by Anna Dadson
Beneath the zigzag matrix of divaricating shrubs a layer of leaf litter reveals a microcosm of life in the first light of dawn.
I can only just hear them rustle in the undergrowth above the celebratory dawn chorus, barely visible to the untrained eye. A myriad of creatures – springtails, millipedes, slaters, spiders, beetles, earwigs, worms and, if I’m lucky, a weta or gecko will accidently reveal itself. What they all have in common is their pivotal role in maintaining soil ecology through their voracious appetite for plant material, and one another.
Our passion for manicured, formal gardens practiced to perfection by the aristocracy in the Renaissance (1400-1600), blossomed world-wide in the mid 1800’s. These orderly gardens were developed to display the owners’ power, wealth and ascension over nature.
You may be familiar with the characteristic geometric patterns and trimmed hedges that define outside ‘rooms’, box hedges that frame ornamental beds of perennials, sculptural features, fountains and expertly shaped topiary. And let us not forget the ornamental paths that complement the immaculately kept lawns, the envy of all, no weeds, no bare patches, and no untidy leaf to mar perfection.
Although I admit to enjoying the aesthetics of formal and well-maintained gardens, I cannot help but feel that they illustrate our disconnection from nature, with garden ‘waste’ typically removed from site, limited planting palettes and the implied use of herbicides, fungicides, and insecticides. “Cide”, after all, means “denoting a person or substance that kills,” and I am a life celebrator, which is why I am curious about the little fellas of the undergrowth and how we can accommodate them in our environment.
When alive, trees are preoccupied with getting enough light and carbon dioxide to photosynthesize and produce carbohydrates. Getting sufficient access to water and nutrients ensures there are enough resources stored to produce bountiful flowers for pollination by insects, birds or wind. Success for trees is when an abundance of seed is dispersed as far as possible to colonise the world. Plants could never be accused of not having ambition.
Then one day ‘wham!’ a tree, or branch crashes down, by storm, drought, perhaps by a deep wound that has weakened the tree, or by the sharp teeth of a chainsaw. Nonetheless, wood has fallen and most significant now is your response to this event.
Yes, wood has a multitude of uses but I invite you to consider that the leaves, branches, trunks and stumps are all resources in their own right. To be valued not for our benefit, but for the unsung heroes of this story – the insects, invertebrates, fungi and other microbial decomposers of the undergrowth that transform plant material into valuable humus, recycling nutrients back into the soil for other plants to access. Consider viewing the insects as helpers that manage pests, regulate the natural order of things, clean up garden ‘waste’, and in turn become nutritious prey for larger insects like native praying mantis, lizards and our much loved birds. The food chain is one large, complex and wonderful thing.
Trees roots branch out in search of nutrients and water. Access to these is assisted by the symbiotic relationship with mycorrhizae fungi in the soil. The fungi attach themselves to the ends of tree roots like a hair extension. In exchange for high quality carbohydrates stored in their roots, fungi provide the trees with minerals like phosphorus and increase their access to water. Together, they are healthier and more resilient to environmental stresses. Man-induced stresses however… less so.
Imagine a life without microbiology. It is actually unfathomable. These are the miniscule bacteria, algae, fungi and protozoa that exist all around us, and inside us, some harmful, some beneficial. Microbes have star roles in every single living process, acting as chemical conversion machines. I’m not convinced the writers of Blade Runner portray an accurate account of human life existing in the absence of ecosystems. Without microbes and the larger decomposers nothing would survive, die or decompose; plant pollination would cease and we’d definitely starve as our ecosystems collapsed. Our existence depends on them. They are to be celebrated and encouraged to thrive.
Now, before you get carried away with justifying the neglect of your garden, if you happen to be at that end of the maintenance spectrum, there are differences between neglect and intentionally created refuges. Allow me to take you on a journey. But before we start, I suggest you fill a glass with your favourite beverage, remove your shoes and socks, and step outside. Enjoy the feeling of different textures underfoot while you tune your eyes and ears to the life that exists beyond the familiar.
If you happen to be standing on paving or concrete, this probably has the least habitat potential of any urban environment. It is treacherous ground for an insect to traverse. The only life form evident might be moss (plant) or lichen (fungi + algae in symbiotic relationship) existing in cracks of paving like little islands or lines of life, the plants capturing dust and harvesting water that runs from pavers. Lichen in particular has an extraordinary ability to survive severe conditions. They manage this by having extreme tolerance to drought, and by manufacturing chemicals that protect them from the sun, deter pests and ward off diseases with their antibiotic properties. All of which have the potential to benefit us medicinally. Lichen are not merely weird looking crustaceous growths on rocks and trees, but are also environmental indicators. They have the ability to absorb atmospheric pollutants, which can be tested to reveal how clean or polluted our air is. Despite their hardiness they won’t colonise where air is extremely polluted. If you hadn’t noticed, I’m a fan of lichen.
If you are fortunate enough to be having a lawn experience there are bound to be a few critters passing through the blades of grass, I particularly enjoy watching the jumping spiders and grasshoppers in action. But given the high level of disturbance and historical use of lawn enhancement applications few insects would make their home there permanently.
Lawn history tangent
The most extreme period of lawn maintenance I know of was during the 1940’s in the USA when lawns were of great cultural importance. They communicated to society that you had good values, were trustworthy and an upstanding citizen. Homeowners became slaves to the lawn using expensive tools to tame it, excessive amounts of water to keep it bright green, and to eradicate unsightly weeds owners resorted to using 2,4 – D (the active ingredient in Agent Orange), and lead arsenate as a pesticide. Negligence often resulted in an embarrassing public arrest.
