There’s a eucalyptus tree in my front yard. It’s enormous. Thousands of slender leaves drip from its branches, each leaf pointing towards the earth, offering only broken shade to those who stand below. The trunk is solid and unyielding. It’s the type of tree that gives life to the words grounded, gracious, and regal. I wish it were somewhere else.
It looks happy enough in my yard, taking up almost all the available space, leaning on the upstairs windowsills, and shouldering powerlines out of its way. But it belongs in a park, or in the bush, not in a suburban garden.
It sheds leaves, bark and branches, all of which are a fire hazard, clog the gutters, and suffocate seedlings. The roots have lifted the fence post and are working on raising the footpath.
I think this tree was planted in the sixties when Australians first embraced the idea of growing native plants.
At that time, many trees and shrubs that should have been watered, pruned and fertilised to look their best were left to become scraggly and woody. Or grew really big. That precedent, plus an aesthetic that has favoured European plants, may be why we have steered clear of many indigenous species. But times change, and in these dry days, and with different notions of beauty, natives are very appealing.
Be sure you choose plants that are adapted to your area, meet their needs (for sunlight or shade, sandy or loamy soil, protection from frost or wind), prune them, weed, mulch (except around plants you want to self-seed), and water as restrictions allow. Natives are less demanding than many other plants, but it’s not true they are universally fond of neglect.
Some Australian plants have long been viewed positively, like wattle and banksias, and my eucalyptus tree. But hundreds of others are worth consideration. Yellow hakea offers pretty flowers, as do baueras (try the Western Victorian species Grampians Bauera), boronia, eriostemen, grevilleas, and desert peas. Kangaroo paws are stunning and drought-tolerant (though most are native to Western Australia), and callistemons will attract butterflies. A specialist nursery can steer you to plants that are right for your area.
It’s worth looking at public spaces for inspiration and to see what plants look like at full size. The botanic garden at Cranbourne has a magnificent collection of indigenous plants as do the George Pentland Gardens in Frankston, and the Maranoa Gardens in Balwyn.
When you’re choosing native plants look for signs they are drought-tolerant: fine hairs on leaves that protect them from sun and windburn; silver-blue, silver-green or red leaves that protect from ultraviolet light; thin leaves that are better at retaining moisture than large fat ones; and leaves with a hard or waxy coating.
Buy your plants in tubes and plant them out in the cool months if possible. (If plants have outgrown their tubes they may have curled roots, which can stunt their growth.)
You may want an all-native garden or one that incorporates other hardy and water-wise plants. Many of the plants that survive the dry, nutrient-poor, sandy soil in my area are from other shores – olive trees, rosemary bushes, flax, euphorbia, echevaria and salvia. Either way, your best chance of success is to choose plants that suit your conditions rather than try to change the conditions to suit the plants. And if you want a eucalypt, maybe choose something smaller than mine, like a Nichol’s Willow Peppermint.