Seventeen Field Naturalists were treated to the expansive beauty of Narmbool, a 2000 hectare farmstead operated by Sovereign Hill and located South of Ballarat. Generations of graziers had taken advantage of the fertile pastures, which when enhanced with fertiliser, produced quality wool for sale in foreign markets. With the price of wool not being what it was and the change in management in 2000, the outlook for the sheep became decidedly more culinary than crafty. Being surrounded by prospective chops, loins, racks and shanks it is perhaps fitting that Narmbool is a local Indigenous word meaning ‘fatty liver’. This local foie gras once belonged to possums that gorged on the vegetation of the volcanic soils.
When we first entered the garden through its thick wooden farm gate and rabbit proof fence, we were taken to a native garden planted with various native lilies and herbs such as Yam Daisy and Peppercress that are to be used by the restaurant chef, once established. A winding path, lined with native trees, shrubs and grasses brought us to a large pond with water so clear we could see the native Water-milfoil that lined its outer edge.
Our guide, Mathew Dowler, who has been working at the farm these past eleven years, explained that the pond owed its clarity to this lake weed. Although none were spotted, the pond is home to six native frog species from endangered Growling Grass to common Striped Marsh. A boardwalk takes guests around the front of the pond, also giving a splendid view of the sloping garden on its other side.
The Victorian bluestone farmhouse is the very picture of Colonial respectability, with its fresh heritage paint, formal gardens and exotic planting scheme. Unlike the house, however, the plants and trees are new; the old garden having been almost wiped clean by the fires of last December, with one third of the Scotsburn Fire-ground impacting this one unlucky farm. Beyond the lawn that occupies the area immediately in front of the entrance doorway are two lower tiers.
Down stairs in the central courtyard are uniform beds lined with box, containing hybrid tea roses and pink and white oriental hellebores as ground cover. Two white wooden pergolas flank the court; their posts wrapped with clematis of the “group one” pruning variety, which are only beginning to show signs of life. The lower tier contains a second courtyard with a circle shaped bed of native plants as its centrepiece. Here, symbolic beds reflect the egalitarian nature of Wadawurrung society; hierarchy did not divide people, they were equals. Large pots border the rest of the court and are filled with so much thyme it cascades down the sides of each, complementing the naturalistic feel of this tier. Joining the tiers is a central blue gravel path.
While Spring seems to have come early this year, the flowering was typical, being carried mainly by hellebores, daffodils and Viburnum tinus; the latter making a half crescent hedge which survived the fires owing to its retardant quality. The bottom-most point of the lowest tier contains an exotic woodland of birch with an undergrowth of English daffodil, seemingly naturalised among yet more hellebores. Once through the bottom gate, past the rabbit proof fence, we came upon a field of freshly planted oak, which included three cork oaks, whose small, holly-like leaves are evergreen. The bark is decades from harvest as they are also quite slow growing. It is a garden of European delights designed for the occupants of the house, who reside there for three days each week. The exotic plants also serve as a fire resistant protective zone for the house, very nearly lost last time. Notably, birch and oak are classed by Tasmanian authorities as highly inflammable but are listed as fire retardants by West Australian equivalents.
Away from the house, further down the hillside, is a man-made lake. Its primary function is as a source of drinking water and it is fed by twelve natural springs, each flowing from a different layer of lava deposit. We followed the path around its edge and took time to notice native trees, predominantly eucalypts and wattles, as well as shrubs and grasses. Initially, the gardeners had fenced off the fire-damaged areas to observe which plants regenerated. The damage rendered by the fire, which was considerable around the lake, has lent advantage to exotic weed species. A giant pampas grass sat by the water’s edge, unharmed. Deceased trees still standing have been left for habitat. On the causeway, flick weed predominates along with kangaroo apple, although they are severely frost damaged at this time of year. Countless bird boxes – made at La Trobe University and Buninyong Men’s Shed – can be seen in the tall trees, although it was evident that wildlife frequent them, including ringtail possums and European honey bees. Of particular interest to the group were two clusters of sawfly larvae on the branches of a young eucalypt.
Back at the homestead we explored the kitchen garden with its glorious bay laurel arch that, perhaps mockingly, adorned the path to the toilet. After lunch in the sunny homestead gardens we embarked on our tree planting activities. On two patches of paddock, chemically cleared of grasses, we planted 180 native trees and shrubs – Tree Everlasting, Sweet Bursaria, Blackwood, Manna Gum, and Swamp Gum – in about one and a half hours. The planting sites were divided due to volcanic rock preventing fence posts from being driven into the ground. The group were then taken by bus to the edge of the paddock so we could observe a huge Wedge-tailed Eagle nest located in the treetops. We were fortunate to witness an occupant in flight high above us, warring with what could only be a magpie. Members also spotted the carnivorous Scented and Pimpernel (Scarlet) Sundews.
Along the path we further observed the skeletal remains of an Eastern grey, which had lain undisturbed to provide an almost exhibit-worthy display of its structure from teeth to tail. An observant member spied the shape of a moving creature making its way up a distant hill. With binoculars it was identified as an echidna. No koalas were spotted, owing to their rapid decline on the farm in recent years. The ‘sightings board’ used by school students listed no sightings of koalas. It is currently thought by some that chlamydia, naturally present in the marsupial, becomes deadly when individuals are stressed, primarily due to local environmental pressures.
On our return journey we stopped to investigate the wonderful school camping facilities and interpretation facilities. It could easily have served as a ski lodge, had we the snow. Given the sheer magnificence of the view from this facility it is a relief to see it mostly used for educational purposes. Many thanks to Matt for his excellent guidance around the property.
*This wonderful report of our September excursion was written by C. J. Coventry.
Photos by Carol Hall
List of plant species seen on 08/09/2018