Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Trouble in paradise

I spent some lovely time in the yard yesterday, planting and getting a new garden bed ready. I started with an overgrown mess, as we haven't touched this bed for several years.


There is an invasive grass which spreads by fibrous rhizome. I tried removal, but expect it will be back in some form. After an hours work, the sun slowly moved overhead. I knew the soil (which was a gorgeous chocolate loam) was going to cook the longer it was exposed to the elements.

Lovely chocolate soil

True to our recycling practices, we didn't waste the weeds and chipped them along with some wooden branches to cover the soil again. I left the spreading grass I pulled, to dry in the sun, and will use them as a cover mulch in another area.

Now waiting to be planted out

After a lick of water, it should be ready to use in a week or so. While it may have looked like an overgrown mess to begin with, all that sprawl was protecting the soil. It was absolutely beautiful soil too, which is something I've found underneath a lot of our sprawling mess. Pull back the jungle, and you'll find moist soil even when it hasn't rained for weeks.

By the afternoon, I planted another shrub in the back yard and then saw white flecks floating on the air. I knew straight away that it was ash, and it wasn't long until I could smell the smoke. It was coming from our neighbours backyard. They had recently cleared some of their land with heavy equipment, and as tradition would have it, decided to burn the debris they gathered up.

They lit the fire in the cool of the afternoon, and it had rained a lot about a week ago, but I still thought they had too much burning at once - a good twenty meter stretch. Some of the rural fire brigade neighbours thought so too, when they drove over to see everything was okay. The fire didn't spread but it was a big fire - too big for their single domestic hose to bring under control anyway.

After my wonderful day in the yard, pulling mess and appreciating its value as a soil protector, I could only stand by and watch the large fire burn next door. The birds who are normally at their most vocal in the late afternoon, weren't making a sound now. The kangaroos who normally come for their afternoon feed in our yard, were nowhere to be seen either. All living things which are in partnership with the environment, knew fire was not something to be invited in.

And yet many people invite it in, as a misinformed notion of preventing wild bushfires, or as a quick way to tidy up the yard. When people live in the residue of fire, they live in an unstable environment that will become more brittle and fire prone in the next heatwave. When people live in the residue of fire, they breed successive generations of plants that are designed to go "whoosh" quickly, which means more intense fires next time.

Lantana is declared a noxious weed ~
but grows the best soil before we can get to removing them

When you live in the residue of decaying matter on the ground however, you invite living things to thrive, reproduce and create successive generations of moisture-filled living tissue. Harder to go "whoosh" when it burns, and thus reduces the temperature of the fire. I've seen the difference in our yard, to those in the area which are periodically burned. They are dry, baron and constant work for their owners - either in dealing with the soil erosion or mowing the endless grass, which is a day away from turning brown afterwards.

Our yard is constant work too. In fact, just recently when the neighbour used equipment to clear their yard, I was tempted to feel it would save us a lot of work if we used heavy equipment too. David and I have talked about it before, but the main issue preventing us is the homeless animals we will create, by shifting so much of the environment at once. Manual work is harder and takes longer, but the impact we create on the environment is reduced as a result.

Pumpkin vine prunings, moved aside to rot ~
nature's original disposal system

It also allows the environment to heal after we've effected an area. Unlike the way the neighbour burned yesterday, and was at it again today. It saddens me to think we've created multiple generations who think their environment will simply repair itself and look after them, the more they rip it back and ignore its needs. I used to think like that too. Until we moved into a tinder box and saw how nothing would grow in the landscape.

Things didn't grow in poor soil, with minimal rainfall in extreme temperatures, unless there was vegetation. If that vegetation was weeds, so be it. Leave them. Slash if required, but never burn. Take out trees if you have to, but leave them on the property to decay. It's food for the termites which in turn, becomes food for the echidnas. Countless insects will use deadwood for shelter and nests too, which will feed the next generation of birds and lizards. All this activity sequesters carbon into the soil, instead of sending it up into the air.

Man-made areas, need constant attention ~
natural landscapes look after themselves

Messiness is nature's order, to build stability back into the landscape. Degraded areas are therefore, prone to a lot of messiness. If we understand this is how it was meant to be, maybe we won't be so quick to tidy up. Every area in the garden we've disturbed, and then let nature take over again, has done far better than the areas we've tried to maintain an order to ourselves. Mowing and slashing was far better than pulling and removing - although its okay to remove, if the vegetation sits on top of the soil to decay.

