Plants with tree guards, surrounded by mown grass and recycled timber bench

The value of a micro-forest

How much does it cost to build a micro-forest?

From a simple accounting point of view, the answer is $500 per square metre. This figure is based on a $40,000 budget and an area of 800 square metres for the Downer pilot project.

However, the value of a community micro-forest can’t be measured solely in dollars spent. It’s value is far higher than its physical assets.

The micro-forest model draws community together with a sense of purpose and empowers them to make change at a neighbourhood scale. As it grows, the micro-forest will store carbon, reduce park temperatures and provide habitat. These can be valued using the System of Environmental Economic Accounting (SEEA).

Shown below are the physical assets separated from the community assets.

Physical assets

The physical assets built over 2020-2021 were:

  • 26 lineal metres of water harvesting trenches
  • 6 square metres of bog
  • 450m2 of shrub beds with enhanced soil planted
  • 1800 native plants
  • Recycled timber bench
The Cole St, Downer park in 2019 prior to building the community micro-forest.

Community assets

The project has activated the local community to take pride in their local park and has resulted in the:

  • Creation of the Downer Parkcare Group
  • 1 formal Community consultation to ensure residents had a say about the future of their local park
  • 1 informal on-site consultation to approve the Landscape Sketch Plan
  • 4 community working bees (all held during Covid19)
  • Additional working bees led by the Downer Parkcare group.

Looking at the cost per square metre doesn’t take into account improvements in community well-being and connectedness. Amit Barkay, volunteer leader of the Downer Parkcare group says,

I like the fact that it brought the community together more than I envisaged, everyone coming to help, kids, young and old. And the fact that the place has changed in a matter of six months. To the point, that two weeks ago there was a couple who just came with a picnic table and glasses and a bottle of wine, to cuddle on the bench just over there. It was absolutely lovely.

Amit Barkay, Downer.
Amit Barkay, volunteer leader of the Downer Parkcare group.

His neighbour, Leah Moore adds,

… there’s been a miraculous transformation. This park used to be quite bare of trees in the middle part here and through the drought got very dry and now we’ve got this flourish of growth and it’s very very green and our communities got behind it. So we’re all in this together. I like that too. I like interacting with my neighbours like that.

Leah Moore, Downer.

Other future benefits (not currently costed) include climate cooling and a reduction in associated energy costs, carbon capture and enhanced biodiversity.

Blue-print for future park development

At the first community consultation locals identified the three most important criteria to be incorporated into the park landscape plan. These were: habitat provision, water harvesting and nature-based play.

In response, The Climate Factory created a Landscape Sketch Plan for the park with the first stage delivered over 2020-21. Nature play elements, like timber bridges, timber logs and ‘cubbies’ were included in stage 2 of the Landscape Plan. Now the community has the opportunity to raise funds to install these elements.

A model for the future

This project demonstrates a new way of regreening public spaces. Rather than competing for government grant money with many other community groups and relying on government timing (often once per year) – projects can be funded via crowdfunding when a community group is ready.

Inspiring others

As well as building a pilot demonstration project that can be replicated, The Climate Factory runs online workshops to teach people about the 8 steps to create a micro-forest. Founder of The Climate Factory, Edwina Robinson says:

The 8 step method can be applied to any community regreening project. You could use this method to create a food forest or a pollinator garden, it doesn’t have to be a micro-forest – the principles and the stages are the same.

EDWINA ROBINSON, FOUNDER, THE CLIMATE FACTORY

When participants enrol for the workshop they receive a 46 page Draft Handbook on the 8 steps to create a micro-forest.

Future income/expenses

Any public asset has future costs associated with its maintenance. However, labour to maintain the space is providing by community volunteers during the first two years of the project. Overall the cost to maintain the micro-forest is low.

  • Voluntary labour from Downer Parkcare conservation group (currently costed by ACT Government around $41/hour) for weeding, mulching and light pruning.
  • Reduction in mowing costs to ACT Government – 450m2 less grass to mow
  • Supply of mulch – currently supplied by the ACT Government for free, and
  • Tree removal – trees are only removed if they pose a risk to the public.

