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Beneficial Insects

Bees are not the only pollinators in the garden, there are many other insects that a gardener should encourage. A garden can be a haven and a refuge for insect life, a little oasis in suburbs that must feel like toxic deserts to many creatures.

Beneficial insects perform many roles in the garden. Pollination by spreading pollen from one plant to another is done by bees, butterflies, moths, some flies, and wasps. Predatory species are often the larvae stage of more familiar bugs such as ladybirds. However other larvae that eat aphids include lacewings and hoverflies. Other predators are praying mantis, ants, spiders, parasitic wasps, some beetles, tachinid flies, dragonfly nymphs and there are several species of scale parasites. Many of these lay eggs on other pest species and their young then eat the living pest creature. Other smaller insects in the soil perform tasks such as breaking down rock into soil, digesting plant material, recycling and aerating soil. These include various worms, ants, beetles and millions of micro organisms.

There is a complex cycle of predator and prey in any ecosystem. While a garden might be a simpler system than nature, it is important that the overall picture is understood. For instance, an aphid infestation will attract predator insects in time, but if it is sprayed, the spray may kill predators as well. The aphids will breed up again, but the next time there will be fewer predators available.

Insects require a number of factors to make your garden a home. Food, shelter, water and a chemical free environment.

Food: for a variety of insects plant a range of flower size, colour and flowering time. For those that have herbs or vegetable gardens, the umbelliferous heads of flowering fennel, carrots and parsley attract insects.

Native groundcovers such as running postman, hibbertia and goodenia species attract moths, butterflies and bees. Grasses and rushes such as wallaby grass and lomandra and dianella provide shelter for butterflies and moths. Shrubs such as correas, grevillea, epacris, banksia, bursaria, acacia, and kunzia provide nectar. Climbers such as hardenburgia, clematis and pandorea have small flowers for the tinier insects. Trees such as eucalypt, acacia, and callistemon and melaleucas provide masses of flowers for nectar.

Shelter: provide undisturbed areas of flat rocks with overhangs, small logs and bark, natural mulch, and areas of undisturbed garden. Some people might like to build an insect hotel, with hollow stems of plants, wood with holes drilled in them, pine cones, and clay-sand mix in open ended containers.

Water: a tray with pebbles and water provides a safe perch for insects, as does a mud filled bowl.

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Remember the wild creatures

With the hot Summer days ahead, please remember to keep your garden water pots full. Birds, butterflies, bees, possums, bats and many other creatures will have a merrier Christmas with this present.

It is best to have a few pots of water around the garden. I have found plastic plant tray bases to be the best. Terracotta dries out quickly, while metal heats up fast. A shallow container is best, to allow smaller birds to safely bathe and then also get out of the water. If you have a deeper dish, then put a stick or a flat piece of bark or a rock in so they can get out. This will also help smaller creatures like lizards and insects to access the water. It is also best to clean them out regularly. Often crows like to put stale bread and scraps in the water, and this can get disgusting really quickly in the hot weather. Keeping a dish brush near the pot helps make this task quicker.

For insects such as butterflies, they apparently like to drink from puddles of muddy water. I haven't seen this, however many bees often have a drink from the bird pots. I have a small terracotta pot of dirt in the bird water pot in hopes that butterflies will like it. A small pot is easy to take out when you are cleaning the bird bath out as well. 

For location, some birds like to have a clear space, others will like to dip in and out from trees and shrubs. If you have a plant that gets dried out quickly, putting the water pot near this helps save time and water, as you can tip the dirty water on the thirsty plant. At least a tray on a stand, and one on the ground will suit most of the creatures in your garden. This is also a time of year for baby birds who may not be flying well yet, so they will appreciate a ground tray.

Have a safe holiday, and I hope the plant fairy leaves something under the tree.

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Early Summer in the Garden

The early days of Summer are welcomed with a frenzy of activity as everyone rushes out to enjoy the warm days. But it's not just people enjoying the end of Winter, many creatures in your garden are equally busy.

