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Why Your Garden Matters

Why Your Garden Matters – a wild guide to joining the plots in Port Stephens

Do you really want a high maintenance backyard and a manicured lawn – or would you prefer a thriving native garden teeming with life and nature?

Although large remote expanses of land are preferable as wildlife habitat, some species can coexist with us in more populated areas. Bushland in Port Stephens is fast becoming fragmented or cleared for housing, roads, shops and industrial precincts. These patches of native bush no longer connect with larger areas of national parks and reserves.

As wildlife habitat shrinks, the corridors for essential seasonal or genetic movement also disappear. This is where you as a local resident can help. This webpage has been developed following the production of the ‘Why Your Garden Matters’ brochure in association with the Sustainable Futures Festival in September 2022.

Much of the following text and pictures are of a general nature applicable to many locations across Australia. However, we have added some specific information for Port Stephens residents including the comprehensive Habitat Planting Guide for the Tomaree Peninsula produced by EcoNetwork’s EcoPollinators group.

View and download our Why Your Garden Matters brochure. Contact us if you’d like some copies.

So, let’s join the plots in our neighbourhoods …

You can do as much or as little you like – every bit counts.

  • Try to create a garden that can become a stepping stone to an existing wildlife corridor.
  • Better still, get together with neighbours and ‘join the plots’ in your street, communal gardens or school grounds.
  • Minimise barriers such as solid fences that restrict movement of ground dwelling animals and koalas. Leave gaps and choose wildlife-friendly fencing designs.
  • Even small balconies can be a magnet for birds, bees and other pollinators with potted native plants and water dishes.

How to get started …

Firstly, take the time to observe your surroundings and consider what you would like to change. In Port Stephens, backyards vary in size so you may need to adapt our recommendations to your own plot whether it’s a small courtyard or an acreage block or something in between.

In planning your garden, consider the following important aspects to make it a safe haven and look for natural solutions to keep the local ecosystem healthy. The key elements to include are water, food, shelter and safety.

  • What plants and wildlife species have you seen on or near your property? Make a list and look up their habitat requirements. Those that don’t naturally occur in your area won’t find you.
  • If you live near a patch of bush or even an overgrown vacant block, local birds will find your garden so make it just that little bit more attractive to them. It’s an extension of their natural home range but if you add more plant diversity, water or logs and shelter that the other place might not have, you will be more popular!
  • A successful garden is one where you’ve looked at your conditions and found plants to suit – not vice versa. Research the local native species that suit your conditions, noting your climate, soils and position. Port Stephens has a wide range of soil conditions, ranging from sandy to loams and clay. Most native plants prefer well-drained soils.
  • Try to choose plants so that at least one is fruiting, flowering or seeding all year round.
  • Reduce or remove the lawn – it provides no shelter or food. A bush-­style garden will be lower maintenance for you.
  • If your space allows, a large tree is ideal, providing shade, shelter and safety as well as food. Or a group of small or medium trees if that fits your space better.

Which of the following tips can you introduce most easily into your garden? Planting just one tree could be the start of a work in progress. Whatever suits your patch or plot – and your personal preferences, time availability or inclination!

Just add water!

If you do nothing else, do this – provide a water source. Whether it’s an attractive inground pond, an old bath tub, a simple bird bath or even a saucer on your balcony.

  • Provide bird baths or saucers at different heights to avoid competition between larger and smaller birds.
  • Birds need to be able to see approaching predators and have a quick escape to overhanging branches.
  • Change water daily and keep dishes clean – rainwater is ideal but not essential.
  • Leave a stick in the water dish so insects can climb out.
  • Don’t forget watering stations for ground dwelling wildlife like echidnas and lizards. Ideally place near a sheltered area so they can retreat if threatened.
  • Build a frog pond with an overflow puddle or small wetland. There are many resources and videos available online.
  • Your water feature will provide a home for frogs, tadpoles, native fish and insects. Be prepared that birds and lizards will be attracted to this potential food source you have provided for them.

For detailed instructions, see below for extracts from Gardening Australia on locating bird baths as well as planting gardens for wildlife.

Food comes in all shapes and sizes

It goes without saying that every animal has different needs and some are more specialised feeders than others. If you want to attract a particular species, the first thing you need to do is find out if it exists in your locality. Apart from some larger birds like yellow-tailed black cockatoos, migratory species such as dollar birds, or mammals like flying foxes, most animals will already be nearby, or in the case of insects, ready to emerge when summer approaches.

