Did you know that your morning cup of coffee contributes to six million tonnes of spent coffee grounds going to landfill every year? This does not have to be the fate of your caffeine addiction and there are many opportunities to up-cycle spent coffee grounds into valuable commodities.
From fresh fruit, to roasted bean, to used up grounds, coffee’s chemical composition offers a range of uses beyond making your daily brew.
Potential applications range from biofuels, to health products, and fertiliser for farms or your garden. So why are we throwing this precious product away?
The answer is that processing and production can be more complex than you might imagine – even when we’re talking about simply using coffee grounds in your garden. What’s more, many recycling initiatives to turn waste coffee into valuable commodities are still in their early stages.
You may have noticed that some cafes now offer free spent coffee grounds for customers to take home and use in the garden. In theory, this is a great initiative but the reality is that fresh coffee grounds are high in caffeine, chlorogenic acid and tannins that are beneficial to humans but toxic to plants.
The spent coffee must be detoxified by composting for a minimum of 98 days for plants to benefit from the potassium and nitrogen contained in the roasted beans. Without adequate composting, the benefits are scant (see below). So if you do take some coffee grounds home from your local cafe, make sure you compost them before sprinkling them on the veggie patch.
The good news is that properly composted coffee grounds offer a cheap alternative to agro-industrial fertilisers, potentially helping urban communities become greener and more sustainable. Savvy businesses have begun processing coffee grounds on a commercial scale, turning them into nutrient-rich fertilisers or soil conditioners in convenient pellets for use in the garden.
But why stop there? A potentially even more valuable ingredient is the chlorogenic acid. Although toxic to plants, as mentioned above, chlorogenic acid has potential as a natural health supplement for humans, because of its antioxidant, anticancer and neuroprotective properties.
The whole coffee production process is abundant in chlorogenic acid, particularly in raw coffee beans. Chlorogenic acid conversion efficiency is even better from green coffee pulp, with a 50% recovery rate, compared with 19% for spent coffee grounds.
As undersized and imperfect beans are discarded at this raw stage, many businesses have seized the opportunity to market green coffee extracts as a weight loss product, although more research is needed to confirm this potential.
The list doesn’t end there. Coffee waste can be used to create a diverse list of chemicals, including enzymes and hormones for digestion of common biological compounds and to improve plant growth; and feedstocks for high-end crops such as mushrooms. Coffee oil has even been trialled as a fuel for London buses.
With abundant waste supplies due to the popularity of coffee consumption, by recycling the byproducts, perhaps we can enjoy one of our favourite beverages without too much guilt.
There are times when insecticides are needed (especially when pest populations are surging or the risk of disease is high) but you don’t have to reach for the spray every time. Here are five good reasons to avoid pesticides wherever possible, and live and let live.
1. Encourage the bees and butterflies, enjoy more fruits and flowers
Flowers and fruits are the focal points of even the smallest gardens, and many of our favourites rely on visits from insect pollinators. We all know about the benefits of European honey bees (Apis mellifera), but how about our “home grown” pollinators – our native bees, hover flies, beetles, moths and butterflies. All these species contribute to the pollination of our native plants and fruits and veggies.
You can encourage these helpful pollinators by growing plants that flower at different times of the year (especially natives) and looking into sugar-water feeders or insect hotels.
2. Delight your decomposers, they’re like mini bulldozers
To break down leaf litter and other organic waste you need decomposers. Worms, beetles and slaters will munch through decaying vegetation, releasing nutrients into the soil that can be used by plants.
The problem is that urban soils are frequently disturbed and can contain high levels of heavy metals that affects decomposer communities. If there are fewer “bugs” in the soil, decomposition is slower – so we need to conserve our underground allies.
You can help them out with compost heaps and worm farms that can be dug into the ground. It’s also good to keep some areas of your lawn un-mowed, and to create areas of leaf litter. Keeping your garden well-watered will also help your underground ecosystems, but be mindful of water restrictions and encouraging mosquitoes.
3. An army of beneficial bugs can eat your pests
Mantises and dragonflies are just some of the hundreds of fascinating and beautiful bugs we are lucky to see around our homes. Many of these wonderful creatures are predators of mozzies, house flies and cockroaches, yet people are using broad-spectrum insecticides which kill these beneficial bugs alongside the pests.
