Tips AU

The most stunning native garden ideas

By Gianna Huesch

Published: July 12th, 2020

The best native gardens are designed to create a sensory connection with the natural Australian landscape—here are our tips for creating a beautiful native garden!

There’s a renewed interest in the native garden, thanks to a growing contingent of landscape designers making waves for their beautifully and strongly naturalistic garden designs showcasing distinctive local flora—names like Fiona Brockhoff, Sam Cox, Grant Doyle, Nathan Burkett, Philip Withers and Kathleen Murphy, for example. These designers have been repopularising the use of local plant species to create a sense of deep connection to a unique landscape.

Striking plants with unusual foliage, blooms and seedpods come in a bewitching array of colours and best of all, most natives are hardy, low maintenance and drought-tolerant. We have such a gorgeous and diverse range of stunning plants from which to choose when it comes to planting up a native garden.

With the current global focus on sustainability, many gardeners are choosing Australian natives specifically for their environmental benefits. Natives not only allow you to use less water but also create more balance in your local ecosystem. Encouraging biodiversity, native gardens can become true habitat gardens which attract birds and other wildlife and naturally reduce pests.

I mean, what’s not to love about native gardens?

1. A sense of place

The chief idea behind the design of modern native gardens is to use local plant species and materials to create a strong sense of identity.  The focus is on creating a “stylised wilderness”, where an interplay of natural and constructed elements results in a garden that feels raw yet refined.

To heighten the sense of living within the natural landscape, native gardens connect a dwelling to its broader landscape through the artful use of colour, texture and shape. Below, one of photographer Marnie Hawson’s takes on native garden designer Kathleen Murphy’s quintessentially Australian landscape.

laidback australian vibes
Source: Marnie Hawson

2. The muted palette

Landscape designer Kathleen Murphy’s personal studio garden is often lauded for its demonstration of how to effectively use natives. She uses native grasses as key plants, including low-maintenance Lomandra chosen because of its beautiful appearance through all the seasons, interspersed with shrubs and succulents including super hardy native Westringia (coastal rosemary), and non-native prostrate rosemary (creeping rosemary).

She’s also admired for how she works with colour, working with a subtle palette of muted hues, including base colours of soft grey, green and purple.

grasses
Source: The Design Files

3. The bold palette

Aside from a soft, muted palette of neutrals, you can add magnificent sprays of colour to native gardens, thanks to the diversity of natives providing many choices for adding year-round colour.

For example, emu bush (Eremophila nivea) is one such dramatic bold plant, featuring stunning, luminous silvery purple tones. Here, emu bush has been coupled with groundcover grevilleas, that were grafted onto silky oak (Grevillea robusta) trunks and used as a feature plant through the garden.

emu bush in native garden
Source: Our Australian Gardens

4. Consider “Indigenous” vs. “native”

Be aware that “native” and “indigenous” don’t mean the same thing. Indigenous plants are native to a particular part of the country while native simply means a plant is native to a country generally.

Native species can become weeds and alter ecosystems if used in the wrong area. Plants that are indigenous to your area, on the other hand, will help the local ecosystem by creating more of exactly the right habitat for the local flora and fauna.

You can find out more about plants indigenous to your area by having a chat with your local council or a nursery near you. Below, a home on Victoria’s surf coast which is planted only with indigenous natives, as required by the local council. More councils around Australia are actually making this a requirement.

entirely indigenous native garden
Source: Native Plant Project

5. Go for succulents

Along with the general renewed interest in creating native gardens, there’s been a resurgence of appreciation of the beauty and complexity of succulents. Many succulents have long been a food, water and medicinal plant source for our indigenous people and there is a huge variety of beautiful shapes and colours to choose from. They’re ideal to grow in native gardens as they are so drought-tolerant and low maintenance.

Below, a striking black minimalist façade paired with Australian coastal natives and succulents, designed by another respected name in native landscaping, Nathan Burkett.

minimalist native garden
Source: Kira and Kira on Instagram

6. Have dynamic plantings

Rather than simply take a conventional garden design and replace exotic plants with local ones, the modern native garden actively seeks to emulate the Australian bush landscape.

