We don’t really like natives. What we like is big, showy flowers,
bright, dense, glossy shrubs,
deciduous trees to let light through in winter,
plants that grow densely creating high impact,
brightly coloured, flowering climbers for screening,
strong, wide, strappy textures,
exotic, tropical touches,
architectural plants with symmetrical form,
and wide, lush, shade-loving foliage.
You have probably guessed by now. All of the above plants are indeed natives. So why do we not like them?
I think it unfortunately comes down to the fact that we have all seen too many bad examples of ‘bush’ gardens. Mention the word ‘natives’ and we envisage drab, grey, lacklustre, leggy, sprawly, leafless shrubs sitting on top of a knee height mulch of gum debris. It is hardly inspiring.
But as these photos show, it really needn’t be like that. Even if we want our bright green, showy flowers garden, we can have it with natives. And there are other very appealing, creative options for designing with our indigenous plants.
On a broad scale, there are two large native gardens that have had a major influence on my thinking. The first is the Royal Botanic Gardens Cranbourne in Victoria, which takes my breath away every time I see it. Even my plant-neutral, English father, who had to be dragged there kicking and screaming came out saying that it was ‘really quite something’ – big words for him to say about a garden.
Cranbourne actually won the 2013 ‘World Landscape of the Year’ award at the World Architecture Festival. It is outstanding.
I wish there wasn’t a ‘but’, but there is. Whilst there is a wealth of inspiration that can be drawn from here, you are always conscious of the fact that this is a $50m project, put together by world class experts. How on earth do we scale back to our gardens and our budgets and still have the same impact?
The second garden that has had a big impact on me goes some way towards answering that question. Sylvan Grove in Picnic Point is the site of all the natives pictured above. It covers 1.5 hectares and is maintained and developed by just two staff members, Jim and Simone.
I visited this week and was guided by the extraordinarily knowledgeable Jim Mackay. It was the first time I had seen anything of this scale and quality that had been produced on a such low budget and it made it feel all the more achievable. I encourage anyone from Sydney to drive out there and take a look.
In translating this to the average suburban block size, we can find further examples to learn from. The Cranbourne gardens very helpfully have a number of suburban size gardens within the grounds, showing just what can be done. The photo below shows an example and whilst I visited very shortly after it had been planted, you can imagine how it will fill out to create a beautiful, contemporary garden.
The second photo from Cranbourne shows how natives can be used in innovative ways, in this case to build a garden room, surrounded by espaliered trees (again, only recently planted). Cranbourne does hard landscaping exceptionally well, which I feel is a key factor in its success. The structure is fantastic, both at a micro and macro level and everything is clean, strong, and highly creative. It sets the plants off fabulously and takes us way away from our ’70s bush gardens.
Another expert who is great with natives, is embarrassingly the English designer, Andrew Fisher Tomlin.
Andrew seems to get the colours just right, blending light with dark and muted with bright in perfect proportions.
He mixes natives with exotics to find optimal combinations, exactly as I believe we should do in our gardens. So often we seem to be 100% exotic or 100% native, which is total madness. I don’t know any other country with such a strong tendency towards this.
I have written before (Are We Seeing a New Australian Aesthetic?) about the positives of having a garden that fits with our country and its landscape. With a bit of thought we can create gardens with fabulous colours (from whichever palette we so choose), contrasting forms and textures and a strong sense of place which, incidentally, has side benefits of lower irrigation and fertilisation needs.
So get to Sylvan Grove, borrow a book from the library on native plant care and start blending them into your garden. Oh, and please send me the photos when you do!
PS If you are still not convinced, here are a few more from the spectacular Sylvan Grove: