Nurturing your native garden
Just how much maintenance do you need in a native garden? Robyn Deed gets some tips from landscaper Haydn Barling on how to sustain a beautiful, biodiverse garden in the suburbs.
Native (particularly local indigenous) gardens have a lot to offer for urban gardeners. As global warming effects escalate and critters including beneficial insects and bees are under threat from pesticides, drought and horrific events like Australia’s recent bushfires, contributing to biodiversity in our suburbs becomes even more important. Using local plants brings with it food and shelter for native insects and animals, adaptation to the local climate and soils, and often low water requirements. And there are so many beautiful plants to experiment with!
Local indigenous plant nurseries can help with plant selection, but what about when it comes to maintenance? There’s a wealth of information around on when and how to prune your roses, fruit trees or hydrangeas, but you have to dig a little deeper to find information on the maintenance requirements of specific native plants. Do they even need maintenance at all? I sat down for a chat with landscaper Haydn Barling, who specialises in native garden design, to pick his brains about how he approaches maintenance in the gardens he works on.
Get to know your own garden
The main point that Haydn stresses several times throughout our chat is that you need to get to know your own garden, and adapt to the seasons—and their changes with global warming as well. He says, “There is an intimacy to be had with your own garden and its microclimate. Plus you’ve got to watch the seasons as, combined with the vigour in a plant, they’re going to dictate when and how much to do.”
Haydn notes that there are some general maintenance rules that apply for different types of plants, but that your approach will also depend on what type of garden you’d like. If you want something that looks perfect most of the time, you’re going to need to do a lot more work (and perhaps think about getting a professional gardener!). But if you’re prepared to have a bit more wildness, say some drier material such as browning kangaroo grass stalks, then the maintenance you’ll need to do is much more manageable. Rather than aiming for neatness, this sort of maintenance is about promoting plant longevity and ensuring that your garden looks as good as possible over as much of the year as possible.
Trees will tend to look after themselves, whereas shrubs and groundcovers need a bit more work, he says. But he stresses not to be scared of pruning, as it’s a faster cycle with many of these smaller plants. And you can do small parts of the garden at a time: “If your whole garden is looking great and one thing is cut back, it just means your attention is drawn somewhere else.”
Haydn says it’s good to do maintenance on your shrubs and groundcovers around three times a year to keep them healthy and looking good: a plant-specific prune in early to mid autumn responding to its growth habit and current condition, a big prune in early spring to promote good health and shape, and a tip prune or a ‘survival’ prune in late spring.
“If you don’t do it, what happens is your garden looks great for the first year, then in the second year it’s still looking pretty good. By the third year, some of the plants are getting a bit straggly, but still looking pretty full. But come the fourth year, it’s getting out of control. People will get us in to prune then, but it’s all so leggy that it’s hard to get the plants back into a nice shape without a lot of hard work. So you can lose a lot of the beautiful understorey of your garden.”
To help understand how to address maintenance for some common types of native plants, we walked around my garden in Melbourne’s inner northern suburbs to look in more detail at a few examples.
The first plant we look at is Chrysocephalum apiculatum, also known as common everlasting or yellow buttons. It’s a terrific daisy-like plant that’s indigenous to many places in southern Australia. On Wikipedia, it says it grows well in light, well-drained soils, but it’s also doing a good job in my garden’s heavy clay. Haydn says he finds this plant copes really well with a beating from full sun (which is what mine gets); he notes that plants with bluey-grey foliage often do well in such situations. (Another example is Correa alba, with its bluey-grey rounded leaves, which is planted in the most exposed spot in my garden. “It’s a coastal plant, used to being exposed to the sun and lashed by salt-laden winds,” says Haydn, “so yes, it’s tough!”)
My Chrysocephalum are into their second summer and have spread quite a bit from the original three tube plants. I cut them back a little last year in autumn, but wasn’t quite sure whether that was the right time, or how much to cut.
Haydn explains that this plant spreads in several ways: it grows back from the original stems as well as from seeds, and also propagates underground. He says pruning even in summer is unlikely to harm this particular type of plant, but if you time it well, you’ll get a better result. “You could cut back some of the dead tips now [in February], but I generally wouldn’t prune hard until autumn, because you want the plants looking good over winter and not exposed to unnecessary shock.”
Haydn suggests timing your post-summer pruning around a ‘break’ in the season, when you know you’re no longer going to get consecutive hot days—though “an aberration of one day in the mid-30s isn’t going to be a problem.” This is about looking for the optimal time to avoid putting the plants in shock or stress: “It’s unlikely to harm them to do it earlier, but you’ll likely get a better result if you avoid that stress.”
Often the advice is to do this sort of cutting when the plants finish flowering, but some of these daisy-like plants never seem to completely finish. Haydn agrees: “I’m finding that with the weather we’re having these days, the seasons seem to get confused. I see flowering, then dieback, then more flowering. The trick is being very adaptive to what’s happening with the weather. We’ve had a good season this year in Melbourne, with quite a bit of rain, so if you’d asked me to come and give the garden a once-over I’d be fairly confident to take a good whack off these plants. They’ll look a bit sparse at first, but in the next couple of months they’re going to get nice regrowth and then for all of winter they’ll stay contained and green.”
So how does Haydn approach the actual pruning? He says: “As Chrysocephalum grows, you get an understorey happening and that starts to die out by this time of year. But there is new growth appearing low down, even on the stalks that look dry. Some people are really brutal with cutting back and that’s not great if it’s done at the wrong time. You can end up with your garden looking ‘naff’ all winter, for six or seven months. It’s not going to hurt the plants as they’ll sit dormant, but I think it’s better to go about it in a way that keeps them looking as good as possible for the longest time.
“While I say you don’t want to be brutal, you also don’t want to be too shy. With a plant such as Chrysocephalum, what I do is to follow the stem around to find where it comes from, and elevate it to check underneath. If there’s any dead undergrowth, I take that out, as it tends to hold moisture and promote rotting which means you then get dying out from the crown. Then, with stems that are looking good, I might cut back about 50% of the length. With the ones that have more dieback, I might leave a small amount or I might cut it all the way back to the ground.”
Once cut, there won’t be more flowering on those stems, but there will be some regrowth—a bit of bushiness—and stimulation in the roots as well. “It really gives the plants another burst of energy to put into the areas that need it,” says Haydn. “Then in spring, if they’ve had a lot of growth I wouldn’t cut them, I’d just enjoy them! But if there’s a plant that’s starting to get a bit leggy then I might cut it back. It depends on what you want for your garden.”
Haydn stresses that it’s a learning process for him as well. He points out a nearby scaly buttons plant (another daisy-like plant) that has dieback on top. “I’d take that dead bit off, either now in February or in early autumn, but leave a bit to protect the lower green growth. And then I’d watch what happens. If I see nice new growth that’s great, but if it dies off instead, I’d leave it to recover and that would teach me to leave a bit more next time.”
Next we discuss another plant, the groundcover Calocephalus lacteus (also called milky beauty-heads), which has profuse flowers and has spread around a path, but has some long leggy bits.
He says, “As much as it looks really great, at some point this sparse leggy part is going to be a problem. That legginess probably started in spring and, if you’d picked it up then, you could have cut it back to keep it looking bushier and greener. I wouldn’t prune right now as you’d lose all the flowers on the ends; I’d wait until autumn and choose where to cut to minimise the visual effect. Pick areas where you can sacrifice some of the plant’s volume comfortably: you could prune quite hard where there are other plants nearby and maybe leave a little bit towards the path as it looks lovely there. It’s alive, so you just need to restimulate it.”
Haydn isn’t experienced with milky beauty-heads, but he notes: “Even if I’m not familiar with a particular plant, I can look at its habit and make choices based on what I know about other species with similar habits. Without doing four or five years at Burnley [horticultural college], that’s the way to do it—try it and learn!” Even with plants he knows well, their growing conditions may be different in a particular garden, or a hotter, drier or wetter season can change how a plant responds. So it’s a matter of watching and adapting.
With small shrubs, generally regular tip pruning after flowering keeps them in shape. I ask Hadyn about a small shrub that’s struggling in my garden: a beautiful low-growing hakea which is planted in a seemingly cursed spot that’s previously ‘taken out’ an indigofera. It has leaves along its long drooping branches that have died, but also has some new green growth at the ends. How do you fix something like that?
