Wild Living: A Guide to Wildlife Friendly Gardens in Victoria

Last updated: February 8, 2013

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Wild Living - Illustration of a reptile and a possum dancing together

The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (Victoria)

ABN 56 749 449 191 ACN 131 965 761 3 Burwood Highway Burwood East Victoria 3151

Phone 03 9224 2286 Fax 03 9889 8912 Email education@rspcavic.org.au

The material in this publication is protected by copyright.

Wild Living

Sticky Beak says hey kids! you can get help from an adult with this page

Contents

  1. Planting a wildlife garden
  2. Maintaining a wildlife garden
  3. Habitats for frogs
  4. Reptiles
  5. Birds
  6. Mammals
    • Possums
    • Bats
  7. Do you smell a rat?
  8. Invertebrates
  9. Butterflies
  10. Appendix 1: Suggested plants for a wildlife garden
  11. Appendix 2: Suggested plants for a butterfly garden
  12. Bibliography
Frog in a pond

There are many fascinating wild animals that share the places we live in. Wild animals require healthy habitats in which to live, safe from feral species such as cats, dogs and foxes.

You can help by developing habitats, or ‘wildlife gardens’, in your backyards, school grounds, parks and paddocks. The best plants to select are those that are ‘indigenous’ to your area. This means that the plants have been growing in the region for thousands of years and are adapted to the area’s soil and climate. A good way to find out about indigenous plants is to visit an indigenous nursery. A list of Victorian nurseries is provided by the Indigenous Flora & Fauna Association, whose website is found at www.iffa.org.au.

It is a good idea to establish two or three wildlife gardens and connect them with corridors of indigenous plants. If there are patches of indigenous vegetation already established in the area they can be developed into complete gardens.

When selecting plants it is important to consider a range of species, including ground covers, shrubs, grasses, medium-sized trees, climbers and ferns. Suitable plants include native grasses, lomandras, correas, heaths, peas, dianellas, goodenias, daisies, rushes, callistemons (bottlebrushes), hakeas, acacias and eucalypts.

Be careful not to plant too many tall trees, especially eucalypts. Not only will they take a long time to mature, they will compete for water and nutrients and may prevent other plants from growing around them. Many shrubs, grasses and groundcovers are fast-growing and provide excellent habitat for lizards, bandicoots, frogs and ground-dwelling birds.

A list of plants is provided in Appendix 1 on pages 9 and 10. Not all are suitable for all areas of Victoria and it is worth consulting your local indigenous nursery to find out more.

Cats and foxes kill millions of wild animals every year. In order to prevent feral predators entering wildlife gardens, chicken wire can be placed on the top of surrounding fences. The wire should be loose and leaning outwards, making it difficult to climb over. If foxes are a problem chicken wire can be placed beneath the fences to a depth of 20cm.

bird sitting on a fence, safe from Cats

Planting a Wildlife Garden

Before planting it is worth spending a few weeks preparing the garden beds. Indigenous plants do not require much fertiliser but it may be worth mixing in a little organic matter such as mushroom compost or cow manure to give the seedlings a healthy start. Weeds should be removed and the soil watered thoroughly.

Autumn is the best time to plant; the mild weather and moderate rainfall are ideal for growing seedlings. The plants can be placed in holes that are slightly deeper and wider than the balls of soil around the roots. The tops of the balls of soil should be held level with the surrounding earth before the holes are filled in. When the seedlings are safely in the ground they should be watered well.

A mulch of leaf litter, bark and branches can be placed on the garden. Good quality mulch is available from local councils or contractors who prune or lop trees and shrubs. Fresh layers of mulch, about ten centimetres deep, should be spread every Spring.

A bag of mulch, a frog, a shovel and a pot full of soil

Maintaining a Wildlife Garden

Wildlife gardens require regular weeding. Mulching will reduce the number of weeds but it will not eliminate them. Mulching also helps the soil retain water. In extended periods of dry weather you may need to water once every three or four days. If you plan to use a watering system choose one that operates under low pressure; a ‘drip system’ is ideal. It is possible to purchase systems that feature rain sensors and timers to minimise wastage. Rainwater tanks are a great way of conserving water and saving money.

Plants and animals evolved together, developing strategies to enhance their survival over millions of years. Many plants rely on animals for the pollination or distribution of seeds. Some species thrive when animals eat their outer leaves and branches. These plants may require annual pruning if there is a shortage of wild animals to do the job for you. Local nursery staff can advise you on which plants to prune and how to go about it.

Habitats for Frogs

Frogs are a remarkably diverse group of animals. Victoria is home to 35 species, half of which are threatened by loss of habitat, pollution, disease and increased ultra-violet light.

A frog habitat is a wonderful feature of a wildlife garden. You can monitor frog populations, learn about their life cycles and study the features that help frogs to survive. Most importantly, you can take action to save this fascinating order of amphibians.

When you are considering where to locate frog habitat, look for a quiet, partly shaded place. It allows enough light for plants and algae to grow while preventing the water from becoming too warm. Beware of eucalypt trees whose fallen leaves may be toxic.

A frog pond should be shallow and partially bordered by dense foliage. The plants provide shelter for frogs and tadpoles while the shallows are places where frogs call and tadpoles bask. The banks of the pond should rise gradually, allowing frogs easy access in and out of the water. Leaves, rocks and logs can be placed around the shaded sides of the pond to provide shelter and cool refuges on hot days.

A cool refuge for frog habitat diagram. Includes submerged rocks and logs for algal growth, soil, a deep and shallow water zone, rocks and logs for shelter and a damp zone

Inexpensive fibreglass ponds are suitable provided the base is covered with soil and the pond is placed on a slight slope. The purpose of the slope is to allow movement of water through the pond, especially when it rains. The lower end of the pond can be placed one centimetre below the upper end. Excess water will flow out of the lower end, creating a boggy area that is ideal for frogs. A small ‘bog garden’ can be planted in this area. Billy Buttons, Tall Sedge, Common Spike Rush, Purple Loosestrife and Yellow Marsh Flower are some of the many beautiful flowering plants that can be featured.

Suitable plants to grow in the pond include sedges, Water Ribbons, Club-rush and Swamp Pennywort. These can be planted in the soil at the base of the pond or in submerged pots.

Once the habitat is established, wait until local frogs move in. Don’t embark on a collecting expedition. You will not only be disturbing established populations of frogs, you will be breaking the law.

Reptiles

A lizard resting on a stick

Geckoes, lizards and skinks are welcome residents of wildlife gardens. They feed on slugs, snails, spiders and flies and are in turn a source of food for many birds. Reptiles that may be found in wildlife gardens include Bluetongue Lizards, Shinglebacks, Bearded Dragons, Garden Skinks, Marbled Geckos and Grass Skinks.

Reptiles require leaf litter, bark, rocks and hollow logs to shelter in. Rocks placed in sunny, north-facing positions create good basking sites. Tussock grasses and groundcovers provide excellent shelter and foraging.

Wildlife gardens may provide safe havens for snakes, which are not always welcome. One way to discourage snakes is to maintain a clear area of land around the gardens. Since most Victorian snakes are venomous and will strike if provoked it is a good idea to contact a professional wildlife controller to remove snakes rather than attempt the task yourself. The Department of Sustainability and Environment can provide the names and details of local controllers; telephone 136 186.

Birds

Birds not only bring colour and song to a wildlife garden, they serve a vital role in pollinating and dispersing the seeds of many plants.

A bird swooping thru the web page

The best way to attract birds is to prepare a diverse, ‘multistoried’ garden. This is one in which several layers of vegetation are featured. The ground level may be called the ‘litter level’ and features leaves, bark, rocks, logs and branches. The litter level provides shelter and food.

The second storey comprises ground flora such as native grasses, heaths, lilies and creepers. Examples of suitable plants include poa grasses, goodenias, bush peas, mat rush and daisies. The third level, the ‘understorey’, features a range of shrubs such as correas, hakeas and cassinias.

Two birds perched on a branch

The highest level of a wildlife garden is the upperstorey. It includes eucalypts, acacias, sheoaks and melaleucas.

Do not place bird feeders in wildlife gardens. Feeding stations make birds dependent on people and give foxes and cats easy meals.

Many birds rely on tree hollows for nesting sites. Hollow-bearing trees are old and well-established but their numbers are declining. In areas where there are no tree hollows, nest boxes provide reasonable alternatives. Different birds have particular requirements regarding the size, shape and orientation of their nest boxes. An excellent guide is The Nestbox Book, published by the Gould League (www.gould.edu.au).

Diagram of a bird house.

All nest boxes should be built from strong, weatherproof timber. Drainage holes must be placed in the bottom of the boxes. The lids should slope forwards and overhang the sides in order to allow water to run off. Nesting and insulation material such as wood shavings and dry grass can be placed in the bottom of the boxes. Finally, the outside surfaces should be painted with non-toxic acrylic paint.

