Saturday, 10 June 2017

Re-Wilding A Sydney Backyard

 When I first came to the Australia from the UK, I had a fondness for the environment but knew virtually nothing about Australian nature.  Years later, when I moved from inner city living into a suburban house with a backyard, something special happened. Fascinating visitors such as Blue Tongue Lizards, Leaf Tailed Geckos and Possums provided magical wildlife encounters and my conservation passion, long suppressed, became reignited. As a result, when fragile bushland was threatened by a development nearby, I joined an action group. And, when the local council began planting native plants along a degraded creekline, I started to sit up and take notice.

Discovering a baby 'southern leaf tailed gecko.

When the ‘windows of awareness’ gradually began to open up, I realised that I needed to acquire some knowledge of native plants and environmental weeds. I really wanted to plant some genuine natives...and not the hybrid ones with showy flowers that you find in Bunnings.

 Later I discovered that, in Sydney, each suburb has its own original suite of endemic native plants which are vital in supporting local biodiversity For example there are nearly 1,000 wattles (Acacias) native to this continent but only 7 were endemic to my area.
One of my 'local' wattles:- Acacia Linifolia

 It subsequently dawned on me that almost every garden in my street had no indigenous plants at all. What was worse, many of the plant species visible, such as Agapanthus, Cotoneaster and Privet. were invasive weeds which spread into bushland reserves and actually caused harm. The irony was, none of the local plant shops even sold species which belonged in the area. To find them you had to travel to obscure specialist outlets or wait for the occasional Council native plant ‘giveaway’. Something had gone horribly awry in this city of Sydney. I realised that the original rich biodiversity had largely been scraped off the face of the earth, just like the indigenous people who once occupied this unique place. Meanwhile the current population seemed overwhelmingly unaware and unconcerned.

 Amazingly the Sydney area has more native plant species than the whole of the UK, they have a subtle, fragile beauty and have evolved both to live on the nutrient poor “Hawkesbury Sandstone” soils and adapt to climatic extremes.  But try telling that to the gardening commentators in the media.  Unfortunately, growing local natives is not good business as it doesn’t profit multi-national fertiliser, pesticide or horticulture interests.

Local bushland:-genuine 'Hawkesbury Sandstone country.

 I realised that my new philosophy was to do the polar opposite of what the so called “Garden Gurus” were advocating.  My plan was to remove all “foreign specimens” that were not of habitat value for local wildlife.  I would plant species that were endemic to my area (trees, shrubs, groundcovers, grasses); identify any remnant natives and carefully retain them; remove weeds by hand and commit to never using commercial fertilizers, pesticides or fungicides. I might occasionally use a weed killer made up of 99% white vinegar and 1% detergent.

A fish pond was transformed into frog habitat featuring a self seeded. 'birds nest' fern.

 Interestingly, my neighbours remember when my standard “quarter acre” backyard contained only a solitary lemon tree (which was given a stay of execution) and little else. But past decades have seen various plantings and re-growth.  The house was built on remnant bushland in the 1920’s and since then suburbia has filled in most of the remaining undisturbed natural areas in the neighbourhood. I often think that what is now happening to the Amazon rainforest in terms of land clearing, happened in this very place, not so long ago.

 At this stage I should recommend an excellent book “Field Guide to the Native Plants of Sydney” By Les Robinson, which helped guide my progress. This amazing work contains invaluable information on our native flora including traditional Aboriginal uses for “bush tucker” and medicine.

 My garden contained a large lawn area of Buffalo grass, several Radiata Pines, a smattering of eclectic garden species and a few natives.  On the edge of the lawn there was actually some naturally occurring native grass Microlaena Stipoedes, some native Geranium (Geranium Homeanum) and some native Violets (Viola Hederacea) plus some naturally occurring Commelina Cyanea (which was eaten by early European pioneers to prevent Scurvy).


The native commelina..yes you can eat it !

A few years beforehand I had followed the current trend and planted a vegetable garden but I decided that even this had to go and it was ultimately replaced by natural vegetation. Luckily there is a fantastic organic food market nearby for delicious supplies and also a wonderful community garden if I get the urge to plant more veggies.

