Some tips for gardeners of Victoria & NSW

A new section has been added on the propagation of Australian native plants. By following the advice, if you live in Australia, you should be able to grow local area plants from cuttings or seeds collected from your locality. The notes are tailored for northern Victoria and southern (iverina) NSW. The recommendations may not apply to tropical areas, seasid areas, alpine areas or to non-native plants.

A key to a healthy garden is the soil. This page provides advice on how to make good compost, avoiding the common pitfalls.

There are notes on mulching and watering. Many householders use far too much water than is necessary, and ironically those with modern houses often use more water than those with old-style established gardens.

Whilst most of the pages linked to this section deal with indigenous plants, this page is of a more general nature, and includes notes about the growing of vegetables and ornamental plants in containers.

By planting plants of your own region we are providing a habitat for native birds and insects, and maintaining something of the character of your region. This is particularly important on farmland and near bushland. By ‘planting local’ we are also helping maintain the balance of nature.

Propagating native plants

The following notes are based on a presentation given by nurserymen members of Echuca-Moama Branch of the Australian Plant Society in July 2012. E&OE.

• Most Australian native plants grow best from seed rather than from cuttings. Plants grown from seed are more liekly to develop a strong tap root and may live longer. However, the form and flowers may differ from the desired form.

• Most Australian native plants grown from cuttings will have the same flower colour and leaf shape as the plant from which the cutting has been taken.

• Plants grown from a cutting are likely to flower more quickly than plants grown from seed.

• Some plants cannot be easily grown from cuttings (e.g. River Red Gum) so seeds should be used.

• When propagating plants from cuttings or seed, avoid using ordinary soil or sand alone. With cuttings, a mixture of two parts Perlite to on part premium potting mix is recommended. The potting mix used for cuttings might include peat and beeds.Using sand alone is not recommended as sand tends to be colder than Perlite. A potting mix may contain ‘poly’ beads and no soil at all. The potting mix used for cuttings might include peat and beeds.

• Place the mixture in a shallow tray that has drainage holes. Try to keep the tray/s in a place wher the temperature is between 21 and 23 degrees Celsius, especially at the base of the tray. Lower temperatures and higher temperatures will impact adversely upon the success rate. Frost is likely to kill your cuttings/seedlings.

• For most native plants, the best time to sow seed or plant cuttings is in Spring or Autumn. Summer temperatures are too hot (except for River Red Gum seeding) and Winter temperatures too cold.

• The slips used for cuttings should be small and a single stem. Remove the bottom leaves. Cut the bottom of the stem, dip in hormone mix and plant immediately. To improve the success rate, most nurserymen dip the bottom of each cutting in a rooting hormone before planting. Different hormones are available, e.g. one is specifically for softwoods and another for hardwoods. Liquid hormone is generally preferred to powder. Honey can be used as a rooting hormone.

• If a cutting bends whilst being planted, it is too soft: don’t plant it!

• Most cuttings and seedlings should be mist sprayed at least once a day until ready to be planted into a tube or into the ground. Nurserymen, who often have heating under trays, often spread verniculite (heated, crushed mica) on top of seed trays to retain moisture. Some succulents, however (e.g. Maireana spp.), do not like humid conditions.

• Whilst cuttings and seeds are usually best planted in shallow trays, Boobialla cuttings are sometimes planted straight into a tube.

Compost

About half of the household garbage thrown out is food and garden waste. Throwing out such material in the garbage bin adds to environmental problems and causes landfill sites to fill more quickly. It is possible to place food scraps, grass clippings, prunings, weeds, paper, manure, leaves and other organic materials into a heap or compost bin, recycling the material to improve the quality of your soil. By following these tips, it should be possible to make good compost in just a few weeks.

• Use a well-ventilated compost bin placed in a position where it receives sun for part of each day
If you have a compost bin which is not well-ventilated, compost will take much longer to break down. If your compost bin lacks aeration, drill a few holes in the side of your bin’. If your compost bin does not receive enough warmth, decomposition of the contents will take longer. Similarly, the contents should be neither dry nor excessively wet (about 15% moisture content is ideal). During hot weather, a little water may be added to your compost bin to speed up decomposition. It is not necessary to use a specially-designed bin: some gardeners prefer to have a compost heap.

Sticks can be placed in a compost bin/heap to aid air circulation.