It may sound counterproductive to stop using pesticides in order to control pests around the home, but that’s exactly what organic farmers do. By reducing pesticides you allow populations of natural enemies to thrive.
This form of pest control in growing in popularity because spraying can result in insecticide resistance. Fortunately, it’s easy to encourage these bugs: they go where their prey is. If you have a good range of insects in your yard, these helpful predators are probably also present.
4. Your garden will support more wildlife, both big and small
Spraying with broad-spectrum pesticides will kill off more than just insects and spiders – you’re also going after the animals that eat them. The more insects are around, the more birds, mammals, reptiles and frogs will thrive in your backyard.
Baiting for snails, for example, will deter the blue-tongue lizards that eat them, so cage your vegetables to protect them instead. Keeping your garden well-watered, and including waterbaths, will also encourage a balanced ecosystem (but change the waterbaths regularly).
5. You and your family be happier and healthier
Engaging with nature increases well-being and stimulates learning in children. Insects are a fantastic way to engage with nature, and where better to do this than in your own back yard! Observing and experimenting on insects is a wonderful teaching tool for everything from life cycles to the scientific method. It will also teach your kids to value nature and live sustainably.
Your backyard has a surprising impact on the broader health of your neighbourhood, and gardens can make significant contributions to local biodiversity. Insects are an important part of ecosystem conservation, and encouraging them will improve the health of your local environment (and probably your health and well-being too).
This summer, when a rainbow lorikeet or kookaburra comes to visit your home, what will you do? Will you offer them a slice of apple, or simply watch until they take flight?
It brings many people joy to provide food and water for birds, to encourage them to stay a while and be given the chance to observe them more closely. But some people are reluctant to interact with birds in this way because they’re worried it might damage the birds’ health.
In contrast with other countries, little research has been done on the effects of feeding birds in Australia. As a result, there are no established guidelines around how to feed and provide water for local birds.
That’s why we ran the Australian Bird Feeding and Watering Study. We asked nearly 3,000 people to monitor the birds that visited their feeding areas and birdbaths. We wanted to know if there was a difference in the species that visited different types of gardens.
We examined the numbers and types of birds visiting:
birdbaths where no food was provided
birdbaths where food was provided
bird-feeders where birdbaths were provided
places where only food was provided.
The early results from the winter stage of the Australian Bird Feeding and Watering Study suggest that if you provide food and water, you will get more birds in your garden. But the species you attract will depend on what exactly your garden has to offer.
Granivores are seed-eating birds. They include species such as parrots, crested pigeons, sulphur-crested cockatoos, crimson rosellas and galahs.
We noticed a spike in the number of granivores in gardens where both food and birdbaths were provided. But when food was on offer, fewer granivores chose to use the birdbath. We don’t yet know exactly why this is, but it could be because these seed-eaters need less water, or they can get it more easily from other sources than they can food.
Also, most of the bird food sold in shops is seed-based. People who buy these products will naturally attract more seed-eating birds to their garden.
We were, however, surprised to see crested pigeons visiting gardens where food was provided. These birds are only recent urban arrivals, and were previously restricted to semi-arid environments as opposed to the more urban areas where most of our citizen scientists lived. But crested pigeons are very adaptable and now compete fiercely for food and territory with the introduced spotted dove in some Australian gardens.
“Small” nectarivores are nectar-eating birds that weigh less than 20 grams. The main birds in this group are New Holland honeyeaters, eastern spinebills and Lewin’s honeyeaters.
The early results of our study suggest small nectarivores prefer gardens with birdbaths more than their granivore and insectivore friends. In fact, it seems that these small nectarivores like birdbaths so much, they will choose birdbaths over food when both are provided.
“Large” nectarivores are nectar-eating birds that weigh more than 20 grams. These species including noisy miners, rainbow lorikeets and red wattlebirds – seem to prioritise food over birdbaths. This may be because they’re looking for a source of protein that they can’t easily find in their natural environment.
Honeyeaters – such as Lewin’s honeyeaters, blue-faced honeyeaters and noisy miners – will forage on nectar but will eat insects as well. They switch from one to the other, but once they have found their meal they will defend it vigorously from other birds.
Insectivores feed on insects, worms, and other invertebrates. Some insectivore species include superb fairy-wrens, willie wagtails and grey fantails.
