As a result of experience as a saw miller in nearby Bullarook forest, La Gerche had practical knowledge of trees growing in the Ballarat/Creswick area. In the way of a good bushman, he knew which trees were fine or inferior, hard, soft or easy to split, healthy or prone to disease. He understood their growth habits, the importance of protecting their bark, their fire vulnerability and characteristics after fire. He was familiar with local conditions of soil, season and rainfall – the winter frosts that killed exotic seedlings and summer winds carrying the menace of bush fires. It was unlikely that he knew many botanical names of plants.
Preserving fine straight timber growing into money every year – was La Gerche’s brief. Protecting wild life through retaining mature trees, old stags, fallen logs was not considered in that era of early Victorian forestry.
By 1882 the Forest’s mature stringybarks had practically all been cut out. Peppermints were regarded as inferior, tough to split, less durable and shorter lived. They provided the main source of fire wood and light construction timber.
The common age at which mature eucalypts produce seed is 20 – 40 years, and the majority of trees in this forest were probably no older than 8 -10 years. The demands of the mines for pit props 6 – 8 inches in diameter resulted in continual cutting.
In 1887 La Gerche recommended that forest reserves should be closed until the timber had attained a girth of 12” diameter. During that time special licenses could be given for the purposes of cutting the scrub and crooked timber, leaving the straight saplings. Once trees reached 12”diameter, special licenses, under strict conditions, could be granted to certain persons to cut down superfluous trees, thereby getting 2 or 3 props per tree. He proposed that the forest could be divided into areas where one is thinned and another thrown open. Granting licences to responsible local woodcutters and forest residents enabled them to gather their wood legally. Of course dishonesty, greed and opportunism in the forest could not be transformed overnight and there were many frustrations for John La Gerche.
Sawpit Gully experimental plantation
La Gerche chose the Sawpit Gully as a base for tree planting trials, because its slopes were “the very thing for growing pines”. It was a disturbed area; old diggings perforated the slopes, a water race snaked around the spurs. It was close to Creswick and thus convenient for regular surveillance. He employed Albert Wade who lived in the gully as caretaker and later Wade’s son George to guard against goats and as a plantation labourer. He started a nursery in 1886. He obtained seeds from many other foresters and seedlings from farmers, designed an inexpensive system of fencing and planted the first 700 trees himself.
The Forester in Charge of the Ballarat Water Commission, Christopher Mudd, taught La Gerche names of some of the exotic timber trees flourishing in the water catchment reserves and offered him seedlings of pines, oaks, sycamores, elms. This was the beginning of a fruitful collaboration of the neighbouring foresters exchanging seeds and ideas. Mr Mudd could be called his mentor. La Gerche claimed to have initially received very limited and often inappropriate planting instructions from the Inspectors of forestry.
From 1888 the new Forestry head Mr Perrin took a special interest in the plantation and reported that JLG had planted 8500 coniferous and deciduous trees in Sawpit Gully during that year. The plants chosen were ornamental as well as valuable commercial species that had been introduced by botanists, gardeners and nurserymen across the colony. The Macedon nursery sent him over 2,000 trees- planes, oaks, ash, maple, Californian Pine, a mixture of eucalypts. But these amounted to only one quarter of the 8,500 he required. On his own initiative, LG organised the rest of the planting stock. He had raised nearly 4,000 blue gums and 700 California Pines Pinus radiata at Sawpit Gully.
More than 100 years later these mixed plantings have become a picturesque forest, worth of heritage status.
In Sawpit Gully La Gerche was keen to experiment – first sowing blue gum seed (from Mt Macedon) which may have largely failed to germinate. Then he experimented with preparing open patches of ground in gullies with rake, hoe, plough and harrows – farmers and residents had lent him the equipment. He noticed in 1883 that only seed that was sown on ploughed ground had germinated. Raking proved inadequate preparation. In 1886 he planted seeds of Californian Pine, Blue Gum and Black Wattle as an experiment. Fencing the 2 acre plot was essential to keep out stray cattle. Goats also had to be caught and removed. In 1888 approval was given to extend the fenced area to 30 acres, to protect other trees that had been planted, plus small gully areas that were mostly bare.
Next, after suggestions by La Gerche and Town Counsellors, permission was given to plan and construct a “serpentine drive” from the head of the Sawpit Gully to the Castlemaine road.