In the 1970s native plants became all the rage. Giant gum trees grew up to dwarf tiny terraces in totally unsuitable urban situations. Grevilleas were used to create almost instant gardens, but quickly became scrawny and unattractive. Other showy plants had a brief period of glory before dying completely. Bad experiences like these caused many to swear off native plants altogether and it’s only recently that they’ve made a comeback to popularity.

One of the best ways to grow a successful garden in our climate is by blending native plants with introduced species. This gives you the best of both worlds. Indigenous birds and other native animals are attracted to native plants in the garden. Some feed on the nectars produced by the flowers. Others benefit by taking shelter in bushy native shrubs. The insect populations that live in harmony with indigenous trees and shrubs also become a source of food for insect-eating birds.

In recent years native plants are being grown in ever-increasing numbers in Australian gardens. Not only are native plants attractive in their own right, they have become conditioned over thousands of years to withstand the vagaries and the harsh realities of our climate. The practice of mixing natives and exotics in home gardens can produce delightful results, as both have much to contribute to garden layouts in form, colour and visual effect. 

But in those intervening decades the plant breeders have been busy and have developed improved varieties of many of the most popular native plants. Here are some groups to look out for:

Lillypillies

Lillypillies now come in such a wide range of sizes there’s one to suit almost every situation. Tiny Trev stops at about 75cm, while Allyn Magic can get a little larger. Both can be shaped into low, formal hedges. The riberry, Syzygium leuhmanii, is a small tree lillypilly with white flowers, bright, pink-red new foliage and colourful berries. Cascade is a cross between the riberry and red-flowered Syzygium wilsonii so, unsurprisingly, its powder-puff flowers are a medium pink.

Most lillypillies need reasonable watering while they establish and a not-too-cold climate as they don’t like heavy frosts. Use Yates Waterwise Water Storage Crystals at planting time and apply a soil wetter to the top of the root area after planting. Try to choose lillypillies that don’t suffer from the disfiguring pimple psyllid pest. If you do see tell-tale psyllid bumps on the new growth, spray with Confidor on a regular basis. It won’t fix already-damaged leaves but will stop the pest from spoiling subsequent growth.

Bottlebrush

Citrinus-type bottlebrushes like Endeavour are mostly upright, medium-sized shrubs with flat leaves that do indeed resemble those of citrus. Viminalis bottlebrushes have finer, softer leaves and tend to have weeping branches. One of them, King’s Park Special, grows to small tree size and produces an outstanding display of bright red flowers. Compact Little John (to 1m) has deep red blooms that sit in the grey-green foliage. The species Callistemon salignus, with its weeping habit, has charming, creamy-white, brush flowers but is particularly loved for its pink new growth.

Bottlebrushes are incredibly hardy and will take wet or dry positions. Watch for sooty mould blackening the leaves. An occasional spray with Confidor or Scale Gun and a feed (Dynamic Lifter or Yates Blood & Bone) during the growing season will help keep the plants healthy. All bottlebrushes love to be cut back after flowering. This encourages new growth and prevents the formation of the unattractive, long-lasting, woody seed pods on certain species.

Grevillea

There are so many grevilleas – more than 250 in nature – that it’s hard to know where to start. Robyn Gordon, the hybrid that’s been available for more than 30 years, flowers non-stop, as do its close relatives Ned Kelly and Superb. All three stay under 2 metres. Grevillea Moonlight is a larger shrub with brushes of pale lemon blooms that glow in the evening, just like a new moon. These large-flowered grevillea hybrids won’t cope with very cold conditions. For frosty areas it’s best to choose spider-flowered varieties like Scarlet Sprite or Pink Pearl (also known as Canberra Gem).

Caring for native plant

Water plants well in the early stages. Most don’t need much watering once they’re established, but make sure that the area around the base of young plants remains grass-free. A layer of organic mulch over the root system will retain moisture and nutrients.

Feed potted natives with a gentle, controlled release fertiliser like Nutricote. Trees will appreciate an annual light dressing of Dynamic Lifter pellets in early spring.

Control most sucking insect pests with low toxic Confidor. This systemic insecticide will give long-lasting protection from a wide range of nuisance insects and, once it’s established within the plant, it won’t harm garden friendlies.

HINT: Kangaroo paws like plenty of rain or watering from May to September. If winter is too dry for them, the flowers will turn brown before opening.


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