The little things matter in restoration

“Nature does not compartmentalize. Its instinct is integrative and holistic.”
– Ram Nath Kovind

When doing restoration, there is no “one size fits all solution”. All actions depend on the situation of the area being restored. However, there are important factors that must always be considered.

I’ve been involved in many restoration projects in Tropical Asia. I believe that my observations from the field will apply in many parts of the world, including New Zealand.

For instance, I was involved in a project to monitor the national greening program in the Philippines. I realized that one major component that gets less attention than it needs, especially in large-scale restoration programs, is maintenance and protection. This is specifically important in the first three years of the project as this is the most crucial stage for the survival of plants in the restoration site.

Many government restoration programs tend to give more importance to seedling production and other nursery-related activities, rather than site protection and maintenance to ensure the survival of the seedlings planted. Usually, in these types of projects, replacement planting of dead seedlings is the first option taken without identifying the factors that affect seedling mortality.

Failing to recognize seedling survival as an important element of a restoration project can have a negative impact on the success of the project. Financial and human resources would be put in without solving the main problem. Ensuring the survival of the seedlings is as important as making sure that the seedlings planted are of high quality and are planted correctly.

Some common challenges we face in restoration projects are competition from weeds, pests, weather, and degraded soil (you can also read more about challenges on restoration ecology here). The biggest challenge in restoration is always making sure that the right intervention is being done in the site. Maintenance and protection for the seedlings planted is essential because it doesn’t only increase the survival rate, but can also reduces expense in the future.

Research conducted by Lincoln University’s’ Rebecca Dollery, Mike Bowie, and Nicholas Dickinson, which started on 2015, was able to test if maintenance and protection activities, such as installing tree guards and weed mats, would double planting costs. Their research also showed how these interventions affected the mortality of seedlings planted in Te Whenua Hou which is located in the Canterbury Plains of New Zealand.

Installation of tree guards and weed mats in Te Whenua Hou.
Photo credit: Rebecca Dollery

In the study, seedlings of Kānuka (Kunzea serotina) and Pomaderris (Pomaderris amoena) were planted with and without weed mats and tree guards. Although this case is only limited to the site conditions of lowland dry areas in Canterbury Plains and the plant traits of the two species selected, this research was still able to show how using weed mats can be useful.

In terms of controlling the temperature in the soil so that it wouldn’t be too hot during the summer but retain some heat in the soil during the winter, the use of moss turf mat was most effective. These turfy mats help in adding moisture to the soil which is beneficial to the seedlings. The tree guards, on the other hand, were effective in protecting the seedlings from pests, strong wind and competition from other weeds. Because of this, an improvement on the plant survival was seen. Most importantly, the study also revealed that at least NZ$ 70,000.00 per hectare could be saved when using tree guards alone.

Usually, when we focus too much on the bigger picture, we tend to forget or miss some details that are essential in helping us achieve our goal. For me, maintaining a holistic perspective in restoration is something that all of us should make sure of. Although we face a lot of challenges, we have the ability to come up with, sometimes simple, solutions that would help us to overcome them.

Lyra Chu is a postgraduate student in the Master of Science. She wrote this article as part of her assessment for ECOL 608 Research Methods in Ecology.

*Dollery, R., Bowie, M., & Dickinson, N. (2018). Tree guards and weed mats in a dry shrubland restoration in New Zealand. Ecological Management & Restoration, DOI: 10.1111/emr.12341

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