6 January 2017

The Land Regeneration Project - Part 1

Kaily and I planting the first tree
Since I was old enough to know the difference, I’ve despised invasive aliens. Be it plants, trees, birds or mammals - I have been on a mission to cut, chop, shoot or poison, which ever option works the best. My parents yard in Durban full of desirable Garden or Variegated Crotons (Codiaeum variegatum) which naturally occur in  Indonesia, Malaysia, Australia and the western Pacific Ocean islands all got the chop, as did the horrid Leopard Tree (Caesalpinnea ferrea) from Brazil. Replaced with far too many very large trees, it was not long before I realised I needed a little more space to plant quite so many trees. Having relocated, it was not long before the new occupants of our former house chopped most my hard work down anyway. 

Having relocated to a small holding near Bela-Bela, I had the scope with which I had always dreamed of. Except, the ground was awfully hard and I knew nothing of the local tree and plant species. In the interim, there was a far greater issue to be dealt with, for the entire area was engulfed by ‘Queen of the Night’ (Cereus jamacaru), a tough as nuts cactus from north eastern Brazil that grows up to 5m high and produces very attractive white flowers that last a single night. The local government was concerned enough about this pest that they provided free herbicide to anyone who agreed to clear their land. A few days later, all 50 hectares of our property had been dealt with. A few years later, it was all back - none of the neighbouring farmers had any interest in dealing with it.

I took a 12 year hiatus from murdering exotic plants while living in Europe and travelling the world, before returning to South Africa to wreak more havoc on my parents garden in Bela-Bela. Having settled in Pietermaritzburg, Meg discovered that I couldn’t help myself - even with only a tiny piece of land, I was intent on destroying the rubbish and replacing it with indigenous plants. Out went the aliens and in came a pile of native Aloes, Canary Creeper (Senecio tamoides), Cape Honeysuckle (Tecoma capensis) and even a few Tree Fuschia’s (Halleria lucida). Requireing more space for all our camping stuff, we recently moved to a leafier part of Pietermaritzburg. Here we had a far larger garden, but one without anything but grass. Perfect I thought, I could get a small forest growing here. Unfortunately, the owner of the property rather liked his grass and so my proposed forest was put on hold. I did manage to insert some Canary Creeper (Senecio tamoides) and Cape Honeysuckle (Tecoma capensis) along the fence lines, added a few smaller trees and put a few Aloes and grass species in plastic moveable buckets. I still had to wake up to the sight of two English Oaks (Quercus robur) every morning. As much as I’d like to chop them both down, the volume of neasting bird species made this impractical. This year alone has produced new families of African Wood Owl, Green Wood Hoopoe, Violet-backed Starling & Red-throated Wryneck. The bee nest is a favourite haunt of Lesser Honeyguide and numerous other species that seek shelter here. So the English Oaks would have to stay.
Balcooa Bamboo - far bigger than you think!

I soon learnt that the property along the small river valley opposite our fence line also belonged to the estate, and here there was far more potential - at least for me. Riddled with Tickberry (Lantana camera) from Central and South America, Bugweed (Solanum mauritianum) from South America, Black Wattle (Acacia mearnsii) from Australia, Balcooa Bamboo (Bambusa balcooa) from Indochina as well as various invasive species of Pine tree (Pinus sp) and Blue Gum (Eucalyptus grands). In fact, I am probably only brushing the surface of what other horrid invasives lie in this valley, there is sure to be Siam Weed (Chromolaena odorata) and Syringa (Melia azedarach) amongst others. Clearing this cornucopia of rubbish has already defeated a number of efforts, both by the estate and the council. It has also been partially defeated by a nesting pair of African Crowned Eagle that didn’t take kindly to bull dozers attempting to clear a section of Lantana.

Yours truly is not about to suggest that he is single handedly going to blaze a trail of destruction through this mess and replant it all with native indigenous trees, but I am going to try and make a dent in it. Having secured permission to try my hand at this, I resolved to start slowly and methodically…

Phase one - identify a reasonably sized patch of land and gain permission to plant trees. Permission obtained in late November 2016.

Phase two - obtain suitable trees for planting. Working on a tip off from our friend Rich Lindie, we paid a visit to Val-Lea Nursery in Lincoln Meade. The owner Granton showed me around and also announced that he had sold his property and would be shutting the nursery in a few months. So I filled the cruiser a few times and collected over 40 trees in two visits. 

Phase three - prepare the land. This phase was mandatory due to the presence of a number of Bushbuck, who would happily browse the new trees before they had a chance of growing. Thus a structure around the trees was required. Those bamboo clumps would now come in useful.
Chopping to size

Phase four - over the New Years weekend, I headed down to the local equipment store and rented a chainsaw for the long weekend. Until you have stood at the bottom of a giant bamboo clump, this project would have seemed rather straight forward. This bamboo is so large, that we have actually used pieces of it for a side project - a wine rack, where each bottle comfortably fits inside the hollow of a single internodal region. (I’ll blog about this project separately). After much noise making, pulling and pushing - I was able to retrieve only a small number of the stems that I had actually cut. The remainder are still there, held together 20 metres above by interlocking branches. Having chopped the pieces into manageable lengths, we transported what amounted to a boot full (cruiser that is) of stems back to the house. Ably assisted by Meg and Kaily, the pile had to be transported into the yard for the next session of chopping. More chopping was followed by cross sectioning and sub-dividing of the stems into slats. 

Phase five - build the barriers. The first one is always the most difficult as you attempt to put into action what amounted to a simple plan. When the first attempt failed, a second was devised and implemented to a much better standard.
Kaily bringing the ingredients

Phase six - the final stage was completing the purpose of all this effort. Planting a tree. Having successfully built the first barrier, we selected the first tree for planting and headed over the road, wheel barrow, spade and pickaxe all delivered by an excitable Kaily. Having chosen a suitable spot, I cleared a little vegetation before sinking the pick axe and spade into the ground. Kaily was again on hand to deliver the first tree to site before handing down instructions on just how things should be done. A little pushing and pulling on the bamboo barrier completed the job. Tree number 1, in the ground on January 2nd 2017.

To complete the first session of the project, we have another 39 barriers to construct and trees to plant! 

Tree 1 Planted    02 January 2017   Senegalia galpinii      Monkey Thorn

After a sweaty day, I needed a lift over the road

20 metres tall may be an underestimate

Even with multiple stems cut, the bamboo simply wouldn't fall

Eventually one stem came crashing down much to Kaily's dismay!

Kai helping load the truck

A good start to the project

Building the barrier to protect from the trees from Bushbuck browsing

Kai helping carry the first tree

Barrier and tree installed

Bamboo debris on our lawn, looking across to the first tree site

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