Planting for a wet spring – A quick guide to selection of natives for poorly drained areas on farms and in the garden
According to the Bureau of Meteorology, there’s a more than reasonable chance that a La Nina event will happen this coming spring. La Nina is associated with wetter than normal conditions across eastern and northern Australia. Given the dry conditions we have endured these last years, this comes across as pretty exciting news.
Places where water lies after rain creating soggy areas in paddocks and gardens are a gift if you know which plants to select for the conditions. Many natives will not survive poor drainage and prolonged inundation, but there are some absolute stunners that will revel in such conditions. They will busily suck up carbon, plus feeding and housing wild birds and pollinating insects whilst delighting the human eye. Grouped together, all our farm and garden planted patches can quickly become important wildlife habitat and corridors. For proof of this, walk the tiny strip of park between Merrigang St and Shepherd St in Bowral. Natives have been planted on both sides of the creek and tiny birds are active in there. Just metres away, on the streets and in the gardens, only the large and more ‘punchy’ native birds such as magpies and currawongs can be seen and heard.
Here are suggestions for plants that thrive in wet soil in Highlands conditions.
MELALEUCAS. There are about 210 species of Melaleuca endemic to Australia and most will withstand extended periods of wetness, even growing in permanent swamps. They adapt to a wide range of soils, but most prefer the acidic soil we enjoy locally. Melaleucas manage during prolonged dry spells, but they do like a drink at these times, especially when newly planted. They thrive in sunny sites but will also tolerate semi shade. Most are tolerant of moderate frosts.
Melaleucas range from low, sprawling shrubs to 20m trees, so its handy to know what to look for; the ones that will grow well in the Highlands and sizes to match your requirements. Melaleucas are sometimes referred to as the ‘honey myrtles’ because their copious supply of nectar is an extremely important food source for native birds and insects when flowering time comes.
TREES: If it’s trees you need, its hard to go past the local Melaleuca linariifolia (photo above) .The common name of this small (approx. 5/6m) tree is Snow in Summer, and that says it all. In flower, a well-grown tree is truly spectacular with the whole crown exploding into a mass of creamy white flowers that are irresistible to native insects. You can hear the trees buzzing from many metres away! Another attractive feature of this neat and fast growing tree is its distinctive papery white bark that peels to reveal patches of salmon pink. If you have the space, they look wonderful in groups. You will be scratching your head in wonder as to why any gardener would prefer to plant the ubiquitous birch tree instead of this natural treasure which, as well as soaking up the sog on your ground, contributes so much shelter and habitat.
M. styphloides is a close cousin with darker green, slightly prickly foliage. It will perform in pretty much the same way as M linariifolia.
If it’s a small tree you’re after, it often works to select a plant described as a large shrub. You can train it to suit your needs. With Melaleuca hypericafolia underpruning can start when the plant is young and it will stand on multiple slender trunks and make a lovely small tree, as in the picture at left. If you want a big, romping, bird-attracting shrub, allow it to follow its natural growth habit and produce foliage to ground level. This will be to the delight yourself and many of small birds.
An amazing adaptation of this one, in common with many Australian plants, is the habit of producing flowers back along the stems instead of only at the branch tips. This allows small birds to disappear into the shrub and feed in safety, unworried by predators. Melaleuca hypericafolia, the ‘Hillock Bush’, is native to NSW and local to this district. It grows to about 3m in height and equally wide. Flowerheads are typical ‘bottlebrushes’, salmon pink in colour and particularly attractive to birds. If you have the space, Plant a big group of them for habitat and as a wind-break, though a single specimen looks great in a smaller garden. A cultivar, M. hypericafolia ‘Ulladulla Beacon’ is a prostrate form and looks great tumbling over a wall or down a bank.
SMALL to MEDIUM ERECT SHRUB:
Although this species is a West Australian, M micromera is a good choice here. It fits the bill for a smaller melaleuca, growing, as it does to about 2m high as an erect shrub. This interesting and decorative plant has blueish-coloured foliage and looks a bit like a conifer. It has proven to be reliable in a wide range of soils in temperate regions, but it dislikes alkaline soils. Although M. micromera likes good drainage, it will tolerate wet soils for a good length of time and is hardy to moderate frosts. This one might be hard to find in nurseries, but members of the local Southern Highlands district group of Australian Plants Society are growing it from cuttings, so you might like to join up to find good company and interesting plants.
CALLISTEMONS Because they are such reliable performers, callistemons have been used widely wherever a hardy and reliable evergreen is required. Sadly, often in public plantings ‘used’ has come to mean ‘misused’. A car park specimen, nudged, bumped or completely flattened by cars, is not an uncommon sight. These battered specimens can often be rescued and, in the hands of a pruner, a bonsai-like feature can be made of old and tortured trunks. Try a rescue if you find an oldie. Dig it out respectfully and prune to shape, removing cross over branches and trimming back anything broken. Prune close to (but not hard against) the trunk; don’t leave any ‘coat hooks’. Also, prune the roots. Remove dead or old and woody roots and shorten back smaller roots. Pot up your plant and lavish it with love and care. Water and feed with slow release fertilizer and mulch with sheep manure or almost anything well composted (not chook). When it shows signs of vigorous growth it will be ready to go back into the ground. It doesn’t always work, but it’s worth a go and a great test of your test your gardening skills.