In retaliation to this conformist and ill inducing norm, the ‘Freedom Lawn’ movement emerged in the 1990’s, suggesting instead converting lawns into natural meadows, planted out with wildflowers, edibles, shrubs, trees or no-mow alternatives instead.
Edges are where things start to get interesting; by this I mean the boundaries between one defined area of outdoor space to another. In this context I’m asking you to consider them as mini habitats. A grassy, unkempt edge could be a foot high and have a few weeds growing. If they are edible, you could harvest them later for a weed pesto or let them flower to attract pollinators. It is likely you’ll also discover some insects and spiders amongst the blades. I’ve had enough unfortunate ‘bug found in the salad’ experiences mid-mouthful that now I pick my greens carefully and wash them before consumption. Up to you.
Although insects do venture out into the open to feed, mate, socialise and sun themselves, as we do, the similarities end there. Insects require protection from predators and extreme weather conditions. They seek out dense, cool foliage, holes in trees or dry banks, crevices in the soil, logs or piles of rocks.
Each insect has its own habitat preference, which is why it’s important to incorporate a range of plantings and materials for them to inhabit. Swathes of native grasses offer a different kind of habitat to shrubbery and canopy trees. I often go walking in native bush for inspiration, taking in the topography, observing how different plant communities establish themselves in response to different gradients, access to light, exposure to wind, levels of moisture and competition from surrounding plants. My companion is often the ‘Nature Guide to the NZ Forest’ book, which never fails to help fill in my knowledge gaps and provide direction on how I can diversify my own garden environment.
If purchasing natives, I advise you to seek out your local native plant nursery ask for eco-sourced plants, preferably seed grown. These are naturally adapted to your area with wider genetic diversity, helping maintain unique local characteristics. This is particularly important if you wish to grow natives for Rongoa or kai. However, if these are not available, or you really prefer the ornamental variations provided by cutting grown plants and cultivated hybrids I won’t let this interrupt your creative flow for planting out your space.
By now, hopefully I have sparked your curiosity in the wondrous world of critters and, more importantly, convinced you to incorporate a piece of wild into your environment.
Now the fun part begins.
1. Reduce disturbance
Now that you’ve surveyed your environment with new eyes you might observe there is an under-utilised corner or bare piece of earth that has potential. Designate these for a re-wilding project that can be left to its own devices and disturbed as little as possible. Evidence that invertebrates live here includes a nibbled leaf, an exoskeleton, damaged butterfly wing or spider web.
Plant it out densely with a range of natives and if you want flowers you can incorporate perennials and herbs too. Create a tree canopy to attract birds and let fallen leaves, twigs and branches sit where they fall. Make a statement.
Perhaps you’re taken by the idea of the ‘Freedom Lawn’ and wish to convert some or all of your existing lawn into a pollinator pathway, meadow or no-mow alternative by planting groundcovers like Dichondra repens, Selleria radicans, Aceana varieties, Muehlenbeckia axillaris or ground hugging Thyme.
3. De-pave and optimise surfaces
Are you ready to rip out that concrete strip/paving and replace it with permeable options or plant it out. This has the added benefit of slowing down and absorbing water run off. What surfaces could be greened up with climbers and other layers of plants – walls, balustrades, pergolas and roofs.
4. Celebrate dead wood
Those fallen branches and stumps are valuable launching pads for the next generation of forest life. I like to call them nurse logs because they not only provide homes for critters but also host microbial life. They create shelters for small, emerging seedlings by holding moisture in the soil, maintaining even temperatures and reducing water loss from wind. When branches are thick they can physically protect seedlings from stray feet, enthusiastic children, and in rural places browsing animals like deer and goats. If you manage to get hold of lengths of hardwood like oak, beech, willow or alder you can inoculate these with edible mushroom spores. There’s no reason why your garden can’t provide for you too.
5. Insect hotels
There are some beautiful hotel designs for wetas, native bees and hoverflies available online. What better way to use those abandoned piles of broken pots, ceramics, stones, wood, pieces of bamboo, plumbing pipes and corrugated iron lying around. Get creative and turn them into functional sculptural pieces.
Think like a skink. How can you create a safe lizard lounge for them to bask in the sun as well as providing hiding places for when a cat comes stalking.
Now seems timely to bring up another passion of mine – animal pest control. NZ has the ambitious target of ridding rats, stoats and possums from the environment by 2050. Get a trap and do your bit.
6. Cues for care
This means having components of the garden well maintained to provide contrast with the ‘wild’ areas you’ve created that could be perceived as untidy. They communicate that these areas are deliberate and that you’ve got it all under control. Cues for care could be a mown strip through your freedom lawn, trimmed hedges, topiary or ornamental focal points.
Basically, if you replicate natural eco-systems as much as possible you are heading in the right direction. And to be clear, you can absolutely have your smart, immaculate garden too, well, maybe 68% of it.
All I ask is that before you swing that spade, rev the chainsaw, pull a weed, spread fertiliser or fill the chemical sprayer, consider the rich biodiversity that exists around you (or will do) if you choose life. Dead wood is your garden friend. Not in a ‘Log Lady’ kinda way, but in a regenerative, sitting on moist ground, fulfilling it’s life cycle kind of way that offers you comfort in the fact that you are providing a slice of wildness that is critter heaven.
(credit to Robyn Simcock, Landcare Research)