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Local Wildlife and Plants at Home in the Suburban Garden

Debbie McGrath, Candlebark Nursery

In the beginning!

All plants that we purchase for our gardens, were simply plants that occurred naturally somewhere on this planet. Then along came humans, and we started to modify and select and breed and manipulate. So, most of the plants we use today are, for the most part, very different from that which they started out as. And we have continued to modify and change, not only the plants themselves, but also the environment in which they exist. With indigenous plants (that is naturally occurring, local, native plants still managing to survive in the bush somewhere), the environmental and human factors are still contributing in a major way to their growth and evolution.

Although greatly fragmented and for the most part incomplete, our naturally occurring bushland areas support an enormous array of indigenous wildlife. However, since human settlement of this continent, we have continued to try and 'tame' Australia's apparently wild and scrubby vegetation. European gardening and agricultural methods and styles have been adopted and forced upon a land that is so different in every way to the countries of our forbears.

The myth of the 'no maintenance' garden

As we came to know and better understand this great country of ours, we began to notice native plants, and to recognise their significance for use in commercial horticulture. In the 1970's and 80's, we rediscovered 'natives', and they were hailed as 'no-maintenance, bird attracting' options for those of us looking to embrace a more Australian gardening style. Well, we found out the hard way that there is no such thing as a no-maintenance garden. The brightly coloured, nectar-laden waratahs and callistemons certainly attracted the birds, but the tanbark and woodchips were spread all over the place by the blackbirds, and the plants grew woody and leggy. Weeds still popped up in abundance, and the plants weren't all as hardy as we had been led to believe. Watering systems became a must-have in nearly every suburban garden as we struggled to create lush, leafy green growth, so where were the savings on our water bills?

"What we have since discovered is that not all natives will thrive in all the different soil types and diverse climatic regions throughout this huge country."

What we have since discovered is that not all natives will thrive in all the different soil types and diverse climatic regions throughout this huge country. But for soils that haven't been modified too greatly, locally sourced native plants from similar, naturally occurring growing conditions can provide, not only a low cost, low maintenance alternative to commercially grown natives, but can help create a healthy, attractive suburban garden supporting a myriad of local creatures and birdlife.

But I don't like that 'scrubby' look!

Planning a garden to attract and provide habitat for wildlife does not necessarily mean recreating the bush in your backyard. A spirit of creativity and an adventurous attitude to gardening is essential to success, and a commitment to a little regular maintenance will ensure a suburban haven for indigenous plants and animals alike.

Indigenous plants of a local provenance will generally do well in suburban gardens, providing they receive conditions similar to that in which they have adapted to naturally over many thousands of years without our assistance!. One of the secrets of successful indigenous gardening is to ensure good preparation of the area we want to plant, some thought in the choice of plant we use, and a little care and maintenance during and after establishment.

Plant Selection

The easiest way to find out what plants occur naturally in your particular area is to contact the environment, conservation or land management department of your local council and ask for a list of indigenous plants to suit the conditions on your property. Council may also be able to direct you to local suppliers of indigenous plants, or refer you to organisations that may assist you further. In many regions, voluntary community nurseries or commercial indigenous plant growers are very helpful when it comes to advising on choice of plant for a particular situation.

"It is frustrating when a favourite wildflower grows seemingly without effort in the bush, and yet they keep dying on you in your well-tended garden."

A visit to your local bushland reserves during spring will give you an idea of what plants grow in local conditions (how big the plant grows, when it flowers, what colours, shapes and habits each plant has, and more. A common problem encountered with using local, native plants in suburban gardens is knowing what conditions they prefer. It is frustrating when a favourite wildflower grows seemingly without effort in the bush, and yet they keep dying on you in your well-tended garden. Quite often, it is simply a matter of the right plant in the wrong place. Some plants are very particular about things like drainage, amount of sun or exposure, watering or even the presence (or absence) of certain microorganisms in the soil. Some plants have a symbiotic relationship with another plant and cannot survive on its own, such as the native cherry (Exocarpus spp). In this situation, it is most helpful to speak with someone who either grows or landscapes with these plants. There are also many excellent reference books available now, which quite often indicate what local birds, insects and mammals are attracted to the plants in your area. Other useful contacts and ideas are listed below.

Habitat for Wildlife

Something often overlooked when designing a garden to support local fauna, is the provision of plants to encourage insects, frogs and lizards as well as the butterflies and birds. Microclimate, shade and shelter are other important factors to consider. Common statements from clients at our nursery are, "We don't want flies and mosquitoes - that's why we don't have a pond!" or "Why haven't you got any bottlebrushes? I want lots of birds in my garden!"

   Bluetongue Lizard
   A strategically placed water bowl can bring unexpected visitors!

