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Australian Native Plants

Australia, and in particular Western Australia, has the most amazing array of plants that are more suited to our climate and conditions than any other. In the 70’s, Australian natives fell out of favour because they were perceived as straggly, difficult to look after and perhaps even ugly. But, that was back when very little information was given to gardeners about how to get the best results from them.

In garden centres now there are an incredibly diverse range of Australian plants cultivated for their unique leaf shapes and colours as well as their striking flowers which of course the birds love. But, even more valuable than that, are their hardiness to cope with our impoverished soils and long, dry summers.

There is an Australian plant for every part of the garden and although they do require a little bit of maintenance, on the whole, this is far less than most exotic plants.

PRUNING
Australian native plants do respond well to pruning with the best time being after flowering. The rule of thumb is to remove a third of the growth to encourage new shoots and to keep the shape of the plant bushy. This will help stop the ‘legginess’ that can occur over several years of rapid growth and allow even the larger shrubs to be contained to a size to suit a smaller garden.

WATERING
Some believe that an Australian native garden requires no watering at all but this is in fact rarely true. Most Australian native plants available in a garden centre are not indigenous to the area in which they are sold so will almost definitely require a different amount of water than that supplied by the rain. Even if a plant is a West Australian native, the state is so vast and has such varying climates that one originating from the Esperance region will almost definitely need more water if it is planted in Perth or Geraldton.

Drip irrigation is the most efficient way to water an Australian native garden but use this to provide deep soakings of water every two or three weeks during summer, or as required. They certainly don’t need to be given as much water as exotics and to do so stops them from sending their roots deep into the soil and could even cause root rot diseases. Although they do need water, too much can be just as damaging as too little.

Of course, Australian natives that have been newly planted do need regular watering for a few months until their roots have established after which, this can be markedly reduced.

FEEDING
Australian native plants do best with an occasional feed but can’t cope with chemical fertilisers that are high in phosphorous. Feed them twice a year, once in spring and once in autumn, with a plant food specifically designed for Australian natives or apply organic based fertilisers such as blood and bone or pelletised chicken manure.

MULCHING
Anyone who has walked through the Australian bush would have seen the layer of leaf litter that Mother Nature leaves down to act as mulch. This does the very same job as any other mulch which is to retain moisture and reduce weeds.

Any type of mulch will do exactly the same including organic mulches like bark as well as gravel or pebbles. Even the leaf litter or mulched branches from the plants themselves will be perfect but these should be composted first and will be even better with blood and bone applied under it.

Be careful not to disturb the soil under Australian natives when weeding prior to applying mulch. Some can be quite shallow rooted plants that don’t like to be disturbed. Either hand weed or use a Dutch hoe just to scrape the soil surface.

PROBLEMS
Australian natives are not often affected by the typical insects in the garden which makes them very easy to look after. Their biggest problems are associated with planting them in the wrong place and in the wrong conditions, usually resulting in yellowing leaves, leaf drop or root damage.

Plants that are suited to sandy soil that are planted in heavy clay will probably be fine for a year or two but then just die. Those that are planted in amongst exotics and given the same level of food and water will probably display yellowing leaves.

Yellowing leaves is the most common problem in Australian natives but can have a couple of causes. One is using uncomposted organic mulch that steals the nitrogen in the soil from the plants. To solve this, apply a fertiliser specific for Australian native plants which will help to replenish the nitrogen in the soil.

The second cause is that the soil pH is wrong for the plant or there is an iron deficiency or too much phosphorous in the soil. Australian natives need an acid soil with a pH that is around 5 to 5.5 so that they can draw up the nutrients and, in particular, the iron that they need. An application of iron chelate is the best solution and be sure not to apply fertilisers that contain phosphorous.

When buying Australian natives, always consider if it needs the same conditions as the other plants in the garden bed where it is to be planted and whether it is suited to the soil and climate conditions of the area. If it is, the result will be a healthy, low maintenance and stunning plant and if it isn’t, choose another Australian plant. Remember, there will be one to suit every part of the garden.

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