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5 Steps To Let Nature Take Over Your Garden

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7 November 2023

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Tidy gardeners, put down your weed whackers and lock up your lawnmowers. It’s time to let nature take over.

Are you a tidy person? I have aspirations but struggle in certain areas – the never-ending pile of laundry, for one. Plus, when it comes to housework, I usually choose garden work instead.

Don’t think this means that I have a spick and span garden though. Clipped edges and freshly cut lawns are my partner’s domain, and there are often robust “debates” over what constitutes a weed after he’s pulled out some little flowering gem that’s had the audacity to pop up in the driveway or on a path.

Gardens have always been at the intersection of nature and civilisation, and some of us like to impose more order over the natural world than others. But nature needs us to let go. “Rewilding” is a type of conservation that restores an area’s ecology – take the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone Park in the US and beavers in the UK. The wolves thinned out overpopulated elk herds, allowing willow and aspen groves to flourish again, thus restoring habitat for birds. The beavers increase biodiversity because they build dams that create wetland habitats for wildlife.

A local rewilding success story is Wellington eco-sanctuary Zealandia. Since kākā were brought there in 2002, the population has flourished and locals now frequently spot wild kākā in their gardens.

When it comes to restoring biodiversity, our backyards are the perfect place to start.

Grow Natives For Our Birds And Bugs

If you need a reason to go wild, consider that 40 percent of our indigenous plant species, 85 percent of our native lizards and 40 percent of our native bird species are endangered or at risk. Though you’re not going to bump into a kākāpō rummaging around in your leaf litter any time soon, by planting natives you provide food for the locals. Try to eco-source plants, which means choosing species that have adapted to your area’s unique conditions – your council can advise you – and check out the Forest and Bird and Department of Conservation websites for lists of what native plants are on the menu for endemic birds, depending on whether they eat nectar, seeds, fruit or insects or are flexitarians. Try to grow a selection of plants that provide food at different times of the year.
If you have space and live in a frost-free region, pūriri provide fruit, seeds and nectar all year for tūi, korimako, silvereyes and kēreru, and are the host plant of the pūriri moth. For smaller sections, flax and petite kōwhai varieties (such as ‘Dragon’s Gold’) provide nectar for tūi, kēreru, kākā and korimako – and for an all-you-can-eat hedge, pittosporums serve up nectar, fruit and seeds.

piwakawaka in a tree
Embracing a wild aesthetic means leaving leaf litter to rot on the ground and not tidying up too much, so birdlife such as the pīwakawaka have a smorgasbord of insects to dine on.

Trap Pests

Predator control is key to nurturing our native animal species. You may think there are no rats or mice on your property but you’re probably wrong! Rodents, particularly rats, are experts at going incognito, and there are usually one or two lurking about. When it comes to reducing rodent numbers, traps are the most humane option because they’re instant. If you’re squeamish like me, Goodnature’s A24 self-resetting rat trap is a good choice because you don’t have to reset it very often, plus the dead rats are often scavenged by other animals, so you might not need to deal with the remains. Predator Free NZ has helpful information on its website about backyard trapping, including possums – cute in Australia but an ecological nightmare here.

Make Some Mess

Letting go of social conditioning about tidiness is essential for rewilding – and vindication for messy gardeners. Grow a dense thicket of trees and shrubs at different heights to create hunting, mating and nesting places for birds, and allow leaf litter to pile up on the ground. Insects and invertebrates such as beetles, wētā, slugs and worms thrive in decaying organic matter, including piles of leaves and rotting wood, and provide food for insect-eaters such as pīwakawaka and grey warblers. Allowing even just a few corners of your garden to be messy will build up its ecosystem. And if you can’t resist imposing a bit of order, build a bug hotel. Stack twigs, small branches, pine cones, bamboo and broken shards of terracotta – the more varied your materials, the more diverse your guests will be. Put it in a shady spot and see who moves in. Make a home for lizards by loosely stacking heat-generating materials such as stones, bricks and bits of corrugated iron in a sunny spot and add some native ground cover for good tangly hidey-holes. Leave plants to go to seed to provide food for finches and other seed-eating birds. A yellowhammer has been visiting my garden daily to snack on seeds from a dried brown sunflower I haven’t pulled out. Leave saucers of water in your garden so pollinators such as bees visit your garden regularly. Provide stones for them to stand on while drinking, as they can’t swim.

a bee watering hole created in a plant pot with stones
Build up your garden’s ecosystem by growing a range of plants. Create a safe watering hole for bees and they’ll add you to their list of gardens to visit. IMAGE VIA GETTY

Lose The Lawn

The ultimate symbol of dominance over nature, lawns make up around 15-20 percent of the urban landscape but are monocultural deserts of one plant species – the opposite of a biodiverse ecosystem. That means fewer bees, butterflies, moths and invertebrates. A 2018 US study showed that lawns cut fortnightly instead of weekly or three-weekly had the most bees visiting them because dandelions and clover had time to grow and flower but were short enough that it was easy for the bees to access the flowers. So if you don’t want to go full meadow chic, consider mowing less frequently or setting your lawnmower blades higher for a shaggier cut. Or mow pathways but leave areas of meadow either side. If you decide to dig up the lawn, consider replacing it with native trees and shrubs underplanted with ferns and ground covers, or grow food and flowers. Paths lined with bark or pebbles will allow you to journey through the space and also sprout surprise self-seeded plants.

a woman holding a bouquet of wild flowers walking through a field

Ditch Chemicals

It seems like a no-brainer but if you want a diverse range of wildlife in your garden, don’t use herbicides, pesticides or fungicides. As well as harming the life you’re trying to nurture, including your soil biology, they’re also not good for humans. Glyphosate is still widely used in New Zealand despite being banned or restricted in numerous countries and identified as a probable carcinogen by the World Health Organization. Our government is currently reviewing its use, so its days may be numbered. Also consider replacing synthetic fertilisers, which are detrimental to soil life, with natural fertilisers made from plants, animals or minerals, such as seaweed, manure, blood and bone and compost – and a dead rat or two!


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