7 climate-ready trees

2019 was Australia’s hottest and driest year on record. Studies show trees can significantly reduce temperatures beneath their canopy and are nature’s air conditioner. So we need to plant more trees, particularly in urban areas as our cities and towns trap more heat than surrounding rural areas.

The ACT Government Urban Forest Strategy aims to increase Canberra’s urban tree canopy from 19% to 30% by 2045.

As temperatures continue to warm, choosing the right tree for the right place is critical. The wrong tree in the wrong place can shade out winter sun, invade drains and cost thousands to remove.

Before you buy a tree, be clear on the role you want it to play. Will it to form part of a windbreak or provide summer shade? In built-up areas, consider how planting a tree will impact your neighbour’s home and garden.

Deciduous trees

Not all deciduous trees lose their leaves in Autumn. Some hold their leaves into Winter when you crave winter sun. If possible, purchase them in Autumn. Visit nurseries and check out not only leaf colour but when individual specimens start to drop leaves. Or engage the services of a plant broker to source your trees.

Growth rate

Trees vary considerably in their growth rate. A simple rule of thumb, is the faster they grow, the shorter they live. If you have enough space in your garden, consider growing short lived trees plus longer lived species. Melia azederach commonly known as White Cedar is a fast growing deciduous tree native to Australia that may only live to 20 years. Longer lived trees include the evergreen Kurrajong, Brachyciton populneus.

As temperatures continue to warm, choosing the right tree for the right place is critical.

2050 Climate

By 2050, temperatures in southern Australia will be 2 degrees hotter and 10-20% drier. If emissions continue unchecked, by 2090 inland places like Canberra will experience temperature increases of 4 degrees and 25% less rainfall. (Note: data based on the Climate Analogue Tool using highest emissions scenario and selecting ‘hottest and driest’ scenario.)

The following seven climate-ready trees are selected for Canberra gardens, based on research by the Australian National University. They will all cope with drought and frost once established .

DECIDUOUS TREES

Lagerstroemia indica x L. faurieri – Crepe Myrtle

While many trees struggled or died over summer 2019/20, in Canberra the Crepe Myrtles looked good. There are a number of cultivars within Fleming’s Indian Summer range, including ‘Biloxi’, ‘Tuscarora’, ‘Osage’, ‘Sioux’ and ‘Natchez’.

Sioux’ is one of the smallest, growing to around 4 metres high x 3 metres wide and ideal for a small outdoor space or in a large pot.

I planted three Lagerstroemia indica x L. fauriei ‘Tuscarora’ in my north facing courtyard in Lyneham. These trees are broadly vase-shaped and multi-stemmed and will grow to between 5-6 metres high x 4 metres wide.

Lagerstroemia ‘Tuscarora’. Image: Wikimedia

Crepe Myrtles have handsome mottled trunks. In the ‘Tuscarora’ cultivar this patterning is revealed at around three years old when the bark starts to shed. These trees don’t like wet feet so it’s best to build up the planting hole with topsoil if your soil is a heavy clay.

‘Tuscarora’s’ leaves turn a reddish bronze colour in Autumn and my newly planted trees lost most of their leaves by winter’s start.

More information

Gleditsia triacanthos ‘Sunburst’ – Honey locust

If you are keen on golden hues, this might be the tree for your outdoor space. Honey Locust has moderate to fast growth rate with a rounded form and pendulous branches.

‘Sunburst’ is a non-thorny form and reaches around 8 metres high x 8 metres wide and prefers well drained soils and full sun.

Gleditsia triacanthos ‘Sunburst’. Image: Flickr

Honey Locust originated in central and eastern USA and can tolerate frosts to -10C. Avoid disturbance around the base, otherwise it will sucker. And plant at least 5 metres from building footings.