Birds will mostly have finished nest building and be well on the way to raising their young. Make sure you top up bird water pots, particularly on hot days. You may then enjoy watching the variety of birds the water attracts for bathing and drinking. Baby birds are usually fed insects, graduating onto seeds or nectar as they become more independent. Help them grow – let spiders build some webs in hanging baskets and around the house, and leave a few weeds to grow seeds. If you have a compost bin, now is the time to dig it into your garden, and you will be assured that birds will be turning it over and helping it break down for your plants while they hunt for worms and other bugs for their babies.

Insects are also in a frenzy now. Of late there have been hoverflies by the hundreds in most gardens. These are fantastic beneficial insects as their offspring eat aphids. Ladybirds are also fierce predators of aphids. The first of the blue banded native bees are now out and about, their loud buzzing and erratic flight common around the smaller flowers. There have been native cockroaches hatching, and many can be seen in their attractive striped nymph stages, sunning themselves on leaves. They are not nocturnal, and do not come inside like the imported cockroaches.

Gardeners too will be active. Activities for this time of year are usually getting the last lot of plants in the ground before the really hot days hit. Make sure you test the soil for water repellence before you plant- if water runs off, then add some wetta soil to the hole and dug up soil. Other things to get done are mulching, including pots, and moving pots out of the hottest areas.

But in your activity, remember that your garden is part of the ecosystem. Using sprays will impact the creatures that live in your garden, even if you never see them. Sprays commonly affect not only the pest population, but also the predators, upsetting the balance and resulting in more pests and less predators. Birds eating these insects can build up levels of pesticides in their bodies. Excess pesticides, herbicides and fertilisers can wash into stormwater and into our creek systems, affecting fish and other water creatures.

If you have a few insects, is that really a big issue? Spray them off with the hose. Plant some insect attracting plants such as helichrysum paper daisies, wild parsnip, grevilleas and bottlebrush. If you have a vegetable garden, let some carrots, parsley, coriander go to flower and seed, they attract a lot of predator insects. If you have a few plants that always attract pests, you can consider them as sacrifice plants, saving others from attack, or really, just dig them out.

A garden that hums with activity from birds and insects is a happy healthy place for humans to be as well.

a half grown mantis on a potted Sturt desert pea

a half grown mantis on a potted Sturt desert pea

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Australian Native Bush Foods

Australian plants have been a new trend in restaurants for some time now, and the benefits are showing in the wider range of these foods available in supermarkets. We at Wilson Park APS are lucky to have Rodger Elliot speaking on bushfoods on Oct 13th, and our members are putting on a bush foods themed supper afterwards.

Bushfoods cover a range of plants, some of which have been used since the earliest settlers. However Australia has a longer history of bush food use than a few hundred years, and there is a lot of interest in traditional foods.

One of the most well-known is the macadamia. Originally from QLD, it is now grown extensively in Hawaii and South Africa as well as QLD. Other foods include native mint, used to flavour cheeses and chutney, lemon myrtle and wattle seeds. All of these are available in supermarkets. Ones that I have found delicious have been a mango and native mint chutney, native mint flavoured cheese, and lilly pilly jam.

Fruits include quandong, kutjera, muntries, riberry, Davidson's plum, lilly pillies and finger lime, which can be used in jams, chutneys and condiments. Native spices include lemon myrtle, mountain pepper, saltbush and aniseed myrtle, which are popular as marinade ingredients. Vegetables include warrigal spinach, various yams, wild celery and native parsnips. Seeds are mainly wattle (only specific varieties, not all are edible), but also some grasses and native pigweed.

For Victorian gardeners, some of these will be harder to grow as they are tropical or desert plants. However, lilly pillies, finger limes, muntries, native mint, the vegetables, wattles, saltbushes and lemon myrtle will do well in the garden. The macadamia is a tropical tree, but given the right microclimate and protected from frost will grow, although nut production may be small. Desert plants may be grown in pots, with good drainage and sheltered from frost.

So have a look in the chutneys and herbs and spices section next time you are in the supermarket or farmers market. You may find a new favourite to add to dishes at home.

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Native Plant Sale Update

Thanks to all the visitors to the Wilson Park APS Native plant Sale on last Saturday. The weather held off and we had lots of happy people going home with bags of plants. We had several new stalls with the quilters group using native flower design material in their lovely creations. The woodworkers had a fine display of Australian timber made into all sorts of useful and beautiful tools, and there were garden tools also available.

