Backyard gardeners around the world are helping to save Australia’s deeply ancient Wollemi pine


Heidi Zimmer, Southern Cross University and Catherine Offord

As bushfires blackened forests last summer, one tree species was protected by a specialist team of firefighters: the Wollemi pine.

These trees have a deeply ancient lineage dating back to when dinosaurs walked Gondwana 100 million years ago. Back then, rainforests – including Wollemi pines (or their cousins) – covered what became Australia.

So when a handful of Wollemi pines were discovered alive in 1994 on the brink of extinction, it caused a frenzy of interest that has barely died down among plant enthusiasts.

How firefighters saved the Wollemi pine from the bushfires.

Today, fewer than 100 mature pines are left in the wild. But their exact location is one of the best kept secrets in Australian plant conservation, to protect them from pathogens such as the root-rotting phytophthora that might hitch a ride on human visitors.

But while rare in nature, our ongoing research with citizen scientists is finding Wollemi pines grow in backyards all over the world, in a range of environments, and this information can inform how we can protect them in the wild.

From Gondwana to the garden

The Wollemi pine is considered the iconic poster-child for plant conservation. It’s an unusual-looking plant – each wild tree has many trunks covered in bark resembling bubbling chocolate and branches of lime or grey-green fern-like leaves. And in the wild, they grow to more than 40 metres tall.

The species is a member of the southern conifer family Araucariaceae, and its cousins include the monkey puzzle tree and the Norfolk Island pine. While considered a rainforest tree, many remaining in the wild exist between rainforest and dry eucalypt woodland, on the ledges of a sandstone gorge.

Wollemi pines can stretch 40 metres in the wild.
Heidi Zimmer.

Since the Wollemi pine was discovered 26 years ago, the protection effort has been intense, focusing on conservation in the wild.

One of the first strategies was cultivation. Horticultural scientists at the Australian Botanic Garden Mount Annan (Sydney) worked out how to propagate the species so it could be grown and enjoyed in gardens, reducing the risk of illegal visitation in the wild.




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Wollemi pines are dinosaur trees


After the Australian Botanic Garden established a basic “insurance population” of plants propagated from the wild trees, some of the first cultivated Wollemi pines were distributed to botanic gardens in Australia and overseas, including in the UK’s Royal Botanic Gardens Kew.

In 2005, Wollemi pines were auctioned to the public at a Sothebys Auction. Since then, they’ve been exported to many nurseries around the world, and now grow in many public and private gardens.

I spy a Wollemi pine

When plants are very rare in the wild, or are very restricted in their distributions, conservation away from the site (ex situ) can play an important role in their survival.

This includes seed banking, translocation (establishing new populations of rare plants in new locations) and cultivation for the nursery trade.




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Enter our I Spy A Wollemi Pine project. Fifteen years after the Wollemi pine became available for sale, our study asks people to report where Wollemi pines are growing in gardens across the world.

So far, results from the online survey have revealed the species grows across 27 different countries, from Australia to Russia, and the UK to Peru.

The tallest trees so far – stretching to 7 metres tall (though dwarfed by their wild counterparts) – have been reported from the UK. To date, 987 people have contributed data about Wollemi pines.

Wollemi pines growing in Coates Wood, United Kingdom.
Ellen McHale © RBG Kew.

What we can learn

Reading comments from survey participants – from “Has survived minus 10 degrees” to “I just love it” – has been a source of interest and joy for us researchers.

When the survey is finished, we’ll analyse the responses to understand what influences the growth of this species, such as different climates and soils.

Knowing how Wollemi pines grow in other parts of the world will provide gardening tips for home growers, but more importantly it will inform future conservation efforts in the wild in the face of climate change.




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For example, this research will provide information on what environments the Wollemi pine can tolerate. We’re discovering the hottest, coldest, wettest and driest places on earth this species can survive in.

This information can help us find places to establish new populations of Wollemi pines. It may also provide clues on the evolutionary history of this species and how it managed to survive multiple ice ages and other dramatic climate changes in deep history.

Conservation with cultivation

Conserving Wollemi pines in backyards is not quite the same as Wollemi pines in the wild – in the same way its important to have pandas in the wild, and not just in zoos. But using cultivation for conservation does mean these species have much greater distribution today than they have ever had in the past.

