How to attract butterflies to your garden


An encounter with a beautiful butterfly has me on a mission to encourage more butterflies. I love the idea of having masses of butterflies flutter through my garden. They are beautiful to watch and perform valuable pollinator services.

The fact that butterflies start their life as caterpillars has some gardeners considering butterflies as pests. But the amount the larvae eat is negligible and is outweighed by their positive contribution as a pollinator and garden ornament.

The first step in welcoming butterflies and other beneficial insects into your garden is to use organic gardening methods.

When you spray pesticides to rid your garden of bad bugs, you are also killing the beneficial bugs.

Learn to expect and accept a few nibbled leaves and focus on building healthy soil using compost and manures.

In a healthy and diverse garden you’ll rarely see any particular insect get out of control.

Next - grow butterfly host and food plants

To encourage butterflies you need to provide resources for both the caterpillars (host plants) and butterflies (nectar).

Grow a diversity of plants and you will more than likely provide host plants and nectar plants for a selection of butterflies.

But you can also be a little more targeted and grow specific plants.

Butterfly larvae (caterpillar) host plants

Some of the most common butterfly larvae host plant families within the greater Sydney region (presumably the picture is similar in other parts of Australia) include Poaceae (grasses), Cyperaceae (sedges), Lomandraceae (mat rushes), and Fabaceae (wattles and peas).

Grow plenty of these plants and you'll be providing plenty of caterpillar food.


Thankfully, the bushland area adjacent to my garden hosts a nice range of species within these families. 

I'm also going to set up a small native butterfly garden especially for caterpillar food and butterfly forage. 

For the caterpillars I’ll grow a range of native grasses, sedges, rushes, shrubs, herbs and climbers. On my list so far are kangaroo grass (shown above), weeping grass and species from the following genera: lomandra, acacia, daviesia, glycine, hardenbergia, commelina, bursaria, pultenaea, boronia and pimelea.

A small wild area like this could be set up in even the smallest corner of an urban garden. And many of these plants will do well as potted plants.

Butterfly caterpillars also feed off many of the plants you may have in your orchard or potted garden (e.g. citrus, bay tree, avocado and figs) or vegetable garden (for example lemon grass, peas, and beans). Maintain a healthy diverse vegetable garden and orchard and you’ll likely encourage butterflies by default. 

Butterfly attracting plants


Butterflies are attracted to bold clusters of flowers in bright colours.

I watched my recent butterfly visitor eagerly collect nectar from purple sage flowers.

Nectar-giving flowers favoured by butterflies are typically long and tubular and occur in clusters. Butterflies have a long, delicate, coiled tongue (called a proboscis) that is good at sucking nectar from deep within flowers.

To my native butterfly garden I’ll add a range of native plants favoured by butterflies, including grevillea, banksia, callistemon, pultenaea, melaleuca, scaevola, and leptospermum.

I’ll also be making sure there’s numerous butterfly nectar plants in my flower and vegetable gardens – including sunflowers, buddleja, marigold, ageratum, daisies and lavender.

Many common herbs also provide nectar for butterflies – including sage, chives, dill, lemon balm, mint, oregano, parsley and thyme.

Interested in learning more about pollinators in your garden?

Join in next week's Australian Wild Pollinator Count.  

The Wild Pollinator Count is a great opportunity to familiarise yourself with some of the beneficial bugs in your garden and contribute to wild insect pollinator conservation in Australia. The next count run 15-22 November. Find out how to join in here

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 19th October 2015.

The value of white space in your life

Foraged mulberries. Little eco footprints

One of the benefits of simplifying is that my life now has white space. Pockets of time where nothing is scheduled.

In graphic design, white space is the empty space between the elements on a page.

It can improve clarity, make viewing easier, and ensures the purpose of a piece is clear.

The space left empty is almost as important as the actual content.

Fail to leave sufficient white space and a worthwhile message can be lost among the clutter.

Empty space is equally important in our day-to-day lives.

Time intentionally left empty is as valuable as the scheduled moments.

Without the white space we can lose sight of our purpose and become lost in overwhelm.

In my experience, white space rarely stays empty. But it being there allows me to better respond to challenges and grab opportunities.