This is done through a dynamic, layered planting with a variety of natives that will thrive in the circumstances, choosing a mix of tough, enduring plants and more short-lived ones. Aim for an asymmetrical mix of contrasting shapes, colours and foliage texture, but also focus on creating balance and harmony through repetition of elements.

modern native garden
Source: Australian Garden Landscaping

7. Something wild

This stunning Philip Withers landscape was constructed for the Melbourne International Flower & Garden Show. The aim was celebrating and cultivating wildness in the garden and allowing visitors to really immerse themselves in nature.

Not only local natives were used, but also succulents, exotics, herbs, fruits and vegetables, for a “vibrant celebration of biodiversity”. Demonstrating principles of sustainability was also a major priority so the landscapers designed a no-waste build and utilised plenty of recycled materials.

They also engaged the local indigenous community to design the engraved bluestone pavers and contribute to the storytelling of this place.

sustainable diversity
Source: Phillip Withers

8. Feature bold natives for drama

There are so many gorgeous Australian natives that feature either foliage or blooms (or both) that is striking and intriguing. They’re a great choice to plant up in containers as feature plants or place as accent plants in the garden. I can’t get enough of classic Australian flora like grevilleas, banksias and callistemons, in all their various stunning pastel and intense shades of pink, red, purple and orange.

australian succulents
Source: Pinterest

9. Blend softness in

A bright suburban front garden has been made low maintenance with kangaroo paws, grevilleas and proteas, all of which can handle full sun all day. This planting includes Grevillea ‘Ivory Whip’, Grevillea ‘Duea Flame’ as well as an understory of dwarf kangaroo paws (Anigozanthos ‘Bush Pearl’).

suburban natives
Source: Mallee Design

A geometric paving design contrasts nicely with the planting, see more ways that you can use paving or even decking in your garden.

10. Embrace naturalism

There’s a growing interest in very understated naturalistic gardens which evoke a sense of our local environs rather than an imported ideal. One of the proponents of this thinking is landscaper Sam Cox and the classic bush landscape of his Curlewis project. It is a perfect example of the modern take on native gardens.

With traditional natives like grevilleas, correas and callistemons planted close to the home, and further away, lower maintenance indigenous plants, Cox’s dwellings are designed to settle into the local habitat. One of his techniques is to blur the boundaries of the garden and its environment by not planting up boundaries with too much definition.

bush-landscaping
Source: Sam Cox Landscape

11. Add pretty blooms

Native gardens have sometimes been thought of as drab or dull, but nothing is further from the truth. There are always gorgeous colour bursts to be found in the wild which can be incorporated into the suburban native garden.

For example, Billy Buttons (Ammobium alatum) are native to eastern parts of NSW and live in forests, grasslands and alpine areas. These intensely coloured plants with their adorable yellow spherical blooms are also known as “woollyheads”, which does suit them! Use as a groundcover or rockery plant and you can enjoy picking them for vases too.

billy buttons in native garden
Source: Gardendrum

12. Source local plants

Not only do local plants achieve that all-important “sense of Australian place”, but they are typically hardy and water-wise, so they are just a smart choice for gardens. Here, an ecologically sustainable housing development in Victoria that has been built with the vision of creating subtle dwellings which appear to sink into their landscape.

munro court native garden
Source: Sam Cox Landscape

13.  Have meandering pathways

Whether you make a formal pathway or place some simple stepping stones, it’s always a great idea to create a winding pathway somewhere within your landscape. It doesn’t have to be massive, even a tiny one will evoke a sense of adventure and help direct people to particular parts of the garden.

When you have a native garden, old, battered and recycled materials work especially well to create a feeling of being lived in. In the garden below, steppers and pathways were made from recycled building materials including a driveway slab and old flooring joists.

I love how native groundcovers rustle over the pathway to the fire pit, and how the Pennisetum (fountaingrass) glows in the afternoon sun.

meandering pathway through natives
Source: The Design Files

14. Add golden tones

Another way to bring saturated colour into your native garden is to include drought-tolerant native Kniphofia ‘James Nottle’. Its blooms are a gorgeous egg yolk yellow and it features pale foliage in slim, grassy clumps. I like its use in this rusty old planter which has the suitably weather-beaten look that works so well in native gardens. But for other planter ideas, you might like to chat with a local expert in planter boxes.

native daylillies
Source: Homes To Love

15. Plant for your seasons

Many Australian natives are not only able to withstand our hot and dry conditions but can tolerate the colder climates as well. For example, Banksia spinulosa (seen below in its compact form, daubed with snow) thrives in Alpine regions.