The location of the nest boxes will vary according to the species of birds being housed. The boxes should be placed at least four metres above the ground in order to prevent cats and foxes visiting.

Most birds prefer sites that are sheltered by leaves and branches and have an easterly aspect. This provides protection from the prevailing weather patterns.

Unfortunately, feral animals like Indian Mynahs, starlings and sparrows use nest boxes. They should be removed and the nesting material replaced. Once birds begin using the nest boxes do not interfere. Birds are unlikely to return to nests that have been disturbed.

Mammals

It is unlikely that many wildlife gardens will host kangaroos, koalas and wombats but there are a number of small mammals that may take up residence, including bush rats, antechinus, bats, possums and bandicoots.

Possums

Drawing of a common ringtail possum and a common bushtail possum. Diagram of a human home which is ideal for possums to inhabit, with gaps or holes in the side of the building and overhanging branches or wires to gain access to the human residence. Diagram of a suitable possum house, with forward sloping lid with hinges, an entrance hole of suitable width, galvanized screws or nails and a mounting strip.

Ringtail and Common Brushtail Possums are abundant in many parts of Victoria. They use our trees, houses, sheds and garages for shelter and our gardens for food. Ringtail Possums feed on fruit, flowers and leaves, moving from tree to tree via branches. ‘Brushies’ share the diet of Ringtails but supplement it with insects, eggs and young birds. Leftover pet food is a specialty.

Possums can be a nuisance if they are eating your favourite flowers and using your ceiling as an exercise yard. If you wish to remove possums from buildings wait until nighttime when they are likely to be outside. Block all entry and exit points and place possum boxes in nearby trees to provide alternative homes. If you know where the possums are coming in and out you can place hinged flaps over the holes that allow possums to exit but not enter. The following day it is important to make sure all of the possums are out of the building. If you are unsure if all of the possums have vacated you can set a trap inside.

Possum traps are available from local councils for trapping Common Brushtail Possums living in buildings. Common Ringtail Possums remain fully protected and may not be trapped. A trap must be set in a place that is protected from the weather; it is against the law to do otherwise. Having set a trap, it is important to check it regularly. If a possum has been caught it should be released as soon as possible, under cover of darkness. If a possum is found after sunrise, cover the trap with thick dark material and wait until sunset to release the animal.

A trapped possum must be released within 50 metres of the place where it was caught. If you do not wish to release the possum nearby you must take it to a vet who will euthanase it humanely. You will have to meet the vet’s costs.

Metal collars can be placed around the trunks of trees that you don’t want the possums to climb. The collars should be 60cm tall and placed at least 60cm above the ground.

Possum boxes can be purchased commercially or built from timber. The dimensions of the boxes will depend on the species being housed; Brushtail Possums, which are the most likely to take up residence, require boxes that are 50cm high, 29cm wide and 25cm deep. The Nestbox Book provides useful information for people wishing to build their own possum boxes.

Bats

Cartoon bat hanging upside down from a branch

Victoria is home to 22 species of bats. While many people are familiar with the Grey-headed Fruit Bats, the smaller bat species are less well known. Most bats feed on insects at night and shelter in tiny nooks and crannies during the day. They play a vital role in controlling invertebrate populations and are welcome in any wildlife garden.

Diagram of a bat house, with a mounting strap, galvanised nails and screws, a landing pad and an entrance hole

Tree hollows, foliage, roofs, eaves and bark provide suitable roosting sites. If there is a shortage of such sites, bat boxes can be placed under branches or pieces of loose bark. Bats enter a box from underneath so it is necessary to have a small gap at the bottom. Rough pieces of hessian allow bats to grip the insides. The Nestbox Book is an invaluable resource for anyone interested in building bat roosts.

Do you smell a rat?

A number of small native mammals resemble feral mice and rats. It can be a challenge to determine whether the dark furry objects that scurry past your feet are welcome natives or hostile ferals. Some clues are:

  • feral rats tend to have long, thin ears, while natives have short or rounded ears;
  • the tails of feral rats are longer than their bodies;
  • feral mice are often seen in large numbers. Native animals tend to be thinly distributed;
  • feral mice have the well known ‘mousy’ smell.

Unfortunately, it is not easy to get rid of feral rats and mice. Poisons and traps will kill and injure many species, not just the ones you want to dispose of. Remove food scraps from the gardens and destroy any nest sites you come across.

