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Helen McKerral

Helen McKerral

December 8, 2011

One of the things I love most about living in the Adelaide Hills is the trees. Swathes of olive green are so integral to my part of the country that, when I visit relatives on the northeastern seaboard, the brilliant green of tropical rainforest is always a shock.
Of course, trees can be challenging on suburban sized blocks. For a gardener, shading and root competition are the main issues.

Plan showing trees on the new block

I have two spotted gums, Corymbia maculata, in the front yard – huge trees previously big enough to be classed as significant; this originally meant I couldn’t remove either of them even though they were within metres of the house. Regulations have changed to allow removal of such trees due to fire risk, but I don’t want to do that because 1. they’re fantastic habitat, 2. They’re on the western side and protect the house and rest of the garden from late afternoon sun in summer, and 3. I have a very good, professionally installed bushfire sprinkler system on the house, and the canopies are very high. Arborists simply thinned the canopies to allow more light to the ground, and removed overhanging branches.
The biomass of trees is an incredibly valuable asset to the microclimate and aesthetics of a garden. I always think the worst feature of any brand new suburb is the complete absence of any large trees; instead, a sea of roofs creates a massive heat island. Biomass is something that takes decades to accumulate, and no amount of gardening skill can replicate it: that lovely restful balance in an established garden can only be created by time.
So when I first looked at the new block, I thought carefully about which trees I wanted to retain, and which ones needed removing. And because the neighbour from whom I was buying the land has a house that overlooks the area, it was essential that she was equally happy with my plans. The trees might be on my land but, in my opinion, because trees outlive us, we’re only their custodians for a while; we own them legally, but perhaps not morally. Big trees are a shared resource because they affect neighbours all around, and even passersby. And I now have SIX neighbours – that’s a lot of people to potentially annoy by doing the wrong thing! Seriously, it’s important I respect their views– in both senses! I especially didn’t want the selling neighbour to have any nasty surprises so, before I bought the property, I discussed the options with her.

Pines create both shade and structure

The huge Canary Island pine, Pinus canariensis, at the western end, just metres from our garage, garden shed and existing chicken coop, was one I definitely wanted gone. It wasn’t an especially attractive specimen, it’s highly flammable, it shades the new area, and conifers are notorious for root competition. To my relief, my neighbour had no problem with removal. Two enormous radiatas still remain to the south west on a neighbour’s property, providing structural height and visual mass to the area. You can see them in the western view pictures.

Native cherries (centre) & messmate stringbark



My neighbour was also fine with the removal of two smaller radiatas in the southeastern corner. They’d shade out the new chicken coop (chickens won’t lay if it’s too shady), but these trees were also outcompeting two beautiful old native cherries, Exocarpus cupressiformis, which were looking pretty sick. Native cherry trees are semi-parasitic, especially when young, and many of the eucalypts on the block were looking sick too, or had died. Later, the arborist told me many messmate stringybarks in the Adelaide Hills had died recently, but whether this was because of drought, climate change or Phytophthera he couldn’t say.
Of course I wanted to keep the native cherries, and hoped that once the blackberries and pines were gone, they’d recover, although the arborist warned me they’re relatively short lived. Now in December, I’m hopeful – they’ve put on a lot of new growth and I’ve been careful about root disturbance nearby.
Along the south of the block are several messmate stringbarks in various stages of health (some are dead.) Also on the southern boundary are two large SA bluegums, Eucalyptus leucoxylon. Both are growing strangely – one is on a 45 degree lean over the downhill neighbour’s yard. It’s huge and so sloping that you could almost walk up the trunk! Fortunately my neighbour has no structures or significant trees to damage if it fell, so I’ll keep it. The other blue gum needs a little pruning, but I’ll keep it too.
Two self-sown Irish strawberry trees, Arbutus unedo at the eastern end, aren’t native but I’ll retain them because well, they look lovely; the upper one creates a shady private nook – or it will when I level a little sitting area! – whereas the lower one screens the new chicken run.
Someone’s planted understorey acacias, melaleucas and small eucalypts along the southern edge; there are also endemic wattles and eucalypt saplings, most of which I’ll keep except where they’re overcrowded.
My neighbour and I both value old trees as habitat so we agreed to retain any dead ones if they had nesting hollows; the arborist checked them all before felling them.

Rejuvenation pruning on native cherry

The arborist quoted for two days: one to remove the dead trees and radiatas, and to prune the native cherries to improve their health, and the second, a few months later, to remove the Canary Island pine and to mulch the stumps.
The first day went swimmingly. But that was a LOT of wood to split and to stack! I kept all the mulch as well.
Part 2 was complicated by new regulations that came into effect last month:
SA Protecting Regulated & Significant Trees and
Weeds – declared plants in SA
Whether you can remove a tree now depends on where you live (related to bushfire risk), its distance from your house, the species (eg Canary Island pines, Aleppo pines and radiata pines are all treated differently), its size (over 2m trunk circumference for ‘regulated’ species, or over 3m for ‘significant’ species), whether it’s a significant, regulated, exempt or a declared species, whether it has significant habitat value etc etc etc.
Many arborists are concerned that the new definition of significant– ie over 3m trunk circumference – means open slather for developers and I have to say I tend to agree with them. A 3m circumference is an enormous tree and many species will never reach this size even if they’re hundreds of years old. Under the new regulations, I could remove every single tree on my property! I also think many people will remove huge old trees just before the trunk reaches 3m in circumference, just to avoid restrictions. Very disappointing legislation, in my opinion, with the balance now much too strongly tipped towards developers and ease of removal.
Anyway, the Canary Island pine should be fine for removal; I just need Geoff to finish the new chicken run and move the coop so the arborists can access the tree (hint, hint!).
The pics on the side show a map of the major trees, and views before and after the trees were felled.

The new block begins to open up after some dead and damaged trees are removed

Removing the dead trees and the radiatas really opened up the block – it’s starting to take shape, and, when the Canary Island pine goes and all the stumps get mulched, it’s going to look even better! I love these early stages of creating a garden – the transformations are so huge that you can notice a change from week to week – it’s incredibly exciting and I’m absolutely loving the process!

PS – Re the tree removal costs, it was about $1700 per day (that’s three guys, one of whom is a fully qualified arborist and climber, arriving at 8.00am and finishing at 6pm). They cut down the dead trees, cut up all the wood into firewood-sized pieces and left it in heaps, and mulched all the green growth from the pines on the first day. On the second, the cost includes the hire of a stump mulcher, plus cutting of all canariensis timber into firewood logs, plus mulching all leaves and thinner branches. I will have at least $1500 worth of firewood, and 10+ cubic metres of mulch, so the fees aren’t as horrendous as you might think.