When I bought my block on top of the Lake George escarpment near Bungendore, NSW, in 2007, a friend said “you’ll never grow a garden here!” He had a point – too cold, too hot, too windy, too dry … and then there’s that ‘Bywong clay’. And, as it turned out, there was also more than a handful of kangaroos.
Determined to prove the doubters wrong, I carefully constructed my garden beds … half river sand, and the rest made from a mix of bought ‘topsoil’, the local clay, and my ‘secret’ ingredient, coco-peat. I planted over a hundred ‘boutique’ native plants (sourced mainly from Park Lane Nursery back in Wangaratta) and over their first summer, they thrived.
Satisfied, I went away for a month in April – May, and came back to find …. they’d all been eaten down, or out. I had lost probably half of them. A third still had some green foliage surviving at their base, and the rest were (remarkably I thought) untouched.
I’ve never seen as many kangaroos in any rural area as exist in these parts …. they love the Canberra hobby-farm landscape, obviously, with its pastures un-pressured by commercial flocks, a dam on every 5 acre block … and landowners who not only don’t shoot them, but some who even buy hay for these, the most drought-resilient of animals.
And its these animals that pose the greatest challenge to the gardener here. The trials and errors of the past five years have taught me some strategies that have helped overcome the frustration of that first autumn, and grow a garden in this environment so heavily populated with kangaroos.
As you’re unlikely to keep kangaroos out of your garden (bigger kangaroos can jump a 2m fence), here are some strategies and insights for managing kangaroos in your garden:
#1: Don’t plant lawn. I like the small area of buffalo grass lawn I installed in that first summer to replace the sea of pavers I inherited. It’s not invasive, and will survive the droughts and frosts of these parts. But it’s a mecca for kangaroos. It brings them right into the garden, and once there, they can’t resist the other tasty treats on offer. I don’t regret the lawn, but it means more reliance on the other strategies below.
#2 Kangaroos will eat spiky plants. Plants with the spikiest, thorniest foliage may still be palatable to kangaroos.
#3 You need to rely mainly on ‘unpalatable’ plants. There are some genera of native plants that are, generally, unpalatable to kangaroos.
Australian native plants that are unpalatable to kangaroos
• Plants with oily or fragrant foliage. Plants with high oil content (including some which have fragrant foliage) include species of Eremophila, Prostanthera, Westringia, Eriostemon, and Myoporum appear almost totally unpalatable to ‘roos. Little wonder some of these have become the ‘woody weeds’ of our rangelands. Other ‘woody weed’ genera will also likely be left untouched by ‘roos.
• Plants with hairy or sticky leaves. There’s a million words in the botanical dictionary for ‘hairy’, and if a plant’s foliage is one of these (particularly if its ‘glaucous’) it may be unpalatable. Examples include Ptilotus, Chrysocephalum, Lysiosepalum and Xerochrysum. Genera which are, as a rule, palatable, may have species which aren’t, such as Acacia howittii or Acacia verniciflua. Also, some strappy-leafed plants, like Lomandra are generally left un-touched, but others (e.g. Dianella) seem to be more palatable.
• Woody plants. Some plants (like Callistemon) seem to have too much cellulose (i.e, are too woody) to be palatable.
Genera with these features should make up the bulk of the plantings, particularly early on.
#4. Guard everything in Year 1: Young plants, and particularly those straight out of the nutrient rich potting mix of the nursery, are particularly palatable. Even plants of genera that are generally unpalatable, should be guarded in Year 1. ‘Guarding’ can include plastic or mesh tree guards, netting, or old chicken wire from the tip, either placed around or on top of the plants (depending on the plants form).
#5 Kangaroos hit plants hard in winter: In summer, there’s lots of growth everywhere and the garden isn’t hassled by kangaroos. Guards can be removed after the last frost (i.e., mid-October) but should be re-installed around the first frost (i.e., late April). The unpalatable genera can probably remain un-guarded in their second year. In a drought year, it may be necessary for plants to be guarded all summer.
#6 Some plants remain palatable to kangaroos, others don’t. In later years, many plants may survive year-round un-guarded and only be ‘lightly pruned’ by the marsupial herbivores. In my garden these include Grevillea, Melaleuca, Baeckea and Scaevola. Just observe and guard if necessary. Others, however, will be munched no matter how old they are. These seem to include plants in the Papilionaceae (pea-flowers) and Rutaceae (Correa, Boronia) families, among others. Sadly, there’s not much point in planting these unless you’re prepared to keep them guarded, particularly in winter.
My garden is composed entirely of plants that don’t grow taller than a metre …. but taller plants will of course be right once they get above browsing height.
#7 Forget foliar sprays. I reckon there’s a lot of rubbish spoken about the effectiveness of foliar sprays. Whatever the peddlers of these products might take out of your wallet, in my experience they won’t work. neem oil, and other such potions recommended to me, seem to just make the foliage shinier and yummier for kangaroos. They might as well recommend a spray of dishwater!
Some have suggested the use of foliar sprays used in New Zealand to deter possums, but I was told these are not registered for use in Australia.
#8 Don’t believe the peri-urban myths: Myths include the application of blood and bone as a deterrent, but of course, you wouldn’t want to put that on your natives. Or, even (for the blokes) pissing around your garden to ‘mark your territory’, but first-hand experience suggests this is no deterrent at all!
#9 Roos will not only eat, but trample. Roos will be oblivious to whatever paths you’ve made through your garden. Large kangaroos can easily trample or dislodge plants from your garden. I’ve lost a couple of semi-advanced plants from this. Strong, high and sturdy stakes (with or without guards) around your plants may provide some protection.
#10 Try a dog?: Would a house-dog deter ‘roos at night? I don’t know … but it might.
The result: Despite the cold, the hot, the dry and the wind, and despite the native clay soil, I managed to establish a garden that is diverse and attractive, as for 6 or 7 months of the year, the unsightly guarding can be dispensed with. By employing these strategies, I’m now OK with kangaroos in the garden (they’re certainly a highlight for visitors!) but you certainly need to manage their impacts to have any kind of garden in kangaroo country.
[This article first appeared in the Australian Native Plant Society Canberra Region (Inc) journal]