It's easy to overlook the fact that mosquito larvae in your pond will provide culinary delights for frogs, lizards and birds, as long as the plants around the pond provide the right conditions for these creatures to make their home in (or want to visit) your backyard. Recreating natural ecosystems ensures you get the right mix of insects and predators - just like in the bush. A well placed Golden Spray, Viminaria juncea, at the water's edge will ensure many hours of pleasure as your family watches the Eastern Rosellas perched on the slender branches, feeding upon numerous seeds in the early summer months. It's simply a matter of getting to know your local plants and the living communities they support. Mosquitoes are more likely to be a problem in places where stagnant water pools in cleared areas of poor drainage, not in a well designed bog garden or pond with a healthy ecosystem.

Who else will live in my garden?

Many grasses, rushes and lilies provide excellent food and habitat for butterflies and moths. Most local species can be successfully incorporated into the suburban garden, and are often hardy as well as attractive. Plants belonging to the Dianella (Flax-lily), Lomandra (Mat-rush), Patersonia (Purple Flag) and Gahnia families are some of the more well known indigenous plants that are particularly attractive in urban landscapes.

Gahnia sieberana   
Select the thumbnail image or highlighted name for a higher resolution image (51k)   

Spiny-headed mat-rush (Lomandra longifolia) is a local food and habitat plant that supports the Symmomus Skipper (Trapezites symmomus) butterfly. The red-fruited saw-sedge (Gahnia sieberiana) makes a wonderful substitute for pampas grass, (an environmental weed in our bush), and is an important food plant for the Swordgrass Brown (Tisiphone abeona) and Flame Skipper (Hesperilla idothea) butterflies. The tussock-grasses (Poa spp.) are also attractive and hardy garden additions, providing excellent shelter for skinks, lizards and ground-dwelling birds, as well as being food plants for the Eastern Ringed (Geitoneura acantha) and Klugs Xenica (Geitoneura klugii) butterflies.

   Useful Indigenous Plants
   Useful indigenous plants for wildlife habitat in suburban gardens in the Greater Melbourne area include many favourites:

Correa reflexa, Billardiera scandens, Coprosma quadrifida, Acacia spp., Dianella spp., Epacris spp., Olearia spp., Pomaderris spp., Veronica spp., Lobelia spp., Poa spp., Themeda australis, Brunonia spp., Stylidium graminifolium, Arthropodium spp., Diplarrena moraea, Acacia spp., Xanthorrhoea spp., Prostanthera spp., Tetratheca ciliata, Helichrysum spp., Bracteantha spp., Goodia lotifolia, Polyscias sambucifolius, Persoonia juniperina, Leptospermum spp., Melaleuca spp., Kunzea spp., Goodenia spp., Joycea pallida, Danthonia spp., Gahnia spp., Lepidosperma spp., Carex spp., Banksia spp., Allocasuarina spp., Hakea spp., Hardenberia violacea, Kennedia prostrata, Pomaderris aspera, Rubus parvifolius, Bursaria spinosa, and many more.

Similar lists of suitable indigenous plants can be developed for other areas

Recently, we noticed great numbers of a big, black bush fly feeding on the beautiful flowers of the woolly Tea-tree (Leptospermum lanigerum), several feet away from our transplanting area at the nursery. The flies in no way bothered us. It was quite obvious that all they were interested in was obtaining the pollen rewards from this naturally occurring shrub. You can see from this that the insects play an important part in the circle of life. The insects both feed from and pollinate the plants, and are in turn food for larger creatures such as frogs, lizards, birds and small mammals. Some of these creatures also eat the plants or their fruits, as well as assisting in the dispersal of pollen and seed, themselves become food for larger wildlife including the Kestrel and the endangered Powerful Owl. Lest we forget that we are at the very top of the food chain!

Pesky Possums?

Many people living in the suburbs complain of possums living moving into their homes. Generally taking up residence in the roof cavity, possums appear to enjoy creating havoc at night when us humans are trying to sleep, and have a talent for depositing excrement in abundance for all to share!

Why is this so?

Once upon a time, before white man settled in Gondwana, possums frolicked playfully in the bushland, nesting in big, old gum trees and savouring the delicacies of indigenous delights. Then, with the invasion of 'civilised man' something happened in this country called 'urban clearing' and 'progress'. In a little time, and with amazing alacrity, the great majority of these and other creatures lost their homes to our brick veneer culture. Now we have a situation where, like us, the possum is a creature that chooses to live in his own particular neighbourhood. And when someone comes along and removes his home, he doesn't have much choice other than to move into the residence that replaces his own. This usually means less than desirable accommodation standards for both Mr and Mrs Suburbia and their uninvited furry guests.

