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Pimelea ferruginea ‘Bonnie Petite’, Brachyscome 'Fresco Purple’, Chrysocephalum apiculatum and various Kangaroo paws.

10 small native plants for Australian cottage gardens

People are always asking me to name my favourite native plan. I find the question impossible to answer. How could I name just one when there are so many wonderful Australian native plants suitable for cottage style gardens! So I started to wonder if it may be possible to answer the question by breaking it down into categories, such as the best plants for shade, or clay or dry areas. I could never pick just one in each category, so I’m going to be sharing a few lists of my favourites for you to explore, beginning with small native plants. And I hope to share some ideas and strategies for your more challenging garden situations too. Kicking off here with a focus on smaller flowering varieties.

You may be wondering why I would focus on small native plants? 

Firstly, when many people think of Australian native plants the first that come to mind are large flowering shrubs like grevillea and banksia and acacia. There are many magnificent plants in this category of course, and when people first plant a native they often turn to one of these. But our love of grevillea can create an imbalance. Their flowers are a favourite for larger nectar eating birds including parrots and our native noisy miners. It is great to provide habitat for all species of course, but birds like the native miner are territorial and will chase small birds out of the garden. Offering an area of your garden with the preferred plants of other bird species will help to bring more balance to our environments, not to mention more diversity in the creatures you can observe and enjoy in your garden.

Secondly, many of us don’t have the space for large gardens these days. With block sizes shrinking in our cities, many people don’t have the room for even one large shrub in their garden.

The other thing to consider is diversity. If space is limited, you could find room for perhaps 3 or 4 large flowering native shrubs. But if you focus on smaller species you will have so much more diversity, room to provide flowers for pollinators all year, and a garden that supports a greater diversity of species for a native garden that is alive and buzzing with life all year. Who doesn’t want that!

So let’s kick off this series with 10 of my favourite flowering Australian native plants for small spaces and gardens.

  1. Brachyscome Pacific Reef

This pretty pink flowering native daisy is a hardy and attractive Australian native plant that makes a lovely low border in a cottage or pollinator garden. It is a lightly suckering variety, which means it can spread out slowly to fill a space. But it does not spread aggressively or very far. This also means it can repair patches that are damaged, such as if you have a dog that can damage parts of the garden from time to time like me! It doesn’t need any pruning or maintenance, unlike many other Brachyscome which I find need pruning or dead heading regularly to keep looking nice. Brachyscome Pacific Reef flowers continuously in my garden, providing colour all year even in winter, with it’s best flush of colour in late spring to summer. It handles drought well, although in the worst of the 2019 drought here it was knocked back a little. That was an extreme and extended dry though, that lasted many years, and it has come back beautifully now. 

  1. Isotoma axillaris 

The starry colourful flowers of Isotoma are a real favourite in my garden. Australian native Isotoma plants have been exported and are now bred all over the world. They come in pink, purple and mauve colours and flower prolifically. The original Isotoma axillaris self seeds readily, so you will get many free plants to share with friends, or you can do what I do and let it spread and establish a wildflower meadow in spring. 

There are also wonderful cultivated varieties of Isotoma with slightly larger flowers that flower for most of the year and appear to be sterile so they do not self seed. The Fizz N Pop range are particularly good, with bright bold flowers of glowing purple and bright pink. This range has been tested in the Sydney Royal Botanic Garden test bed and is included in their list of top plants to grow in Sydney. 

If you want to grow any Isotoma axillaris there is one thing you need to be aware of – when the stems are broken or cut it gives off a creamy sap that is very irritating to the skin and eyes. Be very careful pruning them or weeding around them. The branches are also very brittle, so it is easy to break them by accident. I have also found them quite triggering for my asthma and hay fever when pruning my large bed full of them, but I imagine you won’t find this an issue if you only have one plant!

As a bonus, the native (not cultivated) variety is a favourite plant of blue banded bees in my garden! These beautiful native bees turn up reliably ever year when the Isotoma axillaris flowers open. And then each generation will visit right through until the flowers subside many months later.