Choosing the perfect natives for your location is easier these days as there has been such an increase in cultivars and hybridised species which are particularly suited to certain conditions.

snowy banksia in native garden
Source: Gardendrum

16. Layer it up

This home is described as an experimental space of wild contrasts, with its various gardens featuring a mix of local and indigenous grasses, rushes, wildflowers, climbers, shrubs, aquatic natives and edibles. The planting mix was chosen to be not only drought tolerant but also clay tolerant. Certain plants were chosen for their mound-stabilising properties, like myoporum. There’s flowering wallaby lawn and flowering gums, granite rocks, and the cross-pattern permeable pavers are filled with kidney weed.

overlapping layers
Source: Green Magazine

17. Mix gravel and flowers

Photographer Ingrid Weir’s garden in an old Gold Rush town has been modelled on the famed pebble and shingle garden of filmmaker Derek Jarman, who juxtaposed the stones with local natives and traditional cottage garden plants.

Here for colour, it appears perennial Violet Globe Thistle is planted, which isn’t a native. If you wanted some beautiful blue native bloomers with low water needs, consider the similar-looking Blue pincushions (Brunonia australis).

gravel and blooms
Source: Design Sponge

18. Prioritise natives

A dynamic, asymmetrical planting of natives creates a garden that takes advantage of Mother Nature’s own sculptural abilities to appear effortlessly natural. You want to avoid plants looking “parachuted” into the setting, by making them appear as if they’ve randomly arisen in their positions. But you still want enough structure and order so that your actual garden can be differentiated from untamed bushland—an ideal sometimes called “cultivated wilderness”.

Below, a new Sydney garden made up of only Australian natives from NSW, Victoria and WA, including banksias, Cupaniopsis trees, topiary shrubs of westringia (coastal rosemary) and correas. Groundcovers used are Casaurina Cousin It, Carpobrotus rossii and Myoporum parvifolium.

all native
Source: Native Plant Project

19. Embrace the furry textures

The texture and structure of our native vegetation can be extremely varied and you can take advantage of those different forms and foliage to create pleasing contrast in your garden. Keep the planting asymmetrical and apparently random but make sure you repeat elements so there’s an overall sense of cohesion and unity.

I love the fuzzy, fluffy, furry texture of so many Australian natives, like these dwarf grevilleas.

dwarf grevillea
Source: Australian Native Plants Society

20. Add in native nooks

I love a garden that nestles in nooks—the whole garden seems to have more character when it contains enticing little social spaces. And you can add so much atmosphere and charm with your choice of garden furniture and décor.

Here, it’s faded timber stools and a low water bowl (which maybe serves double duty as a firepit), beneath stunning mature stringybark trees, wild gums and a variety of native grasses and shrubs. Extremely tough (aka “survivor” or “bulletproof”) natives westringia, lomandra and tussock grass were used, as these can even grow in dry, shady spots such as under gums.

native nooks
Source: The Plant Hunter

21. Choose iconic native forms

To really drive home the Australian nature of your native garden, think about incorporating a symbolic, iconic piece of local flora like a grass tree (Xanthorrhoea). Epitomising the Aussie landscape, there are 66 species of this ancient plant and all are only found in Australia.

They’ll grow in poor soil and are very hardy, and some species have the ability to survive a bushfire. Long-living but extremely slow-growing, if you want a decent sized grass tree in your garden it’s best to get one that’s well established. (Note that it’s illegal to simply remove them from the bush.) Below, grass trees are a striking feature of this Sydney native garden.

grass trees in native garden
Source: The Design Files

22. Aim for cultivated wilderness

One of the big names in Australian landscaping, Fiona Brockhoff, is known for her ability to blur the lines of cultivation and the wild, creating gorgeous “native wonderlands”. Although her garden designs are very naturalistic, she ensures the actual garden stands out from its wider landscape through structural interventions like very tight pruning or adding gravel terraces.