Insectivores are most attracted to gardens where both food and water are provided. While superb fairy-wrens were frequently found in gardens where food was provided, willie wagtails and grey fantails preferred to visit gardens where only water is provided.
Many people have told me how confident fairy-wrens and willie wagtails can become around houses and gardens. These tiny birds can be bold and aggressive, and can work together to get what they want. A mum and dad fairy-wrens will conscript their older children into looking after younger ones – and siblings who refuse to help find food and defend territory may even be kicked out of the family. So these tough breeds have a competitive advantage in their new urban environments, and aren’t afraid to mix with or even chase off bigger birds.
You may be wondering exactly what type of seed to put out to attract which granivore, or which meat attracts a carnivore like a Kookaburra. I’m afraid we can’t yet say for sure, as we are yet to analyse the data on this question. Watch this space.
Could birds become reliant on humans for food?
Many people worry that birds will become reliant on humans to provide food for them. But this mightn’t be as big a concern as we once though.
The birds turning up at feeding areas and birdbaths are species that are highly adaptable. Many Australian birds live long lives, and relatively large brains when compared to their European counterparts. Some experts have argued that some Australian birds have evolved a larger brain to cope with feast and famine conditions in the Australian environment.
Many Australian bird species can switch easily between estates and gardens in one area, be semi-nomadic, fully nomadic or seasonally migratory. This ability to adapt and switch between diets makes Australian bird species very resourceful, innovative and adaptable.
Of course, Australia also has birds that have highly specialised diets or habitats, and they’re the ones usually most threatened or limited to one territory – birds like the regent honeyeater or ground parrot. In this study, we’re concentrating on birds that are adapting to urban areas and turning up at birdbaths and feeding areas in gardens.
Building our knowledge of bird feeding behaviour
We plan to develop guidelines around providing food and water for birds in a way that has the highest conservation value for our feathered friends. But before we can do that, we need more data from you.
So please take part in the summer stage of the study and pass the word around to others who may wish to be involved.
The summer survey will run for four weeks, beginning on January 30 2017. Visit feedingbirds.org.auto download the complete report on our early findings or to register to take part in our summer study.
As the weather warms and days lengthen, your attention may be turning to that forgotten patch of your backyard. This week we’ve asked our experts to share the science behind gardening. So grab a trowel and your green thumbs, and dig in.
Spring arrives and the warming weather encourages the plants in our gardens and parks to burst into life, commencing their annual reproductive cycle.
Plants use cues from the weather and climate to time their growth, flowering and fruiting. But as the world heats up due to climate change, these patterns are changing.
So how is climate change affecting our gardens, and what can we do about it?
In sync with climate
Many temperate plants have evolved to reproduce in spring to avoid damage from extreme cold or heat. Warmer conditions tend to speed up these processes, causing plants to grow faster.
Plants have evolved sophisticated mechanisms to synchronise with climate. This means they are excellent bio-indicators of climate change.
In Australia, plants in southern Australia are maturing earlier – winegrapes, for instance, by 27 days on average between 1999 and 2007. We can see this in wine growers’ records. As you can see in the handwritten chart below, wine grapes are on average maturing (measured by their sugar content) earlier.
Other plants may behave differently. Fruit trees such as apples need cold weather to break buds from their dormant state, before commencing growth when warm temperatures arrive.
This means after warm winters, such as this one, flowering may actually be delayed. Data from a recent study show potentially delayed flowering for Pink Lady® apples, as you can see below.
In the examples above, Applethorpe had the warmest spring and flowered first, as we’d expect for most plants. But Manjimup had the second-warmest spring and flowered last, even after Huon, the coldest spring site. This seems counter-intuitive but the delay is likely because Manjimup had the warmest winter.
Do these changes matter?
The earlier emergence of reproductive tissues may increase the risk of devastating frost damage. Contrary to what you might expect, evidence shows recent warming in southern Australia has not necessarily led to fewer frosts. On the other hand, plants that delay flowering because of warmer winters may reduce their frost risk.
Shifts in flowering timing, earlier or later, can be problematic for plants that rely on pollination between different varieties. Both varieties must shift flowering in the same way for flowering periods to overlap. If flowering times don’t overlap, pollination will be less successful, producing fewer fruit.
Bee and bird pollinators must also adjust their activity in sync with changes to flowering time to facilitate pollination.
