to them?
Working on something you are passionate about doesn’t feel like work. It’s just fun. And it’s even better if you can partner with people who share your energy and passion. Working with capable and enthusiastic partners on the Watson Micro-forest project gave me the confidence to launch the crowd-funding campaign and take other ‘big’ decisions, and helped me get through the times when I’ve been tired or frustrated. So in summary: do something you care about, and find great people to do it with!
TCF: What are you looking forward to in 2021?
Planting the Watson Micro-forest!
At The Climate Factory we inspire and support people to create a community micro-forest in their neighbourhood. Our methodology can be applied to almost any public landscape project.
Want to be be inspired and find out how how to build a climate-cooling micro-forest or landscape project in a public space? Register for a one hour online event on the 8 steps to create a micro-forest.
Giving of your time, expertise and money to a worthy cause can make you feel good.
One Canberra business, timber recycler and furniture maker, Thor’s Hammer, recently donated a 2.4 metre bench of recycled turpentine and 300 plants to the Cole St, Downer micro-forest.
After the bushfires of 2019-20, owner Thor Diesendorf decided to contribute 10% of profits to three Canberra groups doing environmental good – Firesticks, an indigenous led corporation focused on cultural burning practices, Greening Australia and The Climate Factory were the beneficiaries.
The Climate Factory is a social enterprise, founded in 2019 by Landscape Architect, Edwina Robinson after Australia experienced its hottest summer on record. Her vision is to rehydrate the landscape, build great soils and plant densely with climate ready plants.
Thor says planting trees is a great way to help the environment. His favourite tree as a child was a deciduous Chinese Elm, Ulmus parvifolia, in his backyard. Thor says he spent a lot of time climbing that tree and still has a soft spot for the species.
Community involvement is key to the success of the Downer micro-forest with local residents forming a carer group in 2019 and turning up in droves at working bees to plant, mulch and make tree guards. Diesendorf’s team nestled the timber bench amongst newly planted She-Oaks at the micro-forest.
To date The Climate Factory has led three working bees at the micro-forest with the last working bee sponsored by Thor’s Hammer. 1300 plants have gone in the ground with the final working bee scheduled for Autumn 2021.
On a 2000 square metre block of land in Moruya, NSW, I’ve been exploring growing different types of vegetation with different purposes. As well as traditional shrub beds, mown grass, vegetable gardens, water harvesting ponds and a large outdoor courtyard I’ve also planted a micro-forest and a Food forest.
In 2019, I coined the term ‘micro-forest’ to refer to a dense area of climate-ready vegetation that cools the landscape, provides habitat and provides hope for the future. I used the term specifically to describe a pilot urban landscape project I was spearheading in Canberra – the Downer micro-forest that would use climate-ready trees – trees, able to cope with a hotter and drier future and provide a cooling space within.
The Federal Labor Member for Canberra, Alicia Payne liked the idea so much that she invited the Molonglo Conservation Group and The Climate Factory to submit a grant application to build a micro-forest in her electorate – hence the Sullivans Ck micro-forest was borne.
The Federal Department of Agriculture describes forests as areas dominated by trees, usually with a single stem and a mature height exceeding two metres and with the potential tree crown covering 20% of the area.
“Native forests are categorised in Australia’s National Forest Inventory into eight national forest types named after their key genus or structural form: Acacia, Callitris, Casuarina, Eucalypt, Mangrove, Melaleuca, Rainforest, and Other native forest (which includes a range of minor native forest types that are named after their dominant genera, including Agonis, Atalaya, Banksia, Hakea, Grevillea, Heterodendron, Leptospermum, Lophostemon and Syncarpia).
Across the wide range of rainfall and soil conditions that support forest, most of Australia’s ‘Native forest’ category of forest is dominated by eucalypts (77%) and acacias (8%).”
In our home garden, I’ve planted our front garden into a dense native ‘micro-forest’. My aim was to mimic the look and feel of the undulating heavily vegetated local sand dunes at Moruya Heads. And to create a windbreak filtering hot westerly winds, provide privacy from a busy street and create wildlife habitat.
Using the fast growing local coastal wattle, Acacia longifolia subsp sophorae I quickly established a dense privacy screen and windbreak. Amongst these wattles, I peppered local tree species like Casuarina glauca, Allocasuarina, Callitris rhomboidea, Acacia mearnsii and Acacia fimbriata. The coastal wattle and Acacia mearsnii (Black Wattle) have grown rapidly to at least 4 metres in 3 years, whilst some of the Casuarinas have outstripped the wattles.
