I’m just back from the Royal Botanic Gardens Cranbourne in Victoria, and with every visit I leave feeling incredibly inspired, but just a little bit sad. Inspired, because they are drop dead gorgeous. I mean absolutely visually stunning. Sad, because most Australians don’t truly appreciate the natural flora of their own country. At least not in a ‘backyard’ sense.
If you have ever doubted the beauty of natives for your garden, I implore you to visit Cranbourne. All your preconceived ideas will vanish. You will be amazed at just how lush, contemporary and easily convertible to a small garden, natives can be.
I’ve put together my thoughts on what I see as the key priorities for designing with natives…..
We have all seen lifeless bush gardens, with leggy, sparse, dull grey, bitty foliage. Think colour! Colour is one of the first things most people notice when they look at any garden. There are many different approaches that can be taken, but here are two broad brush options.
a) Bright greens
If you live in the city, there’s a high chance most people in your street have magnolias and viburnums and other rich greens. I think it’s always best to work with your streetscape if you can; have the best garden in the street, by all means, but complement your surroundings so your garden has a sense of place. You want it to sit comfortably in its environment.
You can achieve this by using natives with similar tones to exotics. Injecting some variety is fine, but keep the overall colour palette along the same broad lines as your neighbours’. A base of bright green, with your favourite colours layered over the top.
b) Coppers, silvers, bronzes
If you are lucky enough to back on to bushland, bring the natural landscape into your garden. Study which colours pop out. There might be metallic themes, white barks, or caramel tones – look hard and you will be able to pick out many shades.
Choose three or four shades and then repeat them as often as you can, selecting plants for foliage, flower, seedhead, berry, stem and bark colour. You can add any number of green shades, as long as the ‘highlight’ colours are repeated often enough. For a garden, these focal colours need to really stand out; concentrate them as far as possible.
2. Contrasting form and texture
Just as important as colour are form and texture and the key word here is contrast. A whole garden of non-descript, small leaved, 1.5m native shrubs is never going to capture the imagination.
Just as with exotic gardens, we need to create a series of complementary combinations; vertical spikes with mounds, furry with glossy, strappy with ovate, rough with smooth, narrow with wide. Our eyes are attracted to contrasts.
Pruning can be used to form contrasts too – tightly pruned mounds look wonderful next to vertical foliage, large leaves and more open forms.
3. Full and healthy
If you only have 20 plants, I would always plant them packed together in one small area, rather than spread out over a larger one. A full garden bed looks generous, vibrant, alive. It accentuates the colours and the contrasts. Do what planting you do well; don’t worry if you need to have larger areas of gravel or lawn – the overall effect will have much greater impact. A lawn or gravelled area looks like it is supposed to be lawn or gravel. An established garden bed with lots of exposed mulch looks like you skimped.
A smaller number of plants, all grouped together, will also be more manageable. Healthy plants make a garden. This means regular pruning, adequate water and nutrients and most importantly, plants that thrive in your climate and conditions. A few, healthy, tightly positioned plants always beats straggly, dotted about plants, regardless of how many there are. (Just be sure to allow enough growing room at planting time!)
If you look on the internet or in magazines, you can quickly find thousands of photographs of beautiful English, Italian or French gardens. It’s only harder for us to create beautiful Australian gardens because it’s a relatively new thing and we don’t have many examples to look at. It is not yet in our DNA. The principles are all the same though.
Look to other countries with similar climates, perhaps South Africa or California, and see how they blend plants. Don’t be hesitant to use their natives as well – the wider the plant palette the easier it is to create those beautiful contrasts and find just the right colours. If you have 30-50% Australian natives it can still feel very Australian.
If your final thought is that it’s all too hard, especially as we rarely create a garden from scratch, please don’t be put off. You don’t have to start again to create an Australian garden, just start adding some natives that work with your existing scheme. Let it evolve. You never know, you might even get the native bug. For many, it crept up on us when we very least expected it!
For more inspirational photos of Cranbourne planting combinations, click here.