• Turn the contents of your compost bin regularly to speed up decomposition and avoid smells
It is possible to purchase compost bins which can be rotated by hand or by machine. If your bin cannot be rotated, it is possible to purchase a special tool from larger hardware stores which can be used to ‘stir’ the contents of your bin or turn over your compost heap.

• Layer the contents of your compost
To produce good compost, start with a layer of twigs or course mulch at the bottom of your compost heap or bin to help with drainage. In order to keep mice and rat out of your compost, it is a good idea to place the chicken wire on the ground beneath the bin. Accumulate kitchen scraps in a small container and periodically add these to the heap or bin, so that there is a thin layer of vegetable scraps (tea leaves, potato peelings, pea pods, etc) and green garden waste. Cover with a layer of brown garden organics/broken down compost. Repeat these steps so that there are thin layers of matter. A thick layer of grass clippings will not break down quickly, so only place thin layers of clippings in the heap/bin.

• Try to keep weed seeds out of your compost.
Before placing weeds, kykuyu or couch grass in your compost bin, it is a god idea to leave these grasses to dry out first. It may be wise to cut off seeds before adding grasses and weeds to the compost.

• Avoid placing meat, seafood or dairy products in the bin.
Placing meat, fish and dairy products in a compost heap/bin may cause smells and attract rodents.

• Seaweed solution
Liquid seaweed can be added to the contents of your compost heap/bin to speed up the process. However, fertiliser should never be added to compost as unwanted fungi may grow as a result.

• Manure
Adding cow manure or blood-and-bone may improve the quality of your compost

• Dry matter can be added to ‘sweeten’ the compost
Adding sawdust, torn up newspaper, gypsum (or garden lime) and/or ash from the fire may reduce the acidity caused by excessive nitrogen-rich materials.

• Avoid spraying insecticides into your compost
The breakdown of materials into compost (soil) depends upon decomposition. Micro-organisms, worms and insects contribute to the process. Turning the compost discourages ants and cockroaches but does not harm the useful organisms.

Food scraps ~ other than acidic foods (e.g. citrus and onions), meat scraps, bones, dairy products and sea food scraps ~ can be placed into a worm farm instead of a compost bin. Worms can also eat small amounts of paper. But only a little material should be added to a worm farm at any time.

Worms do not need to be purchased and added to a compost bin or compost heap: they will find their own way to it.

Compost is ready for use when individual food scraps, leaves, etc can no longer be detected.

The Riverina and Murray Regional organisation of Councils has leaflets which provide more information on composting and worm farms. Alternatively, NSW residents can obtain information from the NSW Department of Environment and Climate Change by phoning 131 555.

 

Mulch

Mulch is material on the ground which reduces the number of weeds and helps retain soil moisture. Mulch helps make gardens healthier by greatly increasing the biological activity in the soil (especially worms and beneficial micro-organisms). In bushland, there is a natural mulch of leaves and twigs. Whilst leaves and twigs are a good mulch, there are other alternatives.

• Compost
Digging in broken-down compost helps a soil to retain moisture and nutrients ~ especially good for vegetable gardens.

• Lawn clippings
Lawn clippings tend to be rich in nitrogen and are a good garden fertiliser and mulch, especially for vegetable gardens. But apply thinly.

• Garden prunings
Small twigs, branches and leafy cuttings are sometimes too large for the compost heap/bin. However, they should NOT be placed in the garbage bin. Place them on the ground and run your lawn mower over them a few times. Larger cuttings can be shredded using a mulcher. Mulched material is especially good on a garden of shrubs.

• Red Gum chips, hay, straw, etc
Mulch can be purchased at larger garden centres and larger hardware stores. In our region, River Red Gum chips are relatively inexpensive and pleasing to the eye. They are especially good on native gardens. Allow leaves and twigs to fall on the Red Gum chips. Soil fertility is increased as the mulch breaks down.

The trouble with hay or straw is that there may be seeds in the mix, resulting in the growth of weeds. Bark is a good mulch but pine bark tends to blow around on windy days.

• Pebbles and stones are not desirable
There is an increasing tendency to use crushed rock, river pebbles and the like on gardens. Gardens covered in pebbles or stones usually look pleasing to the eye. BUT, given our climate, this is not a good idea because of the heat that radiates off them. Plants are more likely to die if you use pebbles or stones as a mulch.

Avoid placing mulch right up to the trunk/stem of shrubs and trees to help reduce collar rot or plant disease.