White space makes you more resilient 

A sick child home from school for the day; no internet for a week; or a broken down car. These unexpected hurdles would have once caused me stress. I would have bemoaned the time wasting.

Now that my schedule has a margin of error, I find it easier to turn negatives into a positive.

A sick child is cause for a slow day at home cuddling on the couch. No internet is embraced as time to clear the clutter from my mind. And being stranded for a few hours evolves into time to wander, read and enjoy lunch in a cafe.

The broken down car happened in the midst of writing this piece. I'm certain that if the idea of turning a hassle into something to appreciate hadn't been at the forefront of my mind, being stranded would have left me frustrated at the time I was wasting. Instead, I was grateful for a few rare hours to relax and eventually returned home feeling like I’d had a mini holiday.

A margin of error in my to-do list also gives me time to embrace positive opportunities.

If our schedule is full to the brim, opportunities aren't even noticed, let alone embraced.

I recently spotted a mulberry tree laden with fruit. There was a time when I would have felt too busy to stop. Or perhaps I wouldn't have even noticed the fruit. I would have rushed on by.

Instead, I stopped and enjoyed picking fruit with Little Eco. We shoved sweet berries into our mouths and laughed at our mulberry stained hands.

It’s these little unexpected moments that I’ll remember.

The following day a friend, knowing that I like making bone broth, offered me as many chicken frames as I wanted. The catch was, they weren't gutted. If I accepted I’d have to drop everything and gut the chickens that night. The old me would have said: "No thanks. Not this time. I'm too busy." Instead, the less frantic me said: "That would be unreal thanks. Would you like some garlic and zucchini in return? I now have a nice stash of nourishing bone broth – and it was free.

For me, stopping to forage and trading home-grown food fills my heart with joy and nourishes my soul as much as my belly.

The unexpected moments of joy that fill your white space will likely look different to mine.

Not all white space is filled by the unexpected.

Sometimes it remains empty.

It’s these moments I enjoy the most.

Time to breathe, reflect and dream....



I’ll be back next week with tips for clearing the clutter from your schedule to create white space.

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 9th November 2015.


Ladybirds – the good and the bad

Ladybirds - distinguishing the good from the bad. Little eco footprints

There are masses of 28-spotted ladybirds feasting on my potato patch and gobbling my zucchini leaves.

The majority of Australian ladybirds are beneficial. But there’s a handful of ladybird species that are far from helpful. It’s important to be able to distinguish the good guys from the bad – because you don’t want to accidentally squish one of your garden helpers.

The majority of Australia’s 500 species of ladybirds are great garden helpers.

They prey on sap-sucking garden pests including aphids, scale insects and mites.

A good guy - the common transverse ladybird. Little eco footprints

In my garden at the moment I've noticed the common transverse ladybird and....

A good guy - the spotted amber ladybird. Little eco footprints

..the spotted amber ladybird.

Both are particularly abundant in my sweetcorn patch.

These good guys are welcome in my garden any-time.

They are presumably feasting on the aphids and mites that are trying to suck sap from my corn plants.

The spotted amber ladybird is so good at managing aphids that it can be purchased as a biological control measure for crops. Eggs are sold on strips of tape that are attached to plants. The larvae then hatch and hunt down aphids. Having these guys in my garden is like having free on-site natural pest control workers busying themselves protecting my plants from pests.

But there are a few ladybirds that are not welcome in my garden.

A leaf eating 28 spotted ladybird. little eco footprints

The 28-spotted ladybird is one of them.

It’s one of only eight species of plant-eating ladybirds present in Australia.

These leaf-eating ladybirds can wreak havoc in your garden.

They are particularly fond of plants in the Cucurbitaceae and Solanaceae families, including zucchini, pumpkin, cucumbers, melons, potato, and tomato.

Their numbers can explode seemingly overnight. If left to their own devices, they can defoliate whole plants.

Each time I wander through the garden I squish as many as possible – one of my least-liked garden tasks.

If you don’t like the idea of squashing them, you can push them into a container of soapy water or methylated spirits. Neither method is nice, but in the scheme of things, it’s better than the broad-scale application of pesticides that is used to manage these pests in most commercial crops.

Before you start squishing, it’s important that you can distinguish a good guy from the bad.

