Designing a garden with native Australian plants

Posted by on Jul 17, 2012 in Articles | 0 comments

Designing a garden with native Australian plants

Native plants got a bad name in the minds of many Australians after some spectacular mistakes in suburban gardens in the 1970’s. At that time, little thought was given to the suitability of a particular plant to the chosen site, whether in terms of climate, soil or size. As a result, large ghost gums were planted in small suburban gardens, resulting, some years down the track, in cracking of walls and paving, as well as endless disputes with neighbours. In other cases, native plants were simply planted in the ground and then totally forgotten about, the idea being that they were ‘maintenance free’. A few years later, the garden consisted of a straggly, tired mass of unattractive, woody plants.
Fortunately, things have come a long way since those days. Not only is there more knowledge out there amongst nurseries, but many more cultivars of native plants, designed specifically for the suburban garden, have been created. If chosen carefully and placed with an eye for design, native plants can produce a stunningly beautiful garden, with year-round interest (both to humans and animals, particularly birds) with a vivid contrast of colours and textures. In addition, your water bill will be significantly reduced.
The first thing to keep in mind when selecting ‘native’ plants is to put them in context. Australia is a very large continent, equivalent in size to several different countries in Europe. Accordingly, the flora varies tremendously, depending on whether it lives naturally in rainforest country, in dry arid, sandy country, in rich soil with a high rainfall, such as in Tasmania, or in limestone-based soil. In other words factors such as climate, soil type, rainfall, habitat, and the Ph of the soil all contribute to the ideal conditions of growth. Unless you bear these factors in mind, when selecting your native plants, you are bound to experience failure, which not only costs money, but wastes valuable growing time.
Some purists only sanction the planting of species that are indigenous to your particular area. While this is clearly desirable when revegetating land, in my opinion it is not necessary in domestic gardens. As long as you check with your local nursery that none of the species you have in mind has the potential to become an invasive weed, then you have before you a large palette of potential plants to choose from.
In South Australia alone, native gardens can exist in many different conditions. Coastal gardens, of course, have sandy soil, with those closest to the foreshore having the highest content of sand (with the accompanying problem of salt-spray). The Adelaide hills area, on the other hand, generally has good, loamy soil matched by an excellent rainfall. Other areas experience soil that is either rocky with very little top-soil or predominantly clay. Clay soils can suffer from poor drainage, something most native plants dislike. Whether a soil is acid or alkaline is another important factor in determining which plants will grow in your area.
Good drainage is very important for success in growing native plants. In heavy clay soils, the addition of gypsum (1 kg per square metre) and generous amounts of compost can help to improve drainage. Raised beds also improve drainage. If your soil is still slow to drain, then make sure you choose plants that can cope with heavy soils. At the other extreme, sandy soils often drain water and nutrients too quickly. These soils can be improved by the regular addition of compost. As far as Ph goes, if your soil is particularly alkaline or acid, then you need to select native plants that are suited to your particular Ph. For example, some species of grevillea will only grow in acid soils. If your soil is neutral, you generally have a much larger range of plants to choose from.
Below is a list of some of my favourite native plants:
Strappy-leaf plants:

  • Anigozanthus . (Kangaroo Paw) There are many varieties on the market, with differing heights and flower colours. Kangaroo Paw will not last forever – you will probably have to replace them every few years. They like a sunny position in well-drained soil, with the addition of some compost. In spring and summer, they also do need to have some regular water.
  • Dianella. Again, there are many varieties of Dianella, with more and more cultivars coming on the market all the time. They will grow in either full sun or part-shade. Some of my favourites are:
  • Dianella caerulea ‘Cassa Blue’ which has distinctive blue/green foliage and grows to approximately 50cm.       
  •   Dianella ‘Baby Bliss which has blue/green foliage to approximately 30cm
  •   Dianella ‘Utopia’ which has wide blue/green foliage to approximately 50cm.
  • Lomandra. There are many varieties of this evergreen, reed-like plant that is very hardy and thrives on little water.
  • Lomandra ‘Tanika’ has lime green foliage all year round and grows to approximately 600mm x 600mm. It will grow in either full sun or part-shade.