Avoid using material that has been exposed to weed killer or pesticides as that mulch may harm your plants and/or soil.

Newspaper can be placed on the soil under mulch to help deter weed growth….but using plastic or black polythene is not a wise idea as it prevents water entering the soil and is detrimental to micro-organisms and worms. Carpet is not good. Similarly, using saw dust is not wise as the saw dust can cake, preventing water penetration.

One disadvantage of mulching is that water from light rain or hand watering may not penetrate the mulch, i.e. it may not reach plant roots.

The Riverina and Murray Regional Organisation of Councils has prepared a leaflet on “The Marvel of Mulch”. The brochure was referred to when the above notes were prepared..

Soil Preparation

When preparing a garden bed for native plants, it is wise to build the garden bed up slightly to help excessive water drain away. Most native plants do not like wet feet.

Broken down compost is good for vegetable gardens, especially if dug in or applied thinly.

Blood and bone can be dug in to improve the quality of the soil.

Before planting native trees and shrubs, it is wise to prepare the ground well beforehand. If large numbers of trees and shrubs are to be planted, it is a good idea to rip the ground to temporarily remove weeds and improve water penetration. Whilst gypsum can be used as a clay breaker, avoid using chemical fertilisers. Most natives can tolerate blood and bone or broken down manure. Water natives in well. Follow-up waterings are desirable to help prevent plant losses. Water at increasingly long intervals until the plants show good signs of growth. Over watering can kill plants. Avoid planting trees close to a house or fence.

When preparing a garden bed, it is wise to add sand and compost to clay soils. Manure and gypsum can be added.

Watering

Ignoring the recent floods, water is usually scarce and has been increasingly expensive. Water restrictions are common in our region. A water-wise garden is therefore worth considering. Ironically, many householders with new homes with lots of paving and small gardens tend to use more water than many householders who own older, established homes on larger blocks. Why is this so?

• Water of an evening or early in the morning
Watering in the middle of a hot day is not a good idea. More water will evaporate and less water will soak in.

• Don’t lawns or gardens more than twice a week
Watering an area for about 15 minutes twice a week is sufficient for most lawns and gardens. Any longer, and water may run off down the gutter and be wasted. Over watering can kill shrubs, especially if the drainage is poor. Native plants are adapted to our dry, not climate and will quickly freshen up after watering….so don’t worry if they sometimes look a bit stressed.

After about 15 minutes, move the hose or sprinkler to another area of your lawn or garden.

It is wise to use a tap timer so that areas are not over-watered should one forget that an area is being watered. A timer is useful, even if and when one is hand watering.

• Water the soil under plants, not just the leaves of plants
Watering should be to benefit plants. The soil needs to be moist, not the leaves.

• The pitfalls of automatic watering systems
Plants should only be watered when they need to be watered, and not when the soil is already wet. Automatic watering systems are undesirable insofar as too much water tends to be wasted. A sensor device can be used to determine when a garden bed requires watering.

• The pitfall of drippers
Drippers deliver water to certain areas of soil. Plant roots tend to grow toward the wet spots near the soil surface and this may result in plants falling over. Plant roots should be encouraged to spread out and go deep into the soil rather than heading to a moist spot. Furthermore, drippers tend to clog up. If you use drippers, it is best to use three drippers around the root zone of each plant: this is not always practical.

Drip irrigation pipe uses about 50% less water than drippers and is less likely to clog up. Also available is recycled rubber pipe but it is not recommended.

• Vegetable patches need watering several times a week during warm/hot weather (but herbs do not)
Most vegetable gardens need watering several times a week during warmer weather. Maize and some other vegetables demand a lot of water, most herbs relatively little. Therefore, it is a good idea to grow herbs in a separate area away from vegetables. See section on herbs below. For information on vegetables, visit the ABC’s Gardening Australia site.

• Watering pots
To determine whether or not a pot plant requires watering, place a finger in the pot. If the soil in the pot appears to be moist, do not water it. If the soil is dry, water. If the potting mix is completely dr and the plant looks stressed, it may be wise to immerse the entire pot in a bucket of water for a short time.

Water pot plants separately: do not water them at the same time as a garden bed or vegie patch because pot plants have different requirements.

Remember to water the soil, not the plant. Many orchids are an exception insofar as they naturally make use of moisture on their leaves.

Herbs

It is relatively easy to grow herbs. Compared to most introduced palnts and vegetables, most herbs require relativly little water.

