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Pioneer’s lamentfor our thin green line


June 20, 2018 by admin

Standing steady: Trees have been a constant in Peter Lawton’s life. Familiar sight: The row of 28 spotted gums is a Berwick landmark.

A row of spotted gums in Old Coach Road has become a symbol of Casey Council’s problematic relationship with trees. CATHERINE WATSON spoke to the man who planted them in 1966. Pictures by ROB CAREW.

IT was a tree that sold Peter and Margot Lawton on Berwick. They had come to inspect a farm for sale and saw a huge old manna gum growing by the creek. Fifty-two years later, Mr Lawton’s face lights up at the memory of it. “We just looked at it and fell in love with the place.”

It was raining and he ruined a new pair of street shoes climbing the hill to look at a view that stretched from Arthurs Seat to the You Yangs. After 2? years of searching, they knew they’d found the right place.

That was 1958. Now aged 84, Mr Lawton is still living on Berwick Hill. The dairy farm is long gone, sold in the 1970s when milk prices crashed. Today he retains just half a hectare, enough for an experimental tree nursery. The foreground of that glorious view is now full of suburbs rather than farmland. Margot died only a couple of months ago. Much has changed but the one constant has been his love of growing beautiful trees, first as an amateur, later as a tree farmer, now as a tree researcher.

Between 1958 and 1968 Mr Lawton planted well over 1000 trees on the farm as shelterbelts for his cows. Most of them remain and today form the spine of landscaping around the hill. “I feel proud to have helped create today’s landscape,” he says.

He is saddened by Casey Council’s intention to remove 28 spotted gums on what is now Old Coach Road. He planted them in 1966 and says they are an important visual buffer to the ugliness of the transmission lines, transformers and cell phone towers on top of the hill.

Mr Lawton says councils, Casey included, are struggling with trees: what to plant, what to pull out, how to determine which are dangerous.

He would like to see Victoria follow the lead of NSW, which has appointed a leading teacher of arborists, Judy Fakes, as Commissioner of the NSW Environment Court to rule on tree disputes. The court has the power to summon conflicting parties and even to jail people.

He says the first step is to get rid of the trees that should never have been planted and the trees that were faulty when they were planted and will become dangerous if they survive. In a subdivision just down the road from him the trees are falling over in their seventh or eight year. He found they all had circled rootballs, indicating they were pot-bound when they were planted.

“I feel sorry for councils that inherit these disasters when the developers walk away.”

It’s not a trivial problem – Mr Lawton estimates the cost of tree failure at more than $100 million a year across Australia. He has been personally affected. On one occasion his tree farm business planted 10,000 trees bought from a reputable supplier. They all failed, costing him about $1million.

Much of his work since then has been directed at improving the technology and practice of tree propagation and planting. From his tree nursery, he and colleague Ann Keys produce about 2000 seedlings a year, most of which go to Hume Council, which is carrying out major planting

trials. He has patented a range of pots now winning favour with some of Australia’s major botanical gardens. This month he heads off to China with a Victoria state trade mission to try to sell one of his patents to raise money to do more research. “R&D has become a habit, and it’s as expensive as any other habit,” he says.

The strange thing, he says, is that we were growing better trees 50 years ago than we are today. Proof of that is in the Old Coach Road spotted gums, growing straight and true 46 years after they were planted.

“If you get the first 25 days of the tree right, the remaining 100 years will be easy.”


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