Brockhoff’s tip on sustainable gardening? Look to your neighbourhood for indicators as to plants that thrive, particularly those abundant around deserted properties, which will reveal which species are true survivors.

wonderland
Source: The Plant Hunter

23. Soften the hard lines

Contemporary homes often feature a lot of hard lines, structure and definition, so to balance that, it’s a great idea to design a relaxed and natural-looking garden.

Instead of having a large privacy wall, this Central Coast home opted for a dense planting of natives and trees to block views –both native Australian and New Zealand plant species were used in this planting. Native front gardens are a great idea as they reduce the amount of time you’ll be out the front tending to your gardens.

native contemporary
Source: Eco Outdoor

24. Add hardy highland plants

Australia’s Blue Mountains are another part of the country that experiences scorching summers but also frosty winters, making planting something of a challenge. The plants that can grow here need to be both drought and cold tolerant and hardy enough to cope with all kinds of environmental conditions. I

n keeping with the sustainability focus of native gardening, available resources are assessed and plants are only selected if they can handle a location in all its conditions, within the resource constraints (usually having low water!).

highlands style
Source: Homes To Love

25. Create a picturesque poolscape

This award-winning garden by landscaper Sam Cox has a freshwater pool area surrounded by naturalistic Castlemaine slate paving, with timber steps leading to the house. There’s a canopy of eucalyptus trees and an understory of indigenous plants.

I love how the hard landscape of the pool area has been edged with plantings of natives grevillea, correa and poa, which serve as a transition to the bush background, but thanks to their dense planting, also hide the pool fence!

fairfield poolscape surrounded by native garden
Source: Sam Cox Landscape

26. Choose coast-loving plants

With much of Australia’s population distributed along the coast, a contemporary aesthetic that emphasises a beach/garden connection just makes sense. This means choosing native coastal plants or ones from similar coastal climates (ocean-toned plant species look especially effective).

It’s also about choosing materials that are suitably organic and naturalistic, like bluestone pavers, slab steps, sand-toned gravel pathways, rock features and natural timber.

coastal plants
Source: Homes To Love

27. Construct natural-looking waterholes

Adding water to the garden in some shape or form is always a great idea. I just love this informal pool which has been constructed to appear as if was completely naturally-formed. To further enhance a pool or pond design with naturalistic contours like this, choose locally-sourced rocks and boulders which won’t look out of place.

Think about sticking to natural materials for the surrounding décor—timber, gravel, brush fencing all look the goods.

informal pool with native garden surrounds
Source: GardenDrum

28. Blend into your surroundings

As well as using a landscaping material colour palette that complements the native plant palette, use local organic material for construction where possible.  Here, landscaper Jo Ferguson’s beachside home has a sprawling garden is layered with tough, coast-loving natives and makes use of stone retaining walls in keeping with the naturalistic aesthetic.

Aside from sourcing local rocks and stone, native gardens also suit rustic hardscaping materials like timber, gravel, recycled bricks, brush fencing and corten steel garden edging.

beachy garden beds
Source: The Design Files

29. Be bold

Kangaroo paws are a really popular Australian native, here and around the world. They’re an easy way to bring in gorgeous swathes of colour to your garden, coming in a range of colours, not just the well-known reds.

For example, below, yellow kangaroo paws have been used in this home in San Francisco, one of America’s sunny West Coast cities which shares a similar climate to ours.

yellow kangaroo paws
Source: Arterra

30. Rock a natural look

This Kathleen Murphy native garden has a gorgeous naturalistic look that aligns perfectly with its natural surroundings and really showcases the beauty of the Australian bush.

To achieve a naturalistic aesthetic like this, plant where plants would be likely to go natural and use materials that both complement and contrast with the natural flora and fauna. For example, incorporate large boulders as has been done in this garden, as rocks play a big role in replicating a natural look.

gums
Source: The Design Files

31. Mix natives and exotics

You can still have a strong Australian flavoured garden and use a mix of plants from all over the world, together with natives. The key is that they need to have similar abilities to thrive in your conditions.