More information

Liquidambar styraciflua ‘Tiriki’ – Sweet Gum

Liquidambar ‘Tiriki’ is a long lived upright tree with a medium growth reaching 10m high x 8m wide. It copes with cold (to -10 Celcius) and hot conditions. ‘Tiriki’ is a Canberra cultivar.

Liquidambar sy

Liquidambar naturally grow in the Eastern USA and Mexico. They exhibit pretty Autumn in the orange-red range. Some trees hold their leaves for a long time into winter. If you are considering this tree, check when they lose their leaves.

More information

Melia azedarach ‘Elite’ – White Cedar

White Cedar is a fast growing native deciduous tree that originates from NE Australia and SE Asia. The fruit of Melia azedarach are poisonous, however the ‘Elite’ cultivar is fruitless.

Melia azedarach ‘Elite’. Image: Metro Trees

In Canberra, Melia azedarach ‘Elite’ grows to a similar height and spread to Liquidamber ‘Tiriki’ – around 10m tall by 8m wide. Glossy green foliage emerges in spring along with fragrant lilac flowers. Autumn foliage is golden.

We planted a small number of White Cedar in the Downer micro-forest.

More information

Ulmus parvifolia ‘Emer II’ or ‘Emerald Vase’

  • The Chinese Elm, Ulmus parvifolia is an elegant medium-sized deciduous tree. You will need a decent sized garden for this beauty as it grows to around 13 metres high x 10 metres wide. Ulmus parvifolia is long lived with a moderate growth rate. It has decorative bark and the green foliage turns yellow in Autumn.  
Ulmus parvifolia ‘Emer II’ . Image: Wikimedia

More information

EVERGREEN TREES

Brachyciton populneus – Kurrajong

This is a sturdy evergreen Australian native with green glossy foliage. It grows slowly and may only reach 4 metres high in 10 years. I recommend using this tree as part of a windbreak or where winter sun is not required.

I’ve successfully grown this tree at the Banksia St, O’Connor wetland.

We planted Kurrajongs sourced from inland northern NSW for the Downer micro-forest.

Brachyciton populneus. Image: Wikimedia

Quercus suber – Cork Oak

  • Quercus suber is a slow growing and long-lived evergreen tree with some specimens living to 200 years. It was originally grown for its corky bark used in insulation and for corks for wine bottles.

Cork Oak is native to south western Europe and can grow to 15m high x 10m wide.

Use this tree for large urban and rural blocks.

Quercus suber. Image: Wikimedia

More information

Check out The Climate Factory workshops

– 8 steps to build a community micro-forest

– learn how to design an outdoor haven

7 steps to create a cool outdoor haven

Summer 2018/2019 was Australia’s hottest summer on record and temperatures have risen by over 1 degree since records began in 1910. It’s likely most of Australia will be hotter and drier in the future.

Many Australian homes are poorly designed and don’t consider the local climate.

Wherever you live, there are many things you can do to create cool outdoor spaces that improve your health and well-being. Studies shows the more contact with nature, the better we feel. 

Whether you own a home or are renting, creating a cool haven adjacent to your place will keep you cooler on hot summer days and nights.

Large pots planted with drought hardy Crepe Myrtle and planted with groundcovers on Lonsdale St, Braddon.

Plants play a key role in keeping our gardens and homes cooler and viewing bright green leaves feels uplifting when the surrounding landscape is yellowed. Thermal imagery demonstrates trees can reduce surface temperatures by as much as 10 degrees.

Here’s 7 points to consider when creating a cool outdoor haven.

  1. Climate

    Find out more about your local climate – for example, Canberra has a climate of extremes – hot dry summers and cold winters. In Canberra, the emphasis should be on maximising summer shade and in winter maximising sun. Temperatures of -7C in winter are not unusual. This will influence the trees you grow – in most situations, deciduous trees will be most appropriate.
  2. Soil

    Assess the soil on your site. Is it clay, loam, rocky, mainly sand or other? Aim to amend existing soil not remove it. Ideally you want to turn your existing soil into a sponge that can absorb water and carbon – the best way to do this is to start composting your household’s food scraps. Once they are broken down you can incorporate them into the soil. If you are low on space, a bokashi bucket is small enough to fit into a kitchen and breaks down material with no odour.

