My two main pastimes are bush walking and gardening, so it’s no surprise that I am an avid native gardener. It has always been important to me to bring the beauty of our bush (like native wild flowers) into my backyard. However, as anyone who has tried to grow some of Australia's iconic flowers such as waratah, flannel flowers or boronia will understand, they tend to struggle in your backyard despite flourishing in the bushland around Sydney. I have spent many years of trial and error, as well as speaking to a number of native growers, to try and get an insight into growing these beautiful but often difficult plants.
Wholesale native growers keep their secrets of success very close to their hearts. I remember talking with a very experienced grower and asking him how he makes any money growing natives. His response was "To make a million in this game, you have to start with a billion." After spending some time with this old-school expert, I came to understand that at heart he was an enthusiastic gardener and just like me, was more than happy to share his successes as well as his failures.
Tip One: Soil Type
The ideal composition for native growing is a well-drained soil with good sand content. I have tried many different sand types with no success, except for a little "secret" - horticultural sand.
Horticultural sand is basically crushed sandstone - the very stuff that native plants are growing in in the bush. By mixing equal parts composted hardwood mulch with horticultural sand you will dramatically improve your chances of success. Composted hardwood mulch can be difficult to find, but I have also used Eucii mulch with great results.
When growing Flannel Flowers, try a different mix of around 70% horticultural sand with 30% mulch. This mix has been very successful for me and I use this to grow Sturts Desert Peas for a stunning show of a very unique native flower.
When planting, ensure that you mound your garden bed, helping water to drain freely and reducing the risk of rot. This is particularly important for Waratahs.
Tip Two: Mulches
I have used many different mulches, producing very different results. I tend to find that when it comes to natives, it’s best to keep it native. Eucalyptus leaf mulch seems to be the best, however it is almost impossible to find. Leaf mulch will usually contain different tree types and is very inconsistent from batch to batch. Tea tree mulch is excellent and I would highly recommend it. It might cost you a little more, but the results are astounding. The next best is Eucii mulch, as mentioned above. Eucii mulch is a hardwood eucalyptus mulch that is very fine and has a neat finish.
Tip three: Plant Like with Like
When you’re planning your garden, group natives that require the same conditions together. If you chose to mix two plants with very different soil and watering requirements in a single bed – for example Weeping Lilly Pilly with Waratah, it would be impossible to keep both plants in ideal conditions and thriving. Other combinations, such as Kangaroo Paw and Flannel Flowers, grow well together and give a great show. Mixing some of Western Australia's natives with some of Sydney’s indigenous flowers will add a point of difference to your garden and, thanks to similar conditions, they do tend to grow very well together.
Like all gardening, you'll win some and you'll lose some, but finding out about horticultural sand was a big change to my success rate in growing natives. I now win a lot more and I'm getting more adventurous.