Food ranges from flowers to fungi, seeds to sap, and invertebrates such as caterpillars, lerps, beetles, spiders and worms. Do you know which invertebrates are good for your garden and which are not? Sure you can look them up on the internet – better still, take some time to observe them as they go about their business.

Most parts of a plant are edible by someone and a healthy plant is less likely to be attacked by bad bugs. Leaves, shoots, buds, fruit, flowers, seeds, sap – the list goes on. Not only figbirds and satin bowerbirds but blue tongue lizards also love the fruit fallen from a blueberry ash.

  • Provide a diverse ‘menu’ to attract a wide variety of creatures.
  • As well as plants that attract pollinators, choose ones that attract insects which in turn will feed insectivorous birds.
  • Possums and gliders love to eat juicy leaves, buds and shoots – sap from a gum tree is a tasty treat.
  • Don’t forget to include autumn and winter flowering plants – wildlife will need your garden all year round.
  • Provide native grasses for seed-eating birds like finches and rosellas, and for butterflies to lay eggs.
  • Avoid large ‘bird attracting’ hybrid grevilleas and bottlebrushes. Birds like noisy miners could take over and drive smaller species away.
  • A single tree can provide food for all types of creatures. Banksias provide popular sustenance for a variety of specialist feeders such as seedeaters, nectar feeders, insectivores and flying foxes.
  • Small skinks attract larger birds such as kookaburras, butcherbirds or magpies. So provide groundcover and understorey plantings, mulch and twigs or for them to hide in.
  • Supplementary feeding of birds is only recommended during periods of harsh weather conditions.

Plant and animal diversity in Port Stephens

Terrestrial animals need vegetation for foraging, hiding and breeding. Nature’s garden contains trees, shrubs, grasses and groundcovers varying in texture, shape and height. Your garden can do the same and comprise of many plant layers – four or five is a good number for most locations, plus leaf litter or mulch.

Port Stephens has many diverse plant communities ranging from coastal areas to riparian vegetation, rainforests and much more. The key is to choose plants appropriate to your local area and to your personal space.

More layers means more diversity. Wildlife feed, nest and perch at different levels and if some layers are missing, the animals that need these layers are unlikely to hang around.

Here are a few examples of plants suitable for Port Stephens gardens. Some species are found in both coastal and inland areas but check first before planting.

Groundcovers: Purple coral pea, cut-leafed daisy, native violet, grass leaf trigger plant, pigface, dichondra (kidney weed) or commelina (scurvy weed.)

Scramblers: Wonga wonga vine, climbing guinea flower, wombat berry, dusky coral pea.

Understorey and grasses: Native rosemary, mountain devil, gymea lily, native fuschia, prickly moses, kangaroo grass, common tussock-grass, knobby club rush, Lomandra sp.

Midstorey: Old man banksia, coastal wattle, willow bottlebrush, various tea tree species like flaky-barked tea tree, blue lilly pilly.

Canopy (medium trees for smaller home gardens): NSW Christmas bush, tuckeroo, native frangipani, scribbly gum, blueberry ash, magenta lilly pilly (endangered in nsw).

Canopy (larger trees): Broad-leaved paperbark, smooth-barked apple, Eucalyptus parramattensis subsp. decadens.

If you live on a quarter acre or more, the selection of habitat trees you can plant increases. See resources below.

If your garden does not have space for even a small tree, talk to your local councillor about organising some street trees along the nature strip. As well as providing a stepping stone for wildlife, more tree canopy will make your street much cooler in summer. It would make a great neighbourhood project and could include verge plantings too.

Habitat Planting Guide: Local Native Plants of the Tomaree Peninsula

For more details about local plants suitable for your garden in coastal Port Stephens, see the Habitat Planting Guide researched and produced by EcoNetwork’s group EcoPollinators.

This planting guide covers ground covering plants and small to mid-size shrubs that grow naturally on the Tomaree Peninsula. The plants should generally be available from local native plant nurseries though some plants may be seasonal.

Habitat Planting Guide – Tomaree Peninsula

You can find out more about plants, pollinators and projects by contacting EcoPollinators.

Shelter is essential

Let the garden go – at least in some spots. Most wild creatures won’t feel safe in a tidy or exposed garden. Thick layers of leaf litter, fallen bark and twigs provide habitat for lizards and invertebrates. It also encourages fungi, which is really important in the food chain. This in turn feeds a huge number of insects which become prey for birds, mammals and lizards. By tidying up you will also stop nutrients being returned back into the soil.