  1. Tetratheca thymifolia

These were one of the first native plants in my garden and they are still going strong after cycles of severe drought and flood! I do have them in a raised bed which helps, but generally I find Tetratheca are low fuss and reliable. They put on a spectacular floral display in spring and seem unbothered by any pests or moulds. You need to tip prune them like crazy when young. Eg keep snipping the top of all new branches. They will reward you by forming a lovely neat round shape and if you stop pruning at the start of autumn you will get many blooms come springtime. Also prune when the flowers are finished each year and return them to a neat round shape. They sucker lightly if they are happy, so you can get one or two bonus plants next to the first. Remember to tip prune these suckers too!

  1. Pelargonium

I have three different varieties of Australian native Pelargonium in my garden and I love them all! 

Pelargonium rodneyanum is possibly my favourite, as it has vibrant pink clusters of flowers, but Pelargonium Applause is also beautiful in a softer pink. They have a lovely large leaf which looks good in the garden border even when out of flower. I find it can be hard to find large leaved small native plants, so these provide a very welcome contrast in the garden design. 

Pelargonium australe is also a lovely and tough cottage garden plant. In my garden it even handles the extreme dry under a large Ironbark tree. This variety self seeds readily, so if you enjoy a bit of wildness (and free plants) like me, then you will certainly be rewarded! This variety has much smaller flowers and flower clusters than the other two, but they white petals with striking magenta stripes are very pretty and they flower abundantly.

All my pelargonium get a hard cut back in autumn to keep them looking fresh and contained. I mean a really hard cut back. To leave a 30cm plant or perhaps even smaller. Make sure you leave lots of leaves of course, but a trim will have them looking lovely for spring. They are not bothered by pests at all in my garden.

They flower from October through to autumn for me and the native bees love them!

  1. Orthosanthus multiflorus

If you are looking for a native substitute for Iris in your cottage garden then this is a great option. Orthosanthus form neat strappy clumps and for most of the year provide a contrasting form in the Australian native cottage garden. Then in spring you are rewarded with stalks of pale blue lily like flowers. Each flower only lasts a day but don’t worry there will be more to follow tomorrow and it will flower like this for 3 months. They are low fuss, requiring little maintenance, and drought hardy. They do not do well under large trees in my experience. All mine need only one small tidy a year when I carefully remove dead leaves. I also remove old flower stems so the plant doesn’t put too much energy into seed production.

  1. Flannel Flowers – Actinotus helianthi

This post would not be complete without the iconic Australian flannel flower. They are charming and oh so perfect for a cottage style garden. If you have never seen one in real life they have a felty softness to the leaves and flowers and usually a pale pastel green tip to each white petal. They are also an incredible sight in the wild in places like the national parks that dot the coast south of Sydney if you can make it there in late spring to early summer. In the garden they do sometimes self seed but generally you should plant seeds and seedlings this year for flowers in 2 years time. Although I must admit with all the rain this spring my baby seedlings are flowering already in their first year.

  1. Ajuga australis

Ajuga australis is a gorgeous native plant, but you need to be careful where you source it from to guarantee you are getting a genuine native as many escaped exotic species have been mislabelled. They are also very variable in form. In my garden I have three different forms sourced from Victoria, South Australia and Sydney and they all have quite marked differences in leaf and flower size and colour. Most beautiful among them is the Ajuga australis from Flora South Australia. This spectacular specimen has bright towers of large vibrant purple flowers. It flowers abundantly and has lovely contrasting foliage. 

Ajuga australis is great for the shaded borders in your garden. It grows well in part shade to deep shade, I find the Flora SA variety prefers a little more sun – like half day, morning sun only. While the others seem happy in areas with no direct sunlight. The Ajuga australis purpurea is quite vigorous and spreads readily, while the Sydney variety is still young for me but seems slower growing and not inclined to spread as yet. They are disease and pest free, only bothered by snails if you don’t like the leaf damage.

  1. Hibbertia pendunculata

It was hard to pick just one Hibbertia for this list, as they all have such lovely sunny flowers. I am sure many would pick the common climbing Hibbertia scandens, but in a cottage garden like mine where you are short on space and want to cram more colour in every square metre, then a vigorous plant like Hibbertia scandens is too dominant and sprawling to be featured on this list.

Hibbertia pendunculata is a great alternative for adding a pop of sunny yellow without it taking over. There are low growing prostate forms and also small shrub like versions. It is a reliable, pest free and hardy plant in many different conditions and it flowers for a long period from spring through to summer.

  1. Lawrencella rosea

This pretty little plant is an annual daisy from Western Australia. I haven’t included many annuals in my garden but this one is a rare exception that reliably self seeds each year. It is included here because of the pretty pink flowers that sit proud above the neat compact leafy plant. It is naturally neat and pretty with no tip pruning or maintenance required and the petals are a lovely bright pink. I loved them so much this year that I plan to buy more seed.

  1. Crowea exalata

And finally on my list is the lovely Crowea. I must admit I am more of a crowea person than a correa person. I love the pretty star shaped flowers of a crowea and I find them useful in many varied positions in the garden, the lovely large flowered Crowea saligna being very useful in a heavily shaded spot on the south side of a fence. In a sunny spot in a low cottage garden border, Crowea exalata provides welcome colour while in full bloom through autumn and winter but will be dotted with at least some flowers for most of the year, and the foliage is soft and pretty when not in flower. They are as pretty as a Boronia in my opinion, but nowhere near as fussy. 

I hope you have found this list useful, and I hope it inspires you to plant a flowering Australian natives in your garden, no matter how small your patch.

 

 

 

11 Comments

  1. Ruth

    Fabulous blog, well done!

    Reply
  2. Shazita McLean

    I can’t thank you enough for this list. It’s just what I’ve been looking for . I have just discovered your blog , it is lovely .

    Reply
  3. Anna Papworth

    Lovely article, very informative, thankyou very much!

    Reply
  4. greg thomas

    Thank you, I have just begun a native garden in a small space, I have some experience with natives (revegetation) and am putting in small, native-animal friendly plants. Your lovely work will redouble my enthusiasm.

    Reply
  5. Robyn Trott

    omg this information is soooo good, Ive been struggling finding useful written guidance. I can now plan the new space with excitement

    Reply
    • Rae

      Happy gardening Robyn. I’d love to see photos of what you create once it all settles in!

      Reply
  6. Jessie-lee

    I love crowea’s for shady spots, even in dappled shade (that had a bit of afternoon sun) I’ve had a crowea exalata die 🙁 but another one in a pot down the side of a building with barely any light touching it is flowering up a storm! Have you had any issues with them in the sun? I’d love to try them in a border

    Reply
    • Rae

      No I haven’t had issues with them in the sun. I have lost some Crowea saligna – found them to be fussy. Perhaps it was not yet established? Are you in a dry or tropical area?

      Reply
    • Rae

      I should add that in the sun my Crowea exalata survived drought and 45 degree days! It did have good drainage though.

      Reply
  7. Peter

    Finding your articles has been a joy on a (very ) wet Newcastle day Rae. Just wondering which area you garden in? The humidity here is always a challenge.
    Peter

    Reply
    • Rae

      Hi Peter,
      The garden photos you see here are a mix of my Sydney and south east QLD gardens. I do understand the challenge in the humidity. Especially this year! It has been very wet on the Sunshine Coast and a few plants didn’t make it. For plants that don’t like humidity you can create soil conditions that help them to cope. For example I am growing Lechenaultia here in Qld and they are still alive through this wet summer – the trick is a VERY sandy potting mix. I mean really mostly sand, a little soil and perlite. Pots on feet. Plus elements that add oxygen in the base of the pot like charcoal and clay balls. And for mulch I use stone or gravel. Ideally also if you can keep plants undercover then you can keep them drier in summer. I do not ever water the Lechenaultia before a hot summer day here. Only ever at night, just a light drink every now and then. In the garden it is harder but not impossible. I have some areas with raised beds and very sandy free draining soil. If they fail in one location – try another! I often have failures but soon realise my mistake. I spend a LOT of time deciding where to plant something. It is the most critical decision in gardening I think.
      Rae

      Reply

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