4. Getting your Garden Ready

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A little bit of research before you put plants in the ground will help ensure that the plants survive and you attract birds to use your garden.             

All about soil and mulch

Australian soils are ancient and are generally low in fertility and organic matter. The distribution of many native plants is strongly influenced by the type of soil in an area, e.g. sandstone or Cumberland clays in Sydney, and its position in the landscape (ridge tops versus gullies, north versus south-facing slopes). Distribution will also reflect differences in combinations of light and moisture together with soil type. Most Australian soils are neutral or slightly acidic with a pH between 5.5 and 7.0 but some, especially in West and South Australia, are alkaline (pH over 7.0). To find out what pH your soil has, speak to your local nursery, which may sell do-it-yourself soil testing kits or provide a soil testing service.

Soil isn’t just soil. By knowing what type of soil you have you will be able to select the best native plants for your garden. There are 3 basic types of soil texture; Sandy, Clay and Loam. To work out what sort of soil you have dig a few small holes in the garden (don’t take just the topsoil layer). Add water to each handful and work the soil into a ball in your hand. Stop adding water just before the soil starts to become sticky on your hands. Add more soil if this happens. Once the soil is worked into a ball, squeeze out the excess water using your thumb and forefinger to form a sausage shape.

  • Sandy soil will crumble and you will be able to feel the coarse sand particles. The particles in sandy soil are large and so this soil type struggles to hold water and nutrients – water will drain through it very quickly so a wetting agent is useful. Adding organic matter (compost) to the soil will improve it and keeping a thick layer of mulch on top will prevent water loss.
  • Clay soil will bend like plasticine when worked into the sausage shape. This soil type is basically the opposite of sandy soil. Soil particles are very small and so it becomes compacted and waterlogged and can be very difficult to dig through. To prepare a garden with clay soil, dig down at least 300mm and add lots of organic matter, especially compost or manure and add gypsum to make the soil more friable. Raising the soil level slightly will also assist drainage. Often the soil level only needs to be raised by about 30 cm.
  • The third type of soil, Loamy soil, is basically all soils between sandy and clay. In the sausage test it will hold together but with a small amount of crumbling. This soil is the best type for planting as it holds water but also allows for drainage.

Don’t forget to mulch the top of the soil after you have planted your plants. Mulch will help retain water in the soil and provides insulation for plant roots. Over time mulch will also decompose , creating humus (nutrient-rich earth formed when plant or animal material decays), which improves the soil, and can reduce weed growth.

What can you use? Any organic material that is free of disease is useful. Use leaf fall, grass clippings and path sweepings as mulch on garden beds. See what is available at your local nursery or local council, and ask what they recommend. You could invest in a home mulcher and turn all your garden prunings into mulch, or a cheaper option is to just keep all garden clippings reasonably small and put them straight back onto the garden. Nothing needs to be wasted.

How much should you use? Apply mulch to at least 100 mm in depth, which should last all year. Be careful that it isn't piled up against plant stems or trunks as this can encourage fungal growth and disease.

When should you mulch? Mulch just after rain when the ground is already moist. This helps to keep the moisture in. How often you mulch will depend on the type of mulch you use, how quickly it breaks down and needs replacing, and the reason you are mulching. If for food, mulch twice a year in spring and autumn; if to retain moisture, a thick layer once a year should be sufficient.

 

What do you already have?

Most vegetation can provide habitat for birds. Before removing any vegetation, weeds or otherwise, be sure to observe whether birds are actually using it. By ripping out all the vegetation that you currently have you will disturb these birds and you may not be able to encourage them back for a long time. Instead wait until new vegetation establishes (produces flowers and/or fruit) before removing old plants. Some weeds, such as Lantana in NSW, are popular with birds and provide important habitat so their removal should be carefully planned and staged. If removing weeds or undesirable plants, remove only small patches of vegetation at a time and replace it immediately with new plantings. Be aware that it can take years for new vegetation to establish but many birds may abandon the garden, or be preyed upon if all or large portions of the intact vegetation are removed too quickly. Don’t disturb your garden at all whilst native birds are nesting in it.

 

Make a plan

Before beginning any work to create a bird-friendly garden outline what you need to do and what you want to achieve. Consider each individual piece of work that must be completed such as an assessment of the current vegetation and bird life, planting of new vegetation, weed removal and ongoing maintenance. However enjoy the experience of creating and maintaining a garden that is used by a wide range of native birds. Draw up a map of your garden as it is now, and what you want it to look like. See our Make a Garden Map section for more information.

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