Australian native gardens have a reputation for being straggly, grey, and even ugly. However it is possible to plant a beautiful garden of Australian native plants on even a small suburban block. ‘Burke’s Backyard’ visited the garden of artist Betty Maloney in suburban Sydney to see how good a low-maintenance Australian native garden can look.
Betty, who is an artist and an authority on native plants, applies her philosophy of ‘naturalness with order’ to the garden. Her garden is composed entirely of Australian natives as she believes adding foreign plants (exotics), such as azaleas or camellias, would detract from the bush-like effect she has created.
Plants that flower in Betty’s Sydney garden in early spring include:
Native orchids – In this garden can be found specimens of both the Sydney rock lily (Dendrobium speciosum ) (see climate map), which has many heads of yellow-flowers and the pink rock lily (Dendrobium hybrids ). Native orchids such as these can be grown on a rock or log on the ground planted in a little native orchid mix (not planted in soil). A well established specimen of the Sydney rock lily on a rock in Betty’s garden had 79 flower heads this year. It is growing in full sun but the plants will tolerate light shade.
Paper daisies – These everlasting daisies (Bracteantha bracteata formerly known as Helichrysum braceantha ) are annuals which grow and flower in many parts of Australia. They add colour to the garden with their white paper-like petals and yellow centres. Easy-to-grow they will fill any native garden with colour in early spring. Grow from seeds or buy plants in flower at the nursery.
Doryanthes – These are stunning, bird-attracting plants better known as Gymea or sword lilies. They are related to agaves but are native to eastern Australia. They can be grown from seed or purchased as small plants at a native plant nursery (seed grown plants can take seven years to flower). Stems are sometimes available as cut flowers and are often seen in large floral arrangements in hotels or department stores.
In Betty’s garden they have been planted in clumps in a well-drained soil in full sun but plants will tolerate light shade. This year they have produced towering torch-like heads of red flowers which rise several metres above the clump of sword shaped leaves. Betty has both species:
Doryanthes excelsa, gymea lily, which produces a spectacular red goblet of flowers on the end of a long stalk. This species is native the Sydney and Gosford areas on the Central Coast of New South Wales but will grow in most of the subtropical to temperate parts of Australia (see climate map).
Doryanthes palmeri, Queensland doryanthes, which has a similar tall spire of flowers but which is branched and about 3m (10′) high. This plant is native to south-east Queensland and northern NSW and this year flowered for the first time in Betty’s garden. It grows best in a tropical or subtropical climate (see climate map).
Macadamia – the macadamia tree (Macadamia integrifolia ) has soft pinky white tassels of flowers among its evergreen serrated leaves. After the flowers finish macadamia nuts are formed but these are usually pilfered while still green by visiting cockatoos.
As well as including flowering plants Betty also has a section of the garden filled with native rainforest plants and some unexpected ground covers such as ferns. Plants she uses for foliage include:
- Maidenhair ferns – The native maidenhair fern (Adiantum aethiopicum will grow in almost full sun if well watered or in the shade and will create an instant ground cover which will not require mowing. Note: there are many different types of maidenhair fern, not all native to Australia. Non-native maidenhair ferns (such as those sold as indoor plants) do not grow as well in full sun.
- Tree ferns – Tall growing tree ferns including Cyathea cooperi give height to the garden.
- Bird’s nest ferns – The luxuriant foliage of the bird’s nest fern (Asplenium australasicum ) is also used in the rainforest section.
- Cordylines – Tall growing native cordylines (Cordyline stricta ) add a dramatic element in the rainforest section.
Betty Maloney’s garden is open occasionally to the public under Australia’s Open Garden Scheme but is not included in this season’s open garden calendar. It is considered to be a significant garden and has been classified by the National Trust.
Betty Maloney was one of the early proponents of bush gardens. With her sister Jean Walker she wrote Designing Australian Bush Gardens and More about Bush Gardens in the early 1960s. Although now out of print these very influential books should still be available from libraries or second-hand book shops.
For further reading on Australian native plants see: Propagating Australian Plants by Betty Maloney and Alec Blombery (Kangaroo Press, 1994) rrp $16.95. Proteaceae of the Sydney Region by Betty Maloney and Alec Blombery (Kangaroo Press, 1992) rrp $49.95.