    Add locally sourced organics like fallen leaves, coffee grounds (plenty of cafes bag these up each day) and manure. And use a thick mulch (75-100mm depth).
  3. Water

    If you live in a dry climate, irrigation is critical to creating a lush outdoor space, however, check out the water restrictions in your local area. If you own your own home, consider installing rainwater tanks or building a grey-water treatment system.

    The most efficient way to irrigate is to use drip irrigation rather than sprinklers. Other options include the use of wicking beds or sub-surface irrigation using water harvesting. If you use grey water from the shower or washing machine, choose cleaning products that are safe for the garden and avoid splashing edible leaves with grey water as it can contain E.coli.

    Ponds can create a cooler feel and the sound of running or spraying water is soothing. For renters and apartment dwellers create a pond in a large pot with a number of wetland plants and gold fish. Including a pump will reduce the likelihood of mosquitos and algal build up. Gold fish provide splashes of colour and are a tough low-maintenance pet.

    Well-designed in ground ponds will provide habitat for frogs, dragonflies and birds will enjoy bathing in them in hot weather. Insects can drown in buckets of water or deep ponds so provide shallow saucers filled with water and gravel to give insects like bees and lady birds a drink.

    If you are creating a potted haven, think about how you will keep your plants watered in hot weather? Containerised plants dry out very quickly in hot weather and may require watering twice a day. Check if there is a tap handy. Using wicking or self-watering pots help ensure plants stay watered at their roots.
  4. Containers

    If your only option is to garden in containers follow these steps for a greater chance of creating a great outdoor space that you want to hang out in.

    Repurpose or buy the biggest container you can for growing shade trees. The minimum pot size for a tree that’s around 1.5 metres tall would be about a 40cm diameter. Think about the weight of the pot too, will you be able to move it around once it has soil in it?

    Buy quality potting mix and look for the Australian Standards tick of approval on the side. Use water holding crystals to trap moisture near the plants roots.

    Choose plants appropriate for your area and consider multiple functions of plants – if you are choosing a tree consider: will it provide shade in summer and allow sun through in winter, does it bare fruit and does it have flowers attractive to pollinators?

    Consider incorporating  a ground-cover around the base of your tree. When the ground-cover begins to wilt – investigate if the potting mix is dry. The best way to test this is with your finger.

    Mulch your plants – mulch reduces the amount of water evaporating from the pot. Make sure you move mulch aside to checkwater has penetrated below the mulch into the potting mix. 
  5. Plants

    Choose plants that can cope with a hotter, drier future. Check out climate model projections for your area. Climate modelling shows Canberra’s climate in the future will be more like Dubbo and Gilgandra – a 4.5 hour drive north of Canberra.

    Choose layers of plants – groundcovers, climbers, shrubs and trees – this will help create lots of evaporative cooling in the garden.

    In order to create a lush feel around your home – consider incorporating plants with large green leaves. These might be plants you can grow in your pond in sight of your living area.
  6. Seating

    Incorporate seating into your outdoor space – a place to unwind, sip on a favourite drink, observe wildlife and interact with those you share the house with. Leave your phone, ipad or laptop inside – this is time to unwind.

    Seats don’t need to be expensive – an upturned crate with a cushion can provides a great place to perch.
  7. Outdoor cooking

    One of the best ways to keep your home cooler on hot days is to cook outside. Alternatively, ditch the cooking and make a salad or a Buddha bowl.

Cooking outside on a hot night reduces temperatures in the home and reduces the need for using cooling. A small gas burner is used to stirfry outdoors.

