Exotic or Native Plants for the Garden?

We don’t really like natives.  What we like is big, showy flowers,


Rhododendron lochiae Photo: Jim Mackay

bright, dense, glossy shrubs,


Rhododendron lochiae

deciduous trees to let light through in winter,

Ficus superba var. henneana

Ficus superba var. henneana

plants that grow densely creating high impact,


Microsorum diversifolium

brightly coloured, flowering climbers for screening,


Pandorea pandorana

strong, wide, strappy textures,


Dietes robinsoniana

exotic, tropical touches,


Dendrobium kingianum cv.

architectural plants with symmetrical form,


Xanthorrhoea sp.

and wide, lush, shade-loving foliage.


Curculigo ensifolia var. ensifolia

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 Botanic Gardens

Royal Botanic Gardens Cranbourne


Botanic Garden - Cranbourne

Royal Botanic Gardens Cranbourne

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.


Anigozanthos (Kangaroo Paws) at Sylvan Grove, Picnic Point

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.


Lush, mixed ferns and palms at Sylvan Grove, Picnic Point

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.

Suburban garden inspiration at the Royal Botanic Gardens Cranbourne

Suburban garden inspiration at the Royal Botanic Gardens Cranbourne

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.

Creating a garden room with natives at the Royal Botanic Gardens Cranbourne

Creating a garden room with natives at the Royal Botanic Gardens Cranbourne

Another expert who is great with natives, is embarrassingly the English designer, Andrew Fisher Tomlin.

Andrew Fisher Tomlin and Tom Harfleet 'September Skies'

Andrew Fisher Tomlin and Tom Harfleet ‘September Skies’ at the Australian Garden Show Sydney 2013

Andrew seems to get the colours just right, blending light with dark and muted with bright in perfect proportions.

Andrew Fisher Tomlin's 'The Unexpected Garden' at the Australian Garden Show Sydney 2014

Andrew Fisher Tomlin’s ‘The Unexpected Garden’ at the Australian Garden Show Sydney 2014

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:


Dendrobium speciosum (Sydney Rock Orchid)


Ferns catching the pockets of light


Dracophyllum secundum


Beautifully textured fern


Platycerium (Stag Horn) and Asplenium (Bird’s Nest) ferns


Cyathea tree fern


Rhodendron lochae and Asplenium


Unfurling new growth of bracken


The giant, flowering Gymea lily (Doryanthes)


The rich yellow flowers of Senna odorata


Who can resist the beautiful waratah? (Telopea ‘Shady Lady’) Photo: Jim Mackay

2 thoughts on “Exotic or Native Plants for the Garden?

  1. Adriana Fraser says:

    Agreed Janna! We have no excuse now not to include natives in our gardens – what with the amazing range of well-bred cultivars and species at our fingertips. Paul Urquhart’s book the ‘New Native Garden’ (published 15 years ago) was so ahead of its time that you can open it today and see designs that you would believe were done just yesterday. This was the first book to inspire me towards natives in general design. Adriana Fraser

    • jannaschreier says:

      Yes, Paul’s book is excellent, isn’t it? I read it about four years ago – would probably be a good time for me to revisit it again – you take different things from a book at different stages of your thought process, I think.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s