One of the biggest criticisms of native plants is that they often look too wild, unkempt and messy. Grasses dominate while wildflowers struggle to provide the visual impact desired in a landscape. Wild is as wild does.
So how do we tame the wildness of the prairie? How do we design a native plant garden that doesn’t look so wild? Is it even possible? I believe it can be done. You can have the beauty of the prairie and all the benefits of a native ecosystem with a properly designed native garden.
- Designing Native Gardens: Gardening With Native Plants
- How to Design a Native Garden
- Native Garden Plants
- My Garden: A Native Garden Designed for All Seasons
- Native Plant Guide
- Native Style
Consider these fundamentals as you design your native plant garden:
Butterfly weed and ornamental native grass display
Match plants to your site. Look at your landscape. Is it sunny or in the shade? Is the soil clay or sand? Evaluate these elements and choose plants that will thrive in the microclimate of your yard. Sun-loving native plants need at least 6 hours of direct sunlight to grow happily. Otherwise look at more shade-loving natives. A carefree landscape begins with matching plants with climate. Choose plants that occur in the same or similar climate for a maintenance free garden. It has been my experience that this is the most important element in developing a successful native garden. Anytime you stray too far off, the plants don’t flourish and they require more effort. Planting a swamp milkweed on a dry hill or a primrose in a bog will never work.
Design for succession of bloom. There are no Wave Petunias in the prairie or plants that bloom all season, so choose plants that will bloom in spring, summer and fall. If you go to the prairie throughout the year, you will observe wildflowers coming into or out of bloom. The prairie is constantly changing. Design with those changes in mind. Discover how native plants appear at different times of the year and highlight interesting elements such as seedheads for winter interest. Grasses can be included for structure, winter texture and movement. Little bluestem in fall accentuates the seedheads of the Missouri Black-eyed Susan beautifully.
Summer Prairie Garden
Group similar plants together. Fifteen blazing stars blooming in the summer create a focal point in the landscape. Place them next to a spring blooming wildflower and a fall blooming wildflower and you have organized the display for year round interest. Use grasses sparingly to frame the garden or as a backdrop for some of your wildflowers. This makes it easier to maintain, because you know what is planted in each area. When weeding, you know everything else has to be removed because wildflowers will reseed.
Kansas gayfeather and gray-headed coneflower
Keep your plants in scale. Choose plants that don’t grow taller than half the bed width. So if your display bed is six feet wide choose plants that are no more than three feet tall. A compass plant would be way too tall.
Define the space. A well-designed native garden can be enhanced with a border. It can be edged with limestone, brick or some other natural material. This element alone makes your native garden look clean, attractive, and intentional. Even a clean-cut edge can really help define the garden’s borders.
Control Perennial Weeds. You will save yourself many headaches by eradicating problem weeds like bindweed and Bermuda grass before you plant. It is better to wait until these weeds are eliminated before you establish your new garden, trust me!!!
It sounds so easy, but we all know that landscapes, no matter how well-designed, will take some input on our part. Beautiful gardens don’t just happen. They are the result of planning, development, time and a little bit of effort.
I am still learning too. My epiphany came several years ago after trying to grow dry, sun loving plants in a wet, sunny garden. It took me three tries to realize the futility of my efforts. Hopefully, you can learn from these basic principles and find success in your landscape. If you need information about native plants, visit our plant library, landscape designs or give us a call.
Designing Native Gardens: Gardening With Native Plants
One of my favorite garden designs is the native garden. This type of garden not only incorporates native trees and shrubs, but wildflowers and native grasses as well. Best of all, a natural garden can easily transform into a garden for all seasons. It doesn’t take a genius to design a natural garden; however, some planning beforehand might be wise. Keep reading for tips on designing native gardens.
How to Design a Native Garden
Always become familiar with the types of native garden plants that may already be growing on your property. This not only gives you an idea of the types of plants that thrive in your particular location but also makes it easier as you begin gardening with native plants and adding them to your design.
Native plants flourish in their natural environment and complement the surrounding landscape of your home. Creating a native garden with seasonal interest, from spring through winter, requires careful planning and placement of long-lasting bloomers and a variety of foliage plants. For additional interest, include a focal point of some kind. If you are fortunate enough to live in an area surrounded
by woods, then a woodland garden will look right at home.