Further reading

Climate Change in Australia – projections for NRM regions
Gardening Australia – How to make a wicking bed

Community funds micro-forest

The Climate Factory and the Downer ParkCare group raised $20,000 to build a pilot micro-forest at the Cole St park in Downer. Over 180 individuals and businesses supported this initiative.

Edwina Robinson, Landscape Architect and Founder of The Climate Factory says, “planting trees is one of the simplest things we can do to address hotter, drier climates. Trees cool the environment, provide habitat, absorb carbon and improve property values.”

The $20,000 raised will pay for community engagement, development of a Landscape Sketch Plan, soil improvement, 1500 climate-ready native trees, shrubs and groundcovers and a water cart to keep plants watered during the establishment phase. The Downer ParkCare group will maintain the space and will have a say about other features they’d like to see in the park.

Robinson formed the social enterprise, The Climate Factory, in 2019 after Canberra experienced its hottest summer on record. She says, “Bureau of Meteorology records show January 2019 temperatures for Canberra were 6 degrees above average. I knew I needed to do something. So whenever I think, why the hell am I doing this, I remind myself I’m doing this for my adult children and my unborn grand-children”.

Robinson says she wouldn’t have had the confidence to launch her social enterprise and Crowd Funding campaign without the support of the Mill House GRIST program.

The Climate Factory will work with tree and native plant experts to create a climate-ready plant list for a public space. They will choose plants with low flammability and that can cope with hotter, drier weather.

Native plant nurseries will start growing plants before the end of the year with the first planting day scheduled for April 2020. Robinson says “hopefully it will be a mild Autumn and plants will get a great start”. Supporters who pledged $25 or more will be invited to the first planting day in 2020.

In October 2019, Robinson and Lachlan Richardson, Bluebell 2509 installed a micro-forest of 300 native plants across the road from the Cole St Park. They are looking forward to working with the Downer community to watch both micro-forests grow.

Land surface temperature February 2017. Some of the hottest places in Canberra are the new developments on the outskirts, like Gungahlin, Molonglo Valley and West Belconnen. Source: CSIRO

The Climate Factory is looking for partners and sponsors to build a micro-forest in a school in one of Canberra’s urban hot spots in 2020. Robinson says, “The Climate Factory will use land surface temperature maps created by CSIRO to help work out which Canberra schools need micro-forests the most. We will work with students and teachers so they can learn about the values of forests and together design and build a micro-forest and show them how to maintain it.”

Service One, a 100% community owned bank, kicked off the fundraising with $5000. The other official sponsors are:

Gold Sponsors $1000
Light House Architecture and Science
Federation Financial
Silver Sponsors $500
Bluebell 2509
Tim Smith
Bronze Sponsors $200
WECAN
TreeCreate
The Tree Man
Canberra Magic Kitchen
Robyn van Dyk
Katherine Horak
Bernadette Law
Alastair Crombie
Robbie Kruger
Baily Hepple
Maryanne McKay
Suzanne Moulis

___________________________________________________________________________

The Silver Birch is dead

In 2010, I bought a Canberra fixer-upper with no garden to speak of. The front garden boasted two non-fragrant roses, an oleander (despised from my childhood) and a Liquidamber street tree.

As a young Landscape Architect student I was besotted by Edna Walling. Acclaimed as Australia’s first landscape architect, Walling was an unconventional woman. She ran a landscape design and construction business from the 1920s , built her own cottage and created an English style housing development in Victoria, named ‘Bickleigh Vale’.

The first essay I penned at the University of Canberra was about Miss Walling’s design style. English born, she determined the location of Silver Birches by scattering potatoes on the ground.

 With a new garden to design and plant on a budget, I decided I wanted a grove of white trunked Silver Birch (Betula pendula). Underneath I would grow rosemary and Grevillea. Note: the rosemary (tough bugger that it is, thrived) but the Grevillea ‘Deua Flame’ died one by one.

Birches have a reputation for thirst – but the Millenium Drought was over and I knew I could gravity feed water from an upstairs bathroom, if needed.

