One of the most enjoyable aspects of gardening is designing and planting out a new or long-ignored area of your garden. With the existence of so many garden styles, including cottage gardens, formal gardens and productive gardens, the possibilities are endless. An increasingly popular option is to create a garden that not only looks stunning, but also provides important habitat for local wildlife.
Gardens for wildlife are gardens that replicate the natural habitat of local wildlife, such as birds, frogs, lizards and beneficial insects, by providing them with shelter, food, water or nesting sites. A great feature of wildlife gardens is that it isn’t necessary to own a large property containing native bushland. Even the smallest of suburban gardens containing only a courtyard can provide some habitat for local animals.
Wildlife garden can be fun to create and very rewarding once the animals begin to use your garden. But why go to all that effort, when you could instead plant some showy camellias or fragrant roses? Firstly, wildlife gardens are recognised globally as important for wildlife conservation. With increased urbanisation throughout Australia, our wildlife is rapidly losing critical habitat and many animals are now experiencing dramatic declines in abundance. Creating a wildlife garden can help reverse this trend. Each wildlife garden will add to an increasing network of suitable habitat for our native animals in our cities. Secondly, gardens that attract wildlife typically use native Australian plant species which are adapted to our harsh, dry climate. Converting your garden from one dominated by non-native species to a native garden will require less watering and reduce the need to constantly buy plants to replace dying ones. Gardens for wildlife therefore save money in the long-term. Lastly, and most importantly for many people, research has shown that living close to nature can improve human well-being. Wildlife gardens can therefore have important social benefits for people of all ages.
So how do we create a garden that is enticing enough for local wildlife to use? Luckily, many urban ecologists have asked similar questions and we now have a very good idea about how animals use gardens as habitat and what aspects of gardens determine which species may visit. There are many simple ways in which you can attract wildlife to your garden, with some benefiting all visiting wildlife, while others attract specific groups of animals (e.g. why not try attracting native bees to your garden?).
Probably, the most important element of design is to create a complex vegetation structure, which provides better habitat for a wider range of wildlife. This consists of leaf litter covering the ground, an understory of ground covers and grasses/sedges, a midstorey of shrubs and a canopy of trees. Although a garden may be full of Australian native plants, it may still be relatively poor wildlife habitat if it just consists of, for example, lots of kangaroo paws surrounding a lonely grass tree.
Adding a diversity of nectar-producing plants may attract the local honeyeaters, bats and pollinating insects such as butterflies and native bees. Native plant species produce more nectar than exotic species. For example, Banksia and Grevillea flowers produce up to nine times more nectar than exotic Hibiscus and Camellia flowers and are therefore preferred as a food source by nectar-feeding animals.
A bird bath is a simple addition to any wildlife garden. Australia is a dry continent subject to extended droughts and supplementary water provision using bird baths and other water sources, such as ponds, can be very much appreciated by local birds.
Why not try installing a nest box in that big tree in your backyard? Nestboxes may attract hollow-nesting species such as possums, bats and many bird species (e.g. parrots). Only older trees (greater than 100 years old) generally form hollows, but these trees are often removed for reasons of public safety. Natural hollows are therefore relatively uncommon in urban areas.
There are many more ways in which you can create a garden that not only looks great, but provides a helping hand to local wildlife. For example, Natureworks Garden Care provides assessments of gardens as wildlife habitat and in-depth recommendations on how to improve your garden. So, next time you find yourself with the enviable task of wondering what to do with that overgrown corner of your garden, why not consider creating a haven for your local furry, feathered and scaly friends?