By 2050 it’s estimated that more than 65% of the world will be living in cities (Source: TED Talk) and in Australia, 71% of the population live in cities already so it’s up to us city-slickers to make our local urban areas home to a biodiverse ecology of local flora and fauna through native garden design. Creating a diverse ecology also helps our own health and wellbeing (but that’s another blog post!)
Animals and humans are increasingly coming into conflict. The Coronavirus and other zoonotic based pandemics is a pretty clear illustration of this on a global scale, but locally there are also plenty of examples, such as deer roaming the streets of Sydney. Did you know Australia has the worst mammal extinction rate of any country in the world? After a year of the most frightening summer bushfires I’ve ever experienced – our hottest year on record – where temperatures hit 1.52 degrees above average and where nearly three billion animals were killed or displaced, and many more of our precious wildlife is on the brink of extinction. Shit is getting real. (Source WWF)
So how can sustainable garden design help to support local wildlife and ecology?
Think about what native wildlife lives in your local area, do some research, talk to some of your older neighbours and ask them what wildlife they’ve seen in the past. Take a walk in a nearby national park or reserve and just kick back and observe nature. Local council websites are another great place to start researching native garden design ideas, such as which local animals and plants are endemic to your area. Educate yourself about what the local wildlife needs to survive, then start to create a local ecology or habitat in your garden design.
The first step is to look at a map and see what nature corridors are nearby. Then identify what species exist there. Trying to attract a Bettong into your backyard in Balmain might be a stretch, so you’ll need to know what the local endemic critters are and go from there.
Consider the needs of your chosen fauna related to:
Let’s look at each of these aspects and then discuss how they relate to each other and your chosen feathered, scaled and furry friends. There’s a lot to consider but even a few small things can make the world of difference.
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Food: how to create a food web in your sustainable garden
When talking about food, it’s good to think in terms of food webs. What’s a food web? It’s basically what all the life in a habitat eats and how they are all linked together. What does this critter’s food eat? And what about the food-of-the-food-of-the-food? You see where I’m going with this.
If you are looking to attract birds in your native garden design, you will need to understand what sort of bird it is. Is it an insect eater, a seed eater, a nectar eater or a meat-eater? That will inform your next series of design decisions. Will you be planting to attract insects, lay on a nectar buffet or encourage other creatures that will keep the predatory birds happy. (You will hopefully have a big garden or border a reserve for this sort of feathered guest.)
Remember that the really cute little birds get beaten up or even eaten by some of the bigger birds, so don’t make your chosen species the food for other animals.
Maybe you just want to attract butterflies and bugs? After all, we are in the midst of a huge decline in insect populations. In this case, you will want to make sure you have flowering plants in your garden all year round.
Water: how to design water features for local ecology
This is probably the easiest and biggest bang for buck item in a native garden design. Water is life, right? So if you can situate water in the right places and in the right ways you will make a huge difference to your local ecology – especially during drought. Here is a video from a few years back which illustrates my point (oh and the bees were rescued).
I really love the beautiful spun copper water features from Mallee Designs. Copper is naturally anti-microbial so it won’t go funky and as these are shallow they won’t cause the drowning of bugs and bees. If you choose a deeper dish or bowl, make sure you have floating objects like a leaf or a twig that allows bees or other insects a place to crawl out.
Offering a range of watering stations will greatly improve the variety of critters you attract. Place one up higher for larger birds, one in amongst some spiky shrubs for little birds and one down low for lizards and little furry friends, should they be passing by. (And, yes I know we’ve got the bird wrong below, it’s actually the native Noisy Miner splashing in our new frog pond, not the introduced Indian Myna.)
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Shelter: how to create a safe space for local flora and fauna
Depending on what you want to attract, shelter looks different to each link in the food web. What I do want to say here is that you must make certain cultural decisions too if you want to attract wildlife.
Firstly, it’s time to end any chemical romance you may have going on. No more artificial pesticides or fertilisers. It’s time to let nature in, in all her glory – you need to encourage life from the ground up so that means soil and everything that lives in and on it. I will write a bunch more about soil in other posts but here I’ll just say that healthy soil equals better habitat.