That Autumn, after removing the roses and oleander and the patchy grass, I planted nine $20 birches into compost enriched soil. I wasn’t as flamboyant as my hero, Walling, the birches were planted in evenly spaced trios.

Three years and a few wet seasons later, the Birches thrived. Lying in my upstairs bedroom I could glimpse their canopies and marvel as the Rosellas performed acrobatic feeding acts dangling from drooping branches.

But success was short lived.

Those nestled close to the house or large shrubs thrived. However, the Birches abutting the western side of the block with its hard, hot drivewayof concrete and bitumen and nothing to buffer blasting summer winds, fared poorly. Their trunks were only half the diameter of the happy ones.

In the back garden, I planted three tubestock of Snow Gum (Eucalyptus pauciflora). They grew quickly to about four metres high, and after a couple of very dry summers I was left with one survivor. Snow Gums suffered a similar fate at the nearby Banksia St, O’Connor wetland where planting commenced in 2010.  

Records from the Bureau of Meteorology show that Canberra’s summer of 2018-2019 was the hottest on record. The Birches branches browned.

This year, nine years after planting, I removed three of them, and sold the house.

Temperatures in Australia have risen by at least 1 degrees celcius since 1910. And we know Canberra’s future will be hotter and drier with more extreme events, including heatwaves and intense rainfall.

Temperatures will not only impact the types of trees we can grow in Canberra in the future but our ability to stay fit and well.

Increasingly evidence shows high temperatures result in increases in violence and mental health presentations. And who wants to exercise when it’s extremely hot? This will no doubt impact obesity levels and associated preventable diseases, like diabetes.

Unfortunately we’ve lost a significant number of trees in Canberra over the past few years and it’s vital to boost our tree canopy with climate-ready species. Note: the ACT Government committed in the 2019 budget to plant 17,000 trees over the next four years.

As I cycled round Canberra in Autumn 2019, I noticed one stellar deciduous tree – the Crepe Myrtle (Lagerstroemia) with its motley bark, multi-trunked stems and vibrant flowers was a stand-out.

Another, under-celebrated tree, the Kurrajong (Brachyciton) has proven to be a great performer. At Banksia St wetland, young plants were attacked by cockatoos (the vandals of the bird world). Those that survived are robust and beautiful.

Leaves of the Kurrajong, at Banksia St, O’Connor wetland. The wetland was constructed by the ACT Government in 2009 and the surrounds planted by the community from 2010.

Creating climate-ready public spaces and gardens will help us thrive in a hotter, drier future. The ANU has been working with the ACT Government to develop a list of trees suitable for public spaces for changing conditions and CSIRO has developed heat maps to identify areas at most risk of heat exposure with vulnerable populations. There are sections of Belconnen, Gungahlin, Molonglo, Tuggeranong, Weston Creek and Woden where communities are at significant risk. No surprises, that if you live near Lake Burley Griffin you will probably be ok during heatwaves.

The CSIRO report recommends planting vegetation and forests in our public spaces, streets and parks as one of the main ways to mitigate future heat. Plants have a more significant cooling effect if we can find ways to irrigate them, using water harvesting.

As a result of the hottest, summer on record I knew I needed to act. So The Climate Factory, was borne.

The Climate Factory is a social enterprise, that designs and builds micro-forests, to ensure we thrive physically and mentally in a hotter, drier future.

Public servant and mum by day, micro-forest leader by night.

One of the best things about creating micro-forests is working with community leaders.

Qualities of community leaders

Research shows there’s at least 10 qualities of community leaders. Leaders tend to be smart, empathetic, self-aware and motivated.

I want to shine the spotlight on women I’ve collaborated with recently. They have shown me the importance of building a team and inspired me when I was lacklustre. Together we are creating change at the neighbourhood scale.

Purdie Bowden.

Purdie is one of the volunteer leaders of the Watson micro-forest team. They raised $53,000 to build the Watson micro-forest and nature playground.

Purdie Bowden in blue top with shoulder length hair
Photo supplied.

Purdie’s advice for anyone taking on a leadership role in their community is to:

Do something you care about, and find great people to do it with!

P. BOWDEN, Watson.

The Climate Factory chats with Purdie Bowden.

TCF: What’s your day job? What does a ‘typical’ day look like for you? 

I work at DFAT on the Australian aid program, and was previously a lead negotiator for Australia on the United Nations Paris Agreement on Climate Change. I work part time and have two young kids which keep me busy the rest of the week.

TCF: Why are you passionate about volunteering to create a micro-forest in your suburb?

I’ve always cared deeply about the natural world. Creating a micro-forest and nature play area in my local park was a wonderful opportunity to connect more closely with the community we live in, and build something tangible. When I saw Edwina successfully raise funds and create the Downer Micro-forest, I thought why not do it in Watson.

TCF: What’s a surprising fact about you?

I’m a trained yoga instructor, but haven’t got around to teaching yet.

TCF: Do you have any words of advice about being a leader? And if people are hesitant to have a go at being a micro-forest leader’ what would you say to them? 

Working on something you are passionate about doesn’t feel like work. It’s just fun. And it’s even better if you can partner with people who share your energy and passion. Working with capable and enthusiastic partners on the Watson Micro-forest project gave me the confidence to launch the crowd-funding campaign and take other ‘big’ decisions, and helped me get through the times when I’ve been tired or frustrated. So in summary: do something you care about, and find great people to do it with!

TCF: What are you looking forward to in 2021?

Planting the Watson Micro-forest!


At The Climate Factory we inspire and support people to create a community micro-forest in their neighbourhood. Our methodology can be applied to almost any public landscape project.

Want to be be inspired and find out how how to build a climate-cooling micro-forest or landscape project in a public space? Register for a one hour online event on the 8 steps to create a micro-forest.

How to attract Eastern blue-tongues to the garden

This juvenile Eastern blue-tongue lizard is sunning itself on the gravel before it starts to forage for snails, beetles and and fruit.

One of my favourite inhabitants in my Moruya garden is the native Eastern blue-tongue lizard, Tiliqua scincoides. I reckon the presence of this harmless* reptile is a sign of a healthy garden.

Two juveniles are living out the back. They are cold-blooded and one emerges from under the rear deck in the morning to soak up the sun. Once warm, Eastern blue-tongues forage on snails, beetles and fruit.

This morning whilst gardening, I spotted a second bluey sunning itself next to the compost heap. I threw a snail to this compost dweller. After a minute or two, it grabbed the gastropod in its powerful jaws and moseyed into a tunnel in the compost heap. Then, I heard the crunch of shattering snail shell.

A third EBT shelters under the front deck and catches rays on the deck during the day.

Healthy outdoor practices

It’s good practice to keep the garden healthy for the people, pets and creatures who use your outdoors. In my garden, I don’t spray or use snail bait and I improve the soil with locally scavenged material like seaweed and manure.

The same principles apply at the Downer micro-forest. Instead of treating weeds in the conventional way by spraying with glyphosphate, we took the healthier, slower option and solarised the weeds. We did this by covering the pile of weeds with left-over black builders’ plastic and mulch. The theory is the heat over many months will kill the weeds and seeds.

Replicating nature

In a natural ecosystem, like a forest, there are lots of vegetation layers and I aim to replicate that layering in gardens and micro-forests. You can do this by planting dense groundcovers, grasses, shrubs, climbers and trees thus mimicking nature.

Groundcovers

At my south coast garden, I use a number of rambling native ground-covers. They include: edible Warrigal Greens (Tetrgonia tetragonoides), Pigface (Carpobrotus) with an edible fruit that I find weird (sort of a salty-tart flavour), Creeping Boobialla (Myoporum parvifolium), Running Postman (Kennedia) and Kidney Weed (Dichondra). These plants scramble over one another and create a dense hugging mat that cools the ground and provides places for critters, like the Eastern blue-tongue to hide.