When creating natural gardens, try not to overlook the plant’s leaves when choosing native garden plants. While flowers make the garden intense with color, the foliage can provide impressive contrast and texture too. This additional interest draws attention to the area, inviting others into the garden for a closer look, especially during non-blooming periods. However, if you select plants carefully, there will always be something in bloom.
Native Garden Plants
There are many plants to choose from when designing native gardens. Plant spring-flowering natives throughout the garden, but take care to keep them toward the middle or further towards the back. This will allow you to hide them with cover-up plants once their blooms have faded.
Popular spring bloomers include:
- Virginia bluebells
Summer-flowering plants will take over once the spring blooms have faded away. Use these as camouflage to create nonstop flowering.
- Shasta daisy
- Goat’s beard
Once autumn arrives, the garden will maintain its appeal with the addition of fall-flowering natives and bulbs such as:
- Toad lily
- Autumn crocus
- Winter daffodil
Once flowering bulbs and other plants begin to fade, the intense shades of foliage color create a stunning display. For instance, the bronze-colored stalks of blazing star can be quite striking. This color can be further enhanced among a background of evergreens. Native evergreen shrubs and ground covers will liven up the landscape with various shades of color too.
Besides amazing color, plants having various forms and textures will continue to maintain appeal well into winter. Don’t overlook the interesting characteristics of bark, especially those that have peeling or patterned features. While ornamental grasses tend to reach their peak during fall, they also provide interesting seed heads, berries and foliage. Winter wonder also comes from the colorful seed heads of native garden plants like purple coneflower and sedum.
Creating natural gardens is easy with well thought-out planning. By keeping plants within the natural scheme of your own landscape and incorporating a variety of seasonal bloomers, you can enjoy nonstop flowering in a naturalistic setting every day of the year.
My Garden: A Native Garden Designed for All Seasons
Keeping to the aesthetic of the tallgrass prairies, this garden looks great in all seasons and supports the surrounding wildlife as well By Maureen Gilmer
Benjamin Vogt is in love with the Nebraska prairie and laments the loss of the original tallgrass ecosystem with its amazing native plants and wildlife. It is said that the only remnants of this original ecosystem are in pioneer graveyards that were never stripped for farming. In a small, 1,500-square-foot backyard behind his new house, Benjamin’s love for these plants has created a model of good planting design that is low maintenance, ecologically inclined, and fabulous in every season.
Shown on the right is huge Rudbeckia maxima, native to eastern Texas and through the south. “It’s a wet-ground lover that thrives in the low spot of the garden. Wind never knocks it down despite the big leaves. On the far left are the tall stalks of Joe Pye weed.
“I want a modest echo of those plants that once lived here before settlement,” says Vogt of his microcosm of plant communities that once blanketed this region. “I love the aesthetic of a prairie—the look. It’s become a moral issue for me—we’re in a time of climate change and vanishing plant and animal species. If it’s human caused, I might be part of the problem. But at least my garden allows me to remain aware of prairie restoration and conservation.”
The highlight of Vogt’s sideyard in spring is the crabapple tree as it buds out.
Vogt’s favorite tree, the prairifire crabapple tree grows in the sideyard. “I like its leaf color change through the seasons—from purple in spring to green over summer, then bright orange in the fall. In spring, this one is the only crabapple that lures cedar waxwings. They won’t touch the others. Crabapple fruit needs to go through freeze and thaw before it’s palatable to birds.”
Vogt’s garden, which he began in 2007, is full of seasonal interest.
In July, 2007, Vogt moved into his new house, where the topsoil was scraped away to grade the small backyard. “I found these native prairie plants prefer leaner soils. The perennials produce very deep roots to reach what they need, so there was no need to do much soil preparation on top.” This demonstrates the benefits of using locally native plants that are well adapted to regional soils and weather. “These days I’m tired, so I don’t want to do much in the garden. We all need to learn to let go of the idea that a garden is perfect and accept its natural character.”
Unlike many other gardeners, he does not cut the plants back for winter.
“There’s tons of fall color even in November. I am so against cutting the garden down for winter because the remnants are where the beneficial insects winter over. They need that cover. All I do to prepare for winter is bring in a hose and remove part of the urn fountain.”
Vogt carefully researches plants to determine whether or not they are a good fit for his garden.
“People never spend the time to research their plants,” Vogt laments. “It’s so important to learn about their habitat.” It is only by understanding how native plants behave in the wild that we know their true wants and needs in the garden. “I look at all my prairie plant resources to determine where and when to plant.” One revelation about planting a prairie garden is that these species are already super adapted to local soils and weather to become established far more quickly. “If I was to do it again I’d buy smaller plants to save money by going with seeding or plugs.”
Thanks to the changing colors, autumn is his favorite time of year in the garden.
Vogt’s sense of plant arrangement allows each individual to stand in contrast against its neighbors so they stand out. It is never more visible than in the fall when leaf color is perpetually changing. During the autumn months the garden is always in its glory.
Every effort is taken to provide shelter for insects during the winter months.
Vogt is keen on supporting local insect species by creating places for them to overwinter. A bundle of perennial flower stalks provides the ideal place for protection from the elements. “The beauty and purpose of a four-season garden is to support insect pollinators—one of my most important issues.”
Vogt’s garden even looks lovely after a winter snowfall.
“I like winter because it’s quiet—nobody’s mowing lawns. I feel my neighbors blowing leaves interferes with the natural quiet beauty. I think you can see the garden more clearly in winter when its black and white. The philosophical and psychological aspects of a garden are often lost in the summer, but are quite apparent in winter.”
Text by Kate Brandes
Illustrations by Tom Maxfield
Social scientists have looked at how people feel about their yards, and their research shows that preferences are determined mostly by people’s desire to fit in with the neighbors. Unfortunately, native plants have developed something of a bad rap among homeowners as messy and hard to manage plants that do not fit in with the neighborhood, especially for those with a smaller yard. But there are many beautiful natives that compliment a residential yard and also provide ecological benefits.
Lehigh Gap Nature Center, located in Slatington, Pennsylvania, has developed a practical native plant garden guidebook for residents. The guide features native plants that will work well for the resident with the small yard and provides practical examples for how to include native plants in the landscape that look nice, are easy to care for, and also support the local ecology.
The guidebook – Native Plants for the Small Yard – includes:
- Information on the best native plants for small spaces, as well as visual guides for common yard weeds and invasive plants; and
- Guidance on flower garden design for the small yard, including nine different design templates that can be used as is or modified.
Home gardens should suit personal tastes and lifestyle, but sometimes people need a starting point. For those new to native plants, we suggest starting small by introducing a few natives over time, which is both economical and allows a person to get to know each plant well. We also recommend more informal, curved garden edges since they are easier to maintain over time. Another pointer: keep things simple by planting swaths of a few different plants and colors together. The results often look better than when a lot of different things are mixed together at once.
The nine templates in the guidebook developed for common yard areas incorporate the ideas described above and take into consideration plant size, bloom times, as well as sun and moisture conditions. The templates include:
- Corner Garden
- Mailbox Garden
- Small Water Feature Garden
- Container Garden
- Downspout Garden
- Rock Wall Garden
- Front Porch Garden
- Sidewalk Strip Garden
- Back Patio Garden
Each design template is overlaid on a grid that can be expanded or contracted to meet the dimensions of a person’s garden area. Recommended spacing between plants is shown as dots on the templates.
The Corner Garden design is one of the templates offered in Native Plants for the Small Yard.
Each garden template includes a design plan.
The Guide also offers suggestions for plant alternatives to accommodate varying site conditions (sunlight and moisture).
The downloadable version of Native Plants for the Small Yard contains all nine design templates as well as other gardening information pertinent to native plants. It’s available for free here.
Private yards collectively comprise the largest green space in most cities and provide great potential for increasing wildlife friendly, native plant habitat. Native plants in the yards can be beautiful year-round and a good design allows natives to fit into any residential landscape.
LGNC’s Landscaping for Communities and Wildlife Program was generously funded by the Lehigh Valley Community Foundation. This project was also completed in partnership with the Lehigh Valley Greenways Conservation Landscape. Funding was provided in part by a grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, Bureau of Recreation and Conservation, Environmental Stewardship Fund, administered by Delaware & Lehigh National Heritage Corridor.
About the Author
Kate Brandes is manager of the Landscaping for Communities and Wildlife Program at Lehigh Gap Nature Center in Slatington, Pennsylvania. She’s worked as a geologist and environmental scientist for more than twenty years. She’s been a master gardener through the Penn State Extension Program for over 15 years and she’s a member of the Ecological Landscape Alliance. She’s also a fiction writer interested in local confluences of people, place, and nature.
Each author appearing herein retains original copyright. Right to reproduce or disseminate all material herein, including to Columbia University Library’s CAUSEWAY Project, is otherwise reserved by ELA. Please contact ELA for permission to reprint.
Mention of products is not intended to constitute endorsement. Opinions expressed in this newsletter article do not necessarily represent those of ELA’s directors, staff, or members.
Curious about native plants? Interested in a beautiful, low-maintenance landscape? Concerned about health and water quality? Or did you just stumble on to this page by accident?
Regardless, we welcome you and hope we can satisfy or pique your curiosity. In the pages that follow, we will introduce some basic Concepts of landscaping with native plants, referred to by many as “naturescaping,” and follow that with Steps you can take to get started. Note that we will use the phrases “naturescaping” and “landscaping with native plants” interchangeably. You may also be familiar with the phrase “xeriscaping” which refers to landscaping with drought resistant plants, though not necessarily native plants.
In the Concepts below, we will discuss:
- “relearning” landscaping,
- traditional landscaping v. naturescaping,
- the benefits of naturescaping, and
- the “two-camps.”
There is an element of “relearning” involved in naturescaping because throughout most of our lives we have been taught the opposite. We have been taught to remove native plants (often viewed as “weeds”) and to replace them with plants that are common in the nursery industry – plants that we will refer to as “industrial plants.” The industrial include the standard ornamental shrubs and perennials and are promoted based on the function they provide (hedge, groundcover, etc.) and/or the aesthetic they exhibit, yet not for ecological reasons. They are mass produced and distributed widely, the same way consumer goods are mass produced and distributed. As a result, landscapes, whether residential or commercial, typically have the same plants and the same appearance, regardless of where located – Maine, Texas, Oregon or some place in between?
We have been taught through gardening magazines, radio and television programs, newspaper features and nursery advertising that the industrial plants are the plants to use and that if a place (soil, climate, etc.) does not support them, then we should change the place: remove existing soil, bring in new soil, add irrigation, top dress with an ornamental mulch, and use pesticides and fertilizers as needed. The result is a rather sterile landscape that looks the same regardless of where you live. It is also a landscape that unfortunately does not support our bird or benificial insect populations.
Maine? Texas? Oregon?
We have also been taught to have a “weed” free lawn, to decrease biodiversity and to maintain our landscape through regular cuttings and the application of synthetic chemicals. It is interesting to note that radio gardening programs and other landscape “experts” often suggests a chemical solution to landscape “problems.” This practice is driven by advertisers who sell these products. Fortunately, there in an emerging shift towards organic yard care and many good groups are involved in the effort (including some master gardening programs), but there is a long way to go.
Thus, as we approach naturescaping, we have to purge a lot of the landscaping notions with which we grew up and be open to new ones. Some of those new ones are: selecting the plant that goes with the place and not changing the place for the plant; recognizing that we do not NEED all the lawn we have; and realizing that native plants take care of themselves because they evolved to grow in the place you want to plant them. Thus, we can let go of some of the old notions and rely more on practical or “common” sense.
Traditional Landscaping v. Naturescaping
Traditional landscaping attempts to create a landscape that “looks” the same regardless of location. This is, in part, pushed by nurseries or developers who want to sell the same plant or product across wide markets, maximizing revenue through efficiencies of scale. It is also driven by landscape designers and contractors who tend to use the same palette of plants regardless of location. This is particularly true of designers and contractors who move during their career. It may be seen as easier to change the site rather than learn which plants grow their naturally and how to install them.
Lastly, it is driven by homeowners and property managers who grew up learning one set of plants and understandably using those plants as a frame of reference as they move about the country. These and other forces have created an atmosphere that emphasizes using the same plants regardless of location and changing a site to accommodate these plants. As noted above, site changing often entails installing irrigation, removing the existing soil, bringing in new soil or a soil amendment, installing weed barrier, and applying synthetic chemicals. Plants are often planted in geometric patterns and maintained in a “static” look with frequent cutting or trimming. This is traditional landscaping.
Land Change Brigade – on the charge!
Naturescaping, in contrast, emphasizes selecting the plant that grows naturally at the site. Since native plants evolved to grow under local conditions, they do not require that the site be changed. They do not need the life support of watering (except during establishment) or regular synthetic chemicals – they do not require fertilizer beyond that provided naturally and they are not prone to the diseases of many industrial plants.
Thus, in quick comparison, it can be said that traditional landscaping changes the place to accommodate the plant and naturescaping selects the plant that goes naturally with the place. Since we have been programmed for the former, it takes new thinking and perhaps some courage to consider the latter, though let us assure you that the latter is very rewarding … beautiful in its own way, wondrous in the critters it attracts, healthier for the homeowner and larger environment and, once established, easier and less expensive to maintain.
Kalmia – A Native
Naturescaping sounds good, eh? Where do I sign up? … Well, for your due diligence and our full disclosure, it is important to mention some of the challenges that one may face.
Twins v. Sibs
Most industrial plants are asexually propagated, i.e., grown from cuttings, etc., and, therefore, have identical genetic material. They will have similar shapes and height, the same way that to two identical human twins will grow in the same manner. If you see one, you could pick the other out of a police line-up (i.e., you have a good idea what the other will look like).
Native plants, however, are like siblings, they are often sexually propogated and hence, their DNA, while similar, is not identical. Like siblings in a family, some may be tall, others short, some red-headed, some blue-eyed, etc. In other words, native plants possess greater genetic diversity and, as a result, less predictability of shape and size. Some people consider this a benefit that adds to a natural look and to the excitement and wonder of seeing how a plant will look as it matures. Others, however, may consider the reduced predictability a drawback, particularly when implementing a landscape with a well defined geometric pattern.
Native Plant Guide
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JOHN PATRICK: Now, here’s a conundrum – what do you do when, through the demands of work, you find yourself having to live in the inner city but you have a deep connection to the Australian bush? It’s one of the few places where you feel really happy? So what do you do?
Or the country?
The city? Country?
The answer’s pretty obvious. Bring as much of the country to the city as you can.
And that’s what happened in this small but tranquil inner-city Melbourne suburb of Princes Hill.
A couple of years ago, this modest Federation-style home underwent a dramatic remodelling. The stylish, contemporary and architect-designed addition demanded an equally stylish and contemporary landscape-designed garden, because for success, one must complement the other.
LORI MCNUTT: I like using these sort of grasses, particularly along pathways, because they’re soft and they’re nice to walk through.
JOHN PATRICK: Meet Lori McNutt, who for more than a decade has been creating gardens in and around the suburbs of Melbourne.
I find it amazing that we’re only 5km from the city here. It’s so beautifully peaceful. The clients must have wanted to make the most of that.
LORI MCNUTT: The brief was to create a bushland garden that had a majority of plants that came from the Gippsland area where they often holiday and that’s where this mass planting came into play.
When they do go to Gippsland, they said there’s just these mass areas of Dianella and then maybe some shrubs and grasses, so it’s re-creating that sense of peace that they get when they go to those places.
JOHN PATRICK: How did you establish this vegetation?
LORI MCNUTT: These were mainly tube stock – I would say probably 70 to 80% tubes from local indigenous nurseries.
JOHN PATRICK: Putting them in as tube stock not only gets you a better result often but it gets for you very inexpensively.
LORI MCNUTT: Exactly, and then if something does die, you don’t feel like, “Oh, well that was a $20 plant that I just lost.”
