Recreating the Country blog
Recapping the benefits of planting locals
Indigenous plants are well adapted to the unique climate and soil of their local environment. The local insects, birds, and marsupials know and rely on the food and shelter that these very specialised plants provide.
Imagine that a new supermarket chain has bought out your familiar corner store, and now it sells only brands you've never heard of and there's worse, the new supermarket only opens at inconvenient times.
In the same way, local wildlife have evolved with the local plants and know their cycles, they know what the nectar/pollen tastes like and when it becomes available. They know where to find insects under the bark and which bark to use to build nests. Some wildlife may adapt quite well to the new plants in our gardens, but they may not be as healthy as they would be feeding on the indigenous plants that they have evolved with for millennia.
Why plant wattles
Wattles are important plants in most ecosystems because of the benefits they bring to other plants and to local wildlife. In nature, it’s common to see four or more wattle species in a wild ecosystem, ranging from the taller understorey plants down to the bushy shrub-layer wattles that I’d like to talk about today.
Many of the shrub-sized wattles that are found in the Geelong region are rarely planted in gardens, yet they are a real asset in urban ecosystems. Not only are wattles an important source of food for wildlife, but they also add plant diversity, restore nitrogen to garden soils, add vibrant colour when they flower, and they’re quick growing, which makes a young garden look more grown-up. They are also quite long-living (15-20 years) and very competitive
Planting small wattles under tall/mature trees
The competitive nature of wattles is legendary. Many species of wattle evolved as pioneer plants that pave the way for other vegetation that needs shelter. They also compete well with existing trees.
Two small bushy wattles that will fill in bare spaces and provide the very important shrub layer under mature trees are the delightful spring-flowering Gold-dust Wattle, A. acinaceae; which grows to 1 m tall, and the Myrtle Wattle, A. myrtifolia; with its distinctive red branching and red stems. It will reach a height of 2 meters. The Myrtle Wattle will brighten up the garden in mid-winter with its bright yellow pompom flower clusters.
Getting plants started in dry areas under mature trees:
The benefits of providing a bushy habitat
Their bushy form is very important if you want to attract small birds. If you want to bring Superb Fairy Wrens into your garden within the first few years of planting, include a tight clump of bushy wattles. For example, in the same space that you might plant a shrubby grevillea, plant three bushy wattles. Their interlocking branches will provide important protection from the neighbours’ cat that’s out prowling at night.
If you want to provide super-safe accommodation for small birds, choose prickly wattles like the Hedge Wattle, A. paradoxa; or Prickly Moses, A. verticillata.
The Hedge Wattle has superb bright yellow pompom flowers in spring that will brighten up any dark corner in the garden. Its extraordinary beauty is the paradox as it contrasts with the sharp cat-deterring spines along its branches and stems. A line of these shrubs planted 2 m apart will turn heads, and not just the fairy-wrens, when they’re in flower. I was interested to learn from Dr. John Morgan from Latrobe University that the common taller form of Hedge Wattle was introduced into Victoria from Kangaroo Island in the early 1900s to create stock-proof hedges. The form that is indigenous to Victoria is smaller (1-2 m) and less invasive.
Prickly Moses is often found on waterways and will tolerate damper soil conditions than the Hedge Wattle. It can grow up to 4 m and its large pompom flowers from winter to spring are a refreshing pale yellow. The prickly part of this bush is its dark green leaves that taper to a point.
Tough and sweet-smelling
Some botanical names focus on an important feature of a plant that helps with its identification. For example, a beautiful shrubby wattle that is found throughout southern Victoria, as well as along the east coast, is the Sweet-scented Wattle, A. suaveolens which is the Latin word for sweet-smelling. This bushy sprawling wattle will grow to a height of 2 m and has delightful honey-scented creamy flower heads from June, continuing through the winter. It's one of the earliest wattles to flower.
Like the smaller shrub wattles that compete well, the Sweet-scented Wattle will do the hard work under mature trees, fill up those empty spaces, and provide very useful wind shelter. Like all hardy plants that are planted in dry competitive environments, the Sweet-scented Wattle will need a little more effort to plant as described earlier, but the extra time spent will be well rewarded.
Taller shrub wattles that will also perform well in these tough conditions are the Hop Wattle, A. stricta and the Varnish Wattle, A. verniciflua. Both will grow to around 3 m tall and both will provide robust shelter in windy, exposed positions.
Both the Hop Wattle and the Varnish Wattle will also make a statement as single specimens in a small garden or as a natural-looking clump planted for wind shelter under mature trees. Both flower in spring, providing a welcome splash of refreshing yellow in the garden or plantation. The varnish wattle has particularly attractive small glossy leaves that give it a year-round appeal to gardeners.
Two small bushy wattles that literally bring to the table something special are the Wirilda/Swamp Wattle, A retinodes; and the Coast Wattle, A. sophorae. Both are grown commercially for their edible seeds that are roasted and used for nutty food flavouring and a coffee additive. Click here to read about a commercial grower near Port Fairy. Both wattles will grow in tough garden environments and are well adapted to front-line coastal planting. Though, be cautious if you are planting A. sophorae because it is known for its 'weediness' along coastal fringes where it can spread and take over, smothering smaller indigenous plants. Both species display vivid yellow pompom flowers in spring.
To make up the ten small wattles I have included a beautiful tough ground cover wattle from west of Geelong, The Thin-leaf Wattle, A. aculeatissima. This is an attractive, extremely hardy plant for rockeries or hot, exposed dry garden beds. This beautiful wattle will provide important shelter and a safe haven for skinks like the iconic Blue-tongue, as well as small birds. Its narrow leaves are a little prickly because of their pointed tip, which makes them an important habitat plant for all the small ground-living fauna that we want to attract to our gardens.
To keep small wattles looking fresh and attractive, chop them back every year or two after flowering, (or the following autumn if you plan to collect seed), with the hedge trimmers, by cutting the growing tips. This process of tip pruning not only makes the wattles bushier by increasing lateral growth, but also encourages them to flower more prolifically.
Your clippings can be allowed to fall onto the garden bed as a woody mulch to suppress weeds. For prickly wattles, slide a tarpaulin under the plant before clipping to remove the thorny clippings that will make hand weeding unpleasant. These prickly clippings can be laid around tender shrubs to protect them from rabbits and hares.
Avoid pruning wattles too hard, as it can cause them to die back. A rule of thumb is to avoid cutting stems that are larger than pencil thickness.
Acacias are easily propagated from seed. To read more about this process and how to inoculate young plants to improve their health and vigour click here.
Mycorrhizal fungi – the missing link in revegetation
Stephen Murphy is an author, an ecologist and a nurseryman. He has been a designer of natural landscapes for over 30 years. He loves the bush, supports Landcare and is a volunteer helping to conserve local reserves.