Heather MilesEvolution of a garden (and gardener!) as I go native

Perched on the top of a windswept hill in the Hunter Valley, this Australian native garden started with some lofty goals: to offer beautiful views from the house; create a haven for local fauna; be a rewarding ‘walk-around’ experience with places to sit; provide a rich source of vegetables; and provide places for kids to play.

The ridgeline in the Hunter Valley, NSW

The ridgeline in the Hunter Valley, NSW

We fell in love with the land in 2003 and while my husband built the house, I started planting. Little did we consider the vicious westerly winds, shallow, compacted soils, clay, 45ºC days and the locals eating the plants. All we saw were the stunning views and the sense of space and belonging.

Garden opportunities and challenges
Part of a 100-acre block, the 1.5 hectare garden sits on the top of a ridgeline in the lower Hunter Valley, 2 hours north of Sydney and an hour west of Newcastle. At 400 metres above sea level, there are views east to Newcastle, south over the Hunter Valley and north to Barrington Tops (on a clear day). It’s a mix of native and vegie gardens, an orchard of about 30 trees and lawn.

Hardenbergia violacea in full bloom leading down to the garden from the house

Hardenbergia violacea in full bloom leading down to the garden from the house

About 40% of the 100 acres is cleared and 60% bush. It was previously used for cattle grazing. Over the last 100 years or so, selective logging took out very large red cedars (Toona ciliata), rosewood (Dysoxylum fraserianum) and other dry rainforest trees, but the bush is still dense and not too weedy. We have started reafforesting, so far planting about 6,000 trees across the property.

Energetic Xanthorrhoea

Energetic Xanthorrhoea

Being on the top of the hill, there are no frosts. But there are very strong westerly winds in spring, with gusts up to 150 km/hour. Not only do plants get ripped out by their roots, but pool canopies and their metal poles get ripped out of the concrete!

There is high rainfall, at 900 to 1100 mm per year, mostly falling in late spring and summer. Twice in the last 10 years, we’ve had 400 mm or more in a few days. This has led to rivers overflowing, bridges being washed away and electricity cuts. But the garden seems to cope.

Stunning colour on Melaleuca fulgens (hot pink)

Stunning colour on Melaleuca fulgens (hot pink)

The soil is fairly shallow on the top of the hill, silty loam, slightly acid with reasonable organic matter, but with patches of clay and many, many rocks, with fossils of ferns abounding.

Going Australian native
I went fully native after a couple of years. It was partly a commitment to sustainability (water and nutrients), partly to fit with the landscape, partly ecological and a lot about the subtle beauty and scents of Australian plants.

Delicate pastel Eucalyptus pauciflora

Delicate pastel Eucalyptus pauciflora

I remember walking around the garden one day and thinking, ‘I need to do my bit to protect these incredible plants’. I hope we can bring natives more into the mainstream so we can conserve as well as revel in their beauty and unique qualities. My ambition is to create a garden that is attractive and accessible, then not only will I and my family enjoy it, but perhaps others may be inspired to do the same, and support, in a small way, our environmental heritage.

‘There are no gardening mistakes, only experiments.’
Janet Kilburn Phillips

Vibrant flowers on Brachychiton bidwillii

Vibrant flowers on Brachychiton bidwillii

Experiments in design and style
There was much experimentation with styles and plants – what would look good, what would survive, how to do layers, getting the scale right as well as managing for fire risk. I started with a few trees but not much else. I got some great ideas about layout, shapes and plants from a garden designer, Michael Cooke.