Invertebrates

Cartoon drawing of two bees

If you have spent a Summer’s day in the outdoors you will know that there is no shortage of invertebrates in Victoria. Flies, cicadas, beetles, mosquitoes, butterflies, spiders, dragonflies, and bees are common throughout the state.

Invertebrates are fascinating and essential to the well-being of our natural and agricultural communities. Many species pollinate the flowers of plants or serve as a food source for other animals. Some recycle nutrients from decaying plant and animal matter while others aerate the soil through their burrowing activity.

Butterflies

Cartoon drawing of a butterfly

Butterflies bring colour and movement to wildlife gardens as they pollinate plants in their search for nectar. Unfortunately, loss of habitat threatens almost half of Victoria’s 120 butterfly species. Wildlife gardens offer them food and refuge.

In order to attract butterflies it is important to provide food for both adults and caterpillars. Native daisies, grasses, lomandras, sedges, acacias, goodenias and eucalypts are all suitable.

Butterflies feed in open, sunny locations that feature a variety of flowering shrubs, grasses, trees and groundcovers. Because different butterflies feed on different plants growing at varying heights a butterfly garden can include rockeries, mounds and raised beds.

A ‘butterfly garden’ provides an attractive floral landscape of yellow, purple, red and white that blossoms during the warmer months of the year. A spectacular cottage garden can be developed using a range of indigenous plants, a list of which is provided in Appendix 2 on page 11.

Appendix 1:

Suggested Plants for a Wildlife Garden

The following is a list of plants that may be grown in wildlife gardens. Not all species are indigenous to all parts of Victoria so it is worth checking with local indigenous nurseries to find out what grows best in your area.

Suggested Plants for a Wildlife Garden
Plant Name Scientific Name
Trees (taller than 6m)
Blackwood Acacia melanoxylon
Drooping Sheoak Allocasuarina verticillata
Golden Wattle Acacia pycnantha
Moonah Melaleuca lanceolata
Red Stringybark Eucalyptus machrorhyncha
Scented Paperbark Melaleuca squarosa
Silver-leaf Stringybark Eucalyptus cephalocarpa
Silver Wattle Acacia dealbata
Swamp Gum Eucalyptus ovata
Yellow Box Eucalyptus melliodora
Yellow Gum Eucalyptus leucoxylon
Large Shrubs (2m to 6m)
River Bottlebrush Callistemon sieberi
Scented Paperbark Melaleuca squarossa
Silky Hakea Hakea sericea
Silver Banksia Banksia marginata
Sweet Bursaria Bursaria spinosa
Victorian Christmas-bush Prostanthera lasianthos
Medium Shrubs
Austral Indigo Indigofera australis
Common Cassinia Cassinia aculeata
Common Correa Correa reflexa
Fireweed Groundsel Senecio linearifolius
Golden Bush-pea Pultenaea gunnii
Grey Parrot-pea Dilwynia cinerascens
Hop Goodenia Goodenia ovata
Prickly Geebung Persoonia juniperina
Prickly Moses Acacia verticillata
Rock Correa Correa glabra
Small-leaf Parrot-pea Dilwynia phylicoides
Yellow Hakea Hakea nodosa
Small Shrubs and Ground Covers
Bidgee Widgee Acaena novae-zelandiae
Black Anther Flax Lily Dianella revoluta
Blue Pincushion Brunonia australis
Bulbine Lily Bulbine bulbosa
Chocolate Lily Arthropodium strictum
Common Flat-pea Platylobium obtusangulum
Common Hovea Hovea linearis
Creeping Bossiaea Bossiaea prostrata
Grass Trigger-plant Stylidium graminifolium
Honeypots Acrotriche serrulata
Pale Vanilla-lily Arthropodium milleflorum
Spiny-headed Mat-rush Lomandra longifolia
Rushes and Sedges
Juncus Juncus species
Red-fruited Saw-sedge Gahnia sieberiana
Tall Sedge Carex appressa
Tufted Sedge Carex gaudichaudiana
Grasses
Common Tussock Grass Poa labillardieri
Kangaroo Grass Themeda triandra
Spear Grass Stipa species
Velvet Tussock Grass Poa morrissii
Wallaby Grass Danthonia species
Cartoon drawing of some australian native plants and a rock

Appendix 2:

