Australian Native Plants: Under Appreciated And Misunderstood

by John L. Mason Dip.Hort.Sc., Sup'n Cert., FCIH, FPLA, FAIH, MISHS, MACHPER, MASA, Principal ACS Distance Education & ACS Garden.  Author of “Growing Australian Natives”, published by Kangaroo Press.

Some gardeners love natives, and others hate them, but few understand them really well. Whatever position you take, native plants are certainly exciting!

There are thousands to choose from, and if you look hard enough, you can find one that suits just about any need you're likely to have for your garden, no matter where in the world you live! Many people have preconceived ideas about natives and may miss some great gardening opportunities as a result.

Five Great Hints for Gardening with Natives 

  • Try plant species that occur naturally in your region, and grow in soils similar to your own (e.g. sandy, clay etc). 
  • Look around nearby gardens and see what they are growing successfully. 
  • Think about how conditions in your garden will change as plants grow. When you start on a new exposed plot of land everything may be in full sun, but as the tall plants grow the low ones will become shaded. It is sometimes better to plant the trees first and hold off planting low shade lovers until a year or two later. 
  • Choose plants for the foliage colours and shapes, not just the flowers. Flowers might only last a few weeks, but foliage can last all year, and sometimes change colour at different times. Many natives (e.g. Banksias) have a stunning variety of foliage effects that can create outstanding feature contrasts all year round. 
  • Don’t just grow them: use them too. Natives can be used for cut flowers, food, firewood, crafts, attracting birds etc. If you choose your plants, you can have a native permaculture garden, vegie garden or herb garden.

Designing a Native Garden: Garden Design Style 

My advice is don’t feel restricted to any style just because you are using natives.

Creating a Natural Bush Garden

This can be anything which attempts to simulate a natural environment. For reduced maintenance, aim to inhibit the growth of unwanted weeds through close planting and mulching. For a wilderness or bush garden, the design must be informal. Consider the whole atmosphere including scents and sounds. The garden should be alive with chatting birds, fluttering butterflies and lizards lounging on warm rocks. Underfoot should be spongy, with mulch smelling of earth and eucalyptus. A bush garden is more than just trees and shrubs. Try to include all of the low-growing plants (e.g. herbs, grasses, and lilies) of the under-storey.

Remember, designing a garden is much harder than painting a picture or decorating a house. You can't simply put any plant anywhere because it looks nice. Tree ferns planted next to a sunny west wall will cook. You are dealing with living, three-dimensional plants which grow and change through the seasons.

Many of the best bush gardens recreate a specific natural habitat, such as the following:

An open woodland with groundcovers, climbers, grasses, shrubs and trees. This is the quintessential bush garden, and is suited to many areas of Australia. The plants typically withstand dry conditions and poor soils, although they will respond well to water and native plant fertilisers. One drawback is that the plants are naturally adapted to bushfires – some contain volatile oils; others contain flammable bark or have other strategies that promote the spread of fire – so this must be considered if you live in an area that experiences bushfires.

An indigenous habitat featuring the full complement of available plants growing naturally in the local area.

A heathland, comprising of mainly shrubs and groundcovers with showy flowers. Many of these plants are from south-western Australia and require well-drained, infertile soils and low humidity. A heathland garden might include dryandras, isopogons, lambertias, epacris and grevilleas.

A rainforest, with ferns, palms, orchids, trees and climbers. A rainforest garden requires a protected position, effective irrigation and improved soils.

An alpine habitat. The higher peaks in Tasmania, Victoria and southern New South Wales contain many small-growing alpine gems. They need low humidity and cool to temperate conditions. Many need excellent drainage, whilst others are adapted to wet, boggy soils. In gardens, they are best grown in rockeries, where they can be appreciated up close, and where their required conditions can be easily maintained.


When designing a native garden consider:

  • How things fit together in the bush – trees, shrubs, grasses, rocks, leaf litter and natural water courses.
  • What makes up a bush garden – not just the plants, but also the native birds and animals, and soil, rocks etc.
  • How you will put it all together and maintain it over time.

Create a Formal Native Garden

Some people may be surprised that native plants can be grown in formal gardens. Formal gardens are characterised by a symmetrical design, straight lines, artificial landscaping materials, and controlled, neat plantings – qualities that we normally think of as being the opposite of natural bush gardens. But there are natives that are ideally suited to this classical and enduring garden style. The key is to use natives that look more like exotic species; for example, natives from the subtropics and tropics with dark green glossy leaves and a naturally compact shape. Plants that have a strong architectural shape, such as Doryanthes and tree ferns, also work well in formal gardens.

Some examples of native plants to use in formal gardens:

Hedges – Lilly Pillies (Acmena, Syzgium spp.), Austomyrtus, Grevillea rosmarinifolia

Edges – Lomandras, dwarf lilly pillies.

Groundcovers – Mazus pumilo, native violets (Viola hederaceae).

Climbers – Pandorea.

Container plants – ‘Bush Gem’ kangaroo paws, topiarised lilly pillies, Ficus.

Feature plants – Doryanthes, tree ferns (Dicksonia antarctica and Cyathea spp.), cycads, palms.


Create a Cottage Garden with Natives

Cottage gardens originated in 17th and 18th century in England as practical and productive gardens around countryside cottages. Today’s cottage gardens are more diverse, with an emphasis on colour and abundance. Spaces are generally small in scale, with a focus on curving lines. Hard surfaces are kept to a minimum and are generally made from natural materials.

Small-growing flowering natives are ideally suited to the colourful cottage garden style. Like the exotic annuals and herbaceous perennials traditionally used in cottage garden plantings, some of the smaller natives flower early and abundantly and, within the first season of growth, will grow rapidly enough to cover any bare patches in the garden bed.

Cottage-style natives can be mixed with traditional exotic plantings or grown purely in native beds. Suitable plants include: Tetratheca, tea tree hybrids, Indigofera australis, Philotheca, Hypocalymma, Bauera, kangaroo paws, grasses and sedges, daisies, Lechenaultia, and small grevilleas, callistemons and melaleucas.


Learn More: Visit ACS ebooks for Specialist Educational Ebooks and Short Courses! 

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Do you love the idea of transforming your outside space with native flora - we encourage you to chat with our friendly and dedicated horticulture team. We love gardens and have so much to share on 

creating garden themes 

choosing what to plant where 

controlling pests and disease 

correct pruning 

Have you got some spare time this weekend?

Delve into any of these online and fully automated courses and start your outdoors make over with our help.  


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