Setting up your garden as a safe haven

18 February 2013
Last week I wrote about vegetable garden preparation, maintenance and production but there are many other parts of gardens that are interesting enough to write about. All gardens are a complete little ecosystem and if you want to plant, make the area productive or just sit, you need to take in what goes on out there. Gardens are safe havens for birds, reptiles, spiders and insects. In suburbia, gardens provide useful watering holes, hollow spaces for living, shelter from the weather and hiding places from pets, other wildlife and people.

You can hardly see them here but there are two tiny finches drinking from this container we keep filled with water for the birds.
When Alex and Jamie first started walking, the backyard was where they both wanted to be. Here you can see Hanno showing Alex through the garden.

If you have children, the backyard can be one of the best playgrounds. When my sons were growing up, they spent a lot of time in the backyard swinging on ropes and a homemade swing, watching the chickens, riding bikes, playing games, camping in the background and, on the rare occasions when it rained, running like super charged maniacs through the water that would pool in the backyard. I often think they were lucky to be born when they were. They had an old-fashioned childhood like I did, full of exploring, physical activity, camping out, riding bikes and playing with their friends. Later on in their childhood, computers came into our lives and from the age of seven and eight, there were computer games, but they were so basic and primitive that they didn't keep them glued to the screen. They were just a small part of life.

Now, with our two beautiful grandsons, we're setting up for children again. Hanno built a sandpit that is covered when not in use and we bought a standard little wading pool for the very hot days. The water from that comes from the tank, and when the swimming is over, the water is transferred, via watering cans, to the garden.

We share this land with a family of about 11 kookaburras. They often visit and watch us as we watch them. There is a family of magpies as well, they sneak in and eat Hettie's food when she's not there.

One of the many things I hope to show Jamie and Alex in the coming years is the amazing variety of insects, spiders, reptiles and birds we have in our backyard. Of course, we'll talk about their safety, as well as the respect, gentleness, water and food these creatures need. Much of it we can provide for them in a natural setting. There is a strip of remnant rainforest running along the creek and that provides habitat for many creatures that visit our backyard. We often hear the cries of Sacred Kingfishers and whip birds and sometimes we'll see a water dragon sunning itself on a tree stump. We must teach our boys not to be afraid, to be wary and respectful and that we share this land with all wild things.

When we first came to live here, we had to orient ourselves to the rising sun in summer and winter, take notice of where strong winds, rain and violent storms came from and, in the hottest months, where the shade and the coolest parts of the garden were. Our chooks taught us both of those places because that's where they went when it was hot. Our chooks live in a fairly secure coop that is rain and wind-proof so their backyard environment is comfortable and safe.

When it rains heavily, watch to see where the water pools and runs off.

Before we set up the garden, we had to know about our soil and where the water pooled in heavy downpours and prolonged rain - something we hadn't been used to in our last home but is quite common here. Hanno did quite a bit of work putting in underground drainage that ran down to our creek. When we moved in we knew the creek hadn't flooded into our backyard in living memory, but we had to live here for a few years before we knew we were safe because the overflow on the other side of the creek was much lower than our side and the flooding rains went there into paddocks instead of into our backyard and home.

Above is our bush house and the water tank we put in when we first came to live here. Below is a 10,000 litre tank we installed a few years ago.
Very early on we decided to put in water tanks. We thought that if we were going to plant a garden that we should be responsible to collect water to irrigate it, so our first tank went in soon after we arrived. A few years ago we added another tank, double the size, and soon we'll add another space saving, narrow tank that can butt up against the wall at the side of the house. With the average amount of rainfall we get now, those three tanks should do us for the front and back gardens in the foreseeable future.

In the bottom left of this photo you can see part of the bench Hanno and I sit on to watch what's going on in the garden. When the sun fades into the west, this is the prime location in our garden.

Backyards can be so many things but one of the most important parts of ours is a place to sit, relax, think and observe.  We don't have enough seating areas but we're working on that. My main seat at the moment is a simple bench Hanno made from recycled timbers, that is under the elder tree. It faces the vegetable garden and chook house so whenever I sit there I have more than enough to look at. Soon we'll move a cast iron table and chairs over near the sand pit so whoever is looking after the littlies will have a table on which to put a sippy cup or a cup of tea and maybe a magazine or seed catalogue. One thing is for sure, a good garden evolves into being its best. You don't move in and buy everything you need in one hit. It takes a few years of observation and living there to see what the garden needs and what to leave alone. And when you get it set up, don't be afraid to change it. Our backyard changes when it needs to. We've put in fences, taken them down again, started with a smaller garden than we have now and, no doubt, that will change in the future. We also bought things when we could afford them. You and your garden will change with your seasons and nature's seasons.

So if you're about to set up a garden in your backyard, or if you have one that isn't working as well as it might, take some time to walk around and observe where the shade is, where the sun rises and sets, where the water pools in the rain, where the natural runoffs occur. Make sure you check your fences and boundaries because runoff from a neighbouring property might cause a problem in your yard. Having a productive backyard is much more than just planting seeds and weeding. Your backyard is a haven, not only for the wildlife but for family life as well.