You don’t want to squish one of your willing workers.

A bad guy munching on my zuchinni leaves - a 28-spotted ladybird. Tricia Hogbin

The easiest way to recognise a 28-spotted ladybird is to watch it. Is it eating leaves? The characteristic windowing or skeletonised leaf damage it leaves behind is easy to recognise.

If you are still not sure then you can count the spots. There's 13 spots on each elytra (wing shield) and two more on its pronotum (bit behind it's head). 

On the topic of ladybird morphology - check out this wonderful interactive ladybird morphology tool. Perfect for children wanting to learn about ladybeetle bits. 

The common spotted ladybird, a good bug, is probably the most similar looking, but it has much larger and fewer spots.

The fact that the 28-spotted ladybird has taken off in my garden tells me my plants are stressed.

That doesn't surprise me, because I've been intentionally stingy on the water for my potatoes, thinking they could tolerate it. But apparently not.

I topped up my mulch and watered deeply. Infrequent heavy watering is better than more frequent light watering that might not penetrate the mulch.

We've since had a little rain and the number of 28-spotted ladybirds has decreased considerably. 

A outbreak of 28-spotted ladybirds may also be caused by nutrient deficiency. Top-dress with compost and give your plants a good drink of weed tea or seaweed extract and they’ll be more resistant to pests.

If your plants are struggling to deter pests, its also a good idea to check that your soil isn't too acidic or too alkaline. You can pick up a soil test kit from a nursery or hardware store.

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 2nd November 2015.

Using microbat roosting boxes to manage mozzies


The mosquito season is about to begin. I'm one of those fortunate people that mosquitoes don’t like the taste of. My husband isn't so lucky. A husband bothered by mozzies isn't much fun – so I'm preparing our natural mosquito control arsenal.

Mosquito coils aren't part of our mozzie control kit.

Smoke from mosquito coils contains carcinogens and fine particles that can damage your lungs.

Studies investigating the harmful components of mosquito coil smoke suggest that sitting in a closed room with a burning mosquito coil is equivalent to smoking anywhere from 51 to 137 cigarettes.

Popping a mosquito coil by your table while enjoying a barbecue is as hazardous as having a chain smoker sit at your table.

Thankfully there’s a less toxic way to reduce mosquito numbers – tiny, cute microbats.

In contrast to their larger fruit-eating cousins (flying foxes or fruit bats), microbats eat only insects.

They have a voracious appetite.

One microbat can eat thousands of mosquitoes in a night.

The benefit of microbats doesn’t stop at mosquito control – they also eat many garden pests including moths, beetles, aphids, weevils and crickets.

You can encourage microbats by providing them with roosting habitat.

Most microbats roost in trees – in cracks, fissures, hollows and under bark.

Trees with cavities suitable for microbat roosts are typically old or dead.

If you have an old hollow-bearing tree in your neighbourhood consider yourself fortunate because it’s likely to house any one of Australia’s 80 species of microbats.

The trouble is, old or dead trees are often removed from residential areas for safety and aesthetic reasons.

Combine targeted tree removal with large-scale clearing of native vegetation, and microbats are running out of places to roost.

Thankfully, many microbats don’t mind living in artificial roost boxes.


We've made one roost box so far and plan to make many more.

It’s a good idea to install multiple boxes because microbats prefer to move between multiple roosts to confuse predators.


If you want to specifically encourage mosquito-eating microbats (rather than larger microbats that eat larger insects like moths), you need to ensure the entrance to your microbat box is no more than 12 millimetres wide.

Microbats prefer entrances that are only just big enough for them to squeeze through – larger entrances are also likely to let predators inside.

Different-sized entrances will attract different species. The smaller microbat species are more likely to feed on mosquitoes – whereas larger species feed on larger insects like moths.


Microbat roost boxes are relatively easy to make for someone with a little woodworking experience.

I share how we made our microbat box over on the Milkwood blog. 

They can also be purchased. But a word of caution – some commercially available bat boxes are simply ornamental and are not suitable as microbat roosts. Typical faults include being too small, not being made of durable timber or hardware, and having entrances that are too large. I share links to a few suitable commercially available microbat boxes in the Milkwood article

There are three things that can potentially undo all your good work encouraging microbats: pesticides, electric insect buzzers and cats.

