Recreating the Country blog
The exciting prospect of designing and planting your own nature strip or native garden and how it can be done.
Individually designed nature-strips have the exciting potential of being colourful mosaics of personal expression. An organic form of street art that could define a street, a town and a municipality. A barren grassy strip is a clean slate, an empty canvas, just waiting for an artistic declaration.
Just imagine a quiet street where the nature-strips are a patchwork of diverse leaf and flower colour, each a statement of personal preference, each as different as the people who designed and planted them. The occasional mown grassy strip would become a pause, a full stop in the storyline of the local street-art
Edwina Jones, a resident of Victoria Park (a town near Perth), took advantage of the $500 Council grant, that supports replanting of nature strips to low water-use native plants. She is delighted with the result just two years after planting;
“The birds came and there are bees as well. I’m standing in it now and I can see bees on the Fan-flowers (Scaevola sp). There’s a gravel path through it and I love seeing schoolchildren trip through it on their way to school and I get a lot of comments. It can really change a feel of a street to get nice-looking verges. And it doesn’t take much to look after, you just have to do a little clipping to make sure the plants don’t get too high
Here is a link to the City of South Perth's [PDF] 'Greening our streets, Street Verge landscape Guidelines'. https://southperth.wa.gov.au › docs › 1-residents › services › verges › stree...
Designing your own nature-strip/native garden
A visit to your local native nursery will open windows into the possibilities of how your own creativity can be expressed
Look for contrasts in leaf colour and leaf shape. A native garden will always look exciting if there are vivid differences between the foliage of plants. Flowering then becomes a fabulous bonus, but not the making of a garden. It will always look extraordinary even without flowers.
The best way to visualise this at the nursery is to place the plants you like side by side to see if there is a clear contrast in foliage. If there is then you’ve made a great start to designing your native garden in the nature-strip
In nature, plants of the same species always grow together. Nature mass plants them to ensure their survival, landscapers copy this feature because it looks strong, bold and stunning. This is particularly important with small plants and grasses but it holds true for shrubs and trees as well.
Smaller plants can therefore be mass planted in much larger numbers. For example a square meter of garden (1 m x 1m or 0.5m x 2m) could hold 100 plants of a small herb like Chocolate Lily, Arthrapodium strictum, if planted at 10 cm spacing. In contrast a square meter of garden would only accommodate one shrubby grevillea.
The limiting factor is the size of the garden. A small garden like a nature-strip could be overpowered by a mass planting of one or two species of shrubs. Mass planting smaller grassland plants among a few ‘hero’ shrubs/trees allows for a lot of diversity in the small plants and makes a striking feature of the ‘hero’ or attractive shrub or small tree.
Some grassland plants ‘hibernate’ over winter
Something to keep in mind is that some of the beautiful lilies, flowering grassland herbs and orchids die back over winter, waiting to put out their fresh leaves and flowers the following spring. This adds a wonderful element of surprise to your garden. It also creates a bare patch over the cool autumn and winter months.
You may need to mark these bare patches with a small stake as a reminder not to dig or plant new plants. Leaving it bare and adding a light mulch will look good and allow space for these spring spectacles to return, invigorated by their rest.
You will also find that the other flowering herbs and grasses in your garden will seed into these openings in the garden, making it more natural and informal with every season.
Plant a diversity of plants – this is ideal but not essential in a nature-strip
Diversity of plants in a nature-strip/garden supports more insects and more birds. Small reptiles and frogs will also make a home if you add some rocks and logs.
Simply put, more species of flora = more species of fauna.
In a home garden this design feature is important to bring in a diversity of wildlife. The different flowers and flowering times providing a variety of foods for a variety insects. This intern supports more bird species.
Though in a patchwork of street nature-strips, it would be an attractive feature if some are planted with large clumps of native/indigenous shrubs and others focused on masses of one or two species of native herbs or lilies. The overall street effect would be a delightful mosaic of height, texture and colour. The Superb Blue Wrens and other small insectivorous birds would certainly add their tick of approval by moving to the clumps of shrubs.
