With droughts, water restrictions, and a growing awareness of their vital role within our ecosystems, Australian native plants have become more popular in suburban gardens.
As native plants are already adapted to grow in Australian conditions, they generally require less care and maintenance than exotic plants from other climates. This has led to the common misconception that Australian natives require no maintenance or watering; however, this isn’t the case. In this article, we’ll explain how to maintain a garden full of Australian native plants.
Pruning Australian natives
To maintain a neat garden and promote plant growth, pruning your native plants is essential. While you can let Australian plants grow without pruning, they can become very messy and scrappy-looking. With regular pruning, however, you can keep them neatly contained to an area and promote denser growth, achieving a tidier garden. It also extends the life of your plants and promotes a greater yield of flowers.
Even if you aren’t concerned with keeping a plant constrained to a specific shape, you should still prune it to maintain its health. Even Australian natives growing in their natural environment are ‘pruned’ by local fauna such as wallabies and kangaroos grazing on their foliage. The chances of a wallaby grazing on your garden plants in suburban Melbourne are slim, but you can mimic it by pruning.
While the wildlife will eat foliage in general, their favourite bits are the tips of new growth. When these new buds are nipped, the plant redirects energy into growing side shoots, resulting in denser foliage. This process is called tip pruning, and it’s easily replicated in your garden maintenance. Once the plant has finished flowering, use either secateurs to trim the new growth, or pinch it off with your fingers.
If you want to promote bushier plants with abundant flowers, we recommend regular tip pruning over occasional hard pruning. You can start pruning natives as seedlings for bushier shrubs or trees from the outset. Hold off on pruning into late autumn though: trimming buds too close to winter will reduce the number of blooms in the spring.
Aside from tip pruning, frequent hedge trimming is a good idea to keep your Australian natives growing in the desired shape and to maintain dense foliage.
Don’t let their natural scrappy growth patterns put you off using natives in your garden; with the right pruning and maintenance, they can look just a tidy as exotic species. Some species of native plants, such as Callistemon (bottlebrush), Grevillea, Lilly Pilly, and Westringia, can make effective hedging or screening when correctly maintained.
The basic rule for hedge trimming remains the same: only cut one third of the plant at a time; otherwise, you can send it into shock, and it may not recover. Some plants are an exception to this rule in the right season, such as Callistemon; we’ll cover more on that below.
Native plants respond well to pruning, sprouting new shoots soon after. To prevent these buds from being damaged by cold temperatures, avoid pruning from late autumn through to winter.
If you’re cutting off unwanted growth, make sure that you make clean, sloping cuts to prevent water build-up, as this can lead to fungal infections and other damage. It’s also best to prune the whole plant at once to promote even growth – cutting on only one side will result in an unbalanced appearance, as the foliage will be thicker where it’s pruned. If you want to prevent new growth in a particular direction, cut the unwanted branch flush with the trunk to prevent new shoots.
For longer or thicker branches, don’t try to cut the whole stem off at once – the pull of the extra weight can damage the bark around the area you’re trimming. Instead, remove it in sections, always starting with a cut to the bark on the branch’s underside so that it doesn’t tear under the weight of the falling bough.
Pruning to rejuvenate your Australian Natives
As mentioned earlier, some Australian natives can handle being pruned back drastically—such as Callistemons, Melaleucas, Banksias, and other plants that have lignotubers. A lignotuber is a bulge at the base of the trunk that enables the plant to regrow, even when pruned right back.
If your woody natives need a good, hard prune, cut them down to just above ground level in spring. They’ll quickly spread out new shoots and grow bushier than before.
Watering Australian native plants
All plants need water to survive. While it’s true that Australian natives require less watering than some exotic plants, they will still benefit significantly from watering. If you’ve used plants that are local to the Melbourne area, or a region with a similar climate and rainfall pattern, you’ll only really need to water them in dry weather.
The best way to water natives is to use drip irrigation and give deep soakings every couple of weeks in the dry season. Infrequent deep soakings are better for the plants than a light sprinkling of water daily – it better mimics rainfall and allows the water to soak deep into the root system.
Only water the plants when the soil becomes dry – overwatering natives will result in poorly developed root systems that aren’t drought hardy. Deep watering, on the other hand, encourages the growth of a healthier, deep root system that draws moisture and nutrients from further down in the soil.
The best way to know how much water your plants need is to find out where they grow naturally. If they are from damp, humid rainforest regions, they’ll need more water than those native to drier areas. Another critical factor is the type of soil they’re in and how well it holds water; most natives prefer well-drained soil, so it’s best to avoid waterlogging them.
Do Australian Native Plants need fertiliser?
You may have heard that Australian natives don’t need fertiliser, but all plants need nutrients to thrive. However, native plants don’t like high levels of phosphorus, which a lot of manufactured and chemical-based fertilisers are rich in. Fortunately, there are other options to keep your plants healthy with a supplementary supply of nutrients.
Your best choice is to go with a specifically designed native plant food or an organic fertiliser, as they are slow release and have low levels of phosphorus. When selecting a fertiliser, check the composition before buying – anything with a phosphorous level of 3% or higher will kill Australian native plants.
Fertiliser should ideally be applied to the garden in spring and summer and spread lightly, don’t pile it at the base of the plant as this can kill it. It will need to be watered in soon after application; you can sprinkle it into the garden just before rain or water it in yourself.
Native plants and mulch
Australian native plants benefit from a healthy layer of mulch as much as any other plant. It works to maintain a more constant soil temperature through the seasons and prevent water loss through evaporation, which happens quickly under the Australian sun.
In the bush, plants generate mulch through leaf litter and organic debris. In a yard, this can look incredibly untidy, and there are better options available from garden stores.
Depending on the design of your garden, there are two options for mulch; organic (such as bark) or inorganic (river stones and pebbles). Both reduce the growth of weeds, making garden maintenance more manageable.
It’s best to apply mulch in a thick layer directly on top of the soil – don’t use black plastic or weed matting as an underlay. It heats up quickly, restricts your plants’ access to water and nutrients, and weeds will grow through it anyway. Organic mulch brings many brilliant benefits to your native garden, one of which is that as it breaks down, it adds nutrients to the soil. However, a weed mat acts as a barrier between them, preventing this process.
Tips for mulching your native plants:
> The ideal mulch depth is 7.5cm, thick enough to regulate the soil temperature, prevent evaporation, and weed growth. Don’t spread it any deeper than 10cm; an overly thick layer of mulch will deoxygenate the soil and suffocate the plants.
> Don’t pile the mulch up against the trunk or plant stems. Ensure you leave a 5cm gap between the plant and the mulch in a ring around the base.
> The best times to apply mulch are early spring and summer. Top up your mulch levels at least once a year as it composts into the soil.
Using stones as a mulch is only really a good option around plants that comes from hot, dry regions, or if you live in a bushfire-prone area and want to reduce your fire risk.
Pebbles and river stones don’t compost and add nutrients to the soil like organic mulch. They also aren’t as effective at retaining soil moisture; rocks heat quickly in the sun and dry out the ground beneath them. The reflected sunlight of the stones also increases the heat in your yard, further drying out your plants. However, they don’t need annual reapplication like organic mulch and better prevent soil erosion.
Before you apply mulch to your garden, take into consideration the watering system you want to use. If you plan on using a drip feed system, you’ll need to install it before laying mulch.
Low maintenance, not no maintenance
While Native Australian plants are lower maintenance than exotic varieties, they require more care than ‘plant and forget.’ To keep your native garden healthy and looking good, you’ll still have to lay mulch and water, fertilise, and prune your plants as needed.
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