  • Think twice before clearing trees or shrubs – they are someone’s home or food. Wildlife need them for foraging, feeding, hiding and breeding. There is much research about the benefits of living alongside nature for our mental health.
  • Native trees are a priority – even a single small­-medium tree.
  • Install a species ­specific nestbox.
  • Leaf litter, fallen bark and hollow logs provide food and shelter for lizards and invertebrates.
  • Create a ‘lizard lounge’ – a safe haven using rocks or terracotta pots.
  • See below for info on native bees and bee hotels.

Guarantee their safety

Remember – once you encourage wildlife into your garden, you are responsible for their safety.

  • If you have space, native trees and taller shrubs provide an escape from domestic and wild predators as well as a good lookout.
  • Incorporate plants of different heights and densities to give small birds somewhere to hide.
  • Domestic pets kill native wildlife. If you have a cat or dog, keep them away from your habitat garden. Most wildlife killed by roaming pet cats is caught close to their homes.
  • Do not use garden chemicals, pesticides or rat poisons – you don’t need them. In a healthy and functioning ecosystem, insect predators such as shield bugs, spiders, dragonflies, hover flies and lacewing will take care of things for you. Birds and lizards provide natural pest control by eating snails, crickets and aphids. The last thing you want to do is inadvertently poison the good guys or remove their food source.
  • If you have an infestation of pests, it’s likely your plants are under stress. This could be due to many factors such as plants growing in the wrong spot, incorrect soil pH or lack of water or nutrients. Depending on the extent of damage, it might be easier to remove a small shrub but if you absolutely have to spray, use horticultural oil or an organic remedy but not pyrethrum.
  • If you must use pest control companies, restrict them to indoors only – spiders, insects and lizards are not pests. However, we understand if you don’t want them indoors, so evict them gently by enticing into a box and taking them outside. Contact details for reputable snake catchers are shown below under faqs.

Lawn alternatives

Around 400 litres of water can be saved per year for every square metre of irrigated lawn area replaced with mulched beds of indigenous plants. (Knox City Council, Victoria).

Instead of lawn grass, you can try using scurvy weed (Commelina cyanea) (it self seeds) or Australian basket grass (Oplismenus hirtellus) in the shade. Pull off sections and replant basket grass which binds soil especially on slopes. Bonus – it attracts butterflies and bees.

Lachlan Storrie from Tree Frog Permaculture says:

“Lets be real… Lawn is a high-input monoculture providing very little in the way of bee forage and resilience.

Walkable mixed meadow plantings make a delightful alternative! This is a mix of three species – Dichondra repens, Hydrocotyle peduncularis and Geranium homeanum. All natives and can handle lower light situations and rarely need mowing. (Also feels good on the face! … and feet …)”.

Below is a great example of a garden before and after lawn removal. Gregory Lorenzutti is a graduate in Urban Organic Farming and Regenerative Landscape from CERES in Melbourne.

Lawn Photo © Gregory Lorenzutti
After Lawn Photo © Gregory Lorenzutti

Where to buy plants for Port Stephens gardens

Trigger plant © Trevor Murray

Depending on the time of year, finding local plants for sale can be a challenge. Early spring is generally the best time and also Autumn. Best to speak to the native nursery staff or volunteers listed below and find out when your preferred plant might be available. Alternately, go along and see what you find – you might be pleasantly surprised.


All this could be yours!
  • Report cruelty to wildlife, phone 1300 278 3589 or 02 9770 7555.

More information and resources:

Local to Port Stephens

  • EcoPollinators – local EcoNetwork Port Stephens group on the Tomaree Peninsula.
  • Fly Point Nature Reserve – Nelson Bay.
  • Philip Diemar – website dedicated to photo id of plants native to the Tomaree Peninsula.
  • Bush Mates: a Guide to the Wildlife of Nelson Bay by Michael Smith. Bush Mates was first published in May 1994 and 1000 copies were printed. This second edition (1000 copies) was printed in March 2001. This book is based on 16 years of observations. It goes some of the way in documenting the annual bird and fish migrations, as well as the flowering of our plants and the life cycles of our animals. Watching the seasonal changes on your own patch of ground trains you to be observant. You will begin to live more attentively to place.
Bush-Mates A Guide to the Wildlife of Nelson Bay

Wildlife habitat advice

Gardening with native plants

Special appreciation to Trevor Murray who supplied many of the images you see above.

Images © Trevor Murray and/or EcoNetwork Port Stephens

The brochure was supported by Hunter Local Land Services through funding from the Australian Government’s National Landcare Program 2022.

Published: 10 Jun 2023