Let’s be sensible
Councils have restrictions on what you can plant on a nature-strip often for good reasons.
Some councils encourage planting nature-strips
More progressive Councils like the Victorian Cities of Monash and Moreland support planting native plants on nature-strips and may assist with a list of recommended local plants, Read more on this link>
Perth Councils are supporting the planting of native plants on nature-strips because they use much less water than grass. Read more on this link> Western Australian Water Minister Dave Kelly (now Premier of WA) said climate change was continuing to impact Perth's water supplies and communities needed to adapt and evolve;
“I congratulate the cities of Mandurah, Vincent and Stirling and the Town of Victoria Park for their work to help households establish waterwise verges,” he said.
“I encourage other eligible councils to take advantage.
“More than 40 per cent of household water use in Perth occurs outside the home.
“Establishing native plants also adds to the liveability of our communities by adding visual appeal and creating habitats for local wildlife - all while having a cooling effect on our streets.”
Approach your Council with caution
I prefer to plant first and ask for forgiveness later. After all it’s our responsibility to maintain the nature strip and planting with small indigenous plants is clearly an effective form of maintenance.
By all means make cautious inquiries to gauge your Councils policy on planting nature strips. However if you find your Council has a conservative policy, asking permission may result in unhelpful red tape and a list of illogical concerns. When it looks great there is not likely to be any opposition. They may even see the many benefits and start recommending it to other ratepayers.
Locating a source of hardy local plants
Most garden nurseries stock Australian native plants and a few plant species that are local to your area. If you want to expand your plant list, add more diversity (wildlife will thank you) and buy more cheaply in bulk, try:
Some beautiful and hardy plants for your nature-strip, including suggestions from nature-strip gardener Peter Van Haeff.
Don’t be put off by the botanical names, just cut and paste them into your search engine and hey presto, you will have instant pictures and descriptions. Pictures of some are shown below;
Ground covers: Atriplex semibaccata; Brachycome multifida; Carpobrotus species; Chrysocephalum apiculatum; Correa sp.; Enchylaena tomentose; Grevillea sp.; Hardenbergia violacea; Kennedia prostrata; Xerochrysum bracteatum.
Herbs: Calocephalus citreus; Convolvulus erubescens; Geranium sp.; Linum marginale; Nicotiana suaveolens; Pelargonium sp.; Ptilotus sp., Xerochrysum viscosum;
Lilies: Dianella species; Anigozanthus sp.; Arthropodium strictum;
Grasses and Sedges: Austrodanthonia sp.; Austrostipa sp.; Lomandra sp. Poa sp., Themedia triandra,
Shrubs: Small Acacia species (e.g. A. acinaceae); small Banksia sp. small Callistemon sp. (e.g. C. 'Little John'); Correa sp.; Crowea saligna; Dodonaea viscosa; Goodenia ovata; small Grevillea sp.; Indigofera Australis; small Melaleuca sp.
Small trees: Acacia sp.; small Allocasuarina sp.; Bursaria spinosa, Banksia sp.; small Eucalyptus sp. (e.g. E. platypus; E. preissiana, E. torquata, dwarf E. leucoxylon); Grevillea sp.
When to plant
The ideal time to prepare and plant is winter and spring when the soil is moist. It’s much easier digging and the plants shouldn’t need watering until summer and ideally won’t need watering at all.
Preparing the site for planting
Start off small and manageable in the first planting season.
1mx2m is a good size and it will look like a beautiful garden in the grassy nature-strip. Add more and think larger as you gain confidence.
Your aim will be to remove, smother or kill any exotic grasses and herbs before you plant your native plants. There are several proven approaches that work well;
Hoe Hoe Hoe
Cut your grass very short (for the last time) and then employ the ‘father Christmas method’ - hoe, hoe, hoe. Chipping with a hoe on a sunny day is a very effective method of killing weeds.