Click image to enlarge

I did this recently, when planting in the front batter. I pulled a lot of grass and heaped it like a berm. A week later, I pulled back a small hole in the dead grass to plant into, and it was moist. Nothing I've planted in this particular area (directly into the soil) has managed to live through our long, hot, and often dry summers. I'm hoping by planting into a thick mat of straw, it will improve the moisture/soil content somewhat, and it's doing a terrific job already.

Luffas and Gourds can live in the garden for years, slowly rotting down

The trouble with this particular part of paradise, isn't fire, weeds or a lack of rainfall. It's people's attitudes towards their environment. They consider the lack of rain for making it so dry, as they light another fire to keep the grass and weeds under control. What they don't realise, is they're sucking the water right out of the ground, by their own hands.

Not a lot of people would set their homes alight to "tidy up", so its not a very good idea in nature either. When gathering debris in our yards, we should leave it to rot and collect moisture as much as possible. We can do that in a tidy, more useful way than merely setting a flame to it. Not all fires are bad (BBQ's, wood stoves in winter or moderately sized pit fires) but the wholesale use of fire as vegetation control, is counterproductive to creating a stable environment.

Muesli, the cat

Vegetation is essential to climate control and land stabilisation. We need it, whether that vegetation fits in with our vision of tidy, or not. When we filled our dry-stone retaining wall with soil, at the back of our house, we disturbed the area quite a lot. The weeds and grass quickly invaded, when we stopped work to have a baby. It's a nearly completed project, which looks rather messy now...but its still very productive mess. I'm grateful nature keeps working when I've taken a sabbatical.

If all this sounds like a bit of a lecture, stop to consider if each and every one of us has given the issue much thought? Maybe we need to revisit how we look upon our gardening spaces, to be more in line with nature. I know I never warmed to having a messy garden, straight off the bat. I was forced to do it by sheer size of the property, and changing circumstances. Now I know the benefits however, I'm more mindful of what's important - the view, or whether I work towards nature's best interests?

Does it really matter if people burn every year? I personally haven't found it very beneficial on the parcels of land, it's been done to in this area. They're degraded, hotbeds and constantly thirsty. Why not just try the recycling experiment however. Put everything grown on the property, back onto the property. If weeds invade, don't break your back trying to control them - plant what you want to amongst them instead. Or use them to mulch under a tree - they make excellent mulching material.

Trouble in your particular part of paradise? Try letting nature take over and show you what actually works. It will be very enlightening and incredibly productive.


  1. Another great post. Well put! Or maybe I have so much natural messiness around that I love to hear someone agree that it's not only okay, it's healthy! Our biggest problem is that we have several neighbors right across the street who only know the domestic suburban way of doing things. They keep their yards in lawns and landscape plants, poison weeds, and mow, mow, mow. Out of respect for them, Dan wants to keep at least our front yard and road frontage tidy looking. We both agree that our biggest waste of time is mowing our "lawn" to make it look "respectable." It's a very frustrating situation actually.

  2. I can imagine the frustration, Leigh. Actually I don't have to imagine too hard, as we've had to wrestle with ex-urbanites too. Some of them neighbours, but we also were ex-hurbanites, with blickers on too. That was until we realised it was physically impossible to manage acreage with two people and difficult terrain.

    Unfortunately, we have neighbours who like to spray substantial amounts of poison, and they've killed trees on our side of the fence. All because its easier to spray poison on grass growing in the fenceline, than managing it with machinery. The poison didn't discriminate between the grass and the trees roots. I've managed to propagate one tree on that same fenceline, because I know if they poison every year, its roots will eventually cross the boundary too.

    It sounds like I don't like my neighbours very much - but they're decent enough people. I don't think they mean to cause anyone harm. I just notice the difference between their management style to ours. They take a lot of drastic measures to keep things in check, because they are short on time. I get that, We have to fight the time clock as well. It's not easy and we often fall short.

    Still, we've got to think of the long term goal of what we're leaving behind. Nature has been taking care of living things longer than we have, so I'm prepared to let it reside in its natural state. I do change things to our benefit around the yard, but I see nature as my partner not my nemesis. I don't want to eradicate it, when its actually better at looking after things than me, lol. ;)

  3. A lecture but a wonderful one Chris:)
    I think that the attitude towards the environment is a much more global problem. We have even had hostile reactions to what we are trying to do when we refused advise from more conventionally minded people around us.
    I no longer engage them as they do not want to change so its up to people like us to just keep on keeping on.
    I would think that burning would be restricted or banned in your area when its dry. It is here and we don't get nearly as dry as you. That type of ban could force people to do something other than take the easy route.

  4. It does seem to be global, doesn't it. There are larger tracks of land in far worse shape than ours, and its because people keep doing what their fathers did, back when the world was cooler and rain more plentiful. When the elements change, we have to change our practices - be that the kind of foods we can grow or how much we give back to the land as nutrients.

    We have a strange fire ban system though. There are several "stages" which permit certain activities in the backyard utilising fire. If you've applied for a fire permit though, and the weather changes for the worse, on the day you're permitted to burn - you're still allowed to use your fire permit to burn. In fact, if you have a fire permit to burn and it gets out of control to start a bush fire, you're not charged for negligence.

    Of course its recommended people don't burn on a fire ban day, but permits given in advance don't really mean anything, if someone decides to ignore the recommendation. We're very fortunate to live in an area with a lot of volunteer rural fire brigade members. There is a lookout point which is manned regularly for bush fires. Having said that, I've also seen some people burning in backyards in windy weather. People obtain fire permits to burn, and then ignore the conditions when they change.

    Considering the terrain we live on though, I have to give credit to people for using their common sense most of the time. On the bad fire days though, I do worry. I consider my best defense the vegetation we manage. I know some in the rural fire brigade would look at our vegetation and consider it a fire risk so close to the house. If we don't increase the vegetation to cool the land during summer however, we just make the wood more prone to burning quicker, with more intense heat. That's wild-fire fuel, a fire fighters worst challenge to bring under control.

    At least if fire does hit our property, of course it will burn too, but it won't be contributing to the intense fuel to feed wild-fire. Because it will burn slower, it may even act as a wind break to slow its spread. I've never doubted our place would burn in a bushfire, my thoughts have always been "how" will it burn though? We're designing green buffers that will succumb to an intense enough bushfire, but it will act like a brake to its intensity too. Perhaps long enough for others to get out of its path?

  5. I hope you are right about how your land would react to a fire. I am really astounded that fire permits are not taken seriously enough to rescind them if conditions change and that there is not penalty for starting bush fires. I mean one persons stupidity can cause another to lose their life. In California (and I think it might be national) anybody who starts the fire will be charged. I am sure there is room for accidental fire starting but in general, its taken seriously.

    It was on the news last night that a farm area north of us had a fire which burned 87 acres. It started in a ditch and the speculation is that somebody tossed a cigarette out the window. The fire was quickly contained. Now think about that-we just had our winter thaw not two weeks ago but farm land means lots of corn stalks left in the fields and then there are wild grasses. Some trees probably but not a lot.

  6. My theory as to why they don't charge people for lighting fires with a permit, that later get out of control (I can think of one incident last year) is because permits are issued by Fire Wardens. Ultimately, they are responsible for granting permission after they assess what is going to be burned and what facilities are available to put out the fire without incident. If weather conditions change, they are also responsible for ensuring fires burning under permits, are monitored by them so they don't get out of control. There is generally only one fire warden for a large region.

    If people ever got charged for bushfires caused while using a fire permit, ultimately the focus will fall on the Fire Wardens granting the permits. It's a dicey issue because having Fire Wardens monitoring how many permits are issued, is a sensible strategy. Should they also become legally responsible for 'acts of God' though, if the weather suddenly changed and couldn't get on the ground quick enough to get those fires under permit, under control?

    Even though I'd rather people not burn off, a system prepared to manage fire is better than none at all. There are less bushfires caused by legal fire permits, than those who throw cigarette butts out the window, or are deliberately caused by arsonists.

    Sorry to hear about the recent fire incident near you. The fact it was quickly contained, was probably due to favourable wind conditions, how quickly they were able to deploy resources to fight the fire, and the moisture still contained below the ground. 87 acres sounds like a lot of land to burn through, but the fact it was able to be brought under control is very good news. :)

    The reason we have a lot of wild fires in Australia is, we have a lot of intense heat during summer, ergo evaporation. We also have a lot of exposed and degraded land, which breeds fire prone plant species. Add a strong wind for a few days and you've got the ripe conditions for wild fire. These are not fires that can ever be brought under control because of the heat generated. They have to burn out or wait for the weather conditions to change.

    My heart goes out to anyone effected by fire - the animal and plant population too. It's a very scary time until the fire is brought under control.

  7. Ah, I see. I didn't focus on the idea of permits. In our area, permits are not necessary but no burn days announced on radio and t.v. Some even use the volunteer fire department trainees to oversea the burns. Most burning is of trash heaps which is objectionable to me but its permissible by the old guard who don't care about pollution.
    Our land is degraded too but in another way-the overfilled pesticide mono crop fields are dry as a bone and crack in summer. But the corn and soy are green material. We have a good water table and that is the main key here.

  8. Excellent point about the water table. They can make all the difference between wet material and dry material, burning in a fire.


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