I do love colour. This grove in the north east ‘goes off’ in spring with Grevillea ‘Moonlight’, Chamelaucium uncinatum ‘CWA Pink’, Anigozanthos ‘Bush Pizazz’, Grevillea ‘Jennifer Joy’, Callistemon spp. and Leptospermum ‘Cardwell’

I do love colour. This grove in the north east ‘goes off’ in spring with Grevillea ‘Moonlight’, Chamelaucium uncinatum ‘CWA Pink’, Anigozanthos ‘Bush Pizazz’, Grevillea ‘Jennifer Joy’, Callistemon spp. and Leptospermum ‘Cardwell’

The garden is a mix of formal and informal:
– Triangles and straight lines provide some structure and complement the bush style and grass paths.
– The informality comes from repetition of plants, like mounds of Westringia spp. and mass plantings of Anigozanthos, although I admit to a bit of serendipity rather than design: ‘This seems to grow well here, I think I’ll plant more!’
– Scale and perspective has been a learning experience – I would buy a statue and it would disappear! Or I would create a design on paper, and then walk around and have to re-adjust.
– Getting layers right has been an ongoing experiment. I have well-populated upper and mid-level plant layers, but not enough lower level plants to create that layered effect. Sometimes they just get crowded out. And other times I miscalculated how tall plants would grow, or they just bolted!
– In terms of hardscaping, we have a wonderful big gazebo looking to the west, attached to the house by a walkway. There’s nothing better than sitting there with family and friends with a coffee or wine, looking out to the south and east. We also have the driveway, a few rock walls and, of course, big rocks in the garden beds.

I am constantly thinking about ‘design’, being more of a plantswoman than a designer. For me, design is 5% inspiration and 95% perspiration!

Zones, not garden rooms
The garden has three zones with different needs and challenges, as well as an orchard and vegie patch. The zones have quite different needs and ‘look and feel’.

North east view Hibiscus ‘Barambah Creek’, Grevillea flexuosa ‘Zig Zag’, Acacia cognata ‘Limelight’, Westringia fruticosa, Anigozanthos, Boronia spp. and Xanthorrhoea

North east view Hibiscus ‘Barambah Creek’, Grevillea flexuosa ‘Zig Zag’, Acacia cognata ‘Limelight’, Westringia fruticosa, Anigozanthos, Boronia spp. and Xanthorrhoea

The north east zone is the first area I planted in front of the house. It is relatively well protected with a windbreak and has good sun, soil and moisture. Many plants thrive, including Banksia ‘Giant Candles’, Doryanthes excelsa, Hibiscus ‘Barambah Creek’, Grevillea flexuosa ‘Zig Zag’, Acacia cognata ‘Limelight’, Westringia fruticosa, Anigozanthos and Xanthorrhoea. The boronias last quite a few years and we have just planted a Ficus rubiginosa in the middle of the lawn to give shade in summer. Perhaps I’ll regret it in 30 to 40 years…

Facing south are plants that can cope with poor and dry soils, like Crowea ‘Festival’, Lomandra cylindrica ‘Lime Cascade’ and Westringia spp

Facing south are plants that can cope with poor and dry soils, like Crowea ‘Festival’, Lomandra cylindrica ‘Lime Cascade’ and Westringia spp

The south east zone is below the house with clay soil on a slope, surrounding the wastewater treatment system. It gets good water run-off from the house, but then sits in clay, requiring plants that don’t mind wet feet or bone-hard soil in the dry weather. Plants include Leptospermum spp., Kunzea baxteri, Crowea ‘Festival’, Philotheca spp., Lomandra cylindrica ‘Lime Cascade’, Westringia spp., Callistemon ‘Rocky Rambler’ and Doryanthes palmeri. Three Doryanthes were transplanted about 5 years ago, and I’m waiting with bated breath for them to flower! I’ve just planted a new garden of massed Anigozanthos, an idea courtesy of Angus Stewart, with Westringia ‘Smokey’ and Chrysocephalum apiculatum. The kangaroo paws are a kaleidoscope of red, orange, yellow and lime.

The Leptosperum scorparium ‘Red Damask’ don’t mind wet feet in the clay patches

The Leptosperum scorparium ‘Red Damask’ don’t mind wet feet in the clay patches

The rest of the south area is a steep grassy slope, looking out to the bush and views. It’s very peaceful. Kangaroos and wallabies regularly graze on the grass (and occasionally plants). We have regular visits of wombats and have even seen a spotted quoll. There’s a large Spotted Gum in the middle of the view, which some people say to get rid of as it impacts the view. But I think it frames the view perfectly, and the kookaburras use it to spy from.