If you find the grasses are deep rooted perennials or they spread from rhizomes (their roots) like Couch and Kikuyu, you may need another method to weaken them.
Solarisation over the sunny warmer months, from September to February, with a sheet of clear plastic, stretched tight and held down at the edges, will cook and kill weeds.
Spraying with a herbicide like glyphosate when the tough weeds are in the flush of spring growth will kill them in a few weeks. I think this is a reasonable method because it’s a once only use and it prepares the way conveniently for a successful planting with its many benefits.
Be safety conscious when using herbicides and spay on a still day to limit spray drift that may damage nearby plants.
Aerating and moistening a dry site
Your nature-strip is very likely to be dry, hard and compacted.
If this is your strip then after the weeds have been removed and before planting, the soil will need aerating (cracking) to let the rain soak in as deep as possible. This will also encourage worm activity and make it easier for new plants to establish.
A low cost, quick, easy method to aerate soil manually is to use a garden fork.
Aerating with a garden fork.
Push the fork in as far as possible, then pull back on the handle a little until the soil cracks.. Repeat this every 30 cm or so all over the area to be planted. Using a fork this way you won’t develop any back soreness. I use this aerating method to prepare for planting my veges as well.
Then water into the newly created cracks until water fills the cracks. Let it soak in for 24 hours.
Repeat this process until the garden fork can be pushed into the soil to its full length. The soil will then be beautifully moist, and well aerated. Importantly your plants be easy to plant into the open soil and they will establish very quickly.
In a normal year if you plant before the end of September follow up watering won’t be necessary. After a dry spring, watering every 2 – 3 weeks may be necessary until autumn
Mulching over the hoed ground will control weeds and conserve soil moisture.
Traditional mulches like straw, wood chips, sawdust and leaf litter may not be appropriate. They will tend to blow over and cover small native plants and they’re also likely need an edging to keep them from spreading over the foot path and gutter.
A shallow covering with one of these mulches up to 2.5cm deep may be a good compromise if you don't mind some follow up weeding.
I chose not to use these mulches because timber edging could be trip hazard to pedestrians and may raise Council’s concerns. I used hessian cloth pegged down every meter with homemade wire pegs and cut slits with a sharp knife for planting.
Another suitable organic materials that doesn’t need edging is old horse-hair carpet underlay. Jute matting, coir matting and hessian cloth are available commercially in rolls.
Mulches to avoid
Avoid using old carpet, sheets of plastic or plastic weed-mat. They don’t decompose and allow the native herbs and grasses to seed and spread naturally on the nature-strip.
Indigenous and native plants don’t need fertiliser
Indigenous and native plants prefer soils with low fertility and therefore don’t need fertiliser. In the poor soils that you are likely to find on a nature-strip this gives them a big advantage over introduced exotic weeds.
A rule of thumb when establishing any native garden is don’t add fertiliser. Keep it ‘hungry’ because this advantages the native plants and weakens the weeds. Whereas adding fertilisers like blood and bone, dynamic lifter and manures will result in lots of healthy weeds and a lot more weeding. It is also toxic for members of the protea family like banksias, grevilleas and hakeas.
Coming home to a smile.
Imagine coming home after a long tiring day and turning into your street where you see your beautiful NATURE-strip welcoming you with a 'smile'. A rich display of Aussie floral heritage and a personal expression of living breathing vibrant street art.
You too could say goodbye to your noisy smelly lawn mower and say hello to the wildlife that adopt your NATURE-strip as their home in the city. You'll be so glad you did.
Dear reader, can you imagine this?
You’re walking along a shady city street in spring and the nature strip is sprinkled with the rich colours of native wildflowers and grasses. The mauve star-shape flowers of the chocolate lilies wave in the breeze and the yellow button flowers of the native everlastings meander onto the footpath softening its hard grey edge.
