An Interview with Andy Russell

This article is based on an interview in April 2011 with Andy Russell,  a founding member of STEP and currently both the STEP treasurer and Public Officer.

“Until I came to Canberra in 2000 I’d lived on farms all my life”

My earliest memory of learning the botanical names of plants in a systematic way is 1960, the year when I studied agricultural science as a subject as part of my matriculation at Geelong Grammar. As a research project, I made a plant collection of 200 pasture grasses, clovers and weeds including various thistles and labelled them with their botanical and common names.

My next memory is that I found I shared a common interest in the Australian bush with a guy who was a pole inspector for the NSW county council and this became an important friendship. Meeting this chap happened after I bought a property at Cootamundra in 1979, a place of about 1600 hectares, a quarter of which was bush. Some areas of the property were more open than others. It was a property that was particularly diverse in native trees, herbs and shrubs. I became quite good friends with this chap and we found we shared a common interest in plants and geology that led us to join excursions organised by the local gem and minerals club. The excursions took us out into the bush and we learned a lot more about the bush from being in that club than just gems and minerals.

As time went by Land Care  Groups were formed around  Cootamundra and other areas and the group I joined was the Dudauman-Frampton Land care Group. (Ed:http://www.junee.nsw.gov.au/index.php/your-environment/its-a-living-thing/landcare/266-dudauman–frampton-landcare-group.html ). This group was amongst the most active land care groups in the late 1980’s and I remember that Bindi Vanzella was the Landcare Coordinator. Bindi is now managing major projects for Greening Australia and in partnership with CSIRO. In those days she would have been involved with local landcare projects that were supported by the NSW Government.

I remember having a farm plan prepared for my property soon after I arrived which was before the Land Care movement began in our district. My interest in land care was that I wanted to develop ways to care for soils that had been depleted through overstocking and rabbit infestation. I worked at controlling the rabbits and fenced out areas that were particularly susceptible to erosion and we planted trees and built earth banks. I used the Soil Conservation Service for substantial earth works and made use of low interest loans to pay for this work. I was able to make use of small grants to fence off some more susceptible areas. These did not require big money because the areas were quite small.

The grants used to cover the cost of the materials so they amounted to about fifty percent of the price of the work. It was up to us to do the work ourselves.  I remember that I did grow some E. blakleyi (Blakleys Red Gum)

from seed that I collected on the property. Over time we planted about 2500 trees. I used to sow the seed in a tray about 300mm square and the seedlings came up so thick you couldn’t put a pin between them. Quite a lot of them did survive. Through the land care group, we had discussions about what to plant. There was an annual bus trip where we looked at the agricultural and cropping issues as well as the land care side of things. I remember that the president of our land care group fenced all his creeks off and planted local native species on them. I didn’t only plant local native species – I remember planting E. ovata, Swamp Gum for example, in areas where I thought they would do well.

Another thing we did for quite a while was measuring water tables using a Piezometer. (A piezometer is an observation well used to measure the hydraulic head of groundwater in aquifers). This was a shallow bore with a plastic casing and we would drop a weighted chain down into it to measure the water level. We used to do that once a month over a number of years and we had six of those to record, one on the creek near the main road and the rest on our property. We used to submit the measurement records to the Land and Water Department at Leeton.  On one project, I remember we did plant a number of understorey plants in one area that had been fenced off and that had salinity problems. I remember that we planted a South Australian paper bark, Melaleuca  halmaturorum.

In the 1980’s with three other people, I formed the South West Slopes Group of the Society for Growing Australian Plants (SGAP) based at Cootamundra. This group was still functioning until relatively recently. One of my friends there has  recently opened her garden for the Australian Open Garden Scheme in spring 2010.  Janet and I and two other friends from Canberra visited her Open Garden and very much enjoyed being there again.  Our SGAP group learned as we went along – some of us grew our own local native plants and one couple ran a native plant nursery on their farm.  Within a Cootamundra town park was the Barry Antaw Gardens and our SGAP group worked there to maintain a native garden as a project, a couple of times a year. Both town and farming people were involved. A lot of us were pretty tied up in our daily work so a couple of times a year was as much as we could manage.

Over the years I’ve built a collection of books on native plants. I started my interest in weeds back in my school days. Farmers need to know their weeds. Until I came to Canberra in 2000 I’d lived on farms all my life. As soon as I could after my arrival in Canberra I joined SGAP because Australian native  plants was the topic I was particularly interested in. Groups are always looking for people who are prepared to contribute and so I quickly became an active member. With others I activated their conservation group and I took on the role of President of the Society in Canberra in 2003 for two years. Janet and I also looked after the ANPS (was SGAP) Seed Bank for a couple of years. This is a service for ANPS members who can request seed by phone or by mail. Small quantities of seed are available for members at no charge.

I am interested in birds too. I have always aimed to know them by their calls. (Just then a Spotted Pardalotte made an appearance on cue. Andy explained to the writer that this bird is quite common in Canberra and he had counted more than 80 of them in a flight on a particular occasion in the last two to three weeks).

I joined FOG around about the same time. I have always been interested in grasslands and FOG has a strong conservation outlook. I have looked after their Hall Cemetery project for FOG for some years now. I also handle the Public Officer role for FOG.   Last year in October Janet and I opened our garden in Aranda as an Australian Open Garden event. We hope that our garden is a good example of designing a garden to cope with climate change. More than 260 native species have been used to create colour throughout the year, ranging from native ground covers and shrubs to climbers such as Hardenbergia and wonga vine. The garden reflects our shared interests in-conservation. It is a sanctuary for birds and a beautiful outdoor living space that we enjoy very much.

(Ed Note: Thank you Andy for generously giving 8 years of volunteering work and enthusiastic support to the STEP project).

Andy and Janet Russell enjoying the sunshine in their garden in Aranda in springtime. Photo: Courtesy of The Canberra Times by Kate Leith. October 2010.