There is a wealth of information about growing herbs on the Internet. The ABC Gardening Australia site has some useful information. The NSW Botanic Gardens Trust site listed below is particularly good.

Botanical Gardens Trust (NSW) page on growing herbs

ABC Gardening Australia page about growing herbs

Landscaping design

When designing a garden, envisage what the garden may look like several years hence, when shrubs and trees have grown in size. Take into consideration the soil type, the character of the neighbour’s gardens, maintenance requirements and watering requirements.

• Lawns
If you are planning to have an area of lawn, try to avoid sharp corners: rounded corners make mowing and lawn maintenance easier. Try to avoid sloping lawns from which water may run off and be wasted. Lawn grasses which require relatively little water can be obtained from Tim Barton’s Ko-warra Native Grass Nursery, Echuca-Mitiamo Road ECHUCA.

• Vegetable gardens
Vegetable patches should be in a sunny position. See also the section on herbs (above).

• Do your homework first
Before purchasing plants, prepare a rough design and do some research, e.g. by studying the top 10 native plant site linked to this page. If you decide to include indigenous (local area) native plants, it is wise to purchase them from one of the specialist nurseries listed in the side panel. Make sure each plant species you purchase comes with a tag identifying the plant and listing its width and height. AVOID purchasing unlabelled plants from a fete or street stall! Not only are such plants unlikely to be idea, but the soil may be contaminated with fungi or chemicals.

• Avoid planting trees in inappropriate places
Most trees grow too large for today’s small urban blocks. If you plant a tree or trees, make sure that they are well away from the neighbour’s property. Many disputes occur because tree branches or leaves fall onto neighbouring property or because tree roots damage neighbouring houses or property. Trees tend to suck a lot of moisture out of the soil and this can cause brick walls to crack if the tree is close to a house or garage.

• The smaller and younger the better
It is far cheaper to purchase plants in tubes rather than in large pots. A large plant may be good in the short run but a plant purchased in a tube or small pot is likely to develop into a healthier, more attractive and longer-lasting specimen.

• Plants with greyish leaves and small leaves tend to require less water
Indigenous plants, and most native plants, are adapted to withstand hot, dry conditions. Therefore, they demand less water than introduced plants with broad leaves. Roses, succulents, cacti and herbs are introduced plants which require little water. Generally, plants with greyish leaves, waxy leaves and/or spines rather than broad leaves require less water than do plants with broad green leaves.

 

• Some plants to avoid
Camellias and ferns require a lot of water and are best avoided given our climate and water restrictions. Also, plants which have become weeds should be avoided, e.g. Bridal Creeper, Agapanthus, Gazenias, Peppercorn, Canary Island Palm, Willows. There are indigenous plants which are ideal substitutes, e.g. as far as the leaves and shape are concerned, our local Dianella looks very similar to Agapanthus (although Dianella does not have the large flowers). Dianella is very hardy, even hardier than Agapanthus.

• Garden clubs
There is a branch of the Society for Growing Australian Plains in the Campaspe-Murray region. Members meet in the CWA Hall, High Street Echuca, on the last Friday of most months.

Established in 1879, The Echuca Horticultural Society meets monthly in the church hall alongside Aldi Supermarket.

Both of these organisations welcome new members and have great guest speakers.

• Grevilleas
The most widespread genus of Australian plants are the Eucalypts, followed by the Acacias. Grevilleas come in third place. But if cultivars and hybrids are taken into consideration, Grevilleas come in first place. Excluding hybrids and cultivars, of the 500 or so species of Grevilleas, 300 grow in south-western Western Australia. There are few, if any, Grevilleas which grow naturally in the Echuca district. Most Grevilleas are unsuited to our climate and soils. Many who plant grevilleas in the greatger Echuca district are disappointed. Hardiest shrub varieties for this region include G. commutata and G. insigni. Grevillea robusta, a large tree which attracts bird, seems to grow well. Some of the hardier cultivars include “Peaches and Cream”, “Apricot Glow”, “Bush Lemons” and “Pick of the Crop”.

• Garden design
The following books (which are likely to be on sale in The Tangled Garden and other local bookshops) may help inspire you when designing a native garden:

(External Link) Simon T. – Business Owner of Hedge & Stone Garden Landscaping Melbourne. Garden advice services and complete landscaping throughout Melbourne, Victoria.

