A chance remark back in the late '90s started dairy farmer Andy Palmer on a labour of love spanning two decades.
It's a passion that's resulted in an extraordinary legacy of lush riparian planting of native species on his farm near Temuka, which he owns with wife Sharon Collett.
Along the way there've been plenty of blisters, blunted spades and water-logged gumboots – and plenty of visitors to admire the work and learn from it.
For the couple, the net result today is water that's gin-clear in the arm of the Ohapi Creek meandering past their house and through their land. With that water quality come trout and salmon, visually pleasing plantings and prolific birdlife.
It all started when the couple took out the traditionally styled garden around their home, re-planting it with native species Palmer had enjoyed seeing on his frequent tramping trips in the bush. One day, when he mentioned he'd like to extend the native garden along the creek, their landscape designer immediately saw he needed help – and knew where he'd get it.
She told him to call Environment Canterbury (ECan), which was at that stage keen to get some riparian planting pilot projects underway in the South Canterbury region. ECan wanted work that could be showcased to inform and inspire other farmers in the years to come.
Along with hands-on support, ECan connected Andy to sources of funding to help with transforming the creek which, like a number of waterways around the country, had been affected during the farming of the land – sheep, cows and pigs, as well as cropping including grass seed, wheat, barley, potatoes, carrots and onions.
Fast-forward to today and the couple enjoy the flourishing riparian planting that now stretches along about three kilometres of the creek, and which they add to every year – either to extend it or grow plants in areas where vegetation is a bit sparse.
As with most farmers, Palmer didn't pay much attention to documenting his work over the years – he just rolled up his sleeves and got on with it. So he welcomes a recently launched initiative to create, for the first time, a national database of established riparian buffer zones around the country.
Set up by NIWA with DairyNZ's support, the database project aims to capture the riparian work carried out by farmers, with the focus on sites more than five years old. Palmer is now ensuring his work is recorded, and urges other farmers to do likewise at riparian.niwa.co.nz.
The information logged will also assist water quality scientists at DairyNZ and NIWA to improve understanding of how riparian buffers benefit waterways, and why some work better than others.
A past Ballance Farm Environment Award 'Best Dairy Farm' winner, Palmer's advice to farmers who are either getting started with riparian buffer zones, or have stalled with their work, is: "Only do an area you can look after – there's no point putting in thousands of plants if you can't look after them."
He recommends identifying areas to plant out and developing a plan to plant progressively, beginning with clearing the likes of willow clogging waterways – he took the digger to his – and then taking out invasive species such as blackberry, gorse and broom.
He ensures new plants get a good start and takes care to guard against weeds: "If you let the weeds get away it can be very depressing trying to rescue plants."
The farm uses irrigation, and he runs the lines right up near the creek so young plants can be watered if necessary.
In his early riparian planting days, he lost some plants to frosts. Now he selects more hardy species like carex, toetoe, flax and cabbage trees for the first stage, avoiding the broadleaves that don't survive a freeze. Other native species he favours include pittosporum, ribbonwood, coprosmas such as mingimingi, and gossamer grass.
Another of his imperatives is fencing that's kept live at all times to deter stock.