Plants for a butterfly garden

Suggested Plants for a butterfly Garden
Plant Name Scientific Name Colour
Austral Indigo Indigofera australis purple
Beard Heath Leucopogon ericoides white, pink
Black Anther Flax Lily Dianella Revoluta blue, yellow
Black-eyed Susan Tetratheca ciliata purple
Blue Grass Lily Thelionema caespitosum purple, yellow
Blue Stars Chamaescilla corymbosa purple
Chamomile Sunray Rodanthe anthemoides white, yellow
Clustered Everlasting Chrysocephalum Semipappposum yellow
Coastal Daisy Ozothamnus turbinatus cream
Common Hovea Hovea linearis purple
Crane’s Bill Geranium potentilloides pink, purple
Cut-leaf Daisy Brachyscome multifida purple
Golden Heath Pultenaea gunnii yellow, red
Hop Goodenia Goodenia ovata yellow
Magenta Storksbill Pelargonium rodneyanum magenta
Minnie Daisy Minuria leptophylla white, lilac
Noonflower Carprobrotus rossii purple
Pale Everlasting Helichrysum rutidolepis yellow
Paper Daisy Brachyanther bracteata red, yellow, purple
Purple Coral Pea Hardenbergia violacea purple
Running Postman Kennedia prostrata red
Scaly Buttons Leptorynchos squamatus yellow
Showy Violet Viola betonicifolia purple
Tufted Bluebell Wahlenbergia communis purple
Yam Daisy Microseris lanceeolata yellow
Yellow Buttons Chrysocephalum apiculatum yellow
Cartoon drawing of flowers and butterflies

Bibliography

  • Adams, G., 1980, Birdscaping Your Garden, reprinted 1996, Lansdowne Publishing Pty Ltd, Sydney.
  • Barker, J., Grigg, G. and Tyler, M., 1995, A Field Guide to Australian Frogs, Surrey Beatty & Sons, NSW.
  • Carter, C., Nitert, R, and Ritchie, I., 1989, Australian Insects, The MacMillan Company of Australia, South Melbourne.
  • Clyne, D., 1990, How to Attract Butterflies to your Garden, 1996 edition, Kangaroo Press, New South Wales.
  • Cronin, L., 1991, Key Guide to Australian Mammals, Reed Books Pty Ltd, New South Wales.
  • Dengate, J., 1997, Attracting Birds to Your Garden in Australia, New Holland Publishers, New South Wales.
  • Department of Natural Resources and Environment, Land for Wildlife Notes, Department of Natural Resources and Environment, Victoria.
  • Department of Natural Resources and Environment, 1997, Victoria’s Biodiversity: Directions in Management, Department of Natural Resources and Environment, Victoria.
  • Department of Natural Resources and Environment, 1997, Victoria’s Biodiversity: Our Living Wealth, Department of Natural Resources and Environment, Victoria.
  • Department of Natural Resources and Environment, 1997, Victoria’s Biodiversity: Sustaining Our Living Wealth, Department of Natural Resources and Environment, Victoria.
  • Grant, J. (Ed.), 1997, The Nestbox Book, The Gould League of Victoria Inc., Victoria.
  • Healesville Sanctuary Education Service, 1999, Gardening for Wildlife, Zoological Parks and Gardens Board of Victoria, Victoria.
  • Hero, J., Littlejohn, M. and Marantelli, G., 1991, Frogwatch Fieldguide to Victorian Frogs, Department of Conservation and Environment, Victoria.
  • Jones, D, and Jones, B., 1999, Native Plants of Melbourne and Adjoining Areas, Bloomings Books, Victoria.
  • McClish, B., 1998, Australian Plants, MacMillan Education Australia, South Yarra.
  • Menkhorst, P. (Ed.), 1995, Mammals of Victoria: Distribution, Ecology and Conservation, Oxford University Press, Melbourne.
  • Natural Resource Conservation League, Tree Planters Guide for Farms and Public Lands, Natural Resources Conservation League, Victoria.
  • Pizzey, G. and Knight, F., 1997, The Graham Pizzey & Frank Knight Field Guide to the Birds of Australia, Angus & Robertson, Sydney.
  • Plant Indigenous: A Guide for Whitehorse, Blackburn & District Tree Preservation Society and the City of Whitehorse, Victoria.
  • Strahan, R. (Ed.), 1995, The Mammals of Australia, Australian Museum/ Reed New Holland, Sydney.
  • Wilson, E.O., 1996, In Search of Nature, Penguin Books, London.
Cartoon drawing of a frog and a bird sitting on three books

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