In fact, this isn’t the first time a rare tree has ended up in gardens. The dawn redwood, thought to be extinct in the wild, was rediscovered in China in the 1940s and can now be found in gardens across the world.

And the internet is a great place to foster conservation. In online forums, people share every stage of their Wollemi babies’ growth, from seed germination to pine cone production.




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This love and connection to Wollemi pines might even help address “plant blindness”: the propensity for people to see, recognise and focus on animals rather than plants, despite plants being central to providing us with food, the air we breathe and our climate.

So, as more species are threatened with extinction every day, everyone’s actions – even in their own backyards or online – can make a difference.


If you have a Wollemi pine in your backyard, or know of a Wollemi pine in a park or garden, and would like to get involved in our citizen science survey, please click here.The Conversation

Heidi Zimmer, Research associate, Southern Cross University and Catherine Offord, Senior Principal Research Scientist

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

If you’re worried about bushfires but want to keep your leafy garden, follow these tips



Shutterstock/autau

Philip Gibbons, Australian National University and Geoff Cary, Australian National University

As we witnessed last summer, the number of houses destroyed during bushfires in Australia has not been stemmed by advances in weather forecasting, building design and the increased use of large water-bombing aircraft.

At the latest count, more than 3,500 homes were destroyed the summer just gone, which makes this the most destructive bushfire season in Australia’s history.

The principal reason for the continually high rate of destruction is that so many homes are being built close to bushland. An estimated 85% of all houses destroyed in bushfires in Australia are within 100m of the bush.

It follows that clearing vegetation around houses is at the forefront of advice provided by fire authorities to homeowners in bushfire-prone areas.

A home without trees and shrubs around it is the safest option during a bushfire. But realistically, many people will want to retain some vegetation. And there are ways to do this sensibly.

Is clearing bushland the solution?

Research shows houses close to bushland are more effectively protected by clearing trees and shrubs within approximately 40m of the home.

There are laws in most states and territories, such as New South Wales’ 10/50 Vegetation Clearing Scheme, that permit this to some extent.

But if all homeowners in bushfire-prone areas exercised their right to clear trees and shrubs, places such as the Blue Mountains, Perth Hills, Mount Lofty Ranges, Dandenongs and our coastal towns like Mallacoota, Margaret River and Batemans Bay would be vastly different in character.




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Residents and tourists are attracted to these areas for the aesthetics, privacy, wildlife and shade native trees and shrubs provide.

A study of rural-residential areas north of Melbourne found property values were higher where there was a considerable cover of native vegetation. We not only like our native bush, we are prepared to pay for it.

Because many people value trees and shrubs around their homes, it is not realistic to expect uniformly low fuel loads within bushfire-prone parts of Australia.

Can we have our cake and eat it?

We analysed data collected before and after the 2009 Black Saturday Fires, in which 2,133 houses were destroyed.

We found that the extent of “greenness” of vegetation surrounding homes had a bearing on whether the structure withstood fire.

Greenness refers to the extent to which plants are actively growing. Houses with trees and shrubs within 40m were slightly less likely to be destroyed if the vegetation had relatively high values of “greenness”, as compared to houses surrounded by vegetation with low greenness value.

This makes sense because greener vegetation, typically with higher moisture content, has lower flammability, requires more energy to ignite and therefore can reduce the intensity of a fire.




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Thus, watering your garden through summer, if this is feasible, or choosing plants with high moisture content (such as succulents) may reduce the bushfire risk compared with the same amount of vegetation with a lower moisture content.

We also found the risk to houses during bushfire was slightly less where trees and shrubs within 40m were not continuous, but instead arranged as discrete patches separated by a ground layer with low fuel hazard, such as mown grass.

As trees and shrubs become less continuous the heat transfer between patches becomes less efficient and the intensity of the fire is likely to decline.

Provided bushfires in your area come from a predictable direction, retaining more trees and shrubs downwind of this direction from your house poses less risk than the same cover of trees and shrubs retained upwind from your house.

This makes sense because burning embers, which are the main cause of house losses during bushfires, travel in the direction of the wind.