Your planting palette should be guided by what works—but bear in mind it’s not true that natives will always survive when others won’t. For example, the owner of this home noted the effect of drought-breaking on their mostly native, partly exotic planting. Many of the original natives had been Western Australian flora which could not tolerate the rain and died off. While many exotics were actually able to cope with the sudden environmental change.

The moral of the story? Try to choose plants for their adaptability to a broader range of conditions rather than those which need very niche conditions to survive.

mix it up
Source: Native Plant Project

32. Go for warmth

Emphasise a sense of the sunburnt country we live in by incorporating natives in gorgeous warm tones, as landscaper Fiona Brockhoff has done in her Sorrento garden. With the home nestled into a sand-dune setting, she’s chosen seaside flavoured hardscaping materials like limestone walls, gravel terraces and shell-grit pathways, combined with a coastal planting.

Plants that feature in the nearby dunes were used, including moonahs (Melaleuca lanceolate), sea box (Alyxia buxifolia), cushion bush (Leucophyta brownie) and drooping she oaks (Allocasuarina verticillate).

gorgeous warm colours
Source: Native Plant Project

33. Go monochrome

You can go with a minimalist, modern look with natives too, as they not only come in bright colours or soft muted natural colours but also in black, grey and silvery tones. One such monochromatic species is Banksia integrifolia, a native tree that is hardy thrives in a coastal climate and attracts plenty of birds.

monochromatic
Source: Fig Landscapes on Instagram

34. Add a beaten up firepit

A rustic, weathered look for garden furniture works really well in native gardens. Here, amongst a planting of Banksia serrata, Lomandra tanika and Westringia fruticose, a rusty corten steel firepit sits beside a natural timber stool and recycled railway sleepers forming a low retaining wall.

firepit at coledale
Source: Fig Landscapes

For more retaining wall designs, you might like to also see our article on retaining wall ideas.

35. Swoon over wildflowers

A massive tourism drawcard is West Australia’s magical, magnificent wildflower fields. There are more than 12,500 flowering species in WA, with 60% of them being endemic to the state.

In season, they’re inspo for gardeners everywhere and a great example of how Australian landscapes can vary wildly from classic muted, natural bush palettes to something as extravagantly rainbow-hued as this. How stunning is the contrast between the red earth and the pastel flowers?

western australian wildflowers
Source: Native Plant Project

How to design a native garden

There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to native gardens, but there are certain techniques that you can borrow from the best landscape designers.

  • Not all natives suit all regions. Some are more perfect for some areas than others, so make sure you source plants from similar growing conditions.
  • Create layers with a dynamic, asymmetrical planting that looks random and natural.
  • Link it all up with repetition.
  • Try to plant plants with similar longevity.
  • Follow the natural patterns of mass (mounds, plantings, boulders etc) and void (pathways, ponds, grassy and paved areas).
  • Keep the boundaries blurred so that the garden appears to sink into its setting, but define them enough to differentiate your garden from its surrounds.
  • Use organic material for hardscaping (think recycled brick, rusted steel, bluestone pavers, salvaged timber, rock, gravel, brush fencing, etc).
  • Add a water feature. The presence of water is traditional near natives in the wild and will also encourage birdlife in your garden. You can also plant native aquatic plants that will act as a natural filtering system.
  • Include social spaces to enable you to immerse yourself fully in your garden and to provide comforting, enclosed spots to relax, entertain or simply shelter from sun or wind.

You can find a local garden designer or expert in garden planting to help you select the best pick of natives (and ideally indigenous ones) for your location. To set your site up for your new planting, you can enlist the help of someone to do a full garden tidy-up, including any wood-chipping that you might need to be done.

And although native gardens are usually lower maintenance than other kinds, they shouldn’t be thought of as “set and forget”, because they will still really thrive through care (that is, regular watering, fertilising and pruning). So once your new garden is up and running, you can always outsource the maintenance to someone who truly loves that task!

So there you have my favourite selection of Australian native gardens. I’m really drawn to the naturalistic bush settings – do these landscapes speak to you too?

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Gianna

I'm an interior design writer living on the mid-north coast of NSW with my two kids and three cats.

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