Haydn says, “First, it may just not be suited to this spot or the soil. I can see you’ve added manure and compost, and it may not like that; arid climate plants like hakeas don’t want fertiliser. The soil looks quite nice so I’d just add a good layer of mulch to retain water and prevent the soil baking or becoming hydrophobic.”
Looking more closely at the hakea, he adds: “It is recovering—see these green bits on the ends. And there’s new growth down low too. So you work with that. I would cut back several of the longer branches by about 30% to 50%, above a green node; perhaps be a bit harsher in some spots. You can see the base is starting to fill out a little, so we want to stimulate that by the cutting. And, for a tough full-sun spot like this, think about creating a canopy to give some protection.”
Native grasses may need maintenance after just a year or so. They get flowering stalks that then dry off, which can look good, but also messy. And kangaroo grass (Themeda triandra) can get enormous. Last spring, I cut back two of my kangaroo grass plants quite hard (though perhaps a bit late in spring), and left another two with the fronds intact and just cut out some of the dead stalks instead. The end result is not too bad, though the seed heads seem a bit drier and not as ‘russetty’ as they were the first year.
Haydn kindly says he likes the way it looks: “It’s kind of nice to have those drier textures, it’s the nature of these plants; they can’t always look lush. One approach for this time of year is to put on a pair of gloves and pull gently on the old growth to remove it. You’ll get a bit of the new growth as well but that’s okay. And lift the fronds up and target the stuff that’s holding the moisture and rotting at the base. The bits you cut last season have died back, so get them out. Then, in spring, maybe cut some of the grasses back and leave others, just as you did last year.”
I ask Haydn about another approach that I’ve heard of for kangaroo grass—to pull out the whole plant and plant a new one. “That is one way to cope with them getting too big over time.” he agrees. “If you do dig the whole thing out, I’d try taking five or so shoots and put those in as new plants.”
Another native grass that can get quite large and has flower stalks that dry off over summer is Poa labillardieri. Haydn says: “Poas can get massive and full, and if you don’t clear that growth out, it just layers. It’s like sheep that have gotten away and haven’t had a shear for 10 years!”
Maintaining them is similar to kangaroo grass. “With poas, you can tease out the dead fronds and some of them will come out. But hold the plant down as you do it so you don’t pull the whole plant out [Author note: which is what happened to me the first time I tried this]. You’re just trying to clean it a little bit, not get rid of all the dry bits. You can also cut poas back if they need it, but generally you’d just cut a little bit at the top and maybe just on some of your plants.”
Haydn adds: “I’m not at all averse to a bit of dryness or aridness in the garden; I find it beautiful. It’s about shifting our consciousness away from finding something ugly because it’s not perfect.
“I think Instagram is ruining gardens,” he goes on. “Some of the images are beautiful, but I think they can convey this perception that everything should look perfect. That’s not realistic. And I love it when there are solar panels or water tanks on display. People used to hide their tanks around the side of the house, but we now see those things front and centre. And the occasional weed is okay, it’s just a part of the cycle—in fact, a pocket of weeds can provide cover for native plants to spread and germinate seeds without being burnt off by the harsh sun.”
Let nature do its thing
In the end, there’s a balance between keeping it natural and having a garden that works in an urban setting. Haydn says, “Our aim is to replicate what nature does as best we can and help our native plants thrive, plus we want the beauty. There’s something therapeutic about being in a beautiful garden.”
He adds: “I’d never say ‘this is the only way to do it’. There’s always benefit in listening to other gardeners who tell us what they’ve found.” [Ed note: so write and tell us what you’ve found works in your native garden!]
As we head back inside, I can’t resist asking him about my dwarf Corymbia ficifolia (flowering gum). It’s had heaps of showy red flowers that are all dying back now and look a bit sad sticking out the top of the tree. Haydn’s approach to this probably sums up what he’s about, and what I think native gardening should be about:
“Let nature do what it wants. You can see there’s a cluster of spent flowers, so just watch what will form in that space. Some will get eaten, some will fall off and some will stay for gumnuts. Plants are much smarter than us and there are so many cool things about how they communicate. Be kind to them, assist them, but don’t try to shape them to our needs too much. Don’t try to dominate them, let them be.”