Understorey shrubs include, Banksia integrifolia (Coastal Banksia), Leptospermum (Tea Tree), Correa alba, Westringia ‘Wynyabbie Gem’ as well as strappy plants like Dianella and Lomandra. Groundcovers include Myoporum parvifolium, Carpobrotus (Pig Face) and Hardenbergia. Hardenbergia also known as Native sarsparilla and widely cultivated, can grow as a sprawling groundcover or twine up trees and shrubs.
The native groundcover, Dichondra repens (Kidney Weed) makes its presence felt in shadier moister parts of the micro-forest.
A couple of edibles have crept into the micro-forest, a Macadamia (a native of Australian rainforests) and a grafted Avocado (non-native). Time will tell if they bare fruit. And a Grevillea robusta (Silky oak) seedling has self-sown amongst Allocasuarina trees. It’s staying for now.
Not all the plants have survived, the coastal wattles are short-lived – when they grow quickly they tend to die quickly. Cutting them back seems to extend their lives. In dry periods the Casuarinas, Allocasuarinas and Wattles drop leaves adding to leave litter below.
The aim is to make the planting as dense as possible and to avoid bare ground. Local Blue-tongues appreciate my efforts and took up residence in 2018. In November 2019, I spotted my first pair of bumbling metallic green Carpenter Bees (Xylocopa) gathering pollen from Dianella and Westringia flowers.
Our dense front planting provides a great foraging spot for small birds like Silver Eyes as they cross our block onto other places.
With soil excavated from our site cut, our earthworks contractor, placed soil to look like sand dunes. For every hole I dug for tubestock, I added organics to give plants the best possible start to life.
For its first three years, the micro-forest survived mostly on rainfall and occasional hand watering. Then, the summer of 2019 hit. By the year’s end Moruya had received a paltry 508mm of rain (about 5/8ths) of an ‘average’ year, then firestorms devastasted the Eurobodalla area (burning almost 80% of the landscape).
As a smokey January unravelled I began to question whether I’d made the right choice in planting the micro-forest. It is to the west and if the fires reached us, the front garden would burn like kerosene thrown on a barbie.
My partner and I, discussed hacking the trees off – but then what would we do with all the prunings?
Late in January 2020, the fire reached the town’s fringes, luckily it didn’t penetrate into the urban parts. Since then, I’ve installed a 50m length of drip irrigation pipe to try and keep the micro-forest slightly moist in hot weather. Who knows what this summer will bring.
Being on a large block – 2000 square metres or half an acre, gives me scope for experimenting with landscape ideas. While we grow vegetables and herbs in garden beds, I was attracted by the idea of creating a Food forest.
As the name implies, the main aim of a Food forest is to grow a diverse range of food in a forest-like environment. So while an orchard could be thought of as a highly simplified forest, consisting of fundamentally the over-storey that bears the fruit, a Food forest includes lots of vegetation layers that produce food. Like the micro-forest it includes groundcover layers that cool the soil (and provide habitat), shrubs, grasses, climbers and trees.
In 2019 I chose a spot with good alluvial soil, near our ephemeral creek but hopefully above the floods (fingers crossed). I marked out a 5m x 5m area and allowed the chooks a couple of months to scratch the ground up and fertilise the soil. I also added compost, seaweed and coffee grounds. Our next door neighbour, a market gardener, formed five mounds and furrows with his cultivator.
Like the micro-forest I’ve planted a couple of fast-growing wattles (Acacia floribunda) that will grow quickly and help protect the more sensitive plants. They’ll also drop leaves helping to form a mulch layer and add nitrogen to the soil.
I planted tubestock of the following edible trees into the mounds: 5 carobs, 3 figs, 1 Davidson’s Plum (an edible tree of rainforest) and 1 Mulberry. Shrubs include the Hawaiian Guava (Psidium guajava), Tamarillo (grown from a neighbour’s seed) and Peppino. Understorey plants include Comfrey (not edible but known as a compost accelerant), Raspberry, Eggplants, Capsicum and Lemon Grass and rambling pumpkins and sweet potato. Herbs like parsely and dill have quickly reproduced filling in gaps.
To cover the soil quickly, I introduce the fast growing and tough native bush food, Pigface (the fruits and leaves are edible) and the locally occuring Warrigal greens created a green carpet over the ground. The Warrigal greens are a pioneer plant and if conditions are right will seed prolifically – giving you greens all year round in our area.
