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Getting Started 1: Myths and Fables

Based on a series of short article aimed at the new grower of Australian native plants. The original series was written by the late Arthur Cooper and appeared in the newsletter "Native Plants for New South Wales" in the early 1970s. It was subsequently updated and reprinted in the same newsletter in 1990-91.

A generation ago, most people said that Australian native plants couldn't be grown in gardens. Nowadays, thousands of people are growing them with pleasure and satisfaction. Some people are having failures and, when you analyse these failures, many of them are seen to be due to believing old ideas; so before we turn to 'getting you started' we must clear away some of the myths and fables.

People will give you rules which they say apply to 'all native plants'; but Australian native plants are so many and varied, some from the desert, some from rain-forests, some from the mountains, some from fertile plains, There are no universal rules; don't trust anyone who says 'with native plants you must always do this or that.....'

Growing native plants is easy because we're growing them in their natural environment

Nonsense! Deep in the bush, they are indeed growing in their natural environment, but it only takes small changes to upset the growing conditions. Make a few paths; clear away some 'rubbish' so that you can see your favourite plants more easily; feed a tree or two; build a nearby house. You will be removing many unknown factors on which the life of these plants depended. As a gardener you must try to replace these missing factors.

Bush sand is the only soil suited to native plants

Many Sydney pioneers found the local plants growing in sand, and assumed that this was the only soil in which they would grow. If they'd lived in Adelaide or Melbourne (or even some other parts of the Sydney area!) they would have found them growing happily in clay; in other places, in deep black loam. There's nothing magic about 'bush sand'. And remember that, in the bush, the meagre stock of plant food in the soil is continually being topped up by the rottable organic matter that fails into it. Make a garden bed out of it bush sand and, within months, the nutrients will have been washed out and the sand which is left will support very little.

Never use fertilisers on native plants

Fertilisers applied by the handful, as most gardeners do, will cause trouble. Small doses of good general fertilisers, especially during the 'growing season', will work wonders. SMALL doses! The safest fertilisers, particularly for pot plants, are the 'slow-release' type such as 8-9 month Osmocote or Nutricote. Some plants (such as those in the Protea family, which includes Banksia, Grevillea and Hakea) resent excess phosphorus. It's is possible to buy low-phosphorus versions of the slow-release fertilisers.

You never need water native plants

Many species, from those areas which have long dry spells have evolved roots which allow them to survive. The important word is 'survive' and if you want them to grow well and not just to stay alive, you had better water them before they are distressed - a good occasional drenching, right down to the deep roots. Never give them the light sprinkling that average gardeners tend to apply. Also, even plants from dry areas need water until they are well established..

Native plants grow in the shade in the bush; never plant them in full sun

Well that's just not true for plants from arid and desert areas. Many others will survive in shade, a surprising number will stand full sun. Some of the best flowering species demand it to produce a colourful display.

Never prune native plants

A few, a very few, species won't stand pruning but most are much better for it. Many of them will grow into untidy leggy shapes unless you cut them back. Callistemons (bottlebrushes), for example, should have their dead flowers and stems cut off and they'll quickly flower again. This also eliminates formation of permanent seed capsules which some people find untidy.

Native plants must be planted out small

....but you'll have a long wait before you get a garden of big plants, You can plant out much bigger ones, provided

  • they have been grown in big enough pots (and an advanced plant needs very big pot if it isn't to be pot-bound) or,
  • if it is pot bound, you are prepared to some some root pruning to allow new roots to penetrate into the soil.

A final thought; Most species are extremely variable; humans are all Homo sapiens, but we're far from all alike, Similarly, just to give one example, some Callistemon citrinus are big shrubs, rather leggy, with a sprinkling of flower; others of the same species are just as big but thick-set and completely covered with flowers. The best nurseries propagate only from the best stock; so buy with care.

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Australian Plants online - June 1998
The Society for Growing Australian Plants