Garden Feed

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.

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.

Weed tea – a free natural fermented fertiliser

How to make weed tea fertiliser. Little eco footprints

A few weeks ago I wrote about making herbal tea from foraged weeds. I'm making weed tea again - but I won't be drinking this batch. This brew is for the garden.

In a couple of weeks' time I'll have bucketfuls of stinky liquid fertiliser, rich in minerals and microbes, ready to boost the productivity and resilience of my garden.

Turning weeds into nutrient-rich liquid fertiliser is a great way to use a resource that may have otherwise gone to waste.

Basically, weed tea is made by fermenting weeds in a bucket of water.

The fermentation process creates a liquid fertiliser rich in soluble nutrients and a diversity of beneficial microbes.

The result is not only a boost in productivity but also increased resistance to disease and insects.

What weeds can be used?

A bucket of nettle about to be made into a bucket of weed tea - a free liquid fertiliser. Little eco footprints

I'm making my current brew using Stinging Nettle and Fireweed, which are abundant in my neighbourhood at the moment. But any weed will do. Other weeds I've heard of being used include Clover, Chickweed, Lantana and Scotch Broom.

Fleshy, deep-rooted weeds like Dandelion and Dock are especially good because their roots mine valuable nutrients from deep in the ground.

Weed tea is also a great way to use grass clippings or weeds that you prefer not to compost for fear of spreading weed seeds. For example, I've been tossing Fireweed into a large sealed bucket. A best practice management guide for the control of fireweed suggests it should be placed in a sealed bag and burnt or buried. By first making weed tea, I'm extracting all the nutrients before disposal.

I'm being cautious - and only use edible weeds (e.g. Nettle, Clover, Chickweed, Dandelion and Dock) on edible plants. I use tea from toxic plants (e.g. Fireweed & Lantana) on ornamental plants. 

How to make weed tea

Stinging nettle and fireweed about to be made into weed tea fertiliser. Little eco footprints
The first step in making weed tea is to fill a bucket with weeds. A plastic bucket with a lid is ideal.

Pack the weeds down as tight as possible.

Continue filling and packing until your bucket is around two-thirds full of tightly packed weeds.

Using sauerkraut to innoculate weed tea with beneficial microbes. Little eco footprints

Using sauerkraut to innoculate weed tea with beneficial microbes 2. Little eco footprints

Your tea will naturally be colonised by beneficial microbes but you can speed up the process by inoculating it with preservative-free fermented foods such as sourdough starter, sauerkraut, kefir, yoghurt or organic beer or wine.

I added a generous spoon of home-made sauerkraut.

Fill your bucket of weeds with water. If using chlorinated town water, first leave a bucket of water in the sunlight for at least a day so that any chlorine can evaporate.

How to make stinging nettle liquid fertiliser. Little eco footprints

Hold weeds under the water surface using a brick or large rock, then place a loose lid or cover on the bucket.

Make sure it’s not air-tight as the fermentation process releases carbon dioxide – and I'm sure nobody wants an exploding bucket of smelly liquid fertiliser.

Leave your bucket of tea somewhere warm to ferment for a week or two.

Fermenting in a bucket. How to make weed tea liquid fertiliser. Little eco footprints

Weed tea full of Bubbling beneficial microbes. little eco footoprints

Happy bubbling fermenting weed tea. 

How to use weed tea

Before using, you can strain your weed tea through a piece of cloth or a pair of stockings. Straining ensures you don't disperse weed seeds or clog the nozzle of your watering can.

Or, if you aren't concerned about spreading weed seeds or aren't using a nozzle on your watering can, you can simply bucket out the fermented liquid as you need it. 

**CAUTION** Try not to spill any weed tea on your hands or clothing. Especially if you are about to run out the door for school pick up. Trust me - it smells REALLY horrible. And the smell lingers - even after repeatedly washing hands with soap and water. 

Dilute your strained tea until it is the colour of a weak black or herbal tea.

Dilution rate will vary between batches and will be influenced by the type and quantity of weeds used. Around 1:10 should be a good start. 

Over-diluting is far better than not diluting enough, as strong fertiliser can burn young roots or shoots.

Your diluted weed tea can then be poured over the root zone of growing plants.

Don’t apply to vegetables about to be harvested as I'm sure (based on its smell) it doesn't taste good.

Diluted again to half-strength, it also makes a great fertiliser for indoor plants and seedlings.

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 14th September 2015.

Why I'm spending an hour in the garden each day

Anhourinthegardeneachday. little eco footprints 1

I've challenged myself to spend an hour in the garden each day for the whole of spring.

It may seem counterintuitive to add garden time to a schedule that I'm trying to simplify. But I know the benefits will outweigh any inconvenience.

Here's 8 good reasons to spend time in the garden each day:

1. Better than popping a daily probiotic pill

Digging in the earth is an incredibly efficient way to pick up beneficial microbes.

Anhourinthegardeneachday. little eco footprints 2

Put your hands in soil (or feet for that matter) and you'll likely pick up far more beneficial bugs than you would if you took an expensive probiotic pill.

These microbes can improve our mood, fight inflammation, boost immunity, and help us absorb nutrients and digest our food.

2. Exercise

Our bodies are not meant to be sedentary. They are designed for moving. Yet many of us spend most of our time sitting.

Getting out in the garden each day is a great way to get regular exercise.

Anhourinthegardeneachday. little eco footprints 3

There's digging, walking, stretching, squatting and lifting.

Regular exercise helps prevent heart disease, obesity, high blood pressure, adult-onset diabetes and osteoporosis.

3. Meaningful movement

Gardening appeals to me far more than spending an hour on a treadmill or in a gym class.

It's meaningful movement.

Anhourinthegardeneachday. Littleecofootprints 4

When gardening I'm actually achieving something. I can see the results immediately. I get a sense of achievement far greater than if I'd spent an hour walking nowhere. A weeded patch or a basket of greens is far more rewarding than a kilometre tally on a screen.

I believe the absence of meaningful physical work is one of the causes of consumerism. Not having meaningful physical work to do each day leaves a gap in our lives that we attempt to fill by consuming.

Garden, forage and DIY and the desire to buy stuff drifts away.

4. Nutrition

The more fruit and vegetables we grow, the more fruit and vegetables we're likely to eat.

If I go to the effort of growing something – I'm going to eat it.

Anhourinthegardeneachday. little eco footprints 5

If I have an abundance of kale - I’ll eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

5. Relaxation and stress-relief

Gardening is a very effective way to calm the mind, relax and relieve stress.

It can actually put the mind in a similar state to meditation.

Anhourinthegardeneachday. little eco footprints 6

All your senses awaken and you become more aware of the present moment. You naturally stop thinking about complications or stresses beyond the garden and instead focus on what you can see, feel, hear, smell and even taste.

6. Brain health

Daily gardening may even decrease the risk of dementia.

Anhourinthegardeneachday. little eco footprints 8

When gardening you need to think, learn and be creative. This type of regular brain activity keeps the mind active and may protect it against degenerative diseases.

7. Grounding

Digging in dirt connects us to the earth – literally.

Anhourinthegardeneachday. little eco footprints 7

You may have heard of earthing. The idea behind it is that that many of us rarely touch the earth with our bare skin. This leads to a build up of positive electrons in our body due to exposure to electromagnetic fields (EMFs). The power to our home, our appliances, lighting, wifi and our mobile phones can all emit EMFs.

Gardeners, by touching the earth are “grounding” themselves and removing this extra charge.

8. A longer life

All these benefits can add up to increased longevity. Gardeners, on average, live longer than non-gardeners.

Anhourinthegardeneachday. little eco footprints 9

Taking that into account, I think I can easily set aside an hour each day to spend in the garden for a couple of months.

Would you like to join me? 

I'm sharing my daily #anhourinthegardeneachday pictures over on instagram. The images above are a selection of the images I've shared during the challenge so far. I'm including gardening tips along the way. 

There's already a few of us playing along and I'm enjoying the peek into other Spring gardens.

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 7th September 2015.

Growing heirloom non hybrid corn. The Greenpatch Organic Seeds Corn/Maize project.

My first sweetcorn seeds for the season have gone into the ground. I've sown two varieties so far and will be planting at least another three. I didn't plan to grow so much corn, but I couldn't resist. A corn and maize conservation project run by Greenpatch Organic Seeds is now in its third year and Australian gardeners can start to reap its rewards.

Anasazi Sweet Corn. An amazing ancient multi coloured sweet corn grown by Greenpatch as part of their Corn Maize conservation project. Karl Bayer

Anasazi Sweet Corn. An amazing ancient multi coloured sweet corn grown by Greenpatch as part of their Corn Maize conservation project. Photo: Karl Bayer

The Corn/Maize project aims to rescue non-hybrid heritage varieties of corn and maize before they are lost forever.

Greenpatch Organic Seeds, based on the mid-north coast of NSW, grow and multiply the seeds and make them available to gardeners and farmers.

They are selling nine varieties of heritage corn, maize and popcorn this season. Neville Donovan tells me they have another 10 varieties that will be grown and multiplied this summer.

So far I've sown Golden Bantam and Balinese. Next I’ll plant Hawaiian and the beautiful multi-coloured Anasazi. I might even do some more seed shopping and add blue and pink mini popping corn to the mix. Blue and pink corn that can be popped is too irresistible.

Being able to grow multiple varieties of corn at the same time is one of the advantages of non-hybrid varieties.

Neville tells me that "planting multiple non-hybrid heritage varieties at once will not affect the flavour or taste of the resulting crop".

In contrast, hybrid varieties of corn shouldn't be grown with other varieties because any cross pollination can ruin their flavour.

Most sweetcorn seed readily available to home gardeners is hybrid.

You’ll notice the F1 on the packet indicating its hybrid status.

Another advantage of non-hybrid varieties is that you can save seed to grow the following year.

Whereas F1 hybrids are sterile and don't produce viable seed.

Saving seed isn't a priority for me this year. Corn is wind pollinated and all my varieties will be cross pollinating with each other. Neville suggests saving seeds from a mixed planting "is a hit and miss as to what it will produce the following season, but that could be an interesting outcome too".

I’ll save seed next year once I know which varieties I prefer.

Staggering planting can reduce cross-pollination between multiple varieties

Greenpatch grows up to four varieties on its property each season by staggering plantings to reduce cross-pollination.

"As a general rule we work on five weeks between any two varieties of plantings. It is critical to make sure plants are fertilised and watered well to prevent bolting and possible cross pollination. Pop corns normally take less time to tassel (flower) so it is best to plant them as your first crop," suggests Neville.

Two varieties Greenpatch are particularly proud to be saving are Manning White Maize and Anasazi sweetcorn. "They are both worlds apart," says Neville.

Manning White was bred in the Manning Valley near Taree in the 1930s for the dairy farmers to grow as animal feed. It can be eaten fresh when young.

Anasazi was bred on the other side of the world more than 2000 years ago by the ancient American Indians.

"We’re still searching for seed from Hickory King and Manning Pride – both once grown widely in the Hunter and North Coast regions. We still hold hope that somebody may have some of these seeds," says Neville.

Greenpatch is seeking growers to help with the project. If you are interested – and have some space, gardening experience and a reliable water source (or a secret stash of Hickory King or Manning Pride) – I'm sure Greenpatch would be happy to hear from you.

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 24th August 2015.