 It’s been a gradually transition but over a few years a large area of lawn has been dug out and the native grass has gradually taken over. A smaller area of Buffalo Grass was replaced with a groundcover called Dichondra Repens.
A native ground-cover has replaced my lawn

 I no longer have use for a lawn mower! Endemic species of Grevillea, Hakea, Correa, Banksia, Persoonia, Angophora, Eucalptus, Bracken and Blady Grass etc are growing well and providing food and habitat for wildlife.  Additional accommodation has been provided in the form of various nesting boxes. 

A Hakea in flower

 Insects such as Blue Banded Bees, Mud Dauber wasps and Golden Orb spiders are proliferating.  A fish pond has been transformed into a frog habitat which has also spawned an abundance of Spectacular Dragon Flies.

A Golden Dragonfly.

 A ban on toxic substances means that butterflies and cicadas can fly around more safely. Caterpillars are allowed to chomp away to their heart’s content. This type of garden requires virtually no watering; falling leaves don’t have to be swept away (as they provide natural mulch) and the local possums kindly provide their own brand of proprietary fertilisers.

 I have also converted the “nature strip” of foreign grasses and weeds in the front of the house into a mini habitat area with Lomandras, Dianellas and trees. (again, this is now a mow free zone).
Now it really is a 'Nature Strip'

 American Gardener and Writer, Benjamin Vogt struck a chord with me when he wrote this: - “We need to stop gardening solely for ourselves and see the incredible, beautiful, soul-magnifying existence that happens when we open up our gardens to the rest of the local environment by using native plants. We believe in giving to the needy and poor of our own species, and to other causes near our hearts, why not the birds, insect pollinators and amphibians in the gardens we supposedly cherish so much?”

 As the years go by, the native garden becomes more and more established and only occasional hand weeding is needed.  Additional species are occasionally added from a recently established community native plant nursery where volunteers propagate tubestock with seed collected from nearby bushland reserves. I sometimes try this myself with mixed results!

The “re-wilded” suburban backyard has provided greater biodiversity, a better connection to nature and more enjoyment whilst it has removed the time, cost, and energy of mowing, fertilizing and “manicuring”.   It’s the ultimate “win win” gardening experience!

The re-wilded native garden.



Check out the story by Robin Powell in the Sydney Morning Herald Spectrum pages  siren-song-of-backyard-wilderness-in-Manly-Vale-   and have a look at her blog post on this garden"Wilding the backyard"



STOP PRESS




Bandicoots, anecdotally were very very common in my suburb of Manly Vale.  About 50 years ago they totally disapperared after residents persecuted them for digging up their manicured lawns in search of grubs, they were also heavily predated on by introduced foxes. Amazingly, all these years later they have reappeared (from God knows where) and are beginning to reestablish themselves. Below is one photographed in my "rewilded" Sydney backyard where they now forage and (I think) live.



Monday, 1 May 2017

Art for Nature's Sake

  It always seems to me that artists, photographers and musicians appear to have a special connection to the natural world. Maybe, because of their creative empathy, they have a heightened sensitivity to the world's, beauty, wonder and awe.

  Whenever a fundraiser is organised to protect forests, bushland or marine environments, guess who always put their hands up first to contribute time and talent? Yes the financially challenged artists. And when my local paper, the Manly Daily, asks for photographic contributions from the readership...the subsequent published works invariably seem to be of seashores, birds, animals or trees.

  It’s a strange compulsion that beckons humanity to paint but, like many others, I too was drawn to examine and attempt to represent some of the miracles of nature through art. I could never hope to do any of it justice of course. In fact to me, nature, at every level, is already in a state of perfection (although human behaviour is probably the exception to that general rule).  In an era when the world is losing so much of its precious wild things and wild places...just capturing it on canvass, began to seem a futile waste of time.  

  So, I decided to try and convey an environmental message through the imagery. At least that way it seemed slightly more constructive. Maybe I could, in a very minor way, help communicate the urgent plight of our world to a new audience and gradually, bit by bit, collective consciousness might work to turn things around?  OK OK its a ridiculous concept but it’s all I've got to work on at the moment!!

 Here are a few examples of my small scale environmental campaigning through art.