Pesticides and electric insect buzzers don’t just kill annoying mosquitoes or garden pests – they also kill beneficial insects and leave microbats with little to eat.

Microbats are easy prey for household cats. They are stationary during the day and in winter they can go into torpor (like mini-hibernation). Even those cats that owners claim "could never catch a thing" can easily catch a microbat in torpor. Keeping your cat inside night and day, or in an outdoor cat run, will help protect microbats and other wildlife.

More information on microbats and building a microbat box.

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 26th October 2015.


Getting up close and personal with nature at Irukandji Shark and Ray Encounters

Irukandji Shark and Ray Encounters Bobs Farm Port Stephens Australia Little eco footprints

I usually feel a little uncomfortable when I arrive at a zoo or animal park for the first time. I worry that I may be supporting the inhumane treatment of wild animals. But each time I've visited a zoo or park in recent years I've been pleasantly surprised and have left inspired and reassured.

Our children need to get up close and personal with wildlife in order to care for their environment.

They are not going to care about nature unless they know nature.

We recently visited Irukandji Shark and Ray Encounters at Anna Bay, Port Stephens.

You can safely get up close and personal with wildlife that you would usually not want to encounter – stingrays and sharks.

Little Eco walked away from the experience buzzing with confidence. She also walked away with an awareness of how she can help conserve our marine environment – an awareness far greater than what she would have gained from reading dozens of books or watching a suite of documentaries. Nothing compares to real-life experiential learning.

The kids changed into the wetsuits provided and popped on a pair of water shoes, the latter to hide wriggling toes so that they were not accidentally mistaken for little fish.

Irukandji Shark and Ray Encounters aqua nursery pool. Little eco footprints

First stop was the aqua nursery pool, teeming with juvenile sharks and rays. 

Irukandji Shark and Ray Encounters aqua nursery pool shark and ray feeding_ Little eco footprints

Irukandji Shark and Ray Encounters aqua nursery pool shark and ray feeding2_ Little eco footprints

Little Eco and her friends nervously reached into the water with their feeding sticks.

Irukandji Shark and Ray Encounters aqua nursery pool swimming with sharks and rays_ Little eco footprints

They eventually went into the water, standing waist deep while one-metre-long sharks swam around their legs.

They didn't last long, quickly retreating to the shore.

I enjoyed watching their confidence grow as the guide revealed more information about the ecology and conservation of sharks and rays.

Irukandji Shark and Ray Encounters Ray Lagoon_ Little eco footprints

Second stop was Ray Lagoon, where they could get into the water with larger adult rays.

Their fear evolved into awe and they stepped a little deeper into the water so that they could touch a huge, two-metre, smooth ray that felt like "slimy sandpaper".

Irukandji Shark and Ray Encounters Fiddlers Flat Little eco footprints

By the time Little reached the next stop – Fiddler’s Flat – all fear had dissolved and she was in love.

"Look how cute they are," she said, sitting in the water among dozens of juvenile Fiddler Rays.

There was a roped off area where the rays could retreat to, but interestingly they didn't seem bothered by all the children and seemed to be curiously exploring their visitors.

Little Eco confidently stepped into the last pool, not even hesitating when she put on a pair of gloves "so that the big sharks don’t think my fingers are fish and bite them off". She got to pat Fluffy, a three-metre Tawny Nurse Shark, and heard all about the devastating impact pollution and overfishing are having on our marine environment.

I was impressed with the quality of interpretive information provided by our guide.

A few days after our visit I asked Little Eco what she learnt:

"Don’t litter. Pick up rubbish when you see it.

Don’t eat flake because it is shark and many sharks are going extinct. And shark is poisonous [she’s referring to mercury accumulation in large and long-lived fish].

Sharks and rays don't want to hurt us. They are really important and if we want fish we need to leave sharks in the ocean."

They're pretty important take home messages. And our guide obviously did a good job explaining the key conservation issues if an eight year old can still remember them days later. 

I know my comments about eating sustainable food or avoiding plastic often don’t make sense to Little Eco. I'm grateful that her encounter with some of our ocean’s majestic creatures has helped her see the connection between her actions and the health of our planet.

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 5th September 2015.