I spy all around me

By Gareth Winter

I have written about the various kinds of gardens we create - gardens filled with flowers, those crammed with a multitude of unusual and rare plants, and those where the concentration is on the overall effect of the garden, with design being a strong component of the joy the gardener derives.

This holiday season I had an insight into a different kind of garden, thanks to the efforts of my scientist son, home from Dunedin.

In December, Radio New Zealand broadcast an interview with him as he showed its science correspondent, Veronika Meduna, around his garden - the link is: http://www.radionz.co.nz/national/programmes/ourchangingworld/20121206

I was intrigued to listen, as he has many admirable skills - but top notch gardening is not one of them, and his hillside patch is an interesting mix of pioneer plants (weeds, that is) of various stripes, with a few garden patches interspersed.

Turns out he wasn't showing her around his garden plants so much as guiding her to various spots in the garden where different insects and other creepy-crawlies were hiding, and regaling her with details of how interesting it all was.

When he came home for Christmas, he told me he was going to be harvesting from my garden for the lab sessions he takes at Otago University, and I thought he was interested in the genetics of some of our plants, but again I was wrong.

He spent a part of each day while he was home gathering bugs of varying kinds that had been attracted to the death trap that is our swimming pool.

There is a remarkable variety of flying critters of all kinds to be found in different states of swimming and drowning in the pool - cicadas, flies of various kinds, bees ( honey and native), bumble bees, a variety of beetles, and even a few spiders.

It made me see the garden the way he, an inveterate invertebrate lover, sees it - as a place where humans construct an environment to attract as many different kinds of wild life as possible.

He took me on a little tour of my garden, showing me some perfectly cylindrical holes (and piles of soil beside) in the compacted mulch around the old vegetable garden, pointing out these were the nests of the small native bees we had seen in the pool. We then went hunting to see if we could find the bees at work in the garden, and quickly discovered them at work on a flowering hebe - there were dozens of them zipping in and out of the small flowers on each raceme.

We also found them at work, alongside native flies and honey bees, on a parsley plant I had allowed to flower.

When I spent a morning slowly filling up the wheelbarrow with weeds and trimmings from the garden, I took my time to unload it, looking carefully at the range of invertebrate life I had also accidentally gathered, and was surprised at the variety. As well as the earwigs and slaters I had expected to find there, I could usually find three or four different species of spider, a couple of different ladybirds (including that lovely steel blue ladybird which has become more common in recent years), and a range of scale insects from trimmings, "fluffy bums" (juvenile passion vine hoppers) and even a few ants and aphids.

It was a bit of an eye-opener for me, as I would have said I was an observant gardener who took notice of the environment I was gardening in, but I guess I have not quite seen the garden as such a source of biodiversity, and it made me think about some of the things we can do in the garden to encourage a wider range of wild life into the garden.

As far as insects go, there are a couple of simple little things that will help provide a larger range of life in the garden. The first of these is to be a little more cautious about scorched earth policies when weeding. In nature, in most situations there are no bare spaces and most gardeners will know to their frustration how quickly weeds will grow in any bare earth.

To help prevent having to weed so often, apply light mulch to the soil. It will help keep the soil moist, will provide a home for many insects, and will also suppress weeds.

If you can bear to do it, and I know some gardeners will struggle with the idea, try and leave some wilderness areas in the garden, even if it is just a spot more or less out of sight where branches and leaves can be left to naturally rot away. They can provide a refuge for many different forms of invertebrate life. It probably pays to plant more native plants too, as these are the plants our insects evolved to live with, so a few extra hebes, some native brooms, some kowhai, cabbage trees and flaxes will provide living stations for lots of native wildlife.

Birds are also easily attracted into the garden, with a range of flowering plants being attractive to the honey-eaters like tui and bellbirds, while seed-eaters can be encouraged by allowing seeds to form on flowering plants. Some patches of native grasses will draw in the seed-eaters in the autumn. In fact, one of my favourite garden memories from my childhood is the sight of goldfinches eating the seeds off the drooping stems of fairies fishing rods, Dierama.

However, sometimes there is just a little too much invertebrate life in our garden. The other morning, when I picked up our copy of the Times-Age from the letter box, I felt something a little crunchy on the top of it. I thought it was a dead leaf from the lemonwood that grows over the top of it, so was a little surprised to pull my hand out and find a weta looking up at me.

- Wairarapa Times-Age

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