Even if we love our garden, who among us really knows of all the intimate connections going on out there among the tinier occupants of our backyard?
The ants, the bees, the spiders, the birds, and their relationship with the plants they lurk among.
Garden expert and horticulturist A.B. Bishop has just written a wonderful new book, Habitat – A practical guide to creating a wildlife-friendly Australian Garden.
(We have two books to give away to readers – details at the end.)
It’s a great reminder that starting a garden needn’t just be about picking your favourite roses and fruits; by including a few native plants in the mix, it can also be about creating a vital corridor helping local birds and animals to survive.
At a time when nature has never been under more threat, thanks to land clearing, pollution, and global warming, the book is a reminder that we can all play a part in assisting our native animals survive and thrive, just by creating a welcoming world for them among the plants in our backyard.
Thanks to AB’s book, we’ll learn more about the extraordinary hidden world of the relationships that go on in the natural world.
We had a chat with AB.
Why did you write Habitat?
I felt a strong responsibility to use my qualifications and knowledge of the environment for good and hopefully to inspire gardeners to see what can be done for our native habitat. To many of us, these days gardening isn’t just about creating a beautiful space, but about also protecting our native flora and fauna. I want to help people to enjoy their garden on a whole new level, providing an environment for some of the small creatures unique to our country.
Are there many gardeners out there who think like you?
When I started researching the book I was surprised. I thought mostly people were still just gardening for pleasure. I hadn’t realised there’s so much interest now in gardening to help the environment.
How do you mean?
There’s a massive groundswell of environmental supporters around the country. There are so many organisations. From ‘friends of’ a certain lake, ‘friends of’ a certain animal, to people who work on large scale habitat corridors for our native creatures. WA has one of the biggest organisations like this, by the way – The Gondwana Link (http://www.gondwanalink.org , a project in our south-west to create 1000km of continuous bush habitat. )
That’s a huge habitat corridor. There are thousands of volunteers from so many conservation groups around the country, working to protect our magnificent environment. Together, we can have such a huge impact! But every single garden has an impact too! Gardeners have the power for their back yards to have make a huge difference to the environment.
What should every WA garden have in it, ideally?
Water. With any plant – or anything else living in the garden for that matter – the key element is water. I can’t stress enough how important it is to leave water out for your birds and also the lizards and so forth. You can start with a shallow bowl; don’t make it deep as it doesn’t suit the little birds. Wrens will use shallow bowls. Cockatoos and galas use deep bowls. We always put hydration stations in our gardens.
Water aside, if anyone wants to know more about what native plants are best suited to their yard, what do they do?
A good place to start is your local council. Jump on your council’s website. Most have a list of indigenous plants, and information about which plants do well. And get acquainted with local nurseries. Speak to locals. You know, the rest of Australia is really envious of some of your WA natives. You’ve got more than 13,000 native plants. They grow well because you’re soils are so impounded that species have had to adapt and so they’re really hardy.
What kinds do people outside of WA covet?
Kangaroo Paws for a start. (Just remember, don’t use fertilisers with phosphorus on them.) I can’t tell you how many people want them! Also the related genus, Conostylis, and Eremophilia shrubs. And the west coast banksias are something else!
But you’re not saying we have to get rid of the lovely non-natives we already have in the garden, are you?
Not at all. There’s plenty of room for the lemon tree and the fig tree and all the other trees we love.
It’s just good to have balance in the garden. And you know, if you plant native fruit-bearing plants, the birds and animals will prefer them anyway; they prefer sour fruits. They prefer say, Lilly Pillies and Dianellas, over pears and apples – and so that means you’re more likely to get to keep your own fruit for yourself!
What do you think of using weed-killers like glyphosate in our gardens?
No, no, no and no! It’s bad on so many levels; wreaking havoc around the world; the research is there.I’m very opposed to using chemicals on plants. They’re a food source for lizards, frogs and birds. Insects are what we need in our gardens. I’ve given up using chemicals. It’s so much better to just let the natural world do its thing.
There’s very little risk of your plants actually getting denuded by an insect. I watched a caterpillar spinning into a cocoon and as time went on, watched it emerge into an amazing butterfly. That whole life cycle is an absolute treat to observe. Kids are natural ecologists and love watching this kind of thing. Watch their faces when you turn over a log and see the plethora of insects underneath.
Around where we live in Cottesloe, we used to have so many cicadas chirping. Now you just don’t hear them any more. Connected to the chemicals used in local gardens, do you think?
What about our bees, are they affected by these chemicals?
There are about 2000 species of native bees. Of the ten major groups, nine are in WA. The makers of glyphosate say it doesn’t kill bees. Well it may not kill them but it’s affected the bees’ ability to do their waggle dance, that amazing dance they do indicating to each other where their food sources are, and how to get to and from their hive. So without their being able to do that, the bees perish anyway. Insects are such a vital part of a healthy functioning garden.
What are the biggest risks to our natural environment?
Land clearing. We’ve only got one koala – how their numbers are being depleted is terrifying, appalling. And feral cats are a major threat to other native species around Australia. Here in Melbourne, in 13 suburbs they’re now required to keep cats collared at all times. If you must have a cat, keep it inside at night!
Other than keeping kitty collared and indoors, and planting local. natives, what else can we do to help our magnificent Australian species?
Keep some holes in your fence. Many creatures like to move freely through an area and a cemented fence prevents them from doing so. Consider having a wooden fence with some spaces in it for creatures to get past. And join an organisation to help your local bushland or lake or to help a native animal. And it’s good to add logs, and rock piles to your garden so that the smaller creatures like bugs, butterflies, lizards and wrens have somewhere to hide and nest in.
Are you a member of any particular nature organisation?
Yes, I’m an ambassador for the Habitat Stepping Stones program. It encourages people to take steps so that can help make their backyard a valuable stepping stone for local wildlife. We have a great website which tells you what to do. Currently it doesn’t have a WA link but we’re in the process of adding one.
Thanks for that AB.
If you’d like a copy of Habitat: A practical guide to creating a wildlife-friendly Australian garden, just Share this article on Facebook, and email us at firstname.lastname@example.org with a sentence saying why you’d like the book. Remember to put your name and postal address. Good luck!