Dry westerly area with ‘drought tolerant’ species

Dry westerly area with ‘drought tolerant’ species

The west zone is a very dry area that competes with mature stands of Corymbia maculata (Spotted Gum) and ironbarks. This area takes the brunt of the westerly winds, and has very poor shallow soil and many rocks. The plants have to enhance the windbreak, as well as look good and so are drought resistant, with a mix of colour and texture.

Acacia vestita creates stunning colour, texture and protection, against the silvery white of Eremophila spp. and the lime green of Acacia cognata and Lomandra ‘Little Con’. Stenanthemum scortechinii has put on a stunning display this winter. In this area Grevillea ‘Sylvia’ is now coming good while Grevillea ‘Sandra Gordon’ is going well, as is Grevillea ‘Poorinda Queen’.

Dendrobium speciosum among the gums

Dendrobium speciosum among the gums

In a separate spot around stands of spotted gums, a rock garden houses a mass of Dendrobium speciosum giving a beautiful display each spring (above).

My journey as well as the garden’s
Like any garden, this is a work in progress. My next evolution is to learn more about horticulture and planting design so the experiment continues.

Regular kangaroo and wallaby visitors enjoy the mown grass

Regular kangaroo and wallaby visitors enjoy the mown grass

I have created an arboretum extending down to the dam with trees like Eucalyptus scoparia, Eucalyptus salignaEucalyptus acmenoidesEucalyptus amplifolia and Casuarina cunninghamiana, that complement 7-year old Eucalyptus pauciflora. I’m wondering how to complement these with lower maintenance, mass plantings of colour and texture. This area is definitely still a work in progress.

This quote from English poet laureate, Alfred Austin sums up gardening for me:

‘The glory of gardening: hands in the dirt, head in the sun, heart with nature. To nurture a garden is to feed not just on the body, but the soul.’

[This article first appeared in the Australian Plant Society Journal of Australian Plants, October 2015. For more information, please visit: http://www.austplants-nsw.org.au]

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Heather Miles

About Heather Miles

Corporate consultant, passionate gardener, loves Australian natives and their design potential. Honorary Secretary of the Australian Plant Society NSW . Gets her hands dirty in a native garden in the Hunter Valley and an old fashioned flower garden in Sydney. Fascinated by the similarities between organisations and plant communities.

14 thoughts on “Evolution of a garden (and gardener!) as I go native

  1. What a fabulous challenge you have accepted Heather. And it looks like you have already achieved a great deal from the pictures. I particularly enjoyed the riot of pink and white in one of your photos. It is great to see someone realising the potential of plants like Anigozanthos Bush Pearl with its ability to flower all year round. Using cultivars like this has created so much new scope to design with more predictable displays of colour with Australian plants, but of course I am rather biased….

    It is also great to hear you talk of a sense of place. with such an incredible borrowed landscape it is great to see a garden design that respects that very special part of the world. I look forward to following the progress of your excellent garden.

    Best regards,
    Angus

    • Heather Miles on said:

      Thanks so much, Angus. You are of course an inspiration yourself, when it comes to natives. Thanks for your passion and great insights!

  2. Catherine on said:

    Hi Heather
    Thanks for sharing your garden, it looks great, and is obviously appreciated by the local wildlife!

    • Heather Miles on said:

      Thanks Catherine. We were really excited to see a spotted quoll once, and of course the birds love it.

  3. Lovely garden – and a great journey you have taken Heather.

    Australians seem to be using more natives now – sometimes by default when appealing native hybrids just beckon in nurseries and often shoppers don’t even realise the plant is native.

    But generally we gardeners do have more to learn about our natives – especially eucalypts.

    Thanks for the excellent plant references in your story.

    • Heather Miles on said:

      Hi Kim, thanks so much. Yes, such beautiful trees and this is the perfect place for them!

      I’m delighted that people are using more natives, even if it’s an impulse buy (hey, I do a bit of that myself!)