People are stopping to take photos of the amazing Hoary Sunray daisy as its delightful white and yellow flowers welcome the morning sun. Children are fascinated by the beautiful moths and butterflies that flit from flower to flower. The birdsong in the trees above adds a welcome serenity to this natural streetscape.
What I’m describing is a wonderful feature of our Australian heritage that has evolved and flourished on our dry continent for millennia. Their are hundreds of remarkable species that make up the list of grassland plants unique to the dryer parts of Australia. Many of these plants can still be seen on country roadsides where they are now protected.
Doesn’t it make sense to welcome them back into our cities which was their home, before they were exiled?
The mown nature strip? - we can do much better!
The nature strip is a common and familiar feature of our cities and towns. It is usually a green or straw coloured mown strip of grass monotonously bordering our streets. Some nature strips have been planted with trees, often inappropriately large, requiring expensive pruning to keep them below overhead powerlines.
Strangely, nature strips are public land that is looked after by private citizens. For this reason they are often cut very short to minimize the tedium of maintenance. It’s a chore that home owners endure week after week, month after month and year after year, for little reward
What if these barren strips of grass were planted with long-lived, low maintenance native wildflowers and grasses local to the area? The wildflowers would also bring back beautiful native insects and birds, adding layers of beauty and song to our city streets.
There are many advantages of converting our mown strips to low maintenance grasslands and heathlands. Here are a few;
Birrarung Marr in central Melbourne
A very popular trial planting at Birrarung Marr, along the banks of the Yarra River in central Melbourne has been an unqualified success.
Watch a 5 minute Gardening Australia story about it here>
Tracksides at Birrarung Marr have been planted with colourful native gardens that could be the way of the future for urban spaces. Dr Claire Farrell from the University of Melbourne’s School of Ecosystem and Forest Sciences explains;
“The Woody Meadow project is modelled on natural heathland plant communities across southern Australia. These are self-sustaining, tough and drought tolerant shrubs that are used to growing with low levels of nutrients. Many are beautiful flowering plants.”
Claire explained how the plants are cut back hard to 15cm once every 2 or 3 years to encourage lush growth and prolific flowering.
They're doing it overseas
Planting meadows of native herbs has become a popular design strategy for many UK and US councils.
The city of Sheffield in the United Kingdom has been experimenting with replanting wildflower meadows along walkways and roadsides.
Many States in the US have seen the benefits of replanting roadways to native wildflowers, as Australian grassland restoration expert Dr Paul Gibson-Roy found this on his 2015 Churchill Fellowship in the US. Click here to read more about what Paul discovered
‘Prairie natives are much used on roadsides in Minnesota. The State Department of Transport was one of the largest users of native seed, buying many thousands of pounds for sowing (or installed as plants) over thousands of acres of roadsides’.
Our plants are the toughest in the world
The driest and oldest continent in the world has produced some of the toughest plants. That means they can cope with drought and low nutrient soils which is ideal for the variety of difficult conditions that can be found on nature strips.
Another attractive feature of Australian grassland and heathland plants is their longevity. For example, in our dry and exposed grasslands these remarkable small plants can live for decades, even centuries. The ubiquitous Kangaroo Grass can live over 100 years and the extraordinary Feather-heads even longer. The only maintenance that they need is mowing every 5 years, which mimics the occasional grazing by a mob of kangaroos.
My nature strip is changing
In September 2018 I planted a section of my nature strip with indigenous plants and have had very encouraging results.
In my November blog I'm looking forward to discussing how to design, prepare and plant your own magnificent nature strip. I'll also suggest suitable species and where to find indigenous herbs, shrubs and trees for these remarkable transitions.
Stephen Murphy is qualified in Geology and Environmental Management and has been a nurseryman and a designer of natural landscapes for over 30 years. He loves the bush, supports Landcare and is a volunteer helping to conserve local reserves.