This piece, titled "Ascension" represents the view, looking up to the sky, through trees in a forest clearing. Conversely, others feel it is more indicative of looking down into a deep ocean. The materials used are acrylics, inks and bitumen on sheet aluminium 



This work, using similar materials,is titled "Feeling a bit Fragile". It represents a frenzied planet earth under intense stress in a volatile universe.


 There is an old English proverb that states, 'the eyes are the window to the soul.' This saying stems from a passage in the Bible, Matthew 6:22-23. According to Scientists, patterns in the iris can give an indication of whether we are warm and trusting or neurotic and impulsive. I'm fascinated by the deep and inscrutable eyes of reptiles. There seems to be an ancient but impenetrable wisdom emanating from those dark pools of life. This image was painted on canvas using acrylic paint,inks and bitumen.




A highly regarded local environmentalist used to hold an annual fundraiser to help protect Tasmania's ancient forests from industrial logging. This painting is called "The Last Tree Standing" and represents a devastated landscape with one sole tree surviving...a casualty of such rapacious logging practices. In Tasmania, large areas of forests are clear-felled, bulldozed and burnt- the trees being wood-chipped and sent to Japan to be made into paper. In recent times some of the high conservation forests were given World Heritage status and protected as part of a momentous agreement between the logging industry and environmentalists.


The Australian government wants to log these ancient trees once more.
 Australia's Prime Minister (and local MP), Tony Abbott, sought to de-list 74,000 hectares of these unique forests from the World Heritage register, making them once more accessible for logging and taking us back to the dark ages.


This painting represents the precious ocean environment that encircles Sydney. In fact there are more marine species found inside Sydney Harbour than around the whole coastline of Britain!  The NSW government is currently working to reduce marine sanctuary protection and has put a moratorium on declaring any new Marine Parks.  


Recently on Manly Beach, community members gathered to protest against weakening marine sanctuary protection.


This piece, called "Green Confessions" was exhibited in the 2013 Warringah Art prize within the "Waste to Art" category. It was produced using paper, paint and inks on an sheet aluminium base.  Warringah Council replaced their Flannel Flower logo (representing our local native flora) with a soulless stylized W shape. This work included numerous Flannel Flowers with the word "sold" emblazoned across them. This was to represent the ongoing loss of our beautiful, and colourful, bushland with the ugly sprawl of encroaching housing developments. The change of logo, without community consultation seemed to epitomise this bleak scenario.


This piece was hung in the Warringah Art Exhibition in 2000. At that time there was a huge community campaign to stop the "Ardel" housing development at Frenchs Forest destroying pristine bushland in the Manly Dam catchment. Its long term effect would also reduce water quality and impact on aquatic fauna (such as the unique Climbing Galaxias fish). The metallic fish skeletons with the title "Manly Dam's Future" contributed to the protest.



"Echidna Speaks" is a small 'Waste to Art' sculpture which was a finalist in the 2016 Northern Beaches Art Prize.  Made from salvaged, scavanged and discarded materials, it highlighted the threat to wildlife from the proposed Manly Vale School expansion. Rather than adopt the original concept design Dept of Education Planners wish to situate new premises on top of the school's outdoor education area. Fire regulations mean that habitat for 6 threatened species will have to be cleared for a huge fire break if this design proceeds.



This is a photograph (using a macro lens) of some tiny mould spores on a gardening glove. It was one of five works chosen for display in the 'Four Elements Earth' exhibition in Nov 2016 (Northen Beaches Creative Space). The message here is that we tend to ignore the fragile beauty all around us whilst only valuing distant views.  If people can really appreciate the small miracles in their surroundings..maybe they'll be more protective of nature??



Another semi abstract image with an environmental message. This time the viewer has to piece together their own sentance from ellusive words scattered amidst the disembodied eyes. The gist is that the natural wealth of the world is being spruiked and sold off to "customers".


This piece is painted on aluminium and the design created using a sgraffito technique.  It pays homage to indigenous art.


This is a photograph (using a macro lens) of a brown striped marsh frog tadpole -filmed on top of a delicately decomposed leaf.  My love of nature emanated from observing the teeming but largely unnoticed world within a backyard pond.