Predators

In my suburban neighbourhood, the biggest threat to slow-moving reptiles are domestic cats who kill the young lizards. Our dogs (border collies) emit a warning bark to alert us to a blue-tongues presence, but have not harmed them. In the wild, predators include birds like kookaburras and falcons and large snakes.

As blueys are slow movers their best chance of survival in a home garden is with lots of low cover – groundcovers, clumping grasses, thick mulch and twigs, logs and stone piles. In urban Canberra, we had a baby blue tongue living in a rock wall.

Life cycle

They are one of the largest garden skinks and grow up to 50cm long and are covered with brown-black bands and have an obvious blue tongue which they display when threatened. Females give live birth to up to a dozen young in summer which mature when they reach around three years. Herpetologist, Ross Bennett reports that in captivity some have lived to the grand age of 20 years.

Habitat

By planting lots of groundcovers, grasses, using thick mulch and placing logs and rocks on the ground and avoiding chemicals/pesticides you can create a ready-made blue-tongue habitat. You just need them to come and visit you.

If you have a dog like a terrier or outdoor cats, with a strong drive to kill, these lizards will not last in your garden – they’ll either be killed or waddle off to a kinder environment.

Careful when mowing

Eastern blue-tongues like the cover of long grass so beware when mowing that you don’t accidently pulverise them into garden nutrients!

If you have one at home – congratulations, I reckon it’s a sign you have a healthy garden. Take the time to watch them in action. It’s sure to delight young and old.

Note: although Eastern blue-tongue lizards are not venomous they can bite and shouldn’t be provoked.

FURTHER READING

Ross Bennett (1997) Reptile and frogs of the ACT. National Parks Association of the ACT.

Outdoor kitchens help cool homes

A simple outdoor kitchen can be a lovely addition to your home. Whether you’re an outgoing entertainer, or just someone who loves spending time outdoors, an outdoor cooking space can be a real asset. Plus, outdoor kitchens don’t need to be flashy, complicated, or expensive. You can still get many of the perks without dishing out large amounts of money for the latest technology or a large set up.

An outdoor kitchen could consist of a simple barbeque and sink combination, or a woodfired oven for making delicious pizzas. When designing an outdoor kitchen space, think about what you wish to get out of it. You may not need to spend money on all the bells and whistles.

In this blog we take a look at some of the benefits of creating a simple outdoor kitchen.

Keeping heat out of the house
One big benefit of an outdoor kitchen is that it can keep cooking heat and smells out of your house. While cooking can be a wonderful hobby, the heat it generates can make an enclosed area quite warm at times. This can be particularly annoying during the summer months, when you’re trying to keep your home as cool as possible!

More time spent in the outdoors
If you’re someone who can’t get enough of nature and fresh air, then an outdoor kitchen could be right up your alley. Cooking outside can be a wonderful experience – who can forget the joy of cooking by campfire as a child?!

Added home value
The idea of an outdoor kitchen can be appealing to both entertainers and chefs alike. If you’re thinking about selling your home, or just wanting to increase its overall value, a simple outdoor kitchen could help boost appeal and intrigue. But just how much value could it add? Well, Remodeling Magazine, About.com, and CNN Money state that outdoor kitchens  can return between 100 and 200% of their cost (according to Absolute Outdoor Kitchens Buyers Guide). Just keep in mind that these are American sources, and Australian results may differ.

Extra living/entertaining space
Having more space to entertain guests and relax with family can be a fantastic benefit, especially during the holidays and warmer months. An outdoor kitchen can provide a space for socialising and entertaining. Simply add some seating options and you can host guests while you cook! It is also a convenient way to prepare food with guests present, as you don’t need to be repeatedly walking back and forth from your indoor kitchen to your outdoor entertaining area.

A simple outdoor kitchen can be a great way to add value and entertaining space to your home. It is also ideal for keeping cooking heat out of the house, and can boost the amount of time you spend outdoors.

Words: Sarah Bellamy