As usual, our members contributed to our fantastic floral display, with several pots of orchids also in find flower receiving comments. You might like to know that the floral display is bagged up at the end of the day and given to a local wildlife shelter (Wild Days Wildlife Shelter) for injured Australian wildlife including birds and possums. A few specimens are also taken home by members that are keen on propagation.

A warm welcome to several new members that signed up over the weekend, and also thanks to the existing members who renewed.

There is a new photo gallery on the website of the plant sale as well.

We are looking forward to next year’s plant sale. If you, or someone you know would like to participate either with a stall or raffle material donation or sponsorship, please email us on click here

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Native Plant Sale Sept 5th

It is nearly Springtime again, and the time is near for the Native Plant Sale!! Make sure you come up for a visit on 5th September at Wilson Botanic Park, Princes Highway, Berwick.

There will be something for everyone- plants to buy in tubes and pots ready to go straight into your garden, kids activities making things out of plant materials. As usual a book stall specialising in Australian plants, wildlife, insects, gardens and other odd topics. There will be a great raffle and a guessing competition for the kids as well. Our member’s gardens will be pruned to show off in a floral display. There is also food and drink available so you can make a day of it and explore the park as well.

As we promised last year, we have expanded the range of stalls. So this year we have stalls on quilting with native flower patterns and woodwork with Australian timber. We also have a stall selling garden tools. The Wilson Park group will also have a plant crèche set up so you can leave your plants while hunting for more. A limited supply of boxes will be available.

We also have a special offer! This year anyone becoming a new member of the group will receive a free potted plant.

Next year we are hoping to expand the show even further, so if you know someone that might be interested, feel free to contact us.

Hope to see you there!

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Weeds in the Garden

Weeds are a common problem for all gardeners, as the definition for a weed is a plant out of place. Perhaps you can reconsider some weeds, as they provide habitat and food for many insects and birds. A small weedy undisturbed patch in a sunny area may become a focus of interest to birds for seeds, insects for leaves and flower nectar, lizards for shelter and spiders for food. All of these creatures add interest to your garden, help pollinate fruits and vegetables, and round out your garden to an ecosystem.

In a cleared patch of ground, weeds are the first colonisers, and play an important role in soil erosion control. They also provide some protection for the seedlings of future trees and shrubs.

However, many plants do become a problem, escaping into bushland and taking over native habitat. Weeds are often prolific seed producers and strong, fast growers. Often they get overlooked as they are flowers, but pretty flowers can over run a piece of bushland as well as the more unattractive weeds.

Many weedy plants can be swapped with a similar native, so have a think about the garden effect you want, and perhaps pick a non-weedy plant rather than a known weed. Your local council will be able to give information on specific plants in your area that cause problems. I have described a few below that are common to SE Melbourne.

Some common weeds include blackberry, banana passionfuit, euphorbia, black nightshade, ivy, bridal creeper, cleavers, common purslane, common vetch, violets, cotoneasters, couch grass, dock, holly, flaxleaf fleabane, veldt grass, pittosporum, wall fumitory, salsify and thistles.

Fountain Grass (Pennisetum setaceum)

Fountain grass is an attractive plumed grass with many purple shaded feathery seed heads. It grows to about 1m high, and has become very popular in gardens and commercial plantings. It is drought hardy and seeds itself readily. It is native to open, scrubby habitats in East Africa, tropical Africa, Middle East and SW Asia.

It is however an invasive weed and it has been listed as a weed in Hawaii, the United States and South Africa. It is banned in New Zealand. It has become naturalised in the Northern Territory, Queensland, NSW, Western Australia and South Australia particularly on Eyre Peninsula. It is still sold as an ornamental in Australia.

In NE QLD it has taken over large areas of regenerated minesites and farmlands. It is locally known as ‘collar grass’ in Rockhampton. The story of its introduction is supposed to be that it was used as a stuffing in the leather collars of camels and horses imported from Africa, and spread from this source. While it is excellent in stabilising soil and providing ground cover, it is hard to eradicate and hinders native grass establishment.

(referenced from wikipedia and www.weeds.org.au, photo from weeds.org)

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Australian native bees

We at Wilson Botanic Park APS were fortunate in having Dr. Ken Walker do a presentation on native bees. It was a great night, and inspired our members to go and really look at their gardens to see exactly what all the critters are doing. Photos used here are with his kind permission.

In 1822 the first European honey bee arrived. While this may be seen as another ecological disaster, the bee was essential. Without the honeybee, most crops fail due to lack of pollination. It is estimated that the honeybee provides Australia with millions of dollars of free pollination services. In the USA, this is a more managed process, with hives being transported at pollination times.

photo from Ken Walker

photo from Ken Walker

 

Australia has the most unique bee fauna in the world. We also have the smallest bee at 2.1mm long, and most native bees are solitary, making the usual hive practices unworkable for honey production. Native bees actually eat the pollen and nectar, as well as packing pollen into hairs on their bodies. They use to pollen collected to produce a pollen ‘pudding’ which is placed in a nest as food for the next generation. Australian plants rely on native bees for pollination, and in turn, native bees rely on Australian plants for food.

So how can you encourage these stingless helpers into your backyard? The first thing is to provide food and water, so plant natives and exotics that produce flowers throughout the spring and summer when the bees are active. I have had blue banded bees on fuchsias, rosemary and grevilleas. Provide some water, such as shallow bowls. Don’t use chemical sprays. Lastly you may wish to provide shelter by building an insect hotel. There are plenty of ideas on the internet on design.

A bee hotel can be a few wooden blocks with holes 6 and 8mm drilled in them. Place in a sheltered area. Or a bundle of bamboo canes and spongey centred branches. Another is to have a block of clay- sand mixture or bare soil for them to burrow into as well. Different bees prefer different nest materials, so a mixture of types is probably worthwhile, as you may not be aware of all the bee visitors to your yard. 

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Winter in the garden

Now the weather is a bit colder again, it is good time to plan out any changes to the garden.

Plants

Think about what has survived the summer and what hasn’t. Was it because of position (soil, moisture levels, surrounding trees, shade) or just the type of plant (too delicate, poorly planted). Things change over time, with trees growing and providing more shade, so some things may not like the changes. Go for a walk around your neighbourhood and see what is still going well in their yards. Some people have let their gardens fend for themselves, so anything surviving in these ones will be pretty tough.

Dig out all the gardening books- or borrow some from your local APS groups library, and plan out what would suit, or what you fancy. Think about plants to attract and feed birds through the year- dense prickly ones (plant out of the way of paths) for nesting, grevilleas and banksias for nectar, and gums, wattles and grasses for seed. Or a small wilderness area that you leave undisturbed to increase the insect population.

Projects

Look around your garden and consider any layout changes or projects − perhaps make a new path along a worn track of grass or even a pergola to shade you next summer. An archway cover with heidenbergia (happy wanderer) looks good, and you may find birds using it as a nesting area. Is there a good spot for a garden seat- maybe a good Christmas present idea! A sturdy potting bench is also a good idea, and saves bending over. Or a small shade house for some propagation – another ideal Christmas present. Or maybe a shade tree is needed. Or bird feeders or more water pots out for native animals and birds…

Planning

There are a lot of books on garden design, and many of these focus on natives- Diana Snape for one.  It is hard to get a good idea sometimes of how the mature plant will fit into an area, so a book with a lot of pictures is often a great help.

But apart from the appearance, also think of the plants needs for water. Try to plant ones that need a bit more water in a spot that doesn’t dry out so fast, or all in the same area. Watering can then focus on these ones. Use water crystals when you plant out new plants.

Winter is also a good time to try and move plants. While natives are usually not easy to move successfully, if the plant is much better suited to the new position the move may well succeed.

If a particular type of plant has done well, think about buying a few more. Massed areas of the same plant, or dotted throughout the garden gives an air of continuity that many different species will not. They will also be easy care. Cranbourne Botanic Gardens does this, planting in drifts of one species, and the results can be spectacular if they like the position. It is also easier for birds to collect a decent feed if several plants are flowering close to each other.

Buying and planting

Generally tubestock do very well, and we are lucky at Wilson Park that an excellent variety is available to the group at our meetings. Tubestock will often outpace a larger more expensive plant. Buying plants that will do well in your soil is the easiest way to have a low maintenance garden of healthy plants.

Don’t forget to check a bought plant with care. Spindly ones and yellowed leaves can survive, but it is best to buy the strongest looking plant there, so be choosy. Leave it to acclimatise when you get home, and if watering, make sure the water soaks the plant, not running down the sides, as can happen if the potting soil is water repellent or it is very rootbound.

The expression ‘don’t dig a $1 hole for a $10 plant’ holds true. Dig a good sized hole, loosening the soil, and stir in some water crystals. Some native fertilizer, dilute fish emulsion or worm juice is also a good starter. Check that the water drains away well, and add some soil wetting agent around the hole and in it if the water sits on top or runs away.  Planting in a slurry of soil, wetta soil water, and water crystals will also help the plant establish if it will not get much attention.  Loosen the plant roots, and press the soil down well around it. Do not put mulch up to the plant base as this will reduce water penetration and air circulation.

There is some debate on when it is best to plant, in the summer when the soil is warm and the plant can establish, or in the winter when it is wetter. I think it depends greatly on your time. If you have time to water through Summer and check plants often, then Summer might work for you. Otherwise Autumn planting might be better if you tend to forget it once its planted. If it is quite small, overwintering in a pot in a warm sunny place can give it a good headstart for a Spring planting.

Until next time,

Happy gardening from The Potting Bench

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Silver Foliage Native Plants

A plant with silvery leaves provide a lovely contrast in a garden. They are also dry tolerant, and so are ideal for a difficult patch in full sun. You can also try placing them near entrance areas as they show up quite well at night.

The silver tones can vary through a spectrum of blueish grey to a more yellowish tone. Choose one to blend in with other current flowers, for instance the blueish tones would be more appropriate with blues, pinks, whites and purple, while the warmer yellow tones are more at home with yellows and oranges. Larger ones, from shrubs to trees can form a contrasting background which highlights the plants in front very effectively. However a contrast such as yellow flowering Helichrysum apiculatum with blue brachyscome daisies as in the photo below is a cheering sight.

Silver Plectranthus (Plectranthus argentatus)

This is a very hardy plant which grows into a low (~1m) spreading bush with soft textured hairy silver leaves. It strikes readily from cuttings. There is a fine example in the park, just at the entry area gate. There are some excellent dark blue flowered species in Cranbourne Botanic Park. There is also a smaller version with attractive zoned silver leaves with pink and cream edges. Some of these can be seen at Casey Arc swimming pool, in the front entry garden area. This type thrives in richer soil and blends happily with exotics.

It grows well on clay soil, in full to half sun and requires little watering once established. The flowers are usually white, and appear in Spring-summer and every so often through the year. It can be pruned if it gets too leggy. It would also suit non native gardens as a background silver plant to offset pink or blue colour schemes.

Helichrysum apiculatum with daisies

Helichrysum apiculatum with daisies

Helichrysum apiculatum

Is a prostrate grey furry leaved plant with bright yellow golden flowers in tight clusters. It is found in the Wilson Park carpark, in the front middle bed. It is tolerate of long periods of dry soil, and grows well in poor soil. It spreads easily, although it is also easily removed. It can be propagated from cuttings or rooted runners.

Saltbush

There are many different varieties of saltbush, some of which are highly nutritious and used as sheep fodder, and others are being used as a bush food flavouring. For either use, be very sure you have the right species.

They vary from soft leaved prostrate form, to sturdy rugged shrubs. They can be struck from cuttings readily.

There are other silvery leafed natives, such as Emu Bush – Eremophila nivea ‘Spring Mist’, however this one is hard to grow, and does better as on a grafted rootstock. Westringia is another very hardy shrub that shows silvery on the underside of the leaves, which is quite attractive in the wind. Wattles and banksias also have silver leafed varieties.

Happy gardening,

From The Potting Bench.

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