Garden Design Study Group

Design with Nature - Planting a Native Garden

Lawrie Smith

From the February 2009 issue of the Study Group Newsletter.

First . . .

Record the physical characteristics of your garden whether new or under rehabilitation.

  • Prepare a layout plan showing the size and shape of your block . . .
  • Most important - locate north!
  • Indicate the slopes and levels
  • Indicate the on-site and adjacent structures
  • Show the underground and overhead services
  • Define the landform, rock and soil patterns
  • Locate existing vegetation for preservation

Second . . .

Get to know your site and its surrounds, personally.

  • Illustrate on the layout plan the physical and microclimate impacts . . .
  • Most important - locate north!
  • Assess the patterns of sunshine and shadow
  • Identify the effects of storm, wind, breeze
  • Identify the effects of rainfall and water runoff
  • Identify the positive and negative views
  • Assess the quality of the soils and sub-soils
  • Identify existing vegetation for preservation, transplant or removal

Third. . .

Identify your principal family needs and functions.

  • Define on plan how YOU want to use the garden . . .
  • Assess your budget, priorities and available time
  • Plan for interesting arrival and first impressions
  • Identify vehicle circulation requirements
  • Plan functional and interesting access pathways
  • Define and locate areas for outdoor living activities
  • Plan for children's play facilities
  • Identify areas for work activities in the garden

Don't forget - a garden is an artistic creation that evolves over time.

Fourth. . .

Choose a style and theme for your garden. Your preferred garden character will influence the site planning and plant selection.

  • Is your garden to be . . .
  • Formal, informal, traditional, contemporary or for seasonal horticultural display?
  • Reflect the architectural style of the house?
  • Exciting fusion of plants and materials
  • Bush garden, rainforest, coastal, cottage or ?
  • Collectors, scientific, experimental?
  • 'Walkabout' or stroll garden?
  • New fresh and uniquely Australian!
  • Fundamentally simple, livable and affordable

Fifth . . .

Now you are ready to select plants for your garden.

  • Each plant has differing attributes . . .
  • What is it? - tree, shrub, cover, vine, fern, palm or ?
  • Where is it from?
  • What conditions does it prefer?
  • How big does it grow in nature?
  • Does it adapt to horticultural techniques?
  • Have you seen it thriving nearby?
  • What is its most prominent feature - form, foliage, flowers, fruits, bark or ?
  • Where are the most flowers and colourful foliage displayed and when?

Listen to the Plants!

To help you select the right species, they can tell you about themselves . . .

  • Large leaves = shade tolerance
  • Small leaves = sun preference
  • Thick and waxy leaves = store water for later (water wise)
  • Swollen trunk = store water (drought tolerant)
  • Lignotubers = fire resistance
  • Aromatic = insect resistance
  • Massive seed production = weed potential
  • Grey and silver leaves = sun tolerant and salt resistant
  • Delicate leaves = moisture stress indicator
  • Thorns and spines = wildlife protection and habitat


Trees have a variety of characteristics and functions

  • Evergreen or deciduous
  • Consider root systems
  • Diverse forms: globular, upright, umbrella, irregular, weeping, conical, etc
  • Specimen tree as a feature or focus element: form, foliage, bark, flower , fruit or fragrance
  • Shade tree locate to control sunshine and shadow
  • Multi planted as a grove, forest or windbreak

Palms and Cycads

Palm fronds add a special and unique character to a garden.

  • Size: tall, medium, low
  • Self cleaning or persistent fronds
  • Feather frond or palmate frond
  • Individual specimens
  • Formal avenues
  • Informal groves


Shrubs fulfill some important design functions . . .

  • Size: tall, medium, low
  • Screens and hedges: privacy, conceal, windbreak, filter breeze
  • Feature: form, foliage, flower, fruit, fragrance
  • Shrubbery: foliage contrast, water zone
  • Aesthetic: colour, texture


Covers are diverse in colour, texture and form as well as functionally and structurally useful . . .

  • Dwarf shrubs, mattes, tufts, vines, scramblers, grasses, ferns
  • Erosion control
  • Living mulch
  • Feature plants, seasonal colour

Vines and Scramblers

Vines are functionally and structurally useful . . .

  • Select and locate to maximize flower display - over canopy, under canopy, along stems
  • Shade and shelter: pergola and arbours
  • Softening: fence, walls
  • Maintenance: pruning, woody, fire, tree damage

Five basic planting techniques for any aussie garden -
water wise garden design issues

1. Garden Layout and Maintenance - to simplify and minimise water application

  • Group plants with similar water needs together - Hydrozoning
  • Shallow regular watering (unwise) - encourages roots to remain in the drier upper soil levels
  • Deep soaking watering less often (wise) - draws roots down to permanent reserves of subsoil moisture
  • Apply water deep down in the root zone through a slotted tube (wise) - to replenish subsoil reserves of moisture

2. Soil aeration, fertility, additives;

  • Amend soil texture to improve water absorption and aeration - add sand and organic material
  • Use additives to lock applied moisture into soil so it is progressively available to plants
  • Do not over fertilize and promote soft new growth - can you supply enough water to keep the plant alive?

3. Exposure - sun or shade, air movement;

  • Reduce exposure to sun and minimise moisture loss through transpiration
  • Utilize available shade from house or trees to insulate plants from drying sun
  • Protect plants from excessive air movement to inhibit loss of moisture from foliage
  • Plant windbreaks and water-efficient shade trees to create cool shaded conditions

4. Landform - water runoff and harvesting

  • Form suitable landform to collect surface water to absorb into subsoil and minimise runoff

5. Insulate the garden against the sun

  • Mulch; Mulch; Mulch
  • A minimum of 100 mm of mulch will insulate the soil like a blanket and conserve applied moisture

Choose and use Australian Natives - a basic element for landscape design.

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