Thursday 16 July 2009

Habitat Garden: Chapter 1

[excerpt from my book "Habitat Garden" ABC Books, 2003]

Photo: Little Wattlebird on a grevillea bush

Everything lives in a habitat. Whether it’s a rat up a drain or an earwig in a corn stalk, all living things – humans included – depend on a complex network of other living things, as well as air, water, earth, sunlight and shelter.

Yet most humans live in a highly modified habitat. We can spend all day in a building with artificial light and air conditioning. We can travel inside vehicles, eat packaged food and amuse ourselves with electronic gadgetry. We can sometimes forget that there’s an outside world, or can even begin to think that we aren’t a part of the natural environment.

Gardens have long reminded us that we are part of life on earth. A garden can help reconnect us with the soil, the air, the sun and the rain that are essential to all life on earth – including our own. In the truest sense gardening is a recreation.

This is a book about reclaiming our connection with the environment – starting literally in our own backyards. Every backyard is part of the larger environment, and every backyard provides a habitat – a particular native environment – for something, whether we like it or not.

Even a concrete balcony may provide a suitable environment for, say, algae or spiders. So if they’re coming anyway, why shouldn’t we get involved in choosing what comes to our backyard to live or visit?

What is a Habitat Garden?

A habitat garden is simply a garden that attempts to favour certain types of spaces for certain types of plants, animals, insects and other life forms. In Australia that means a garden that favours Australian native plants over plants from other countries, and Australian life-forms and communities over those from any other place. More than that a habitat garden favours local plants and local communities over those from anywhere else.

Habitats are complex things, involving an intricate interconnection of everything from bacteria, bugs and rocks to sunshine, water and temperature. No-one should pretend that they are going to be able to recreate a complete and wholesome natural habitat in the average backyard. But a habitat garden can start to recreate some of the spaces that we’ve squeezed out of our local environments in recent years.

Why Habitat Gardens?

Few things are as rewarding as getting to know your local flora and fauna. To sit at a window and watch a honeyeater hovering over a grevillea that you’ve planted, or to wander in your garden and spot a bandicoot sneaking back under a bush – these are some of the enduring pleasures that can be part of every habitat gardener’s day.

And the opportunity to watch the changes that come with the seasons; the effect of good rains; the blossoming of wattle; the first flight of newly-winged cicadas; or the return of migratory birds: such are the subtle pleasures of garden life in our marvellously varied country.

But there’s more than personal pleasure involved. Have you looked around suburbia lately? Have you been out in the bush that you used to play in as a child? More and more of our country is being covered by concrete and housing developments; roads and shopping malls. Most of the bush that gets used in this way ends up being alienated from its natural inhabitants – if it isn’t destroyed totally. The environment that had supported a vastly complex web of plants and animals ends up being simplified for our use, often with no thought of what becomes of the other life forms that used to call it home.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. The kinds of alterations to the natural environment that we call development can – and sometimes do – carefully take into account its natural inhabitants. Housing or industrial developments can be designed with habitat preservation in mind.

Even in established housing areas, habitat gardening is one way we can play a small part in restoring our environment. With Australia one of the driest countries on Earth, with generally shallow, nutrient-poor soils, our gardening style can have a significant impact on the environment – for good or ill. If we persist with gardening styles that are based on the cooler, wetter climates of places like Europe, we can only do so if we use enormous amounts of water and artificial nutrient. This uses up not only personal energy but also precious natural resources. Habitat gardening offers the chance to find a gardening style that’s better suited to our climate.

Another argument relates to the sobering fact that since European take-over, Australia’s native plants and animals have become rare or extinct at a higher rate than almost anywhere else on Earth. We’ve introduced hard-hoofed animals such as sheep and cattle that graze and trample in ways that native animals don’t. Add to that the plant and insect pests that we’ve let loose all over the country, and it’s plain that we’ve drastically changed our natural environment. Put simply we’ve shrunk the habitats available for our native plants and animals.

Of course we have a wonderful array of national parks and other reserves which provide havens for some of our flora and fauna. But such reserves only cover about 6% of our land area. And often national parks are on land that was otherwise considered marginal for productive purposes. Because they do not represent the full spectrum of ecosystems, reserves alone can never provide enough habitat for healthy populations of the amazing diversity of life that calls Australia home.

What’s needed is a popular movement among land-holders of all sorts, even suburban ones. It’s a movement that aims to retain the wonderful range of unique species – the biodiversity – of our island continent.

We already see vast tree planting and bush regeneration efforts from governments as well as from local groups and organisations such as Bushcare, Landcare and Greening Australia. And individual farmers and farming organisations all over Australia are also making huge efforts. Habitat gardening brings people power to home gardening. It is the next wave – the green revolution brought into the humble backyards of Australia.

It has a modest but potentially profound aim: to try and win back some space in our backyards for the disappearing Australians – our local native plants and animals. The aim of this book is to help you – wherever you are in Australia – to design and grow your own habitat garden so that you too can contribute to this down-to-earth revolution.

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