      I have to admit to only recently upping my knowledge on plant names, and getting the nomenclature right. A whole new world begins to open up as I learn family names as well and begin to understand linkages.

  4. Lauree Brown on said:

    Wonderful article which I hope will inspire others to think of going down this track!

  5. Heather Miles on said:

    Thanks Lauree. You sound like you’re an enthusiast yourself!

  6. Jeff Howes on said:

    A real show case in using native plants to compliment your local environment.
    You have achieved so much and as a long time grower of Australian plants, I am envious of your success so far.
    There is a lot of trial and error in establishing plants in such a large site, the key I have found is understanding the many micro climate situations you have and selecting plants accordingly.

  7. Heather Miles on said:

    Hi Jeff, thanks. It means a lot coming from someone with your expertise in growing Australian natives. I love your posts on the APS NSW website.

    I really like your comment about micro-climates. You’re right – it takes some precision to understand the micro-climates, determine what might work, then find the plants, get them in and watch how they perform. Such a pleasure when they thrive!

  8. Robyn Hyde on said:

    Heather

    Love your garden. We both seem to be on the same path, we too have a property in the hunter valley and an old time garden in Sydney. I am planting a 200m long windbreak with lilly pillies and she oaks along the driveway (which is flat with concrete clay and frosty) would you have any recommendations for other attractive trees to add to it (i.e. not she oaks or bottle brushes – not that I mind them but I want something more eye catching).

    Cheers
    Robyn

  9. Heather Miles on said:

    Hi Robyn, thanks! A few ideas (though depends on amount of wind and what level of frost – as well as how much of your windbreak is already in place).
    * I know you said no bottlebrush but I planted Callistemon salignus – really hardy with a bit of moisture – and beautiful red tips in spring.
    * Melia azedarach (White Cedar) an Aust deciduous so less effective as a windbreak, but very hardy, frost to -5 degrees C, full sun, adaptable and very drought tolerant. Beautiful mauve scented flowers and yellow berries (but don’t eat it – toxic).
    *Callitris rhomboid (Cypress Pine) might be an option – tolerates a light frost – conifer so tall and upright.
    *Melaleuca linariifolia (Snow in Summer) might also be an option – stunning display of white flowers in spring, mod frost. I’ve also got growing naturally * *Melaleuca styphelioides (prickly leaved paperbark) – so that’d probably suit the conditions as well.
    Someone else to ask is Noel Jupp – who runs Riverdene Nursery in Gresford – grows lots of indigenous plants and serves the Hunter widely. Check out his website and plant lists.

    Hope that helps! Cheers

    • Robyn Hyde on said:

      Thanks Heather. I have meet Noel thats were I got 300 lilly pillies to start the ball rolling. His knowledge of native plants is astounding.

      The wind has been ferocious – knocking off the re-inforced and buried tree guards so I have placed shade cloth on the fence as well – hopefully it will be enough to get things started – now just hours and hours of watering 🙂

      According to my neighbour the frosts were bad this year and I had to stop planting and protect the lilly pilly tube stock in Sydney till they were over. They should be resistant enough when they get a bit bigger. I don’t think we would go below -5C at Vacy.

      I have planted some Melaleucas down in the creek lines and we do have a few occurring naturally they are a beautiful tree.

      We have some rather stunted cow pruned cootamundras wattles and I do like some of the long lived silver leaved larger ones – have you tried any wattles? We have lots of spindly native ones higher up on the property but not what I would plant along the driveway.

      To get around the concrete we call soil, I deep ripped the area 6 months before, then we hired a small bobcat with auger dug holes and then planted everything raised with lots of mushroom compost added – has worked great with the beech trees will see what the natives think of it! (I am planting into paddocks cleared long ago …)

      Cheers
      Robyn

      • Heather Miles on said:

        Hi Robyn, sounds a wonderful project you’re taking on.
        Yes, have tried Acacia vestita – lovely foliage, although I have it behind a few trees so a bit protected. Have tried a few others, but nothing to write about… Cheers

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