Faster maturity may shift ripening into hotter times of year, as seen for wine grapes. This increases the risk of extreme heat damage.
What about other changes?
Pests and diseases will also adjust their growth cycles in response to a changing climate. One pest well known to gardeners is the Queensland Fruit Fly (QFF). Their maggots are found in a wide range of fruits.
Climate change will likely favour fruit flies. Warmer temperatures for longer periods will encourage a higher number of generations each year. Meanwhile, reduced cold weather will mean fewer fruit flies will die, increasing the flies’ survival rates.
On the other hand, temperate pests and diseases may decrease if warming exceeds their temperature thresholds.
What can you do?
What have you observed? Citizen scientists who track the timing of biological events have provided valuable information, especially in Australia, for us to monitor and interpret plant responses to climate change. Keeping garden records will show if and how your plants or pests are changing their patterns.
If you observe your flowers emerging earlier, coverings can be used to protect against frost. Keep an eye on cross-pollinators – are they flowering together? If not, consider planting a different cross-pollinator.
Nets are an effective way to reduce heat damage and can also be used to protect against some pests. Setting pest traps according to weather rather than the calendar will help disrupt the first generation and reduce pest impact.
Climate change has already influenced biological responses, perhaps even in your own garden. Seeing these changes in our gardens gives us an insight into the significant challenges faced by our food production systems under a changing climate.
Adapting to current and future climate change is a reality, and is essential to preserve both the enjoyment we experience in our own gardens and the security of future food supply.
Your lawn might not enjoy the summer, but there’s plenty of Australian wildlife that does. In urban backyards across the country, you can spot native wildlife that appreciates the hot weather.
Some visitors are conspicuous seasonal guests, while others require you to be a bit more observant. Here are a few to look out for before the temperatures cool off – although many are much easier to hear than to see, so keep your ears and eyes peeled.
Parasitic storm birds
If you live in the north or east of Australia you may have noticed migratory Channel-billed cuckoos (Scythrops novaehollandiae) or Common Koels (Eudynamys scolopacea) descending on your suburb. Often referred to as “storm birds”, they turn up in summer to breed, then head back to New Guinea and Indonesia around March.
Channel-billed cuckoos make their presence known with raucous, maniacal crowing and squawking at all times of the day and night. And the incessant, worried-sounding calling of the Common Koel doesn’t win many fans, especially if you have one camped outside your bedroom window!
Both birds are parasitic cuckoos, laying their eggs in other birds’ nests and then leaving the host bird to raise the cuckoo chicks as their own. Cuckoo chicks grow faster than the host’s brood, demanding all of the food, and the host chicks often starve. To avoid being discovered and kicked out of the nest, some cuckoo chicks have even evolved to look very similar to the young of their host. If all goes according to plan, the adult host birds will rear a healthy brood of fledglings … the only problem is, they’re not theirs.
Keep a close eye on any magpie, crow or currawong nests in your area and see if you can spot the imposters’ fledglings. And maybe buy some earplugs.
In summer, newly independent (and hungry) quolls venture out on their own. These skilled nocturnal hunters feed on a variety of insects, frogs, small lizards and sometimes even possums and gliders. The backyard chicken coop also presents an attractive option to this cat-sized marsupial carnivore.
Unfortunately, and probably due to loss of habitat, predation by feral cats, and perhaps because some populations eat toxic cane toads, quolls have suffered severe range contractions. So if you are lucky enough to have these backyard visitors, it is truly a privilege.
While in some places they are maligned as cold-blooded poultry-killers, quoll-proofing your chicken coop with mesh wire should prevent raiding. To catch a glimpse, venture out quietly after dark with a torch.
Unassuming garden skinks
Do you hear rustling sounds as you walk past a garden bed? Or see a metallic flash as something dives off a sunny rock into a pile of leaf litter?
During summer we’re inundated with snake warnings from the media. But all of our native reptiles (not just snakes) become more active as temperatures rise, and you probably have a variety of skinks in your backyard relishing the warmer weather.
Skinks are amazingly diverse, ranging from the multitude of small, garden skinks (such as Lampropholis) to the well-known Blue-tongued lizard (Tiliqua scincoides). You can find them scurrying through leaf litter, basking on rocks, and sitting on fences and tree trunks – but never too far from cover.
Striped skinks (Ctenotus) are fast, efficient predators of all kinds of invertebrates. In fact, skinks are largely insectivorous, and thus are great natural pest controllers.
Grab a reptile field guide to work out which skink species are in your area. If you want to entice more skinks into your backyard, add some clumping native grasses, rocks, logs and leaf litter to your garden.
Australia’s largest butterflies
In certain parts of Queensland, summer brings one of the most delicate, spectacular backyard visitors: the Birdwing butterfly (Ornithoptera).
Far north Queensland is home to the Cairns Birdwing (O. priamus euphorion), the largest butterfly in Australia. From Maryborough to the New South Wales border you will find Richmond’s Birdwing (O. richmondia), which is slightly smaller but just as impressive.
Throughout summer you might witness a Birdwing’s mating dance, in which the female flies slowly from place to place and the male hovers above her. Females lay their eggs on the underside of native Dutchman’s pipe vines. If you have these plants in your garden, inspect them closely for short, fat caterpillars with insatiable appetites (they will probably eat all the leaves on your entire vine!). Make sure you have the native Dutchman’s pipe vine, as an introduced South American species called Aristolochia elegans is toxic to Birdwings.
These critters are just a few examples of the wildlife you might see in your yard. All kinds of native wildlife respond to the changing seasons. So if you’d like to find out what’s happening in your backyard this summer, get out there and take a look!
Last night I was watering the garden with a hose. It is easy to see how stressed the plants are on a 38 degree day, but then I remembered that the animals in my garden need water too. So I filled some shallow bowls and placed them in quiet shady spots. During a hot Australian summer day, such an act can save a life. A small life, perhaps, but every little bit counts.
I have a small suburban garden but it still supports a range of insects, birds, frogs and reptiles. Whenever we move a pile of wood we disturb some lovely spotted geckos. Even in the city most Australians will have possums moving through the trees and skinks sheltering under the back steps. Suburbs on the edge of town have wombats, wallabies and kangaroos. Birds and insects live everywhere. On hot days all creatures will seek water and shade.
So why not add a routine to your normal gardening chores and put out some water for wildlife? Here are a few hints to ensure that the animals benefit.
Tips for watering wildlife
Use only shallow bowls so small animals do not drown. Alternatively (or additionally) add a few rocks or sticks so they can easily crawl out. Do not use metal bowls as these will become hot and may burn their feet or paws. Place the water in a shady spot, out of the way of human activity and protected from domestic pets.
Birds and tree dwelling animals will appreciate water hung at various levels. You can nail a plastic tub to a fence, or hang a modified water bottle in a tree.
If you are able to set up a hose to mist a shady corner in the garden, you will create a small haven for wildlife. I did this last night with the excuse that the lemon tree needed a good drink anyway.
Don’t worry if you don’t see the animals using your water. It is likely that they prefer privacy and will use it when you are not looking.
On the other hand, if you do see animals showing signs of heat stress, you may have to take further steps.
Caring for heat stressed wildlife
Animals that are suffering from heat stress will behave strangely. Nocturnal animals that are out during the day, tree dwelling animals sitting on the ground, or animals that are lethargic or staggering are all showing signs of stress.
The first concern about stressed wildlife is your own safety. Do not approach snakes, flying foxes, large kangaroos, eagles, hawks or goannas. Your best bet is to contact a trained wildlife carer for advice.
It is a good idea to have the phone numbers of your local wildlife carers handy, or download the wildlife rescue app.
If it is safe to do so, you can assist a heat stressed animal by picking it up in a towel, placing it in a well ventilated box in a cool spot and provide water. Do not feed the animal or handle it more than necessary. The animal may recover enough to release again in the evening, but if not you will need to take them to a wildlife carer or a vet.
Wildlife and bushfires
Unfortunately many Australians now live under the threat of bushfires and face evacuations throughout the summer months. Obviously, fires are bad for both domestic and wild animals. The best thing you can do during an evacuation is to take your dogs and cats with you and leave out plenty of water for wildlife.
If you do find injured wildlife, take them to the vet if it is safe to do so. Never go into a fire affected area searching for injured animals. This is a job best left to trained staff who are coordinated by the appropriate agencies and assisted by volunteers who have had the right training.
On the other hand, all of us can help by putting out water for wildlife. Every little bit helps.