Friday, May 9, 2008

A Planting Conundrum

Here I sit on the driest continent on earth in a beautiful leafy city with magnificent gardens, parks and leafy boulevards. The only problem is it isn’t raining much anymore. We’ve lived for a long time here in Melbourne with the luxury of stable rainfall that supports all manner of plants. No longer. There is a call for Melbourne’s leafy European trees to be replaced with indigenous or native species more suitable to the ever increasingly extreme conditions. Some are vehement in their opinions that only indigenous will do and that plant appropriateness is on a continuum with indigenous plants being most appropriate and exotics being least appropriate.

This debate is of interest to me as I've never considered flying the flag for only one group of plants and has led me to reassess as to where my opinions lie on the use of indigenous, native and exotic plants.

Before I launch myself into the discussion I should define what I mean by the much bandied about terminology - indigenous and native. My understanding is that indigenous plants are those that are native to the local area. Native plants are those that are Australian.

The definition of a “local” area can be quite specific. Not long ago I attended a seminar run by SGA (Sustainable Gardening Australia) which covered amongst other things the use of drought tolerant plants and in particular suitable indigenous plants. The plants referred to were those that were native to the area around the southern area of the Yarra River. It was also suggested that plants should be sourced from a local provenance – those whose seed were sourced from the local area and that they were grown in local climactic conditions.

Of course the plants themselves are only one factor in the equation the other is the environmental impact of those plants. Obviously plants that are indigenous to a specific area will be suitable to that particular soil, not be considered a weed, likely to provide a food source for native fauna and their water requirements will match local conditions. All these are huge advantages.

Another factor in the choice of a plant palette is the “sense of place”. Within much of the locality of inner Melbourne there is not a huge amount that tells me that I’m in Australia. The “sense of place” is determined more by the architecture and perhaps the fauna than the flora (only this morning I was walking through the leafy avenues of trees in the park with multi-coloured rosellas diving and squawking overhead). The architecture seems unsuited to the natural forms of the indigenous plants but that is not to say they can’t be used. Many indigenous plants can be shaped to provide the formality which suits the architecture we’re just not used to seeing them in these forms. Take a trip a few suburbs further out where the environment is dominated by gum trees (eucalypts), wattles (acacias) and other natives and the natural forms of indigenous plants seem entirely suited and the place could be nowhere else than Australia.


Take a drive south of Melbourne to the Mornington Peninsula and you will find two neighbouring gardens each which uses indigenous plants but in a subtly different way. The first is the garden of designer Fiona Brockhoff "Karkalla" and the second Jane Burke’s "Offshore". Both these gardens seem to seamlessly meld with the local rather wild beachside and windswept landscape. Karkalla uses a mix of indigenous, native and exotic plants. Some of the indigenous plants especially closer to the house have been shaped formally, others further away left to their own devices. "Offshore" is more strictly an indigenous garden which is unsurprising given that its owner is a botanist and an expert on the local coastal vegetation. Both these gardens are well designed. Ironically though Jane Burke states that design comes last for her with function coming first followed by the creation of an ecosystem as close as to what was originally there as possible. One of the interesting things about this is that in choosing only indigenous plants the plant palette is limited and therefore easier to make a cohesive design with than if selecting from a never ending choice. My inspiration these days is more likely to come from the landscape often than private gardens and it is probably precisely because of the reason that in particularly areas nature has a limited palette creating the unity and repetition that make design work. It is so easy to get carried away with the beauty of plants that consideration of how they work as a whole gets lost. The limitation of the plant palette by the indigenous grouping eliminates this problem.


In difficult climactic and environmental conditions such as this area of the Mornington Peninsula where wind, lack of rainfall and poor soil are givens sticking with the indigenous plants makes perfect sense. The likelihood of success is so much greater, the results are quicker and the maintenance less.

So in the end I think it is as the saying goes “horses for courses” – I look around and see what clues the landscape is giving me. If it gives me none I have free reign to work from a wide but always considered plant palette. If an indigenous plant works within the scheme then I’ll use it otherwise I’ll try to work with those plants that will live happily in local conditions (usually those whose natural environment is similar). If the “sense of place” is strongly local then I will more than happily work within that framework knowing that half my work has already been done by glorious mother nature.


Many publications have covered "Offshore" and "Karkalla" these include:

"Karkalla" Vogue Living Oct/Nov 2002

Gardens of Fiona Brockhoff, Your Garden, Summer 2006

"Sand castle" article on Fiona Brockhoff designed garden, InsideOut, Issue 60, March/April 2006

"Offshore", Gardens Illustrated, No 106, October 2005

"Offshore", InsideOut (if anyone knows which issue this was in please let me know)

"Offshore", in "Gardening the Mediterranean Way", Heidi Gildemeister, Harry N. Abrams Publisher, N.Y. 2004

1 comment:

Bellgirl said...

I enjoyed reading your blog! I found your post through googling these gardens- they're beautiful, aren't they! I've planted similar plants in my front garden, taking inspiration from the use of seaside plants in a quite formal design- however we're six kilometres from the sea, so it's not really indigenous!

My mother-in-law is only into native, preferable indigenous plants, but I like your thinking about 'horses for courses', and Jane Burke's about function coming first. I put ornamental pears, like those commonly used in street planting, on our northern boundary to shade our patio in summer and allow light in in winter, and they're just right for the purpose, whereas no native plant would have performed that function so well.

Here's a pic of the pears:

...and some of the native plants that thrive in their shade: