Thursday, May 18, 2017

Time for...

David and I, had the luxury of pottering around the garden lately. Although pottering, usually involves moving large tree trunks, copious amounts of dirt, and breaking up bark, by hand, to use as mulch.

To that end, we've been dealing with two enormous trees, we had cut down, over nine months ago. Our plan was to incorporate their natural decaying process, into the landscape. But where do we put two, 30 meter trees, so we could still access the land they were felled on?

First felled, August, 2016

We intended to build some retaining walls into the landscape, which would help us garden more effectively. Because it's hard to garden on slopes, with gravity taking water and nutrients down hill. By using terraces however, we get a more manageable landscape. The tree logs would help us in this endeavour.

Downside, is the short term, intensive work involved. Upside is, it should last as long as the landscape does. So a more longterm pay-off, for the short term sacrifice.

Being more organised

David rolls logs now, like some people roll yoga mats. But we weren't always so comfortable, working on this scale or intensity. As former suburbanites, a lot of the perceptions which gave us security, revolved around ready-made solutions, on demand. Without those solutions on our acreage, we felt subject to it's scale. Believing it required more from us, than we were capable of giving.

Compost, mulch and plants, could always be purchased in large quantities in suburbia. How could we make it happen ourselves, on the scale we were working with, just involving the two of us?

As we pottered around the garden, I was reminded of our former selves, compared to who we are now - dealing with tonnes of carbon, like we were taking a walk in the park.

March 2016

What is the difference between rocking up to a landscape supplier, or nursery with your trailer - and moving tonnes of carbon at home, by hand? It sounds simple enough, but it's, time. Time is the difference. However, it's a little more involved than that.

Obviously, we worked on a time scale, which enabled us to get the job done in stages. David had to clear the area, by removing lantana, other weeds and decaying wood, we left earlier. You can still see some of them, around the tree.

Time was not just important on a physical level, however. As the passing of time was also working on "scale", for us. Evaporation over time, removed moisture from the logs - making them lighter to move. But evaporation also, shrunk the wood, prying the bark away from the logs.

 Tree bark

Time also allowed the seasons, to transform the bark, so we could use it as mulch. Several bouts of rain, combined with a little heat and the organisms drawn to such conditions - and even our 4 year-old, could get into the action, of breaking up tree bark, with his hands. He reveled in it.

I'm not attempting to discredit the benefit of having landscape suppliers and nurseries. But I do believe we become unnecessarily intimidated by nature, and all it's raw forms of material, when it's not pre-prepared - or packaged in a way we understand.

We're not use to seeing time, as a component of large scale, resource management - or that we (small as we are, compared to nature) can manage through a different understanding of using our time.

Natural resources

The above picture, looks organised, so it's less intimidating - but there are several vintages of raw materials, we had to gather and prepare. First, the large tree logs, moved into place, to build a retaining wall. There are large sheets of bark, sitting on the logs, which came off the tree too. We broke it up, by hand, into the mulch you see on the ground. There are wattle prunings, we put down, just to cover the soil quickly. As breaking up the bark, takes a little longer.

Last of all, are the older and smaller tree trunks which had aged in this area formerly. They weren't finished decomposing, even though they'd gotten a head-start on the new logs. What those olds logs were doing, were acting as a soil conditioner for the plants we moved in.

Starting to plant area

Talk about instant foliage effect. Only it's not so instant. I've been nursing this Philodendron Xanadu, in a pot for years. It started as a small plant, and outgrew it's pot regularly. So even though it now looks like it's always been in this landscape, it's still took "time" to grow to the size, it has.

Which is something we don't always get to appreciate, when we have the luxury of buying nursery plants, for that immediate head-start. I personally love nurseries, and glad there are businesses (large and small) dedicating their time to growing so much plant material. I wouldn't want there to be no plant nurseries.

But as our economy winds down from the demands of our time, fossil fuels, freed up for us (ironically) we have to become re-acquainted with the scale over time, equation again. We have to see a way for ourselves to work with tonnes of carbon, moving through our gardens. Rather than feel like it's beyond us, because it is so big.

Lower retaining wall

After preparing the site, David moved the logs into position - burying some, so the tops were (more or less) even. He laid two, on their sides, to use as stairs. This wasn't just a retaining wall. It was going to be a place for kids to explore as well. Peter loves this area. So does the cat!

It also served as extra seating, when we had the kids' birthday party, recently. We swung some piƱatas from a nearby tree, and spectators came to our new seating arrangement (complements of 12 years, or more of stored carbon). All to watch blindfolded children, wave a stick, in hopes of hitting the target.

So this labour of ours, was not just for the purpose of improving soil fertility so plants could grow. It was also about making this site more accessible to people.


To this end, we also used some of the branches as steps. Nothing fancy. Just a practical purpose, for the raw materials we had available. The goal was to use all the trees. Which we still, have yet to do.

When I work on a scale like this, I wonder why myths about food scarcity for the world, perpetuate. Nature is putting this stuff out there, in more amounts than people can handle. But it's not as simple as rolling up to the nursery with a trailer, or the supermarket with a car.

I don't feel as nervous about food security, with first-hand experience of the fertility being dropped in my backyard. I'm not feeding our family on the stuff we grow yet - but I am developing a better understanding of the resources being accumulated by nature, for that purpose. I just haven't worked with them as much, as I've worked with nurseries and trailers. It takes a bit of adjustment, to be comfortable turning so much raw material, into something you can use.

Upper retaining wall

This is the upper level, being put into place. The walking track created, to move the materials, will remain the access area for the garden. This track snakes from the upper level, down to the lower level.

Flowing areas, create better access - especially on slopes, where terrain can be more challenging to navigate. Our design reflects what we are capable of achieving in our younger years, so we can use it to our benefit, in our older ones. Succession is nature's original trademark, and it has taught us to appreciate all the stages, over time - to use them for future benefit, as well as, the present.

  Backfill, come walking track

This is the continuation of that flowing track. Or rather, where I'm standing to take the photograph, is the end. Plants under trees, grow better at the drip-line, or where the canopy of the tree ends. As they don't have to compete with so many tree roots, robbing them of nutrients and moisture. 

Building a track, was a better use of area around the tree trunk, than planting foliage. We will be planting other advanced specimens, from my container collection too. But they will be vines, designed to grow up trees. So being close to the tree trunk, won't be an issue for those particular plants. But the track will remain clear for access.

Natural designs

What I love about using these large trees, as retaining walls though, are the stories they tell. Like insect trails, caused by beetles, who spend their larvae stage in the tree. Boring into, and eating the trunk, is how they reach the beetle stage. We have an integral, endangered species of bird - the yellow-tailed, black cockatoo, which helps control the numbers of beetle larvae in our trees. 

Without those migrating birds, we'd probably have an infestation of beetles, and a lot of dangerous, 30 meter trees, threatening to fall over.

Signs of life

You can see where the beetle bored into the wood, and where the larvae has traveled. It's so beautiful, and part of the indigenous life-cycle of the tree. It plays host to a food source, for a migrating bird population.

I expect to hear the cockatooes' cries again, come June and July. Which is when they take their new fledglings, on a hunting lesson. And in so doing, those birds will leave their droppings behind, to fertilise the trees again.

There's a lot happening in our bushland, which plays over time. But then we come to utilise some of the resources, to make our lives a little more functional again. The lesson here is, what we end up removing, should be balanced by what we return. Because it is only time, which makes up the difference. If we squander what we return, we only squander our time, playing catch-up again.

Mostly done

Because only time can take resources, grown on the property, and let the seasons prepare them for use. Then there is the time we choose to work outside, moving those resources around. So much of my understanding of how plants grow best, started from that limited view of immediacy. How quickly, can I get what I need, and bring my vision into being?

Yet so much of what's important - the building blocks that give life to people, requires a lifelong devotion to doing without. What we have achieved, only happened because we went without, while nature was busy, growing the means to provide the rest. Then we went without rest, and time for other things we wanted to do, when it came to putting the new area together.

I'm not against bringing inputs in. They can help too. But the danger is when we become entirely dependent on inputs - that we feel deprived or insecure, when we cannot acquire them, in a timely enough fashion. That scarcity mentality, and all the fears that go with it, can cause short term decisions - instead of planning for the long-term. And we are all in it (I hope) for the long term.

Feeding people and eco-systems takes time. So how are you spending yours, and what have you enjoyed learning along the way? I imagine there are quite a lot of stories about who you used to be, compared to who you are now.


  1. What a lovely post, I adore tree's and understand they have to be cut back, but you have used the trunk in a perfect way. Giving your garden a natural look, and making each log work in more than one way. Most things will be here long after we have gone, so it is important we look after our plots (mine is very small). We all work to a future plan as in nature nothing is instant.

    1. Absolutely, small is just as grand! And what we leave behind in any garden, will hopefully carry on, once we're gone. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Hi Chris, those log walls look terrific, and as the timber ages even more, they will add another dimension to your environment. I agree completely that using what nature/the environment provides sympathetically with that environment will always lead to an excellent outcome. Looking forward to seeing more in the future. Cheers Barb

    1. Thanks Barb. Nature is an excellent provider, and I'm glad you've touched on that point too. I hope Pete is well, and you're managing to potter around your garden together too. Those are the best days. :)

  3. Oh my you have given me a lot to think about.

  4. It's only taken me ten years to finally absorb, what this environment has been doing all this time, Jane. So there's no rush. ;) As long as we potter, mull it over and potter some more, it will continue sharing with us. I'm sure your garden, has shared a lot of observations with you too. It doesn't always impact us straight away though.

  5. This is a wonderful post Chris. As a rural dweller, I'm hearing you in regard to the many factors of time, as opposed to rolling up at Bunnings and walking out with it all there in plastic bags. I can't relate to that at all... everything here has evolved with blood sweat and sometimes a tear or two. :) I love your retaining walls, and the thought of the amount of work involved brings me out in a sweat!

    1. Yes, it definitely evolves in good ways and bad, but you get to take part in the process and learn. Which is the part I love, and I'm sure you get too. Thanks for sharing.

  6. Another great post! I've learned,just like you to wait.....Nature has time; I thought I didn't. I rushed in, propagated lots of plants to put in the cleared areas to bring the bush back and fretted over those species that wouldn't grow from cuttings or germinate from seed. Nature watched me with a grin on her face. She quietly worked away, dropping seeds here and there, encouraging ants to spread them, dropping branches so that the seeds fell out of their capsules and germinated with the rains. Nowadays I don't plant much at all, only veggies in the food garden. Nature has sowed seed, mulched the plants and done it all by herself...much better than I could ever have done. I wanted it right away....Nature works differently. You've seen that too..isn't is a great feeling?

    1. Definitely comforting to know, nature has the main job taken care of. Nature plants new stuff all the time - shedding what no longer has the gumption, and letting it all break down into soil. When it's bare land though, you feel like it's time to intervene. You can, but in a brittle environment, it's not likely to survive.

      Our soils have really only started to improve in quantities, when the scrub started growing back. We're learning to cull it, to control it taking over the areas we need. But we're also learning to keep it on the land that bore it, because that's what nature is doing. Without that woody material on the ground, we wouldn't get nutrients on our clay/sandy loam, soils - let alone stay on them, with slopes.

      Thanks for sharing your experience. I love hearing how others find nature's blueprint of success. Even if it does require a bit of humility, recognising when to step back.


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