Monday, August 07, 2006

Going native

This post was motivated by a discussion I got involved in at Pavlov’s Cat. I want to present an argument for growing Australian native plants in urban gardens and, specifically, native plants native to the specific area lived in.

This is becoming increasingly possible as local councils provide information on the plants that originally grew in particular suburbs and even in particular streets. For example, I live in the City Council area of Banyule in Melbourne. The Council has an environmental program that identifies soil and original vegetation types by area. Although my house is in the middle of settled suburbia, I know that it was previously in open woodland with grasslands near the southern boundary of my street and that the soil-type is medium-heavy clay. (In some cases these inferences about original vegetation are drawn by correlating soil and terrain types from adjacent areas of 'remnant' native vegetation).

There are, in addition, several local native plant nurseries that sell, at low cost, tubes of plants that originally occurred in the local area. In my case, there is an indigenous plants nursery (Keelbundora) at La Trobe University and one associated with the Victorian Indigenous Nurseries Cooperative at Fairfield.

Why make the effort?

1. Native plants are cheap to buy and cheap to maintain. Buying a shrub in tubes costs about $2-50 compared to a cost of at least $8-$12 for a small potted exotic plant from a commercial nursery. I re-established a front garden after a major house renovation for a few hundred dollars.

2. Native plants attract native birds and animals to your garden as well as butterflies and frogs by providing seed, berries, perching sites and protection. This environment also tends to discourage introduced bird species such as Mynas and Spotted turtle doves. More generally, planting natives in your garden helps to restore wildlife corridors, linking parks, habitat areas, remnant vegetation and flight zones. In my area the wildlife corridor that runs along the Yarra River Parklands feeds interesting bird species into urban habitats that maintain populations of native plants close to the centre of Melbourne - at my house in urban Ivanhoe I have seen over 50 bird species in recent years - including Yellow-tailed black cockatoos, Gang Gang cockatoos and Eastern spinebill. If you enjoy observing Australia's wildlife this adds to the pleasure of urban living.

3. Native plants indigenous to a local area and suited to local soils and climate grow well and look healthy. They tend not to die! To make the point specific I have tried several times to grow Banksia marginata in my garden. Although it is considered one of the easier banksias to grow I always failed – until I grew the local subspecies. Then, without difficulty, the plants grew successfully.

3. Native gardens while not maintenance-free generally require less watering, maintenance, less pesticide and less fertilizer. Animal fertilisers that are required in large quantities to sustain European gardens with camellias and rhododendrons impose extra nitrogen load on our waterways. Less maintenance means less effort looking after a garden and more time enjoying it.

4. Native plants look better than exotics. Many will disagree with this claim but I think it is sound. Australian natives such as banksias and grevillias are long-flowering and even those natives that are not prolific flowerers often provide a more elegant and interesting landscape in terms of attractrive foliage and plant structure than the simple lolly-pinks and bland-whites of European weeds such as roses and azaleas. To appreciate Australian natives it is often just a matter of opening your eyes and seeing what is in front of them. Preconceptions about what a garden should look - it does not have to correspond to a formal English garden - can bias perceptions. For example many of the Australian native grasses (such as the poas, dianellas and lomandras) look attractive when mass-planted. Furthermore, even if you are committed to a traditional formal garden native plants can be used to good effect.

5. Our native plant species are of intrinsic interest to those fascinated by the Australian environment. Most are endemic to Australia and the variety is huge.

It is not necessary to be a native plant Nazi. I have exotic plants in my garden - mostly planted before I arrived - and I also have native plants from other parts of Australia - a few years ago I grew about 50 Kangaroo paws from seed and they certainly are not a local native. But when exotic plants fail I try to replace them with natives.

I am surprised that when I ask students in my environmental economics classes about the soil and (original) vegetation types at their homes they invariably don't know anything. Often these students are busily involved in worthwhile campaigns to save the whales or to prevent global warming but they don't know much about their own backyards. But it is useful to act locally as well as globally. Enjoying native gardens and having respect for local urban environments is a sensible 'state of mind' and not just for nurds.


conrad said...

I couldn't agree more.

I suggest that people start getting native pets instead of exotics as well. It would be great for some of the endangered species, and if they escape they are not likely to cause the type of damage cats and the like do.

not my real name said...

Yes, yes, yes.

Sam Ward said...

"I suggest that people start getting native pets instead of exotics as well."

Like what? most native species are so small they would escape any enclosure other than a small cage - and keeping a marsupial in such conditions isn't ideal.

The only pet-sized native animals are wallabies and dingoes, and both are much too dangerous to keep as a pet.

Unless you are just talking about birds or fish, I don't know what kind of native animals would make suitable pets.

A friend of mine has a 2kg Pink Snapper in a tank that he has had since it was a baby. Now THAT is impressive, but his tank cost him over $2000 so it's not an option for everyone.

Nicholas Gruen said...

Yep - couldn't agree more. I've not really been aware of the issue at a local level, but this makes obvious sense. Walter Burley Griffin (amongst others) would be proud of you.

conrad said...


some of the endangered marsupials are of quite reasonable size -- not dissimilar to cats. Bandicoots and quolls are good examples (and perhaps if you are in WA and want a more dog-sized animal, a Quokka might do).

I'm not sure about the types of cages you would need, but I can't see them being harder to keep than things like rabbits (but I could be wrong).

Christine said...

My dad was really big on natives going back 30 years at least. Sadly when we finally sold our house, the garden was ripped out - likely including some gorgeous orchids, damn them.

Suzy said...

Disagree to some extent, sorry. I am finding the quasi-religious fanaticism of the "Natives Nazis" very irritating - some would uproot every exotic/European plant and tree if they could. I enjoy seeing the colors of deciduous trees in autumn and cherry blossom in spring (something in which, to my knowledge, most Australian vegetation is sadly lacking).