This image is of frentetically interweaving tubes, worm or snake like structures...incredibly ..whilst I was painting it...I was visited 3 times by a real life green tree snake !! (see below)



Sunday, 1 January 2017

Beautiful Sydney has such an ugly secret.

  In scenic Sydney we’re lucky to have quite a few patches of “urban bushland”  dotted  around the traps that have been mercifully spared from the bulldozers.

Unblemished  Sydney bushland
 The sad truth though, is that most of these remnants are being smothered by introduced invasive weeds, used as convenient dumpsites and are fast losing their (once) amazing biodiversity.


This ancient Banksia has been smothered to death by introduced weeds
 Just look along the fence lines of properties backing onto bushland and you’ll discover, almost universally, the same story, a total disconnection from and lack of respect for the natural vegetation. Sydney homeowners invariably seem to grow plant species that “escape” from their gardens into the bush (such as Agapanthus) and “out compete” the fragile natives. They also turn a blind eye to (and neglect to tackle) destructive weeds such as Morning Glory, Lantana, Ginger Lily and Privet that thrive on the fertilizers washed out of their flower beds.
Ginger Lily, Fishbone Fern and Morning Glory will totally replace fragile native plants.
 To compound this problem they tend to think that it’s their god given right to hurl garden clippings, unwanted bricks and scrap metal into the bush, providing species of unwanted weeds from around the globe, a perfect springboard to assault our fragile native flora.


Almost everyone grows this same boring weed species called Agapanthus

 The upshot is that Sydney bushland, far from being the richly diverse “larder” that sustained indigenous peoples for millennia, or the wondrous spectacle that would have greeted Captain Cook and his crew, is fast disappearing before our very eyes.


A typical Sydney fenceline..the yellow (Senna) and blue (Morning Glory) are strangling the bushland.
  Worryingly, virtually no one living next to bushland appears to have any knowledge of what’s happening,  very few are inclined to retain or grow endemic native plants on their land, are bothered to remove weed species or express concern at the disturbing rate of land degradation (apart from isolated “Bushcare” groups).

 Indeed, almost the only interaction between residents and bushland is the increasingly popular practice of poisoning surviving Eucalyptus trees to enhance views. Some people also have a habit of moving into bushland suburbs for the natural beauty values only to then complain about the fire risks and lobby for greater “hazard reduction” zones.

 There is an incredible amount of ignorance in the community about native flora and fauna, so most residents would fail to distinguish between native plants and the introduced species that are fast replacing them. If the trend continues, our natural areas will just become one big weedy desert. As a consequence the birds, animals and insects that relay on native plants for their food source, will vanish too.


When native plants disappear, so does most biodiversity
 So what’s the solution?  Residents whose houses back onto bushland, should be encouraged to learn more about their “duty of care”, prompted to remove invasive plants species from their gardens and fined for doing the “wrong thing”. Councils and government should be much more proactive in regards to community education (as should our schools). According to the Australian Conservation Foundation,  people today recognise less than 10 plant species but more than a thousand corporate logos.

Australia these days is populated by people from around the world. Not surprisingly, most have little understanding or awareness of this nation’s natural heritage and many have an unnatural fear of this continent’s nature. I believe new citizens should have to learn not just about the nation’s history but about its natural history.

 It doesn’t help that TV “gardening”  shows totally ignore the plants that grow naturally in this country and concentrate on promoting only exotic hybrids and cultivars. Who is going to protest the loss of something that the community doesn’t even realise is going? The reality is that it would take a massive capital expenditure to substantially and professionally restore areas of degraded bushland plus a political will that just doesn’t exist ( most current rehabilitation programs are small scale and cosmetic).


Gardening "experts" will never tell you about native Boronias!

 The trouble is, once you possess the knowledge that urban bushland is in deep crisis, a walk in your local reserve will never be quite the joyful experience that it once was.


 In a society that puts such a high premium on beauty and good looks...where did it all go so horribly wrong?

Fancy a walk amongst the weeds??

 Check out this other blog post if you are interested in  "Re-wilding" your backyard


A few community members have seen the light and are caring for
remnant bushland.





Weed better talk about this issue...

