Landscaping has come a long way from the gardens of the 1950s and ’60s so fondly remembered by Australian baby boomers – neat garden beds of flowering shrubs around a well-tended lawn. Ah… roses, camellias, azaleas with neatly clipped Diosma (Coleonema pulchrum) and a few Swane’s golden pencil pines. By the 1970s, a desire for low water usage and low maintenance arose. ‘Natural gardens’ became the craze, with grevilleas, bottlebrushes and banksias. These large shrubs and small trees grew skyward and, with little under planting, became the disappointing, sparse, uninspiring ‘gardens of neglect’.
The New Australian Garden
Today, Australians continue to want landscapes that remind them of where they live, full of native plants that contribute to the local ecology, while the push for low water usage and low maintenance remains. The ‘New Australian Garden’ style has grown from lessons learnt in the 1970s.
This demand for Australian native landscape plants has led to the era of the native plant breeder, horticultural professionals selecting desirable forms – cultivars suitable for a particular climate, soil or aspect (from full sun to full shade or coastal).
Just to stop any confusion, all hybrids are cultivars but not all cultivars are hybrids! Simply put, a cultivar is a ‘cultivated variety’, an unusual form of a species discovered in the wild or found by chance in a garden or nursery. While hybrids are genetic crosses between two species (usually in the same genus), they can be the work of a plant breeder or occur naturally. As the number of Australian cultivars continues to rise, it’s always worth a look at what’s available – cultivars that have stood the test of time as well as new varieties to add to your planting palette.
Tristaniopsis laurina ‘Luscious’
The use of this plant is making it into one of the signature trees of this decade, up there with exotics like Magnolia ‘Little Gem’. The cultivar has larger leaves and brighter copper-coloured new growth than the straight species. A specimen or shade tree from sub-tropical through to cool temperature. Personally, I’ve come across some quite poor specimens struggling as street trees through a prolonged drought, then again, it does go by the common name, ‘water gum’.
Corymbia ‘Summer Red’ ‘Baby Orange’ Bloodwoods have had a name change to Corymbia but remain close relatives of the Eucalypts. These grafted small trees will grow from warm temperate through to cool climates. The terminal displays of either red or brilliant orange make it a great feature in a small space because its height rarely exceeds 4-5m.
Grevillea ‘Moonlight’ ‘Peaches and Cream’
The adaptability and constant blooming of Grevillea ‘Moonlight’ make it invaluable when screening. It can reach eight metres by several metres wide but responds well to vigorous pruning up to a third. One of the greatest problems I have found with this shrub in a warm temperate climate is when to prune because it never seems to be without ivory coloured blooms!
‘Peaches and Cream’ has proven itself to be one of the better cultivars of recent times. A much smaller shrub than ‘Moonlight’ with a subtle bi-coloured flower, it adapts well to coastal conditions.
Callistemon ‘Kings Park Special’ ‘Endeavour’
With bottlebrushes, the range of cultivars with various flower colours, heights and widths seems to be growing at a rate that is hard to keep up with!
‘Kings Park Special’ is a hybrid of unknown parentage first found at King’s Park Botanic Garden in Perth. This large shrub has dense foliage and bright red flower spikes through spring and summer making it suitable as a screen or feature.
The smaller, compact ‘Endeavour’ is also one of the best red bottlebrushes with large flower heads in spring and autumn. Like almost all of the landscape Callistemons, it is its adaptability to various climates and soils that makes it so popular. I’ve seen a screen of these hardy bottlebrushes survive winter frosts followed by a summer drought and then flooding from drought-breaking rains!
One of the few problems that seems to arise from time to time is webbing caterpillar – Callistemon ‘Little John’ seems to be particularly susceptible as are some of the tighter forms of Leptospermum and Melaleuca.
Adenanthos ‘Copper Glow’
The Western Australian ‘woolly bushes’ are gaining in popularity with their unusual soft foliage making them one of the few Australian plants that are irresistible to touch. This cultivar has a distinctive coppery-coloured tinge on the ends of the branches making this upright shrub into a beautiful foliage accent.
Useful Ground Covers
Lomandra ‘Tanika’ ‘Shara’
‘Tanika’ has been performing in mass plantings for over a decade. A fine-leaf form of Lomandra longifolia bred by Todd Layt, it continues to survive the cold winters of Canberra through to Perth’s searing summers.
Some of the newer Lomandra varieties, like ‘Shara’, have a greater resistance to Phytophthora, which provides a solution to landscapers in more humid climates north of Sydney or for those struggling with poorly drained soils.
A problem with these fine-leaf Lomandra ground-covers has been maintenance crews ‘rounding them up’ with glyphosate. Sometimes, the fault has been at planting-out where tight centres have not been followed allowing weed establishment between plants.
Dianella ‘Tasred’ ‘Little Jess’ ‘Tasred’ has become the great Aussie alternative to that kiwi invader, Phormium. It’s adaptable to a wide range of soils and climates and, if cool enough, it will develop an attractive red base and reddish leaf tinge. It remains a tough perennial that spreads to form a good-sized clump, useful in erosion control. While ‘Little Jess’ seems to be more drought tolerant and also copes with higher humidity levels north of Sydney. Amenity horticulture will require the yearly cleaning up of spent flower spikes.
Poa ‘Eskdale’ Pennisetum ‘Nafray’ Poa labillardieri ‘Eskdale’ with its fine blue leaves continues to be one of the best performing Poas. Drought tolerant as well as adaptable to a variety of soils and climates. One of my grassy favourites remains Pennisetum ‘Nafray’ – a showier, more compact form of ‘swamp foxtail grass’ (Pennisetum aloepecuroides).
Avoiding the Mistakes of the Past
Plant selection issues continue to occur with weekend warriors as well as those new to the landscape trade. Problems arise planting out native stock that is currently trendy yet doesn’t suit the growing conditions. A loose rule is, if it’s native to Western Australia (i.e. Adenanthos mentioned above) and you can’t guarantee consistent, well-drained soil, don’t plant it!
“Plant some grevilleas to attract the birds” continues to be a catch cry in the ’burbs, harking back to those uninspiring native gardens of the ’70s. To truly develop a more balanced ecosystem, diverse, species-rich landscaping is required – a variety of ground-covers, shrubs and trees that host insects, provide shelter and nesting sites as well as nectar. Today we are spoilt for choice when it comes to the variety of Australian native plants available.
Some of the plants mentioned may only be available through nurseries registered to carry a particular plant breeders stock, yet with the rise and rise of interest in Australian plants, there are plenty of alternative varieties.
Landscapers continue to be influenced from the fads and lessons of the past as we plant out ‘new Australian gardens’. Landscapes that are not only low in water usage and maintenance but also pay homage to the amazing ecology of this great south land.