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Published June 6th 2012
How is Your Garden Growing? Many people are happy with a garden made from a patch of lawn lined with a few straggly rose bushes, or even box hedge if you have more modern tastes.
Apart from the weekly pain of mowing something you probably only use once a year, your lawn looks awfully similar to your neighbour's. And theirs. You get the drift.
When I moved house I decided to give native plants a go. After all, if they grow naturally in Australia then they should survive anything I (or the dogs) do to them right?
Not only did I want native plants, but preferably plants local to my area too. Why?
1. Best chance of thriving (if it grows naturally...) 2. Attracting local birds, animals and insects 3. Minimising my water consumption
4. Maintaining the character of my local environment
To find out how I did it, read on.
First I got a sheet of graph paper (old school here) and knocked out a rough sketch of how I wanted the backyard to look. A screening of taller (2m) shrubs on the outer periphery to block those nosy neighbours. Inside that a ring of smaller shrubs, and on the very inside, ground covery thingys that would morph into whatever remained of my lawn.
The effect is sort of like a grandstand facing me. Not being great at colour coordination, I thought I would plant purple flowering plants on the right, sweeping through reds to yellow at the opposite end. I'm sure you can do better than that. :)
Once I had an idea of the shape and colour profile for the plants, I needed to know what sort of soil I have, and find out where the sunny parts would be. Knowing the soil type was easy - I had been in the house for a while so I knew that there was a small amount of topsoil before digging down into sticky clay.
As for lighting, I am lucky enough to get full sun most of the day in the area I wanted to plant. And the taller shrubs might cause a bit of shade to my neighbour, but little in my garden.
So how to choose plants to fit the criteria I had identified?
Easy, thanks to the generosity of the creator of APSQuery, a free program which helps find Australian Native Plants to suit specific requirements. The program uses a database created by the Australian Plants Society (S.A), but should be ok for use in similar climates.
Buying and Planting
The next step was easy, heading off to my local native nursery to buy some tube stock - young plants grown in a tall narrow pot to encourage good roots. Tube stock tends to thrive well and is cheap, only a couple of dollars per plant. And if it does die, just get another.
I bought my plants from the excellent State Flora nursery in Belair National Park, but you will find a list of native plant nurseries around Australia here.
Sure you can buy advanced specimens, but why pay more if they are in your backyard and you don't need an instant garden? I did buy a couple of those fancy plants with big labels advertising their delights, but in my experience the lifespan of the plant is inversely proportional to the size of the label (and price of the plant).
Planting was easy. I dug out all the couch/buffalo grass in a 50 cm radius of the seedling, and made sure there was enough soil/potting mix around the roots to thrive when I re-filled the hole.
Maybe a quarter of my plants passed away in the first year. Eaten by dogs or insects, run over by mower, or just didn't thrive. No real problem, they were easily replaceable at the price.
Only one out of several Banksias survived, so I concluded that they didn't like my soil. Unfortunately the one that did really well was located outside my bedroom window, attracting raucous wattle birds from 5am. It didn't survive transplanting
Wattles did great, growing rapidly and providing heaps of colour. Almost too well, as I had planted some too close together and they became a little spindly. Easily fixed with some pruning at the base, and the neighbours were thankful for the firewood.
Bees love wattle flowers, so that has helped my vegie garden too.
I planted one Golden Wattle at the furthest end of the garden, knowing it would become quite tall. But after only 2-3 years it was about 4m tall, had dropped some branches, and was still growing steadily. It had to go, just too large for my block.
Grevilleas have been a great success for me - they were claimed to grow 2m x 2m, but regularly reach past 3m. The flowers are so beautiful in the winter, and I have a family of New Holland Honey Eaters who flit about between them.
New Holland Honeyeater (by JJ Harrison courtesy Wikipedia)
As you can see I didn't get rid of the lawn, but it is smaller. I left the apricot tree in place, as I love the fruit. The smallest plants haven't worked out as they were easily damaged by dogs or mower. I'm not really bothered.
One exception was the Correa Pulchella, a slow growing plant with beautiful delicate bell shaped flowers that survives shade well. It's easily propagated from cuttings, so I now have several of these.
The only unwanted bird I have attracted is the Noisy Miner. It's appropriately named, and seems to harass other birds a lot. Oh well, I can still sit and enjoy a peaceful and pretty garden most of the time.
And my water bill? It's fine. I never water the natives now they are established.
Great article Dave,
We used to live on acreage and planted an extensive native garden. It looked fabulous and was very low maintenance. Our best success was also with grevillias, which all outgrew the predictions and attracted lots of birdlife.
Our current place is unfortunately covered by palms - uugghhh! - not my favourite trees and constantly having to clean up fronds and seeds.