Creating a sustainable native garden

By Heather Miles

Many people are already taking action to create a sustainable garden! You might be growing your own fruit and vegetables, composting, planting natives, introducing water into the garden and conserving water. 

But more needs to be done, as so many of Australia’s unique ecosystems are under threat and many plants and animals threatened or endangered. Land clearing, development, weeds, feral animals and climate change are all impacting the health of our natural environment. 

So what exactly is a sustainable garden or landscape? 

Most definitions of sustainability revolve around three intersecting principles as shown below. From a garden perspective, social aspects include aesthetics, our connection with nature and health and food. The planet or environmental aspects pick up conservation, biodiversity, recycling and avoiding damage to natural areas. And the profit angle addresses the concepts of minimising inputs, reducing waste and managing time and capability. 

A sustainable garden or landscape is one which: 

  1. Suits local conditions
  2. Conserves water – mulch, efficient irrigation, watering only when necessary, grouping, microclimate, drought-hardy plants, water-recycling, no weedy plants.
  3. Provides habitat for local fauna at all levels including soil health
  4. Creates a sense of place, links to nature and aesthetics
  5. Avoids damage to natural communities eg topsoil, locally sourced mulches and materials, nothing collected from wild landscapes
  6. Contributes to the ‘green lungs’ – oxygen, ‘filtering’ pollutants
  7. Minimises energy inputs, e.g. petrol, chemicals and fertilisers, cleaning agents, stains, finishes, non-renewable energy
  8. Maximises vegetative biomass – carbon stabilisation
  9. Minimises disruption or pollution to other systems e.g. runoff, chemicals, pesticides harming beneficial organisms

Some people might argue that all these principles apply to non-native gardens as well. Yet native gardens have additional benefits:

  • They have evolved to suit local conditions and climate variability, by surviving on low nutrients, having leaf and root structures that enhance survival and adjusting to water availability
  • Planting natives also creates a substantial benefit to biodiversity and habitat for native fauna
  • We have a responsibility to protect and conserve what is unique. Australia split off from Antarctica 85 million years ago and we have over 20,000 plants unique to Australia. 
  • Native plants generate a sense of place – landscapes shape who we are as people and so having plants that aren’t found anywhere else in the world creates what designers call the genius loci – a sense of place or identity. 

6 tips for sustainable native gardens

Here are 6 tips to increase the sustainability of your garden. 

1. Set your design objectives

What style do you want? Formal or informal? What activities do you want to do in your garden? What is the feeling you want to engender in the garden? What colours do you like? What features will you incorporate?
When my husband and I bought our Hunter Valley property, I set some goals for my garden:
  • Create beautiful views from multiple windows to uplift spirits
  • Create a walkabout garden full of fragrance, colour and texture to wander, sit and explore (for kids) 
  • Grow organic fruit and vegies

Requirements were:

  • Use natives to create a haven for wildlife and link with landscape (and avoid any weedy species)
  • Anchor the house in the landscape so it belongs
  • Create privacy from road 
  • Maintain fire zone around house due to being in a fire prone area 
Showing to the right are the before and after shots. I started planting natives in about 2005, with a windbreak and fruit trees first and then progressively planting out the gardens. 

2. Design for the conditions

In planning any garden, it’s important to understand your climate, soil, how much sunlight an area has, the rainfall, what the slope and drainage situation is. Also consider views you want to keep or hide, and features you want to include. Below are a few examples of specific conditions that these native gardeners had to manage. 

3. Create food and habitat

With unprecedented clearing of bush and unconnected patches of bush across Australia, every time we plant a native garden we are helping preserve our native fauna and insects. For example, we might be tempted to tidy up a lot and chop down dead trees, but these are perfect habitat spots for insects, birds and reptiles. Planting lots of different plants (rather than all one species) creates complexity of shapes, forms, flowers – all of which maximises biomass and resilience. 

4. Conserve resources and minimise inputs 

Conserving and recycling water is an obvious principle to follow in sustainable gardens – and can mean collecting your own water rather than relying on town water and recycling grey water. Using mulch on the garden reduces evaporation, adds nutrients as it breaks down keeps roots cool and creates habitat. 

Organic fertilisers might be used in some places while remembering that natives have evolved to suit our conditions. If we grow plants outside their normal range, sometimes adjustments are required but ideally, we keep these to a minimum. 

Any time we use herbicides, pesticides or other chemicals, we potentially destroy the delicate balance of nature. Look for ways to minimise such inputs, both to reduce cost as well as minimise damage. Selecting plants that suit the region helps, as does avoiding monocultures. 

5. Get rid of weedy plants

Nearly all Australia’s most rampant weeds are escaped garden plants – prickly pear, lantana, scotch thistle – the list goes on. 

Wherever you can, get rid of those plants that can turn into weeds particularly if you live close to the bush. 

Weeds like Agapanthas, Black-eyed Susan, Lantana and Ochna should all be removed. And NOT dumped in the nearby bush. 

6. Be prepared to experiment!

Many native plants have only been in cultivation for 30 to 40 years – not hundreds of years like some exotics. So tolerances and growth rates are not fully known. It also means there is high genetic variability, which can only be good given climate change. 

But it just means be prepared to have a few plants die on you and keep going. 

You also don’t have to pull out all your existing exotic plants – but over time, a steady transition to native plants will do a lot to help preserve our beautiful nature flora and fauna. 

You can get more information about what plants will work, by going to our Plant Database at https://resources.austplants.com.au/plant-database/. See a screenshot below – you can search by type of plant or for a specific plant and there are over 800 profiles available. 

Happy gardening.