  • Eremophila ‘Kalbarri Carpet’. Another excellent groundcover that grows to about 30cm in height, with silvery/blue foliage. Very drought tolerant.
  • Grevillea Bedspread – a fast growing groundcover that will grow well down steep banks. It spreads to about 2 metres
  • Grevillea Poorinda Royal Mantle – a spreading groundcover grevillea that can cover up to 2 metres.
  • Hardenbergia – can be grown either as a climber or a groundcover. It flowers in winter, and depending on the type selected, can have either purple, pink or white flowers. It is not as drought tolerant as either Myoporum parvifolium or Eremophila ‘Kalbarri Carpet’, preferring a spot slightly protected from the direct searing sun of a South Australian summer, along with regular water.
  • Kennedia beckxiana – vigorous climber/groundcover with red and green pea flowers in late winter/spring.
  • Myoporum parvifolium. This is an excellent, drought-tolerant and low water use groundcover for full sun, that comes in different forms, both in terms of leaf size and colour. Either bright green in colour or purple/green (Myoporum parvifolium purpurea), Myoporum parvifolium is a low growing plant that will cover a large area. The purple/green colour contrasts beautifully with the bright green foliage, for example, of Lomandra ‘Tanika’.
  • Pittosporum tobira ‘Miss Muffet’. This is a tough, low water use groundcover which has a compact growth habit and is grown for its foliage, having unusually shaped leaves, and a lush green appearance. It grows well in all conditions provided it has excellent drainage.
  • Scaevola aemula. (Fan flower) This groundcover grows to approximately 3cm by 5cm wide and has either white or purple (‘Mauve Clusters’) flowers in summer. It is not as drought tolerant as the Myoporum groundcovers, needing regular water. It will also grow in part-shade.
  • Viola hederacea. (Native violet). This underrated groundcover (0.2cm high by 0.5metres wide) grows well in difficult shade conditions. It has attractive purple and white flowers in late spring and early summer.

Shrubs – under 1 metre

  • Acacia cognata ‘Green Mist’ – an excellent shrub with soft, mid-green, weeping foliage that grows to approximately 1 metre by 1 metre.
  • Eremophila glabra compact grey ‘Silver Ball’ – a low-growing eremophila, to between 80 and 100cm, with grey-blue foliage and yellow flowers in winter.
  • Grevillea rhyolitica (Dewa grevillea). Small shrub to 1 metre that will grow in quite shady areas.
  • Leptospermum ‘Nanum Rubrum’ A dwarf ti-tree with greeny-red foliage and red flowers in winter/spring.
  • Leucophyta brownii (Cushion Bush) A shrub to approximately 1 metre with distinctive silvery foliage. “Silver Clouds’ is a compact form of this species. Cushion Bushes are extremely drought and heat tolerant and look fantastic if planted in combination with other bright green or purple/red coloured native plants.

Shrubs to 1-1.5 metres

  • Acacia glaucoptera (Clay wattle). As the name suggests, this shrub prefers loam or clay soil. It is a spectacular shrub with distinctively shaped blue/green leaves, with a red tinge to new growth. Its beauty lies in the plants itself, although it is also very attractive in flower. At this time, the yellow flowers appear along the length of the leaves. The other good thing about the clay wattle is that it responds well to pruning.
  • Chamelaucium Geraldton Wax. There are many different cultivars of Geraldton Wax plants, which originate from Western Australia.
  • Dodonaea stenozyga (Hop bush) An unusual shrub with feathery foliage to approximately 1- 1.2 metres with red flower-like winged capsules in winter.
  • Eremophila maculata . A sometimes temperamental shrub to 1 metre with decorative red flowers over a long period. Prefers full sun.
  • Grevillea ‘Fireworks’. A small grevillea to 1 metre with red/yellow flowers all winter.
  • Hakea ‘Burrendong Beauty’. A shrub with attractive green leaves, and red ball-like flowers in profusion from about mid-winter. It grows to between 1 and 1.5 metres high.
  • Melaleuca ‘Green Globe’ compact. An evergreen shrub with soft, green foliage and white bottle-brush like flowers in summer. It grows to approximately 1.5metres x 1.5 metres.
  • Melaleuca thymifolia ‘White Lace’. A shrub to approximately 80cm with white flowers in late winter/spring. This shrub appreciates some water and a light prune after flowering.
  • Philotheca myoporoides – an attractive shrub with star-shaped flowers in later winter/spring and smelling leaves. Likes some protection from hot sun. There are quite a few different cultivars on the market now.
  • Thryptomene saxicola. FC Payne. An arching shrub to approximately 1 metre with pink flowers in winter.

Shrubs to 2 metres

  • Acacia acinacea. 1-2m x 1-2m. An ornamental, fast-growing wattle that is not too big for a suburban garden.
  • Adenanthos cunninghamii ‘Pillar form’ (Woolly bush). The pillar form of this shrub grows to approximately 1.5metres high by 1 metre wide. It has soft needle-like foliage and red flowers. It appreciates a prune after keep it in shape.
  • Chamelaucium uncinatum (Geraldton Wax). 2-3m x 2m. This attractive species from Western Australia has a fairly open habit and aromatic leaves. There are many cultivars on the market as its flowers are very popular as cut flowers. Flower colour ranges from white to pink to purple. It responds well to tip-pruning and can also be used as a screening plant. It is also happy in part-shade.
  • Eremophila nivea. (Emu bush). This shrub has distinctive silvery blue foliage and purple flowers in spring/summer. It grows to 2m by 1.5m and appreciates a good prune after flowering to prevent woodiness.
  • Grevillea Superb. A spectacular form of grevillea that grows to approximately 2m x2m
  • Senna artemisioides subsp. Artemisioides. A drought tolerant shrub to approximately 2m x 2m with silvery blue foliage and yellow flowers in winter.