   Next Boxes for Possums
   Nestbox There are many different types of nest box designs available for all sorts of wildlife, but the main criteria for success here is to ensure the boxes are placed out of easy reach of neighbourhood cats and other predators. Late at night, when the intruders have gone looking for dinner, block off their access points in your roof so they cannot easily find their way 'home'. Soon you'll find they've relocated happily in the abode you've provided, and your family can now enjoy observing these fascinating creatures without wanting to feed them to the neighbour's dog.
   There are several useful resources for nest boxes on the web. For example, the Wildlife Information and Rescue Service (WIRES) has a detailed fact sheet.

The solution....

Preventing the loss of old growth forests and habitat trees would be a great start. But for the average acre homeowner, there are a few simple things we can do to live in harmony with these cheeky bushland inhabitants. If big trees are not an option on your land, think about installing a nest box or three.

Wherever possible, encourage people to leave the canopy trees standing, especially if you live near remnant bushland, and understand that it takes an average of 80+ years for a hollow to form. Even dead trees are especially valuable habitat for mammals and birds alike, so unless they are a real hazard, leave them standing and enjoy nature's visitors to your property.

Lawn Substitutes

Most suburbanites feel their garden is not complete without a grassed area, but Australia is not designed to support the traditionally lush, manicured lawns of cooler climates in other countries. Poor, shallow soils and precious little fresh water dictate open, tussocky structure of the Australian bush 'lawn', but for those who crave of open areas of verdant green we have a solution. Low growing, spreading ground covers such as Viola hederacea (Native Violet), Dichondra repens (Kidney Weed), and Centella cordifolia (Swamp Pennywort), all make excellent, low maintenance lawn substitutes in many situations throughout this region. For a true grass 'lawn', Weeping Grass (Microlaena stipoides) needs only be mown once or twice a year for a pleasant, grassy effect in a semi-shaded situation. Wallaby Grasses such as Austrodanthonia geniculata can also be used to effect a grassy open space, especially where grazing or browsing by wildlife occurs. Of course, most of these lawn substitutes are only up to light or occasional foot traffic, and like any lawn must be weeded from time to time. But it is certainly a great way to obtain 'the look' without the constant effort of watering,fertilising and mowing!

Colour in the Garden

The flora of South-eastern Australia sometimes appears to lack the vivid hues of the West Australian wildflowers, and the spectacular and brightly coloured flowers of some of the Eucalypts are often missed in our local landscape. However, there is much more than mere colour in the creation of a beautiful suburban vista. There are so many shades and shapes, leaf and bark types, habits and forms to consider. Styles of gardening also dictate the types of plants to use, and in any given area there are often many indigenous plants suited to various design purposes like cottage gardens, formal hedging, permaculture, shelterbelts (for farming) and windbreaks.

When choosing plants for your garden, remember to combine a variety of shapes, colours and styles, and look for plants that flower at different times of the year. This helps to keep your garden interesting, not only for the two-legged inhabitants, but also the creatures that are likely to share your little piece of the planet.

Native Weeds!

Acacia podalyriifolia   
The well known Queensland silver wattle is a weed in many parts of southern Australia. Select the thumbnail image or highlighted name for a higher resolution image (52k)   

Not all native plants are suitable for use in suburban gardens, especially if there is some existing remnant indigenous vegetation nearby. In the outer eastern suburbs of Melbourne and the Dandenong Ranges, many native plants introduced from other parts of Australia have naturalised and are rapidly displacing the existing original flora. This problem is occurring all over Australia, but can easily be avoided if we plant only known indigenous species, but this is not always possible or desirable. Once again, check with your local council, indigenous nursery or Department of Natural Resources and the Environment for information on native species that are known environmental weeds in your district, then avoid planting them and encourage others to do the same.

Plant Care and Maintenance

Most indigenous trees need little or no attention once established. Shrubs and herbs, however, generally respond well to a little tip pruning to encourage a good shape, bushiness, more flowers and hence, more wildlife. In the wild, these plants would be grazed by local wildlife, which is nature's method of tip pruning. (Mind you, feral rabbits and goats can do a little more than simply take the tip off the growing stems!) An easy way to know what plants will respond well to the occasional light prune is to take a look at the way the new stems grow. Those plants that put out long, spindly growth without obvious branching lower down the stems, are prime candidates for shaping.

Some species from this region (Dandenong Ranges and Foothills) that respond well are: Indigofera, Spyridium, Gonocarpus, Goodenia, Acacia, Daviesia, Prostanthera, Solanum, Dillwynia, Epacris, Correa, Hibbertia, Platylobium, Pultenaea, Olearia and Billardiera. This list is by no means exclusive, but gives an idea of where to start. Again, local conservationists or indigenous plant suppliers are going to be your best source of information.

Reprinted from the June 1999 issue of Growing Australian, newsletter of the Australian Plants Society (Victoria).


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Australian Plants online - September 2001
Association of Societies for Growing Australian Plants