Friday, March 31, 2006

Lenore Lindsay's Radio Talk no. 3
(reproduced with Lenore's permission)
Topic: Myths about Native Plants, favourite shrubs

Good morning listeners. Lenore Lindsay from the Society for Growing Australian Plants here again.

Don’t forget our meetings are held on the fourth Friday of every month at 7.30am in the administration block of the Frenchville State School, and our organized outings are held on the first Sunday. These can be full or half days, so listen for the community announcements or ring 49283699 or 49282862 for information.

Today I think it’s about time we debunked some of the myths that are still doing the rounds about Australian plants. If you believe or act on any of these you’ll be disappointed with your garden, and that would be a terrible shame, as native plants can be so rewarding.

Old wives’ (or old husbands’) tale number one is that Australian natives are no maintenance. Wrong! They’re plants – living organisms with needs like any other life-form. The secret to gardening successfully is careful selection of plants, so that those with similar requirements are grouped together, and you aren’t going to end up a few years down the track with inappropriate plants in unsuitable positions, such as a big gum tree close to your house.

If you aren’t prepared to put a bit of extra time into your garden, don’t choose plants that need extra care, no matter where they come from. Consider something like one of the new Lomandra cultivars such as Tanika, which only needs cutting back to near ground level every 5 years or so to maintain its lovely architectural shape. Time spent in careful selection in the beginning will save you time and money (and frustration) later on.

Fairy tale number 2 is that you shouldn’t prune natives. Rubbish! Pruning is as necessary for a good looking native garden as for any other, and virtually the same general guidelines apply. The best time to cut is after flowering, and remove up to a third of the growth. Prune to even up the plant shape, or to shape for hedges or classic topiary. Native Rosemary or Westringia has a really attractive dense growth when pruned regularly, as do some of the Lillipillies and figs, and lots of others. Pruning prevents plants becoming leggy, helps them look lush and keeps them contained so that they fit into a garden with a variety of plants that all look healthy and happy.

Fallacy number 3 is that Australian natives don’t need watering. If you want a no-water native garden, then you need to choose only indigenous plants. That is, plants that occur naturally in your area, or at least, plants from areas with similar climate. If you have a garden with a collection of plants with different water requirements, supplementary watering is essential. Remember to group like needs together, and that one deep watering is better than half a dozen superficial ones.

Myth 4 is that you shouldn’t feed Australian plants. The truth is that they don’t like chemical fertilizers that are high in phosphorous, but they do like to be fed. Spring and Autumn are best times. Use either a specially formulated Australian native plant food, or an organic based fertilizer such as blood and bone or pelletised animal manure. Follow the directions – more is not always better. Quite the opposite in fact!

And here’s a true story to restore your confidence: Australian natives, like all plants, need to be mulched. This conserves water, suppresses weeds, cools the root system, and if you use an organic mulch, it improves the soil as it breaks down. If you don’t want to keep replacing an organic mulch, are creating a particular style, or live in a bushfire area, you might prefer to use inorganic mulch such as gravel, pebbles or river stones.

So, whether you want an all-native garden or a mixed native/exotic one, forget the fairy tales from the seventies, and remember the golden rule for successful gardening – careful plant selection and pruning, and appropriate fertilizer, watering and mulching – and you’ll have a garden to be proud of.

Now, what about your plant choices. In previous segments I’ve had a quick look at ground covers, including vines and spiky or grass-leaved plants, and accent subjects for hanging baskets, so I thought maybe this week I’d finish with a bit of a discussion on a couple of my favourite shrubs.

The first is the Beach Cherry, Eugenia reinwardtiana. There are wonderful examples growing in the Kershaw Gardens. This is a lovely rounded and compact shrub with glossy green leaves, red new growth, small white flowers, and bright red shiny fruit which taste delicious. While they usually have a single seed, in some really large fruits it can be divided into 2 or more segments. These seeds are easy to germinate, though they can take a month or two to come up. You only need to see the seedlings under the shrubs at the Kershaw to realize this. While this plant is slow growing, it usually flowers within the first couple of years. It needs well drained soil, and often responds well to a dressing of lime or gypsum. It’s hardy, and will withstand salt winds, so is good for a coastal garden. In this harsher situation, the leaves may be more leathery. It can also tolerate light frosts. It is equally at home as an understory plant, but fruits best in semi-shade to full sun. It’s great next to a path or edge, or as a container plant. Definitely on the list of favourites!

Another on my personal list is the Scarlet Fuschia, Graptophyllum excelsum. Again, there’s some great examples down at the Kershaw Gardens, edging the path from the Highway carpark. This is another hardy compact shrub with shiny dark green leaves and vivid red tubular flowers. It makes a great screen or hedge, tub plant, specimen shrub or part of a mixed planting. In really hot dry conditions it will need semi-shade, but in humid coastal areas or temperate climate it can be planted in full sun. It needs good drainage, and responds well to lime. This is Rockhampton’s Native Shrub emblem, and is rare and endangered in the wild. So if you plant this, you’ll be doing your bit to help its survival. Fortunately it’s becoming established in cultivation, and is available at a number of local nurseries.

And lucky last for today is the Cat’s Whiskers, botanical name, Orthosiphon aristartus. This is a hardy and extremely versatile small shrub, suitable for all but very cold areas. It can be grown in sun or shade, but has a fairly high water requirement in full sun. Its big advantage is that it flowers in full shade. The flowers are spectacular long terminal spikes, with long stamens that give it its common name. There are 2 colour forms – white and mauve, but the mauve is less hardy and more cold sensitive. It grows quickly, and can easily become leggy, so prune heavily after flowering to keep it looking good. This means it will also need regular fertilizing. It grows quickly and easily from cuttings, and it’s a good idea to keep a few “on the go” and renew your plants every so often if they become tired or too woody. This is a shrub that can be integrated into all types of gardens, even a cottage-type flower garden, and makes a wonderful understory planting. It has the bonus of cut flowers as well.

So, that’s all for today. Happy gardening till next time.

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