 Believe me, for most of my life I thought weed was either something you smoked or kicked sand in the face of. If you’d told me years ago that I would develop a malevolent dislike for the plural of weed, I would have thought you were off your trolley, barmy, nuts, crazy, absolutely stark raving, stonking mad. But then I suppose I went “troppo”, ended up living in the suburbs of Sydney, and discovered the awful harm these pernicious things actually did.  To be fair, I was raised in the English Midlands where weeds were harmlessly insignificant and there was so little genuine nature left, that they were almost as good as it got.  I’ve since learned that around 80% of Britain’s flora is not endemic. 
 
 Fast forward to life in the burgeoning metropolis of Sydney, which is still blessed to have pockets of native vegetation interspersed with suburbia. Here you’ll find incredible plant biodiversity and species that have survived from the time of the Gondwana super-continent, learning to adapt and evolve to dry, hot, arid conditions and nutrient poor soils and fire. You’ll also find lots and lots of weeds. These are not weedy weeds though...they’re aggressive super-sized marauders on a testosterone fueled rampage.  And yes, like just about everything else that’s bad in this wonderful continent...the ignorant, thoughtless, careless colonialists and their progeny are to blame.


 It all started with the first British settlers wanting to plant reminders of “home” at every given opportunity and it continues to this day with the horticultural industry still bringing in new profit-making varieties from overseas. Every single one is a potential weed.

Weed management  actually costs the Australian economy around $4 billion annually,  weeds represent, the second greatest threat to biodiversity after land clearing and almost half of Australia's 220 declared noxious weeds were introduced deliberately, one third of these as garden ornamentals.  

  People still prefer to plant “exotics” rather than their own native species and chances are these will invade the bushland and outgrow, overwhelm and displace the flora that was there originally, especially when boosted by the steroid effect of high nutrients provided by garden fertilizers and urban run-off.  If you love nature, it is pretty hard to witness the demise of high diversity bushland as it gets swamped, smothered and eventually killed off by a suite of foreign invaders. These are some of the most prominent rogue species on Sydney’s Northern Beaches. If they exist in your garden, please get rid!



Asparagus Fern.  This menace is from South Africa and like many other weeds..its seeds are spread by birds that eat the red berries.  You can offer see this as a feature plant in suburban gardens, especially in hanging baskets.



Lantana. This native of Central and South America was brought to Australia in around 1840 as a garden ornamental. It has now invaded around 4 million hectares and graziers spend over 17 million dollars per annum trying to control it.  (NB in heavily denuded areas it is often the last refuge for small birds so caution is advised before hurried removal). Lantana has been cultivated for well over 300 years and has hundreds of hybrids. It has been nominated as among the top hundred world’s worst invaders. It is thought that the original un-hybridised version no longer exists in nature.


Cotoneaster. This is another weed from China which is highly invasive.  It is a common garden plant which escapes into the bush and also acts as a food source for feral bird species.


Senna/Cassia  This is another nasty piece of work from South America which was imported here as a garden plant..It is very invasive and thrives in all conditions.
 


Morning Glory This is another ostensibly “pretty” garden plant but once it gets into the bush it can be a nightmare to remove. A native of China, it was used for medicinal purposes due to the laxative properties of its seeds.


Ochna is a native of South Africa with bright yellow flowers. It is also known as the Mickey Mouse Bush due to the plant’s red sepals and black seed which has a passing resemblance to the Disney character. Another rampant invader of our bushland.

Privet. As a child in Birmingham UK, we had massive privet hedges in our garden which were sculpted and lovingly preened. Little did I know that in later years I would be frantically cutting these plants down. In Australia, their black fruits are greedily consumed by birds which collaborate in spreading this pest deep into fragile bushland where it grows rampantly. There are small-leaf and broad-leaf varieties native to Eastern Asia and European privet which is native to Southern Europe and Northern Africa.



Pittosporum Undulatum (Sweet Pittosporum). This is a weird one as it is actually a native plant that has gone feral and is now out-competing other species and shading them out. It has done especially well in soils that have been modified by humans and takes advantage of high nutrient levels.

For help identifying weeds of the Sydney region click here  weed I.D.