Feature

Getting to know natives

G Magazine

Easy to grow and versatile, Australian natives are perfect for the not-so-green thumb and can be used in many different garden styles – from cottage to Japanese.

Native-tree
Grass trees

If you have good drainage, grass trees (Xanthorrhoea spp.) make a wonderful accent plant.

Credit: Creating an Australian Garden, Allen & Unwin

Botanical gardens

Botanical gardens in Autumn; Melbourne, Australia.

Credit: iStockphoto

Australian native hedges

The Australian native hedges in background show how well natives can work in a formal garden, mixed with exotics in foreground.

Credit: Creating an Australian Garden, Allen & Unwin

correa-hedge

A dense Correa hedge can be clipped into shapes.

Credit: Jane Canaway

Waratah

A gorgeous pink waratah flower.

Credit: Creating an Australian Garden, Allen & Unwin

Banksia

An iconic Australian native, the banksia.

Credit: iStockphoto

admiral on Xerochrysum

Planting native plants such as these Everlasting dasies (Xerochrysum spp.) will bring wildlife to your garden.

Credit: Creating an Australian Garden, Allen & Unwin

kangaroo-paw

Kangaroo paw is a unique and colourful addition to any garden.

Credit: Creating an Australian Garden, Allen & Unwin

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Millennia of specialisation has made natives exquisitely well equipped to take the droughts, floods and fires thrown at them by Australia’s dramatic climate. The local wildlife has adapted alongside native flora to form perfect partnerships; food and shelter in exchange for seed distribution and pest control. When you have native plants in your garden, you’ll attract some of these creatures as well. But what’s often overlooked is the stunning visual impact of textures and colours these tough plants can offer.

Of course beauty is in the eye of the beholding gardener, but the wonder of Australian plants is the sheer diversity of the 24,000-plus varieties available (compared with 1700 in England, for example). The catchword here though is ‘available’. While nine volumes of the Encyclopaedia of Australian Plants Suitable for Cultivation catalogue the immense variety of Aussie species, many gardeners would be hard-pressed to name more than a dozen species, and few nurseries stock more than 20 or 30 well-marketed cultivars.

In his book on Southern Hemisphere plants, The Looking Glass Garden, British horticulturist Peter Thompson observes: “The variety of plants to be seen in gardens devoted exclusively to native plants always astonishes me, particularly in South Africa and Australia. These Southern Hemisphere countries are the homes of almost overwhelming numbers of plants which, but for the efforts of a comparatively few dedicated gardeners and designers, would continue to remain neglected, their garden potential largely unexplored.”

Angus Stewart, TV gardener and author of Creating an Australian Garden, agrees: “Natives are fabulous plants because of their ability to adapt and survive, and I think they should be celebrated and also used for the sense of place that you can create with them. We have these really wonderful and unique plants, why not celebrate them in the planted landscape, as well as the wild one.”

What to plant, where

Our country can be divided into three climatic zones, as recommended by Sustainable Gardening Australia.
• Warm areas, which are frost-free or have occasional light frosts: extending north from Coffs Harbour and all the way across to the west to Geraldton.
• Cool to cold areas, with low temperatures for extended periods of time: all of Tasmania, most of Victoria,
the southern highlands of NSW and a tiny southern bit of SA.
• Temperate zones, which experience occasional winter frosts: pretty much the rest of Australia, most of the inland, some of Victoria, most of SA and the southern area of WA.

To find species that suit your area, start hunting at specialist nurseries in your region and visiting gardens in similar climates for ideas (see Australia’s Open Gardens National Garden Guide; www.opengarden.org.au). You needn’t limit yourself to your own immediate region either, it is worth looking to parts of Australia with similar climates for ideas.

Within your garden itself there will be microclimates; areas that receive more or less wind, frost, afternoon sun or water. There are plants suited to each of these if you take the time to do the research.

For every non-native plant that has died in your garden, there is often an Australian equivalent that is better-suited to your conditions; a drought-hardy Dianella instead of that Phormium from rainy New Zealand, for example.

Regional groups of the Australian Native Plants Society (http://anpsa.org.au) can provide great resources and advice for buying and growing suitable species.

Native vs exotic

Should you stick to all natives or plant whatever grows best, no matter where it comes from? Angus Stewart believes it’s not a problem to have some exotic species mixed into your garden.

“I think it’s fine to mix and match because the way I see it at a botanical level is that, whilst a lot of our plants are unique at a species level, we share a lot of common families with the rest of the world.”

“We have native mint bushes and the like, which are part of a worldwide family, the same with daisies, and even the gumtree family. Plants from the same family tend to have similar characteristics, both in appearance and cultural [climate] needs, so it’s quite feasible to mix them up and maintain a harmony, both in their needs, growing-wise, as well as their appearance.”

After all, a plant from Western Australia is as alien to Victoria as Chilean needle grass (Nassella neesiana); the critical point is how invasive they are when transplanted to a new environment.

Some native plants have already proved to be detrimental to ecosystems outside their natural range, and while most nurseries no longer stock these, local fêtes and markets are often hotbeds for the sale of potential problem plants.

“The real issue is plants that are known as environmental weeds, things like lantana and privet and others like Cootamundra wattle, for example, as they have a very high propensity to propagate themselves easily either by seed or their roots,” says Stewart.

“There are certain species, both foreign and native, that do have a tendency to become weeds for this reason. So we should be more vigilant about those species, rather than singling out exotic or native plants in terms of the environmental weed issue.”

The best defence is knowledge, so check with your local council or state Department of Environment to find out which plants to avoid. Weeds Australia (www.weeds.org.au) is a great resource. Compost or dispose of garden waste in council green waste collections – never throw it over your fence into bushland.

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