You can’t eliminate risk from bushfires

We must emphasise that while these strategies can strike a balance between retaining trees and shrubs and preparing for bushfires, they will not guarantee your home will survive a bushfire – especially in severe fire weather.

So in addition to vegetation management, other strategies – such as building design, adequate insurance and evacuating early to a safer place – should be considered in every household’s bushfire planning.




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The Conversation


Philip Gibbons, Professor, Australian National University and Geoff Cary, Associate Professor, Bushfire Science, Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The phoenix factor: what home gardeners can learn from nature’s rebirth after fire


Kingsley Dixon, Curtin University

A startling phenomenon occurs after a bushfire tears through a landscape. From the blackened soil springs an extraordinary natural revival – synchronised germination that carpets the landscape in flowers and colour.

So what is it in bushfires that gives plants this kiss of life? The answer is smoke, and it is increasingly transforming everything from large-scale land regeneration to nurseries and home gardening.

The mystery of seed germination

Burnt plants survive bushfires in various ways. Some are protected by woody rootstocks and bark-coated stems; others resprout from underground buds. But most plants awaken their soil seed bank, which may have lain dormant for decades, or even a century.

However, this smoke-induced seed germination is not easily replicated by humans trying to grow the plants themselves. Traditionally, many native Australian flora species – from fringe-lilies to flannel flowers and trigger plants – could not be grown easily or at all from seed.

The fringe-lily, the seed of which has been found to germinate after smoke treatment.
Flickr

In recent decades this has meant the plants were absent from restoration programs and home gardens, reducing biodiversity.

In 1989, South African botanist and double-PhD Dr Johannes de Lange grappled with a similar conundrum. He was trying to save the critically rare Audonia capitata, which was down to a handful of plants growing around Cape Town. The seed he collected could not be germinated, even after heat and ash treatments from fire. Extinction looked inevitable.

But during a small experimental fire, a wind change enveloped de Langer in thick
smoke. With watering eyes, he realised that smoke might be the mysterious phoenix factor that would coax the seeds to life. By 1990 he had shown puffing smoke onto soil germinated his rare species in astonishing numbers.

The technique is simple. Create a smouldering fire of dry and green leafy material and pass the smoke into an enclosed area where seed has been sown into seed trays or spread as a thin layer. Leave for one hour and water sparingly for ten days to prevent the smoke from washing out of the seed mix. The rest is up to nature.

Diagram showing the various ways that smoke is applied to seeds.
Supplied by Simone Pedrini

Taking smoke germination to the world

Soon after the de Lange discovery, I visited the Kirstenbosch National Botanic Garden in Cape Town. I was shown a few trays of seedlings out the back – some from seeds treated with smoke, some without. The difference was stark. Smoke-treated seeds produced a riot of green, compared to others that resulted in sparse, straggling seedlings.

A tray of seedlings where seed was treated with smoke, left, compared to a non-treated tray.
Supplied by author

But was smoke just an isolated African phenomenon, I wondered? Would 150 years of frustrated efforts to germinate some of Australia’s most spectacular and colourful species – from grevillea and fan-flowers to rare native heaths – also be transformed by smoke?

At first, the answer appeared to be no, as every attempt with Australian wildflower seed failed. But after many trials, which I oversaw as Director of Science at the Western Australian Botanic Garden, success came in 1993. Extra time in the smoke house and a serendipitous failure in the automated watering system resulted in the germination of 25 different species with seedlings. Some were thought to have never been germinated by humans before, such as wild-picked yellow bells (Geleznowia verrucosa) or the giant feather rush (Loxocarya gigas).




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This discovery meant for the first time smoke could be used for difficult-to-germinate species for the home gardener and cut flower growers. These days more than 400 species of native seeds, and potentially more than 1,000, respond to smoke treatment. They include kangaroo paw, cotton-tails, spinifex, native bush food tomatoes and fragrant boronias.

Highway plantings, mine site restoration and, importantly, efforts to save threatened plant species now also benefit greatly from the smoke germination technique. For example, smoke houses are now a regular part of many nurseries, which also purchase smoke water to soak seeds for sowing later.

Kangaroo paw seeds respond well to smoke treatment.
Supplied by the author

In mine site restoration, direct application of smoke to seeds dramatically improves germination performance. This translates into multimillion-dollar savings in the cost of seed.