Such a fun and a rewarding enterprise! Good luck.
photo, C.pallidus, the lemon-flowered bottlebrush.
Treated with respect, the wonderfully hardy callistemon genus has much to offer. They thrive in wet ground, will grow in sun or semi shade, are hardy to most frosts and the few insect pests can usually be managed by picking off and squashing offenders (watch for callistemon saw fly larvae in late spring/summer). Flowering throughout a generous chunk of the year and especially in response to rain, callistemons offer a wide range of flower colour from the reds, through pinks and purples to white, green and yellow. Select for colour and check size and growth habit; some have a weeping habit and sizes vary. Plant in colour groups for a wonderful effect. Native birds will become your constant companions.
Basically, you can prune callistemons to suit your requirements. If it’s a sturdy, small tree you’re after, choose a single trunked tube-stock specimen or prune to a single trunk and set it on its way, removing lower branches as it grows.
If you feel you must follow the Highland gardeners’ obsession with hedging, you can prune to suit, though do consider a freeform group rather than over-disciplining your plants. As well as pleasing wildlife, this will reduce maintenance and allow the plants to develop to their beautiful, natural forms.
Favourites? Callistemon pallidus is a hardy, dense medium-to-tall columnar shrub with handsome, blueish foliage. Frost tolerant, ok with wet feet, sun or semi-shade and amazingly wind-firm, it bears beautiful yellow flowers from around September into autumn and is beloved of insects and birds. Just one watchpoint, sometimes they surprise you by producing mauve/purple flowers! Be sure to check your source if its yellow you’re after.
A current favourite for a small tree massed with flowers of a gorgeous, wood-rose pink is Callistemon cv ‘Pink Champagne’. Close second in the ‘best pinks’ competition is the stronger-coloured C. cv ‘Reeves Pink’ (in photo). And a new cultivar, C. cv ‘Bronwyn’ is looking promising.
Spend time searching for others to suit your needs. They’re all great plants for wet spots.
This genus is large and has posed some tricky questions for taxonomists over the years, so let’s talk about a few species and cultivars known to do well locally and fit the project of selecting plants for spots where water lies for extended periods after rain.
With the exception of some species from northern Australia, all Leptospermus are cold tolerant and cope with heavy frost and snow. All are very attractive to insects, in particular, butterflies.
Additional to graceful growth habits, an attraction of this beautiful genus is the profusion of delicate, white/pink flowers produced mostly in spring and summer. These flowers do well indoors when picked and the plants benefit from pruning, though take care not to be heavy-handed and spoil the natural form of the plant.
TREES: L. brevipes is a local medium/tall shrub or small tree growing to between 2 and 4 metres in height (locally) and spreading to make a graceful little tree. In the wild it has a preference for poor, rocky sites but adapts well to a wide range of conditions. Flowering usually extends from October through to early summer. It makes a lovely individual garden specimen or works well as part of a mixed planting group.
L.petersonii , the lemon-scented tea-tree, is another small tree grown 2/5m locally. It is widely cultivated for its fragrant foliage which contains the essential oils, citral and citronellal. These compounds can be used in pot pourri, candles and soaps. Fresh leaves can be used as a tea which has a pleasing lemon tang. Its natural habit is to grow beside streams and so would, in the wild, be sheltered from heavy frosts that can cause it damage, but it will cope with most frosts in garden conditions.
L polygalafolium is an extremely variable species with a wide distribution in nature. Clearly this one caught the eye of early plant collectors because it was introduced to England in 1800. A number of highly desirable varieties have been bred from this plant and one to look out for is L. Polygalafolium cultivar ‘Cardwell’. Confusingly, this plant is often marked as L. flavescens ‘Cardwell’, so just watch for the ‘Cardwell’ tag. This one is a desirable plant for gardens and reliably produces masses of flowers during summer. It grows to 2/3m with a lovely weeping growth habit.
Just one last leptospermum to seek out for wet and frost exposed places. L rotundifolium is another variable plant, usually a dwarf to medium sized shrub and has a natural distribution of south of Sydney to around Nowra. It is widely cultivated and adapts well to a variety of soils. Importantly for Highlanders, it is hardy to heavy frosts. It responds well to pruning and the flowers last well indoors. A favourite and very useful cultivar of this plant is the prostrate ‘Julie Ann’. This hardy, dense and beautiful plant grows as a ground cover to less than half a metre in height but has a spread of between 1 and 2m. Planted in a group, it makes an excellent groundcover with attractive textured foliage and again, masses of flowers, each approx. 2cm across.
Hopefully this quick sprint through three genera will have you in your garden or paddocks putting in some treasures to enrich our environment into the coming spring and summer.
Encyclopaedia of Australian Plants by Roger Elliot and David L. Jones