With our forests burning in wildfires across Australia, our own backyard gardens have never felt more precious. Slabs of welcome greenery in an increasingly over-cooked world.
Prominent horticulturist and author AB Bishop says our own suburban gardens all play a vital role in helping to keep our smaller native creatures alive. For a start, just leaving small bowls of water in the garden – if not a birdbath – can go a long way.
Displaced lizards, frogs and birds – already under such threat from land-clearing, bushfires and urban sprawl – can find a welcome sanctuary in even the smallest backyard.
“That’s where it’s important to have native plants,” says AB.
In these increasingly drought-stricken times, gardeners across the nation are flocking to buy beautiful Australian species more suitable to our environment.
She and leading native plant expert Angus Stewart are the authors of newly published native gardening book, The Waterwise Australian Native Garden.
AB chats to The Starfish:
AB, as we speak, there are fires across Australia. As someone passionate about our flora and fauna, this must be so confronting?
It makes me feel sick to the stomach. I am really “critter-conscious.” Whatever I’m doing in the garden, I’m looking at everything from a critter point of view. So to see what these fires are doing, the effect they’re having on koalas, roos and our native animals makes me feel quite sick.
Of course, in the city, whatever we do to our gardens isn’t much help, is it?
It’s actually really easy to make a difference. For a start, put out some water stations so lizards and frogs can survive. And put in indigenous plants! If you just add some native plants to your garden you’re helping the right insects, lizards, frogs, birds and other animals. Birds that nest in indigenous plants breed better.
You don’t have to have an entire garden devoted to natives. But if you just add some indigenous plants native to your area, you’ll make a difference. Even if you just have a balcony you can make a difference.
Yes, I must admit, until fairly recently I hadn’t realized what a difference native plants make in sustaining our native creatures. Look at the Carnaby’s Black Cockatoo, under such threat because its native gums are being wiped out. An expert told us a lot of people see a Carnaby in say, a pine tree and think, “they have a tree, they’re fine.” But, he said, even if they eat seeds on the tree, unless it’s the right food, found only on certain native trees, they don’t breed, and can perish.
AB, you said you’d love to see councils encourage people to grow natives on their balconies. You’d also like to see councils ban the weed killer glyphosate, which I see is just being banned in Germany, wouldn’t you?
Gosh, yes. More and more research shows it’s not only bad for weeds, but it’s also bad for insects. And of course, lizards and frogs and birds eat the insects. Any chemical that kills, we need to rethink. Do we really need to use it?
In 2015, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) said glyphosate was “probably carcinogenic to humans” and it’s now banned in 18 countries. Some people insist it’s not harmful. What do you say to that?
Hmm. Well, look at bees. They say glyphosate doesn’t kill bees, but there’s plenty of evidence showing it affects their waggle dance. Their waggle dance is their navigation system and if they can’t get home, they die!
Speaking of perils to the garden and its inhabitants, what are your thoughts on domestic cats?
I love all animals – but cats are stealth hunters. It’s in their DNA. Whether a cat is hungry or not, it wants to chase things. If it sees a creature moving, it hunts it down. Cats are devastating for our native wildlife. Every cat should be kept in at night. If we don’t keep them in at night they will contribute incalculably to the massive decimation of our fauna. There are already millions of native cats. Every household has a responsibility to ensure their pet cat isn’t adding to the problem.
More councils around Australia are issuing cat curfews or banning cats altogether. But so often you hear a cat owner say, “yes but my cat never kills anything…” They’re in total denial. Councils really have to step up and enforce the rules too.
Are you noticing more interest in native plants these days?
Oh, yes. Native plants are definitely in vogue. They are the ultimate water-saving plants, and that’s what people want now. And WA is the envy of the rest of the nation; it has the most amazing and high proportion of native plants.
Your new book is a revamped version of your earlier book, Australian Native Garden. Why was that such a hit?
One of the things people like is the design ideas. We introduce a lot of plants in lots of different gardens and show how to put plants together. And people love our plant cultivar lists. One of the biggest challenges when you’re creating a new garden is knowing what to plant!
Remind us what a cultivar is?
It’s in the book – the term used to describe plants that have been chosen for cultivation, generally from superior seedlings so they have qualities that make them grow better and behave in a predictable fashion.
Horticulturists are always striving to create plants with new characteristics. Exotic plants have been in cultivation for many hundreds of years, and look very different to their wild ancestor plants. But it’s only in the past few decades that there’s been intensive effort to improve Australian native plants.
When do people want to use native cultivars?
When they think it brings something extra to the garden over and above the original wild species. Take Lomandra Longifolia – a fabulous plant but it can be quite thuggish and ungainly, with thick heavy leaves. There’s now a cultivar that just works better in a garden setting. And there’s now a range of dwarf Banksia cultivars that are better suited to smaller gardens. There are lots of examples in our book.
AB, it’s always great to talk with you and learn so much about the native world.
The Starfish has three copies of The Waterwise Australian Native Garden to give away – a fabulous Christmas present.
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