Paul Urquhart and Leigh Clapp, The new native garden: designing with Australian plants (New Holland)

Not all the plants mentioned in the two books are, of course, indigenous to this area, but indigenous plants can often be substituted for the plants suggested. A specialist nursery may be able to assist you in this regard.

‘top 10 garden plants’, ‘top 10 plants for dryland plantations’ and ‘top 10 plants for plantations alongside irrigated land’ .

When growing indigenous plants in a garden, don’t assume that indigenous plants require neither maintenance nor watering during dry times. Most natives do.

Some species grow best in sandy soils, some in moist soils, some in clay soils, some in semi-shade and some in full sun. Try to choose plants suitable for your soils and needs.

Farm plantations should have a mix of species, with wattles included amongst the eucalypts. Planting various species in random order is, in the opinion of many, preferable to a regimented pattern. Several rows are preferable to one or two rows. In order to support a high percentage of bush birds, a vegetation cover of 30 percent seems to be the threshold below which the number of bush bird species falls significantly. This percentage cover may be lower if the property adjoins natural bushland. Whilst such a high percentage of cover may be unrealistic, even a lower percentage shrub and tree cover will provide shade and act as a wind break, thereby improving pasture growth and benefiting stock.

As far as the home garden is concerned, don’t fall into the trap of planting trees and large shrubs near fences and the house! Big trees on town blocks may mean tree-removalists may have to be employed one day. Leave room, especially near the front of a garden, for the small, hardy, colourful ones.

Native grasses can add interest to your garden but introduced weeds will need to be weeded or kept at bay with mulch, e.g. sawdust or red gum chips.

Using pavers and red gum chips can create a professional effect as the following picture I took the photo in a public garden in a Brisbane suburb. Each ‘front garden’ along a street in the gardens had a different type of garden, one had a cottage garden of native plants, one was a European-style garden using natives,another was a rainforest garden and so on. All the gardens had paving, retaining walls and so on.

Publications

Most bookshops stock a range of gardening books. There are also several good gardening magazine (e.g. Gardening Australia magazine) and videos (e.g. on permaculture).

Riverina and Murray Regional Organisation of Councils have a number of brochures about sustainable gardening (composting, mulching, worm farms, etc).

The ABC’s Gardening Australia site includes a plant finder with notes and photographs of a wide range of vegetables, shrubs, herbs, trees, etc.

External link: ABC Plant Finder

Some seed companies (e.g. Yates) produce useful guides regarding the growing of fruits and vegetables. Apart from printed material, Yates now has an electronic Guide to Gardening with advice on growing of vegetables and other plants.

External link: Yates Garden Guide

One of the best books covering both introduced and native plants suitable for Australian gardens il:

Ernest Lord and J.H. Willis, Shrubs and Trees for Australian Gardens Lothian)

The following publications about native plants may prove useful:

Bendigo Field Naturalist Club, Wildflowers of Bendigo

Nathalia Wildflower Group, Flora of the Nathalia district and Barmah Forest (Prominent Press, Shepparton)

City of Greater Shepparton, Gardening with local native plants (brochure) Click here to download a copy.

City of Greater Bendigo and Bendigo Wildflower Group, Indigenous plants of Bendigo Click here to download the various sections of a booklet.

Martin Driver and Marianne Porteners, The use of locally-native trees and shrubs in the southern Riverina (free publication that was distributed by Greening Australia, Deniliquin)

G.M. Cunningham and others, Plants of western New South Wales (Inkata Press)

Leon Costermans, Trees of Victoria and adjoining areas (Costerman Publishing)

Leon Costermans, Native trees and shrubs of South-eastern Australia (Rigby)

W. Rodger Elliot and David L. Jones, Encyclopaedia of Australian plants suitable for cultivation (Lothian)

John W Wrigley and Murray Fagg, Australian native plants (Collins)

Hedge and Stone garden consultancy Melbourne offers a premium planing service for all your garden and landscaping needs.

Victorian National Parks Association, Field guide to Victoria’s Box and Ironbark country

Philip Moore, Plants of inland Australia (New Holland)

Ian Lunt, Tim Barlow & James Ross, Plains-wandering: exploring the grassy plains of south-eastern Australia (VNPA/Trust for Nature)

Neil and Jane Marriott, Grassland plants of south-eastern Australia

Diana Snape, The Australian garden: designing with Australian plants (Bloomings Books)

Paul Urquhart and Leigh Clapp, The new native garden: designing with Australian plants (New Holland)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *