Reading Landscapes #05

Edition #5 of Reading Landscapes is out now!

Good morning, and welcome to the fifth edition of our monthly newsletter, Reading Landscapes.

Every section will be split with this divider

Here’s what we’ve got for you today:

  • Looking at patterns

  • Bracken Fern, the prehistoric plant

  • How can we move fertility?

  • What we’ve been learning

🔎 Looking at the Landscape

Like us to discuss a photo of your landscape? Share it with us here. 

Reading the Steps of a Landscape

Steps in a Landscape

Understanding the Patterns in our Landscape

Our landscape naturally steps down like a staircase; the flatter the landscape, the further these steps are apart, and the steeper the closer they are together.

Why does it step?

Well, that was created over time through the interaction of plants. Plants growing in a landscape would collect sediment and floating materials in a rain event and trap that material in place, and more plants would grow. It would continually build until that area sat higher than the landscape below it, creating what looked like a step in the land.

These natural steps are crucial to our landscape's hydrological processes and, unfortunately, are no longer operating in many cases.

Like in the case above. You can see in the photo three distinct areas where the land has started to erode. Each of these is a step in the landscape, and they have started to fail. Eventually, over time, if this process continued, each cut would continue back up the hill until a gully formed.

To manage this, nature will remove the energy from the water. It does this by creating ponds in each eroded channel so that when water falls into the pond, its energy is removed, and it cannot continue the headwall cut up the channel.

By observing the patterns and processes around this one, we can understand how a landscape functions and how we, as land stewards, can stop processes like this from occurring and repair existing ones.

🌳 Learning from Plants

Have a plant you’d like to discuss? Share it with us here.

Bracken Fern in the Plant Successionn

Bracken Fern

Common Names: Common Bracken, Common Fern, Bracken Fern, Austral Fern

Scientific Name: Pteridium Esculentum

Where in the Succession: Early Succession Accumulator

What is it telling me about my landscape?

Thanks to Nadine for sending in this month’s plant species.

Bracken Fern is an accumulator species tasked with the role of building fertility. Ferns are an interesting case, being an early land plant species and reproducing via spores instead of seeds.

They are a very good accumulator species, often the plant of choice to rapidly colonise barren and disturbed areas following catastrophic events such as volcanic eruptions, wildfires, and extinction events.

Where am I going to find Bracken Fern growing, and why is it growing there?

Taking what we discussed above into account, we expect to find Bracken Fern growing in areas of our landscape that are earlier in their plant succession.

Bracken Fern is often a pioneer species, colonising bare areas that don’t yet have the fertility to support higher-order species. It is often found growing in landscapes that were once timbered and have been cleared. In these environments, it is coming in to build fertility and restore the ecological succession to a higher-order forest.

The growing conditions that Bracken Fern is often found growing in include;

  • Soils low in fertility and organic matter

  • Light, sandy or well-drained soils

Bracken Fern will come in to remedy these issues and start the succession towards a higher-order species. But, often, the limiting factor is time, which in Nature’s opinion is unlimited, but as a land manager, we want to see things happen a little faster, so that’s where we can step in and lend a hand.

How can we manage Bracken Fern?

To manage Bracken Fern, we have to come in and complete the role it’s trying to achieve. We know it is trying to;

  • Get green growing plants back into areas that lacked that

  • Build up the soil's fertility and organic matter

So, how, as land stewards, can we step in and complete that role?

🛑 Stop the losses of fertility. Bracken Fern grows in areas of low fertility, so to manage that, we need to step in and manage those losses. Through the use of contours and plants, we can slow the movement of water, fertility and nutrients - holding them in the landscape instead.

⬆️ Increase our soil fertility. This can be done through the increased growth of plants or you can help it along by bringing in external sources of fertility (compost, chicken manure, worm tea, etc.) and adding them to your landscape.

🍂 Add organic matter; with the soils in these areas being low in organic matter, we can help build that up with sources of organic matter like mulch.

🚜 You can also use mechanical intervention to slash or mulch the Bracken Fern, thereby adding fertility and opening up the opportunity for competition to come in and out-compete it. You could also incorporate livestock in this process, being careful, though, as Bracken Fern is toxic.

🌱 Focus on increasing your diversity and density of plants to out-compete the Bracken Fern by adding seeds and promoting new species into the area.

Knowing that with Bracken Fern growing, it suggests that the landscape intends to move the succession forward to a forest. How can we manage for that whilst still wanting to keep that land as grazing land?

🌳 One way is to look at incorporating trees into the landscape and creating a silvopasture system through the planting of trees across the landscape or on contour.

By doing so, we are recreating some of the forest attributes whilst still keeping the productive aspects of growing pasture species for livestock.

How to make the most of your Bracken Fern

🪨 As a Soil Indicator: Very low Calcium, High Potassium, High Zinc, High Aluminium, Very little organic matter. More common in Sandy or well-drained soils, it also prefers soils that are regularly moist.

🐮 Livestock: Bracken Fern is toxic to livestock in most cases.

💊 Medicinal: Bracken Fern has been used in traditional medicine for a range of purposes, including;

  • Antiemetic

  • Antiseptic

  • Treatment of stomach cramps, chest pains, diarrhoea and colds

  • As a poultice on sores and burns

Through the use of the roots of the plant.1

Some modern studies have investigated these uses, but no significant review papers have been published.2

🍽️ Consumption: Bracken Fern has a long history as a staple food source, especially in Maori culture, with the roots being a food source high in carbohydrates and fibres.3

The consumption of the fern seems to be mostly limited to the roots, as studies have shown the fronds and crosier of the plant to have unpredictable levels of a potent carcinogen.3

Learn Natural Sequence Farming in 2024

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🙋 Answering your Questions

Ask the Team! Share your question here, and we’ll answer it in a future newsletter.

After last month’s edition, Angus emailed in asking about our trivia discussion and moving Phragmites biomass to higher parts of the landscape, and I thought that question and answer was worth sharing here for everyone.

💬 Angus Asks:

I'm curious about the phragmite harvesting - what machines actually do this please? I can only see a machine getting well and truly bogged operating near a wetland / creek / dam. Is this more a case of hand harvesting with a scythe or machete, and then taking the reeds up to the top of the hill?

And is there any advice around how to lay the phragmites at the top of the hill please? Should we pile them up, put them in berms, just randomly kick them around, do they need to be piled deep or single layer to not smother the grass?

🎙️ Hamish’s Answer:

Hi Angus,

Yes the harvesting of the Phragmites can become tough. We would recommend harvesting during the dry season and during dryer times when it is easier to get in there and collect them. When moving that much fertility, you don't have to do it every year.

Obviously hand harvesting with a scythe is an option, but much less practical.

As for placement we would recommend placing in a pile if just cut or if baled then leaving as a whole bale and putting them below the bank of the contour on ridge lines at the highest parts of the property and just leaving the rest to gravity and time to spread the fertility.

If you wanted to go that step further you could first compost them down into a richer medium and then place the compost below the contour to spread around, but that's of course extra work and definitely not necessary to completing the job or recycling fertility.

P.S. If anyone has developed a machine or has an idea for a machine that is able to harvest material in these wet areas no matter what the conditions are like, that would be very interesting to hear about.

🧩 Trivia Time

Have a crack at this week’s question!

How much can a large mature tree cool in power terms through the process of evapotranspiration on a sunny day?

Noting that an average household air conditioner is between 2.5-5 kW in size.

Login or Subscribe to participate in polls.

4 Water for the Recovery of the Climate - A New Water Paradigm

📚 What We’ve Been Learning

A quick list of our favourite things we’ve been watching, reading, listening, and writing.

How shade trees benefit coffee production: An interesting post showing an example of creating diversity amongst tree plantations and creating environments that suit both the production tree and the environment.

Episode 97: Integrating Trees Into Working Pastures with Austin Unruh: A great discussion about incorporating trees into a grazing system. In this case, most species are suited to the livestock, but there is potential for incorporating cash crops and creating multiple income streams.

The missing link: groundwater creates rain: Restoring our natural hydrological patterns and building up groundwater levels helps create more rain by powering plants - and our water cycles.

How building the groundwater level helps to power the water cycless

Dingoes are good for business and healthy landscapes, grazier research finds: An interesting article sharing the results of a study researching the impact of dingoes on grazier’s profits and their role in managing the rangelands ecosystems.

That’s all for this edition. Thanks for stopping by.

Looking to learn more? Check out our blog

⛰️ Take the next steps to restore your landscape with our on-ground Learn Natural Sequence Farming course, or add your name to the waitlist for our upcoming online course.

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