Angus Stewart on Attracting Native Animals to the Garden
On a national scale, right now Australia is facing some big challenges on our native fauna front. Everywhere we look, we can find news on the looming threat to the habitats of some of our most beloved native animals. As I write this, The Guardian has just reported on Australia’s status as a ‘global deforestation hotspot’ (complete with the most heart wrenching image of a mother and baby koala sitting homeless atop a bulldozed log pile). In shocking statistics, the article claims that 45 million animals are killed due to this rabid land clearing each year in Queensland alone. Across the border, the NSW government has just paved the way for mass land clearing for a second time, after the laws were deemed invalid by the Land and Environment Court. After some small hope of reprieve, the state’s most threatened Aussie animals aren’t on safe ground.
The native animal news is so bleak that it can be hard to feel anything but devastation and despair for our beloved and varied species of fauna that call Australia home. However, if chaining yourself to a bulldozer isn’t quite your thing, there are other forms of humble protest, one being the immensely pleasurable task of thoughtfully cultivating our own gardens to become more wildlife friendly.
Most of us have some kind of outdoor space to work with, whether it’s a large, sprawling garden; suburban quarter acre; inner city courtyard; modest apartment balcony; and, should our local council be friendly enough – verge gardens on the streets. With a few simple tweaks, we can use the outdoor spaces we have to provide a place of respite for habitat deprived animals, birds and insects in search of a branch, bath, munch, sunbake or drink. And good news for those in favour of getting maximum gardening gain for minimum effort: native plants that are suited to the climate and soil in which they are planted tend to require less watering and maintenance than foreign species, so going native (in the non-nude sense) is a win for us and our local wildlife.
Lucky for us, we’ve got Angus Stewart, Australia’s chief expert on native planting, author of (many!) gardening guide books and former long-term host of ABC TV’s Gardening Australia, to give us some guidance on planting fauna friendly natives.
Angus, why do you think it’s important to provide a space for native animals in our gardens? Our urban areas are constantly eroding natural habitats and introducing foreign plants and animals that are degrading the environment.
We are the custodians of one of the world’s greatest faunas (not to mention the flora) and we have both a responsibility and an opportunity to take a different approach to gardening and horticulture that will actively create wildlife corridors as well as viable permanent habitat in its own right in urban areas.”
We have the knowledge and resources in many cases to do this, we just now also need the will.
Can you give us some general tips on choosing native plants in order to attract native fauna? What type of planting should we be doing? Does this vary greatly from state to state, and climate to climate? The ecological structure of the Australian bush consists of Eucalyptus forming the main canopy, with various woody species in the small tree/shrub layer beneath that. Think Acacias, banksias, grevilleas and many more in the three most important families – Myrtaceae (gum tree family), Proteaceae (banksia family) and Fabaceae (the legume family that contains acacias and many different native members of the pea family). Finally, there is a ground layer of grasses and grass-like plants such as kangaroo grass, lomandra and dianella as well as various native daisies and other herbaceous plants.
You can create a wildlife habitat that provides a safe environment for creatures to visit your garden, but also live in it on a longer term basis. If you want to achieve this you need to create the three levels of vegetation mentioned above as well as providing water and potential nesting sites such as hollow logs. Of course, some Australian gardeners live in areas that do not feature eucalypt forests, for instance rainforest or desert environments, and in this case some specialist research needs to be done to work out how to create a wildlife garden. The best advice I can give is to try and plant a wide diversity of species within each vegetation ‘layer’ that provide a range of food and shelter options for the species you wish to attract. Include as many plant species that are indigenous to your area as possible; often local councils are a great resource.
It is also very important to choose native plants that are favourable to smaller animals, particularly birds.”
There has been considerable erosion of the populations of smaller birds such as wrens and finches in urban areas at the expense of larger, more aggressive bird species such as rainbow lorikeet and other parrots, noisy miners and wattle birds. We have been planting too many of the wrong sort of native plants such as the spectacular large flowered grevilleas and banksias at the expense of spiky leafed plants that may be prickly to handle, but they provide essential habitat where the smaller birds are protected from their larger and much more aggressive cousins. We need to plant species such as Grevillea rosmarinifolia, sweet bursaria and prickly Moses wattles such as Acacia ulicifolia.
What kind of wildlife, including birds and insects, might we find in a native garden? The sorts of wildlife that will come to your garden will depend mainly on its proximity to other natural areas. Each population of wild creatures has its own requirements and some can adapt extremely well to urban areas (e.g. brush turkeys and rainbow lorikeets) whilst others such as the powerful owl need areas of wild habitat nearby to maintain their population. If you are near a national park you can potentially attract many of the mammal and reptile species that live there, such as skinks, water dragons, bandicoots, echidnas, wallabies, possums and kangaroos. Birdlife and insects are much more mobile and it is therefore possible to attract a much wider variety of these groups, especially if you pay special attention to their individual needs. The sky is the limit, pardon the pun!
Can those with small inner city yards still plant natives and perhaps attract certain species of native wildlife? Yes, it is absolutely amazing the range of animal species that can survive in the inner city. Of course some species like possums are not always welcomed because of the damage they can do. However, if you design your garden to accommodate them then you can have the best of both worlds. The range of birds that can visit or live in the inner city is amazing. It is very important to reiterate my earlier point that we need to provide plants such as native grasses and prickly leafed plants that favour smaller birds as the larger more spectacular birds are displacing them because of our garden choices. The Birds in Backyards website is a wealth of information on how to do it.
What other things can we do to provide an outdoor space for Aussie animals? Encouraging your local community to create wildlife corridors is one of the best things you can do and there is a fantastic program that tells you exactly how to do this on www.habitatsteppingstones.org.au
Providing a high vantage point such as a tree or wooden perch above your garden provides birds with an opportunity to observe whether it is safe to come into the areas below. Water features are one of the best things you can do to encourage a wide variety of wildlife in urban areas. Whether that be a bird bath, a pond or a disused swimming pool that can be turned into a freshwater pool that is self maintaining (the ‘Pool to Pond program of Ku-ring-gai Council is a good example).
If you wish to encourage particular animals in your garden, then specialist structures such as nest boxes are another great project.
Tell us a little bit about the other advantages to planting natives as opposed to introduced plants. Are they generally easier to maintain?
Australian native plants are a great opportunity to create a sense of place in your garden that connects your backyard environment to the wider Australian bush landscape.
Banksias, grevilleas, eucalypts, grass trees and kangaroo paws all have a unique and distinctive character that occurs nowhere else on the planet. These plant groups have also adapted to the fragile soils, and at times, harsh climatic conditions, and, in many cases, the Australian fauna has coevolved with the plants such that if either disappears the other no longer has its specific food source, habitat or pollinator. We have done extraordinary damage to the Australian environment through the introduction of exotic species such as rabbits, foxes, privet and lantana, so planting a wide diversity of Australian plants in our garden not only helps to repair some of that damage, but also can give us a uniquely Australian garden style that celebrates our natural environment and will encourage future generations to be its custodians.