Smoke is also a powerful research tool used to audit native soil seed banks, which includes demonstrating the adverse affects of prescribed burning in winter and spring on native species survival.

Collaboration with research groups in the US, China, Europe and South America has expanded the use of smoke to germinate similarly stubborn seed around the world.

So what is smoke’s secret ingredient?

In 2013, an Australian research team made a breakthrough in determining which of the 4,000 chemicals in a puff of smoke resulted in such starting germination. They patented the chemical and published the discovery in the journal Science.

The smoke chemical, part of the butenolide group of molecules, was named karrikinolide, inspired by the local Indigenous Noongar word for smoke, karrik.

Karrikinolide is no shrinking violet of a molecule: just half a teaspoon is enough to germinate a hectare of bushland, which equates to 20 million seeds.




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Smoke is sold to home gardeners and for commercial use in the form of smoke water, smoke-impregnated disks, or smoke granules. All contain the magical karrikinolide molecule.

Why not try it at home?

Home gardeners can try smoking their own seeds – but what you burn matters. Wood smoke can be toxic to seeds. Making your own smoke from leafy material and dry straw ensures you have the right combustible materials for germination.

At least 400 native seed species, and possibly up to 1,000, have been found to respond to smoke treatment.
Supplied by author

For the home gardener, having a bottle of smoke water on hand or constructing your own smokehouse can make all the difference to germinating many species – including those stubborn parsley seeds. To find out more, a webinar at this link shows you how to use smoke and even construct your own smoke apparatus.The Conversation

Kingsley Dixon, John Curtin Distinguished Professor, Curtin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Our cities need more trees, but some commonly planted ones won’t survive climate change


Australian cities could lose some of their most common trees to climate change.
Jamen Percy/Shutterstock

Alessandro Ossola, Macquarie University; Hugh Munro Burley, Macquarie University; Leigh Staas, Macquarie University; Linda Beaumont, Macquarie University; Michelle Leishman, Macquarie University, and Rachael Gallagher, Macquarie University

We need trees in our lives. This past summer, Adelaide experienced the hottest temperature ever recorded in an Australian state capital, hitting 46.6 degrees on January 24. Trees beautify otherwise grey cities and cool our suburbs during heatwaves. But different species have different levels of tolerance of heat, lack of water and other threats posed by climate change.

In a newly published study, we investigated likely climate change impacts on 176 of the most common tree species planted across Australian cities. Our analysis showed more than 70% of these species will experience harsher climatic conditions across Australian cities by 2070. Some of the most commonly planted trees are unlikely to survive these conditions.

The golden wattle might struggle in our northern cities if they get hotter and drier.
Dryas/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

So which tree species are best suited to particular places? Which species are more likely to thrive, rather than just survive, under a changing climate? Which of our beloved tree species won’t make it?

Tree species growing in warmer cities are more likely to be affected than those in cooler cities. Some species, such as the golden wattle (Acacia longifolia) or the prickly paperbark (Melaleuca styphelioides), might not make it in northern cities, unless we invest precious resources – such as water – to maintain these civic assets. Other species, such as the native frangipani (Hymenosporum flavum) or the tuckeroo (Cupaniopsis anacardioides), will likely become more suitable for planting in southern cities.




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Why do cities need trees?

Trees are wonderfully effective at improving the microclimate of our cities, which makes tree plantings an effective and efficient way to adapt to climate change. The leaves of trees absorb and dissipate much of the sun’s radiation.

Trees cool air and land by several degrees compared to areas of concrete and asphalt. Swipe the heat map below to see how effectively trees cool down our cities. (Red indicates hotter areas, blue cooler areas.)

Swipe the map to see how much trees cool urban areas. Red indicates hotter areas, blue cooler areas. This temperature map was collected during a heatwave in Adelaide, South Australia, on February 9 2017 by AdaptWest over the cities of West Torrens, Charles Sturt and Port Adelaide-Enfield.
Used with permission of AdaptWest Adelaide (https://www.adaptwest.com.au/mapping/heat-maps)



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Governments recognise the importance of trees and have developed vital initiatives, such as the national 20 Million Trees program and the 5 Million Trees program in New South Wales. These are important first steps to increase urban tree cover across Australia. But the question arises: are we planting the right tree species?

What does the science say?

Australian cities are blessed with a higher diversity of tree species compared to other cities globally. However, the 30 most commonly planted species make up more than half of Australia’s urban forests.

This poses a great risk for our cities. If we were to lose one or two of these common species, the impact on our urban tree cover would be immense. Consequently, our best insurance is to increase the diversity of our trees.

Species composition of Australia’s urban forests across 60 local government areas. The size of each word is proportional to the number of tree stems recorded for each species.
Alessandro Ossola

Our quest to find climate-ready tree species is only just beginning. Supported by Hort Innovation Australia, the NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment, and the Commonwealth government, our team embarked on a project called Which Plant Where in conjunction with researchers at Western Sydney University. Our mission is to find the best plant species for urban landscapes that will be resilient to climate change.

We work with the nursery industry to provide evidence on species’ resilience to extreme heat and drought by testing plants to their limits in research glasshouses. Our work with plant growers and nurseries will inform them on how to adapt their business, by identifying the new challenges posed by climate change, as well as selecting highly diverse palettes of climate-ready species. We advise landscape architects, designers and urban planners about not only the best planting choices, but also how to increase the biodiversity of our cities.




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You can help!

We are committed to do more science in coming years, but you can start making a difference today. Australia’s National Tree Day will be celebrated again this year on Sunday, July 28. It’s a great opportunity to teach our families, communities and businesses about the importance of tree planting and environmental stewardship as key elements of adapting to climate change.

An old Chinese adage says:

The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.

This weekend is your time. The game is simple – head to your closest plant nursery. Ask your local grower about which tree species are suitable for the local growing conditions and pick one you like. Then, plant a tree in your yard, or join one of the many planting events across Australia.

Teach your kids, family and friends about the difference they can start making today – for their future and our common good – one tree at a time. The Conversation

A plant nursery growing a diverse range of tree species for the upcoming planting season.
Alessandro Ossola

Alessandro Ossola, Research Coordinator Centre for Smart Green Cities, Macquarie University; Hugh Munro Burley, Spatial analyst, Macquarie University; Leigh Staas, Associate Director for Engagement & Research Partnerships | Smart Green Cities, Macquarie University; Linda Beaumont, Senior Lecturer, Macquarie University; Michelle Leishman, Distinguished Professor, Head of Department, Macquarie University, and Rachael Gallagher, , Macquarie University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

I’ve always wondered: are water crystals bad for the environment?



Gardeners use water crystals to drought-proof their plants.
Shutterstock

Michelle Ryan, Western Sydney University

This is an article from I’ve Always Wondered, a series where readers send in questions they’d like an expert to answer. Send your question to alwayswondered@theconversation.edu.au


Are water crystals bad for the environment? –Terry Gilmour

This is an excellent question, and something an environmentally conscious gardener might wonder. With changing rainfall patterns, drought and an increasing average temperature in Australia many people are looking for ways to save water in their garden, and adding water crystals to your soil appears to be a good solution. But what do we really know about water crystals and are they bad for the environment?

Well, you can put your mind at ease: water crystals are not bad for the environment. In fact, in other forms they are actually used to help protect the environment.

What are water crystals?

Water crystals are tiny super-absorbent polymers (a long chain that’s made up of identical repeating molecules), about the size of a sugar crystal. They are added to potting mix or added to soil in a garden bed to increase the water holding capacity of the soil.

Water crystals act like a sponge, binding water molecules with the molecule chains in the crystals (with what’s technically known as cross-link bonding). This makes the crystal swell, creating a three-dimensional gel network up to 300 times its original size, absorbing water and nutrients.




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Over 5-6 years water crystals slowly degrade, releasing the absorbed water into the root zone of the plant and wetting the soil.

While many water crystals are marketed as water-saving, and many people use them to drought-proof their plants, it’s really important to know that these water crystals don’t actually conserve water. The plants still use the same amount of water, but instead of the water flowing through to the bottom of the pot and into the saucer and evaporating, or through to the bottom of the garden bed, the water crystals hold onto the water in the root zone of the plant. It makes for a more efficient use of the water in the soil.

