Celebrate Earth Day by turning your backyard into a friendly habitat and food source for native wildlife.
My oldest son’s first primary school was an Enviroschool where they were indoctrinated, in the best possible way, with green thinking.
At every school assembly they sang environmental songs, including one particularly haunting anthem, “I Am the Earth” by Glyn Lehmann, which always made me cry. Of course there’s something moving about the voices of hundreds of children singing, but I challenge you to listen to the lyrics – including the constant refrain of “I am the Earth” – and not become just a little choked up.
I suppose that’s because as members of the species who are responsible for the environmental mess we’re in, we often see ourselves as removed from the natural world. Songs like these remind us that we are part of it, too – as does gardening!
As the theme for this year’s Earth Day on April 22 is “Restore our Earth”, I can’t think of a better way to do just that than by turning your garden into a sanctuary for native birds, insects and lizards by growing native plants that evolved alongside them before humans even set foot in Aotearoa. Sure many of our native species have adapted to introduced plants, but by including native plants in your garden, you’re increasing the national supply. Plus, autumn is the ideal time to get new trees and shrubs established. Even if your outdoor space isn’t large, our 2500 native plant species include a wide range of smaller options, including many that will happily grow in a pot.
Even if your outdoor space is small, our 2500 native plant species include a wide range of smaller options
Plant diversely for diversity
To attract a range of native species, make sure you cater for their varied diets. For example, tūī, bellbirds and wax-eyes eat insects, nectar and fruit.
Kererū (New Zealand pigeon), on the other hand, eat fruit and foliage, and pīwakawaka (fantails) only eat insects.
Then there are our native copper butterflies, whose caterpillars only feed on muehlenbeckia, a wiry native plant that is also favoured by lizards because it provides them with a safe habitat from predators. For more ideas, check out the Department of Conservation or Forest and Bird’s websites.
Grow a year-round smorgasbord
While there’s more food around for native birdlife in summer and autumn, winter and spring are the hungrier months when they’ll travel further distances in search of kai. Do your research and plant species that provide fruit or nectar at different times of the year, so there’s always something in your garden pantry. For example, kōwhai provide tūī and bellbirds with nectar in late winter and eartly spring, flax flowers feed them throughout spring and summer and makomako (wineberry) provides food in autumn.
New Zealand may be a small country, but particular plant species have evolved in different areas according to soil and climate conditions, and not every native plant will be suited to your location. For example, a frost-tender young kawakawa plant won’t cope in a chilly climate.
Choose plants that are local to your area – go for a walk around your neighbourhood, visit a local park or botanic gardens or ask your local council or garden centre if you’re not sure which ones are suitable. Where possible, eco-source your plants. This means choosing plants that have been grown from seeds collected in your area, as they are adapted to your local growing conditions and are more likely to survive.
Don’t be too tidy
Build up your backyard eco-system by providing habitat for insects, which means more food for birds and lizards. Allow leaf litter to build up under trees (put down a layer of mulch if you don’t have any) so insect eaters like pīwakawaka have a good supply of food. Dense thickets of trees provide safe nesting sites for birds, and bats and moreporks like to roost in old trees with cavities. You might even like to make a bug hotel – a stack of logs, bricks and bamboo which provides homes for insects such as native bees, spiders and woodlice – or just leave some logs on the ground or even triangles of corrugated iron for lizard caves.
A 2015 study by the University of Auckland showed that feeding bread and seeds to grain-eating exotic species, such as sparrows and pigeons, increased their numbers in a garden, crowding out the native riroriro (grey warbler) and interfering with its ability to forage for insects. Uncleaned bird feeders can also spread avian diseases. If you enjoy feeding birds sugar water, which tūī love, make sure you clean the feeding stations regularly. Birds also appreciate fresh water – just make sure you put it up high and out in the open, where predators can’t sneak up on them.
Introduced predators, along with habitat loss, have caused New Zealand to have one of the highest rates of extinction in the world (more than half of our bird species have become extinct since humans arrived here). Even if you think there are no rats around your property, there will be – they’re just experts at going incognito. As well as eating small native birds and their eggs, they also consume wētā, snails, frogs, bats and lizards. Set traps and put your cat on a curfew at night too.
It’s unclear which evolved first – the tūī or the flax flower – but the curved bill of these music-making honey-eaters is perfect for diving into the deep tube-like flowers to drink nectar. They are also popular with korimako (bellbirds) and kākā as well. There are two native flax species: Phormium tenax is the wider of the two, with tall, wide leaves and red flowers, whereas Phormium cookianum, known as mountain flax, has smaller, softer leaves and flowers in either green, yellow, orange and red.
Like a 24-hour supermarket, pūriri provide fruit, seeds and nectar for native species 12 months of the year. Although they are slow growing, they become large trees, eventually reaching 20m tall with trunks 1.5m wide. Their pretty pink flowers and red berries provide food for bellbirds, tūī and wax-eyes, and are a main food source for kererū. They are one of the main host trees for the pūriri moth caterpillar, New Zealand’s largest caterpillar (12cm long) and, consequently, its largest moth. Pūriri are frost tender, so don’t plant them in cold regions.
I love this delicate creeping plant with its interlacing leaves and there is one to suit every garden situation – plus it’s the sole food plant for the caterpillar of the native copper butterfly.
Climbing pōhuehue (M. complexa) and M. australis scramble up trees and provide nesting areas for birds. Shrubby tororaro (M. astonii) is deciduous and forms a mound structure that demands being sculpted into a ball or any topiary shape you can think of. Along with its ground-hugging little sister, creeping pōhuehue (M. axillaris), which looks great spilling over the side of a pot, its white flowers and small white fruit are beloved by geckos and small birds.
Kōtukutuku (tree fuchsia)
Remember poking sticks through fuchsias to turn them into ballerinas? Well, kōtukutuku is the principal dancer, being the largest fuchsia in the world and growing up to 12m tall in some settings. It produces fruit, seeds and nectar for much of the year. Its green and purple flowers provide nectar for tūī, wax-eyes and korimako and the purple berries are eaten by tūī and kererū (they taste like tamarillos). This forest dweller is deciduous in cooler areas – only 11 native species are – and prefers a moist soil.
Multitasking pittosporums are widely used as hardy, fast-growing screening or hedging plants but their honey-scented flowers and fruits are a source of food for bees and birds for nine months of the year. For hedging, karo (P. crassifolium), which has maroon flowers, is best suited to coastal areas in the top third of the North Island, whereas hardy kōhūhū (P. tenuifolium) has dark red flowers and copes well with conditions from alpine to coastal. Tarata or lemonwood (P. eugenoides) has yellow flowers and is the fastest growing of the three, forming a shrubby tree up to 12m tall.
Although kōwhai only provide food for tūī, kereū, bellbird and kākā for three or four months of the year, when they bloom, the onset of their golden blossom is a joyful harbinger of spring. Our eight species have evolved to grow in a range of environments, so do your research and find out which one is endemic to your area or will suit your garden’s conditions. They take around three or four years to flower, but if you’ve struggled to get that gold rush in previous years, try growing smaller varieties such as ‘Dragon’s Gold’, which is even suitable for a pot.
PHOTOS BY JOAKIM LIMAN/TE MOTU KAIRANGI