When you use pesticides of any kind (natural or not) they will have unintended casualties. You spray for aphids and kill the lacewings, hoverflies and ladybugs which will control them. This topic needs it’s own post so stay tuned but in the meantime please at least limit your spraying to emergency only.
Same goes for fertilisers. When you add artificial nitrogen usually it is in a liquid form which plants either take up too quickly or it leaches into the waterways. Both of these are not good. When a plant is suddenly fed large amounts of nitrogen, it will put on really soft sappy new growth (a pest’s dream come true) rather than slow steady and firm new growth from naturally available nutrients, which pests struggle to eat. (When microbes die they release their nutrients to the food web and plants take it up.)
Secondly, another cultural aspect, if you have a cat, you will need to keep it inside or at least limit it’s outside space to just one area, away from your habitat garden. Cats are natural-born killers and account for a horrifying loss of native fauna on a daily basis. Yes, even your darling Snookums is a stone-cold killer when you’re not around to keep an eye on her. They kill lizards, frogs, birds, and cute little furry guys too, so they’re not a great partner in your endeavours here. Dogs can also be problematic, so you will need to think about where you create your spaces for nature and where you let Fluffy and Rover play.
Over the past couple of decades since the Millenium Drought, we have really set up some great habitat for the bigger nectar feeders and carnivores as we have fallen in love with big beautiful hybrid Grevilleas and Bottlebrushes that are water-wise, native and beautiful. These are planted around our lawns and boundaries creating the perfect habitat for larger birds who often prey upon smaller birds. A testament to this is the Rainbow Lorikeet, topping the Aussie Bird Count last year with most other birds being either generalists such as Noisy Miners, Magpies, Gulls and Ibis all in the top 10. These birds all like open space with open canopy shrubs which (not) coincidentally is what we have all been planting.
With native garden design, you need to change the way you garden by including a full range of plants – so groundcovers, grasses, small and medium spiky shrubs, larger shrubs and trees of many kinds. Think about gardening like a forest, if you have the luxury of the space to do so. Rather than big showy flowers, you need to include smaller flowers and make sure there is always something flowering in your garden.
In addition to plants, in your native garden design, you need to ensure that the soil is mostly covered with a nice layer of mulch – preferably a little varied – such as leaves, twigs, wood chips, as well as larger tree limbs and rocks. This all goes back to healthy soil, as soil that is covered will be allowing the soil to retain moisture and support a full range of organisms, microorganisms and fungi.
I say mostly covered because there are some species of native bees that like to dig and burrow in the soil and some that like to use soil to make their nests, so allowing them access to the soil is beneficial. Having all this organic material lying about can look a little messy but at the same time, you can style it into arrangements so it looks quite natural or even sculptural if that works better for your garden design.
You’ve probably seen insect hotels have become quite the thing lately with many companies offering some beautiful or funky options. Remember that one creature’s habitat is another’s foraging ground, so having some variation is great. Some will be eating the material, some will be using it for a hiding place, some hunting around for dinner and others will want to take it away to build a nest.
If you have cats entering your property, place some larger rocks and terracotta pipes amongst the garden that offer refuge from these apex predators.
For some critters, you may want to provide a readymade shelter such as for possums and microbats. You may think possums are a nuisance and not to be encouraged but chances are you have a local possum or two anyway. My thoughts are that if you provide them with a nice home, you are saving them a little energy each night so that’s less energy you need to provide in other ways (like your precious fruits and veggies)! It helps to have their preferred foods available so consider planting some Lilly Pilly or other native fruits.
Some people such as Australian Habitat gardener legend AB Bishop leave out an offering each night until new forage plants are established. She has now established her garden and secured her edibles underwire, so once the current possum dies, she will stop leaving out the fruit. We have a possum box each for our resident Ringtail and Brushtail. They are a different design for each species and it is a real treat for the kids to see Mummy Possum out with her two kids in the evenings.
Books: AB Bishop Habitat – A practical guide to creating a wildlife-friendly Australian Garden
Websites: Backyard Buddies is a free education initiative run by the Foundation for National Parks & Wildlife
Radio: Your local ABC probably has a regular gardening spot, in Sydney on Saturday morning it is 9 am followed by a backyard segment at 9.30 am about every kind of creature you’re likely to find in your backyard. They’re both excellent segments.