Gardeners are not always able to frequently water their plants on hot summer days.
Shutterstock

Cross-linked vs linear polymers

To understand where the environmental concerns come from, we have to get a little technical.

The most common type of water crystal on the market is a cross-linked polyacrylamide. Cross-linked polyacrylamides are water absorbent but not water soluble. One of their best-known uses is in disposable nappies.

The environmental concern regarding water crystals comes from people confusing these cross-linked polyacrylamides with non-cross-linked polyacrylamide used by industry. While they are commonly described in the same way, they have a different chemical bonding and properties.




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Non-cross-linked (linear) polyacrylamide is water-soluble. It is currently used in Australian agriculture for improving soil and to help control erosion. It also plays an integral role in aiding flocculation as part of the sewage treatment process.

A 1997 study found when non-cross linked polyacrylamide degrades it creates acrylamide, a suspected carcinogen and neurotoxin.

Obviously this would be very concerning if it also affected water crystals! Acrylamide could leach into the soil and water and be taken up by plants, entering the human food chain. However there’s no proof cross-linked polyacrylamides – which are the water crystals you’d find in a gardening store – behave like this.

It is not clear if water crystals have a negative impact on Australia’s rivers and streams.
Shutterstock

It is also worth noting that further studies, including one published in 2008, found a very small amount (less than 0.5 parts per billion) of acrylamide was released into the environment, which does not cause any environmental concern.

You may also worry water crystals could impact aquatic life if they found their way into rivers and streams. The good news is there’s no reported toxicity or impact on aquatic life from commercially available water crystals (results are more mixed for the water soluble non-cross-linked polyacrylamide, with some studies finding little impact and others showing no toxicity.




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The other good news is water crystals do not accumulate in the soil or water over the long term. The use of water crystals has no adverse impact on soil microbe populations, which we need for a good healthy soil. If used as directed there is no risk to human health (however, it is always good practice to wear gloves while handling any chemical product).

So environmentally conscious gardeners don’t need to worry about water crystals. They’re great for people who don’t have time to water their pot plants every day in summer. Remember, these crystals do not save water but increase the water holding capacity of the soil, so you still need to water your plants regularly – especially on hot days!The Conversation

Michelle Ryan, Lecturer – Environmental Health and Management, Western Sydney University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The small patch of bush over your back fence might be key to a species’ survival


File 20181212 76965 x1w7xf.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
A kangaroo finds refuge in a small patch of vegetation surrounded by a new housing estate.
Georgia Garrard, Author provided

Brendan Wintle, University of Melbourne and Sarah Bekessy, RMIT University

It may not look like a pristine expanse of Amazon rainforest or an African savannah, but the patch of bush at the end of the street could be one of the only places on the planet that harbour a particular species of endangered animal or plant.

Our newly published global study of the conservation value of landscapes in 27 countries across four continents has found these small patches of habitat are critical to the long-term survival of many rare and endangered species.

In Australia, our cities are home to, on average, three times as many threatened species per unit area as rural environments. This means urbanisation is one of the most destructive processes for biodiversity.

It tends to be the smaller patches of vegetation that go first, making way for a housing development, a freeway extension, or power lines. Despite government commitments to enhance the vegetation cover of urban areas and halt species extinctions, the loss of vegetation in Australian cities continues.




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This story plays out all over the world day after day. Of course, it’s not just an urban story. Patches of rural vegetation are continually making way for, say, a new pivot irrigation system or a new mine to provide local jobs.

Remnant salmon gum woodland surrounded by cropland near Bencubbin in Western Australia’s northeast wheatbelt.
Mike Griffiths, Author provided

Mostly, policymakers and scientists do not consider these losses to be, on their own, a fatal blow to the biodiversity of a region or country. Small, often isolated patches of vegetation are considered expendable, tradeable, of limited ecological value due to their small size and relatively large amount of “edgy” habitat. Wrong.

Research forces a rethink

Our study analysed the relationship between conservation value of vegetation patches and their size and isolation in landscapes across Europe, Australia, North America and Africa. The findings prompt a rethink of long-held views about the relative importance of small, isolated habitat patches for biodiversity conservation. We show that these patches often have unique ecological and environmental characteristics.

