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Establishing Australian Plants
- the Water Wise Way

Australia is indeed the lucky country, for it has been blessed with one of the most unique and diverse ranges of native plants to be found anywhere in the world.

Our native plants have adapted, grown and flourished under the wide range of climatic conditions and soil differences that occur throughout this, the driest of all continents.

This guide has been produced to help you establish and grow Australian plants successfully in your garden and be rewarded with years of enjoyment.

Improve your soil

Before you start planting, it is worthwhile to know the type of garden soil you have and to consider ways of improving it.

If for instance you are starting a garden in a new subdivision then chances are that most of the top soil has been removed and you will need to improve the ground before you start planting.

Adding compost and organic matter to your garden helps break up clay soils, improves the water holding ability of sandy soils and encourages worms, which help to aerate the soil.

Drought Proof Your Garden
Chris Jones
Keeping the garden healthy through the Aussie summer can often be an uphill battle, but at least natives are the ideal choice for low maintenance. Instead of exotics and dried up lawns use native plants and grasses as extensively as possible. Our native plants have adapted to our tough environment and encourage and provide a natural haven for our unique Aussie birdlife and other fauna.

The native garden is low in maintenance because it requires fewer fertilisers and much less watering. This is an important point often overlooked by the zealous gardener of exotics, especially as many Australian states now have water restrictions in place. Try to avoid watering in the heat of the day or evening as plants left wet overnight are more prone to fungal diseases. The optimum time for watering is early morning. A longer soaking every few days beats a quick daily spray, and encourages a strong root system. Don't lose water to the wind. Low water pressure and larger droplet size will reduce wastage through wind drift.

Good management of the garden will benefit not only the natives but also the exotics. Plants should be grouped together according to their water requirements. Thirstier plants do better in a cool area at the bottom of an incline or near a watercourse. A mulched garden bed will also reduce water requirements, helping to reduce evaporation and to maintain moisture. Mulches can also restrict weed growth, giving new plants a greater chance of survival. Mulches should be applied early in the season before the hot dry summer months dry out the soil. Aim for a mulch layer about 10cm thick. And then as the long summer days evolve, sit back and enjoy your garden.

From the newsletter of the Wildlife and Native Plants Study Group, Summer 2002/2003 edition.

Group your plants

As you will have noticed, from looking around nurseries and reading gardening books, not all plants like to be grown under the same conditions.

Some plants like the sun, others shade, some grow best in moist soils others prefer it a little on the dry side, some need protection from winds and cold, others thrive in open, exposed positions.

For best results select plants that will grow well in the chosen area, and group plants with similar water and cultural requirements in the same general areas of your garden.

This allows you to keep the plants that need regular watering in one area and to more easily control and gradually reduce the amount of water needed by the majority of sun loving Australian plants.

Planting procedures

  1. Thoroughly soak the soil around the plant in the container.

  2. If you are planting into an established garden bed with well cultivated soil then simply dig your planting hole to the same depth as the container from which you are planting, and a little wider. Fill with water and let it drain.

    If you are planting in a new garden, where little or no soil preparation has been done, it is a good idea to loosen the soil for about 1 square metre and then ideally dig the whole area over to a depth of around 30cm.

    Then make your planting hole the same as for the established garden.

  3. Removal of the plant from the container is easy if the plant is in a pot. Place your hand over the pot surface with the stem of the plant between your second and third finger. Tap the edge of the pot on something solid and remove the plant and soil ball in one piece.

  4. At this point check the roots. Curling roots must be straightened out.

  5. Place the plant in the hole with all the roots pointing downwards.

  6. Gradually fill in the surrounding space with soil and firm down with your hand or foot and make sure the plant finishes up at the same level with the soil as it was in the container.
  7. Thoroughly water your new plant to settle the soil around the roots.

  8. Spread a suitable mulch around the new plant, taking care not to place the mulch right up against the base of the main stem, as this may cause collar rot. For fertilising,consult your local nursery.

Mulch - Mulch - Mulch

Mulch is any material that can be placed on top of the ground that will act as an insulator between the sun's rays and the earth. Mulch reduces the rate of evaporation of water, protects the plant's root system from rapid temperature changes and helps limit the growth of weeds.

So with the ability to fulfil three of the most important roles in development and success of your garden you should mulch at every opportunity.

Mulch can range from old newspapers to straw, leaf litter, bark chips, pebbles and even living native groundcovers.

Note: Moisten the ground before you apply your mulch.

Waterwise Resources On Line
Plants International - a commercial site, not just about natives but good advice anyway.

Melbourne Water - check out the plants database and case studies.

Sydney Water - including a plant selector for various garden types.

Water Wise and Salt Tolerent Plants - Wagga Wagga City Council (pdf file).

Water Wise Gardens - 7 Secrets (pdf file).

Water Wise Publications from Goulburn Valley Water.

Hints on how to be water wise - Hunter Water.

Water Saving Fact Sheets from Southeastern Water.

Waterwise calculator - find out how efficient your water use is.

Train your plants to be water wise

You need to train your plants to be water wise, just the way you would train your pets to behave. The more you give into them, the more demanding and less self supporting they become.

Most plants have been growing under controlled conditions in the nursery, with water sprinklers that come on at regular intervals, sometimes 2 or 3 times a day.

Therefore in order to become less water demanding and more dry period tolerant when you get them home, your plants need to be gradually weaned of their previous high water dependency cycle.

Start the water wise process by:

  • Watering the plant thoroughly at well spaced intervals. Don't give your garden light and frequent sprinklings of water just to " freshen things up".

  • The roots of your plants should be encouraged downwards, as a result of occasional deep watering, rather than upwards as a result of frequent light surface watering.

  • Directing the water around your plants root area, in an imaginary line circling down from the plant's outer foliage. This area is called the plant's dripline.

  • Watering in the cooler parts of the day, early morning is best but probably evenings are most convenient for busy working gardeners.

A friendly word of advice

Australian native plants that are planted out and not properly watered during the first few months will rarely thrive, and may even die, particularly if they are neglected during extended periods of dry weather.

In other words you can't simply dig a hole, plant an Australian native plant, let it dry out, and expect to get the results you are looking for, a healthy garden specimen!

However once properly established, most native plants will grow and thrive in the garden with minimum watering and require very little ongoing maintenance.

By following a few simple procedures you will have a garden with plants that look attractive and use less water.

A water wise plant guide

This table lists a selection of native plants which have shown tolerance of prolonged dry periods - after the plant's initial establishment period.

For best results grow plants with similar needs and water demands in the same areas of your garden.

Based on material produced by the Australian Plants Society (NSW) in 1995.


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Australian Plants online - March 2003
Association of Societies for Growing Australian Plants