The Food forest survived the 200mm of rain we received in February 2020. Planting trees on the mounds probably saved them from being killed by waterlogging.
The biggest maintenance issues, for both the micro-forest and the Food forest is keeping the vigorous grass (Kikuyu) at bay. I’ve almost won the battle with the micro-forest having spent many hours hand weeding its vigorous runners whilst refusing to use herbicides.
Because I have a large garden, I haven’t made spaces within these forests to keep us cool in hot weather – that’s because there’s other spots in the garden, like our micro-oasis adjacent to the house that I’m focusing my efforts on.
However, once the trees grow taller in the food forest and their canopies start to overlap, a small spot for a comfy chair will be the perfect antidote to oppressive heat.
This juvenile Eastern blue-tongue lizard is sunning itself on the gravel before it starts to forage for snails, beetles and and fruit.
One of my favourite inhabitants in my Moruya garden is the native Eastern blue-tongue lizard, Tiliqua scincoides. I reckon the presence of this harmless* reptile is a sign of a healthy garden.
Two juveniles are living out the back. They are cold-blooded and one emerges from under the rear deck in the morning to soak up the sun. Once warm, Eastern blue-tongues forage on snails, beetles and fruit.
This morning whilst gardening, I spotted a second bluey sunning itself next to the compost heap. I threw a snail to this compost dweller. After a minute or two, it grabbed the gastropod in its powerful jaws and moseyed into a tunnel in the compost heap. Then, I heard the crunch of shattering snail shell.
A third EBT shelters under the front deck and catches rays on the deck during the day.
Healthy outdoor practices
It’s good practice to keep the garden healthy for the people, pets and creatures who use your outdoors. In my garden, I don’t spray or use snail bait and I improve the soil with locally scavenged material like seaweed and manure.
The same principles apply at the Downer micro-forest. Instead of treating weeds in the conventional way by spraying with glyphosphate, we took the healthier, slower option and solarised the weeds. We did this by covering the pile of weeds with left-over black builders’ plastic and mulch. The theory is the heat over many months will kill the weeds and seeds.
In a natural ecosystem, like a forest, there are lots of vegetation layers and I aim to replicate that layering in gardens and micro-forests. You can do this by planting dense groundcovers, grasses, shrubs, climbers and trees thus mimicking nature.
At my south coast garden, I use a number of rambling native ground-covers. They include: edible Warrigal Greens (Tetrgonia tetragonoides), Pigface (Carpobrotus) with an edible fruit that I find weird (sort of a salty-tart flavour), Creeping Boobialla (Myoporum parvifolium), Running Postman (Kennedia) and Kidney Weed (Dichondra). These plants scramble over one another and create a dense hugging mat that cools the ground and provides places for critters, like the Eastern blue-tongue to hide.
In my suburban neighbourhood, the biggest threat to slow-moving reptiles are domestic cats who kill the young lizards. Our dogs (border collies) emit a warning bark to alert us to a blue-tongues presence, but have not harmed them. In the wild, predators include birds like kookaburras and falcons and large snakes.
As blueys are slow movers their best chance of survival in a home garden is with lots of low cover – groundcovers, clumping grasses, thick mulch and twigs, logs and stone piles. In urban Canberra, we had a baby blue tongue living in a rock wall.
They are one of the largest garden skinks and grow up to 50cm long and are covered with brown-black bands and have an obvious blue tongue which they display when threatened. Females give live birth to up to a dozen young in summer which mature when they reach around three years. Herpetologist, Ross Bennett reports that in captivity some have lived to the grand age of 20 years.
By planting lots of groundcovers, grasses, using thick mulch and placing logs and rocks on the ground and avoiding chemicals/pesticides you can create a ready-made blue-tongue habitat. You just need them to come and visit you.
If you have a dog like a terrier or outdoor cats, with a strong drive to kill, these lizards will not last in your garden – they’ll either be killed or waddle off to a kinder environment.
Careful when mowing
Eastern blue-tongues like the cover of long grass so beware when mowing that you don’t accidently pulverise them into garden nutrients!
If you have one at home – congratulations, I reckon it’s a sign you have a healthy garden. Take the time to watch them in action. It’s sure to delight young and old.
Note: although Eastern blue-tongue lizards are not venomous they can bite and shouldn’t be provoked.