The critically endangered Western Ringtail Possum lives mainly in small habitat patches in or around urban areas near Perth and is under intense pressure from housing development, foxes, cats and dogs.
Yokochi K., Bencini R./Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

That’s because they are the last patches left over from extensive clearing of flat, fertile land for agriculture or urban growth close to rivers and bays. They often contain habitats for rare or endangered species that have disappeared from the rest of the landscape. This makes these small, isolated patches of habitat disproportionately important for the survival of many species.

Our study calls for a rethink of urban planning and vegetation management regulations and policies that allow small patches of vegetation to be destroyed with lower (and often zero) scrutiny. We argue that the environment is suffering a death by a thousand cuts. The existence of large conservation reserves doesn’t compensate for the small patches of habitat being destroyed or degraded because those reserves tend to contain different species to the ones being lost.

The combined impact of the loss of many small patches is massive. It’s a significant contributor to our current extinction crisis.




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Why are small patches seen as dispensable?

A key variable used in decisions on vegetation-clearing applications is the size of patch being destroyed. Authorities that regulate vegetation management and approve applications are more permissive of destruction of small patches of vegetation.

This is partly due to a large body of ecological theory known as island biogeography theory and subordinate theories from metapopulation ecology and landscape ecology. These theories suggest that species richness and individual species’ population sizes depend on the degree of isolation of the patch, its size and the quality of the habitat it contains.

While it is crucial that we conserve large, intact landscapes and wilderness, the problem with conserving only large and well-connected patches of high-quality vegetation is that not all species will be conserved. This is because some species exist only in small, isolated and partially degraded habitats, such as those characteristic of urban bushlands or remnant bush in agricultural areas.

A remnant wetland is still valuable habitat for species like the Pacific Heron.
Wayne Butterworth/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

For this reason, we highlight the importance of protecting and restoring habitats in these small isolated patches. And these areas do tend to be more vulnerable to invasion by weeds or feral animals. If the impacts of invasive species are not managed, they will eventually lead to the destruction of the habitat values and the loss of the species those habitats support.

Small and isolated patches of vegetation on the urban fringe are under enormous pressure from human use, pets, escaped seed of Agapanthus and the many other invasive species we plant in our gardens. These plants spread into local bushland, where they outcompete the native plants.

Communities can make a difference

As well as these perils, being on the urban fringe also brings opportunity. If a remnant patch of vegetation at the end of the street is seen to be of national environmental importance, that presents a great opportunity to channel the energies of community groups into conserving and restoring these patches.

A patch that is actively cared for by the community will provide better habitat for species. It’s also less likely to fall foul of development aspirations or infrastructure projects. The vicious cycle of degradation and neglect of small patches of habitat can be converted into a virtuous cycle when their value is communicated and local communities get behind preserving and managing them.

Volunteer community groups can play a vital role in preserving and enhancing small habitat patches.
Robin Clarey, Friends of Edithvale Seaford Wetlands, Author provided

Urban planners and developers can get on board too. Rather than policies that enable the loss of vegetation in urban areas, we should be looking at restoring habitats in places that have lost or are losing them. This is key to designing healthy, liveable cities as well as protecting threatened species.

Biodiversity-sensitive urban design makes more of local vegetation by complementing the natural remnant patches with similar habitat features in the built environment, while delivering health and well-being benefits to residents. Urban development should be seen as an opportunity to enhance biodiversity through restoration, instead of an inevitable driver of species loss.




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The Conversation


Brendan Wintle, Professor Conservation Ecology, University of Melbourne and Sarah Bekessy, Professor, RMIT University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Gardening improves the health of social housing residents and provides a sense of purpose



File 20180721 142411 mjf8l8.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Gardens bring people together.
Elaine Casap/Unsplash

Tonia Gray, Western Sydney University; Danielle Tracey, Western Sydney University; Kumara Ward, Western Sydney University, and Son Truong, Western Sydney University

Studies indicate spending time in nature brings physical, mental and social benefits. These include stress reduction, improved mood, accelerated healing, attention restoration, productivity and heightened imagination and creativity.