Plants for hedges

  • Acmena ‘Allyn Magic’. A low-growing form of lilly-pilly to approximately 45cm, with attractive reddish coloured new growth. Prefers some protection from full sun and needs regular water in summer.
  • Acmena smithii var. minor. A form of lilly-pilly with glossy green foliage that can be hedged to between 2and 3 metres x 1-1.5 metres wide.
  • Calothamnus quadrifidus (dwarf) – A beautiful shrub in its own right, Calothamnus can also be successfully hedged. It will grow to approximately 1.5m x 1-1.5 metres if hedged.
  • Correa – There are many different varieties of Correa and, planted close together, they make an attractive, low, evergreen hedge. They also grow well in part-shade conditions. Some of the varieties that I have had success with include Correa pulchella and Correa alba var.pannosa.
  • Dodonaea viscosa (Hop bush). Can be trained as a hedge, growing to 1.5metres x 1 or more metres wide. Dodonaea viscosa purpurea is a version with copper coloured foliage.
  • Grevillea olivacea. A hardy grevillea that has low water requirements, will grow in full sun and is fast-growing. It can be hedged to between 2-3metres x 1-2 metre.
  • Melaleuca nesophila (dwarf) An attractive hedging plant with soft purple ‘pom-pom’ flowers. Hardy and can be hedged to between 1.5 and 2metres x 1.5 metres.

Feature large shrubs and small trees

  • Acacia argyrophylla (Silver mulga). 2-5 x 2-6. An attractive wattle with an upright growth habit that has blue/green foliage and yellow flowers in late winter/early spring. It is also fast-growing.
  • Alogyne hakeifolia – an open shrub, 2-3metres x 2-3 metres with stunning flowers in winter. Depending on the type selected, flowers can be yellow or purple. Cultivars such as ‘Melissa Anne’ grow to about 2 metres x 1.5 metres and has purple flowers, while ‘Elle Maree’ grows to approx. 2.5m x2m, with attractive pale yellow flowers.
  • Eucalyptus, grafted. These trees have been grafted to produce trees that grow to only between 5-6 metres. Examples include Corymbia ficifolia “Wildfire” (scarlet flowers), Corymbia ficifolia “Wild Sunset” (orange flowers) and Corymbia ficifolia “Calypso” which has pale pink flowers.
  • Grevillea – There are an enormous range of Grevilleas, ranging from medium in height to trees. Care needs to be taken to select a Grevillea that is suitable in basic height and width to what you require. Having said that, Grevilleas respond well to pruning.
  • Grevillea hookeriana ‘Red Hooks’. An extremely hardy and decorative grevillea with red flowers over a long period. It will grow to approximately 3-4 metres high.
  •  There are also a number of standard grafted Grevilleas available, with single trunks approximately 1.4 to 2 metres above ground level. These make a very attractive addition to a garden. Some examples are ‘Aussie Crawl’, ‘Billy Bonkers’, ‘Royal Mantle’ and ‘Bronze Rambler’
  • The other thing to watch out for with Grevilleas is that some of them have specific requirements when it comes to Ph. (You can buy a DIY Ph testing kit from most nurseries and some hardware shops).
  • Hakea laurina. (Pin cushion Hakea). This stunning small tree ( 2-5 metres x 3-4 metres) has interesting leaves and beautiful red and yellow ‘pin cushion’ flowers in autumn/winter. Can by pruned to one upright trunk.
  • Hakea petiolaris. (Sea-urchin Hakea). This small tree grows to approximately 3-5 metres by 2-3 metres. It has blue/green leaves that are an unusual oval shape and ‘sea-urchin’-like cream flowers in late autumn and early winter. It needs well-drained soil that is slightly acid.
  • Hymenosporum flavum. (Native Frangipani). This tree will grow to approximately 8 metres by 3 metres. Although it does not need an excessive amount of water, if not given enough, it can take on a rather sparse appearance. Thus, it is important to provide enough water, particularly in summer, so that this plant will look its best – lush and green with generous amounts of foliage.
  • Templetonia retusa (Cocky’s Tongue). Large shrub or small tree with red pea flowers in winter to early spring.

Plants for pots

  • Acacia glaucoptera – see description above
  • Acmena smithii var. minor. See description above.
  • Grevillea hookeriana ‘Red Hooks’. See description above.
  • Leptospermum ‘Nanum Rubrum’ . See description above.
  • Lomandra Tanika. See description above.
Creating a  native Australian garden

Grafted standard grevillea

Picture of a grafted standard Grevillea




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