Increased urbanisation has made it more difficult to connect with nature. And members of lower socioeconomic and minority ethnic groups, people over 65 and those living with disability are less likely to visit green spaces. This could be due to inaccessible facilities and safety fears.

A gardening program for disadvantaged groups, running in New South Wales since 1999, has aimed to overcome the inequity in access to green spaces. Called Community Greening, the program has reached almost 100,000 participants and established 627 community and youth-led gardens across the state.




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Our independent evaluation explored the program’s impact on new participants and communities in social housing by tracking six new garden sites in 2017. Around 85% of participants told us the program had a positive effect on their health and 91% said it benefited their community. And 73% said they were exercising more and 61% were eating better. One participant said engaging in the program even helped them quit smoking.

These insights have advanced our understanding of how community gardening improves the mental and physical health of Australians living in social housing communities in our cities.

Our study

Trends towards urbanisation and loss of green space have sparked concerns about population health and well-being. This has led to a growing body of research on the impact of community gardens on children and adults.

The Community Greening program is supported by the Royal Botanic Garden Sydney in partnership with Housing New South Wales. Anecdotal feedback gathered by the botanic garden over the past two decades has shown gardening improves well-being and cohesion, fosters a sense of belonging, reduces stress and enhances life skills.

Community Greening provides gardens for people in social housing.

Based on this understanding, Community Greening aims to:

  • improve physical and mental health
  • reduce anti-social behaviour
  • build community cohesion
  • tackle economic disadvantage
  • promote understanding of native food plants
  • conserve the environment
  • provide skills training to enable future employment opportunities
  • share expert knowledge of the garden.

Our research investigated these outcomes in participants, and whether they changed during the course of the program. We collected data using questionnaires over seven months (before and after participation). We also conducted focus group interviews with participants and open-ended questionnaires with staff working at the community sites.




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Of the 23 people who completed both questionnaires before and afterwards, 14 were female and nine were male. They had an average age of 59, ranging from 29-83. Fifteen participants were born in Australia while the rest came from Fiji, Iran, Poland, New Zealand, Philippines, Chile, Afghanistan and Mauritius. One participant identified as an Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander and five people (22%) reported English was not their first language.

Initially, 27% reported they had never gardened prior to the program. At the post-test questionnaire, the frequency of attendance improved for many of them. Over 40% gardened once a week and 22% every day.

Gardening benefits

Overall, we found participants felt a sense of agency, community pride and achievement. The gardening program helped encourage change and community development. Some were happy to learn a new hobby.

Community Greening participants found a lot of benefits to gardening.
Research infographic/Screenshot, Author provided

Gardening also served as an opportunity to socialise with neighbours. In previous years within some social housing communities, it was commonplace for residents to simply stay inside their units without interacting with anyone.

Many participants said they saw a marked improvement in their health and well-being. One participant remarked:

I suffer with a lot of health problems, and a lot of times I’ve been sitting at home, been depressed and not been happy about my illness, and since I’ve become more involved with the garden it helped me to not worry about my health so much like I used to and it actually improved my eating habits. It has changed my life positively. I don’t have time to feel sorry for myself anymore…

Some described the gardening experience as calming and cathartic – especially those who suffered from depression and anxiety. Some spoke of the positive aspect of having something to do each day and their feelings of achievement.

Another participant said:

Going outside gives me not only physical exercise, but it provides a certain amount of joy in that you’re seeing the benefit of your hard work coming through in healthy plants. Whether it’s vegetables or a conifer, you’re seeing it grow and you’re seeing the benefit…

Additional improvements in social health included a genuine enthusiasm for working in a team, with increased co-operation and social cohesion between staff and tenants. The housing managers and social workers work alongside tenants helping to foster trust, co-operation, social collaboration and healthy relationships.

The ConversationMore importantly, this research has provided validation that Community Greening has aligned with contemporary social-housing priorities. These include supporting health and well-being, nurturing a sense of community, enhancing safety and developing a sense of place.

Tonia Gray, Associate Professor, Centre for Educational Research, Western Sydney University; Danielle Tracey, Associate Professor, Adult and Postgraduate Education, Western Sydney University; Kumara Ward, Lecturer, Early Childhood Education, Western Sydney University, and Son Truong, Senior Lecturer, Secondary Education, Western Sydney University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.