JOHN PATRICK: The success of this garden has been achieved by using a mixture of natural hard landscaping materials like stone, wood and gravel and softening it with a palette of plants that flower at different times through the year.
What do you think are the key points about using native plants in home garden design?
LORI MCNUTT: I feel that the key points are probably creating a contrast of foliage, whether that be through the use of large areas of the same plant, so creating drifts of plants, or using individual plants and creating a contrast, because a lot of the interest in native plants is not just the flowers, but the diversity of colours and sizes of foliage.
So for instance here I’ve done a large drift of Dianellas. but surrounded that with individual plants that have completely different characteristics.
Brachyscomes and Chrysocephalums are some of my favourite plants, because they give a little burst of joy. You want a peaceful area of green, but then these little bits of colour and even the red in the Grevilleas and you might find the occasional little wildflower like a chocolate lily just popping up in between the plants.
I think that’s the essence of the Australian natives – these delicate flowers that are against some of the larger plants that are a nice little surprise.
JOHN PATRICK: The use, too, of the Dichondra growing between pavers and on pathways both softens them and adds to the feeling of informality.
This versatile plant is one of Lori’s favourites, as it thrives in both deep shade and full sun.
And once little more than a storage area and a way to get to the front door, the front courtyard has been transformed into a sunny but private contemporary space.
The plantings here are beautiful and drought-tolerant with feature plants adding points of interest. Bluestone pavers and stone bench reference the home’s Federation origins.
Something I really like about this garden is that it has a tremendous sense of depth.
You see, here there’s a wooden screen and that shelters a service area. In front of it, Viminaria juncea – golden spray – a nice small tree that provides a focus from the house.
But look at this – the screen doesn’t go the full width of the garden and that means the planting can extend right the way down into this corner, so it hides the fence, extends the garden as far as it can but look at that – it goes out beyond that to the golden robinia and the eucalyptus behind so that it borrows the landscape behind and makes the garden seem as big as it possibly can do.
LORI MCNUTT: For me, I guess a garden is home and it’s an also an opportunity for me to create something beautiful.
I really enjoy working with plants as a palette, because it’s ever-changing, unlike a painting or a sculpture, I get to constantly add to it and change it and if I don’t like the way it turned out the first time, I get to keep adding to it and making it better.
JOHN PATRICK: You’d have to say that this garden has succeeded in becoming the peaceful country retreat its owners were craving. And it just goes to show that good garden design can transport you to anywhere in the world you’d like to call home.
West Australians are so fortunate to have a diverse and beautiful selection of native plants available to us as Perth gardeners. A native garden design can include an impressive range of colour and foliage types.
Australian native garden plants support birdlife as well as beneficial insects. Growing large flowering species such as Bottlebrush, Banksia and Grevillea will attract colourful birds to your garden.
It is a misconception that gardens planted with Australian natives thrive on neglect! It is important to prepare the soil well and to have an ongoing maintenance program for adding nutrients, pruning and care.
Some Australian native garden plants can be used to create a cottage style garden, such as:
- • Brachycome daisy
- • Boronia
- • Correa
- • Kangaroo Paw
- • Dampiera
Australian native garden design options can inculde:
- • Creating a forest of plants at various heights from tree to groundcover
- • Add gabion walls for retaining, seating areas, or dramatic entranceways
- • Using soft materials such as woodchip and sawdust for pathways
- • Incorporating large rocks, aged wooden sleepers and rough cut logs for interest and a place to sit
- • Installing nesting boxes for parrots
- • Adding screens made from timber or aged steel
- • Using red sand with grasses, for a dramatic inland desert effect
- • Building a shallow pond to sustain native frogs
- • Using sandstone for low walls and steps.
Shaded areas can be planted with Australian natives too, providing hardy and attractive options. Kentia Palms and tree ferns for height, with a deep green ground cover like Dichondra, make a great combination for a dappled light area.
If you need to cover a fence or wall, popular climbing native plants are Hardenbergia (Native Lilac) or Kennedia (Running Postman). For screening and windbreaks, the Lilly Pilly and Coastal Rosemary are both excellent performers, and new cultivars of Bottlebrush can be clipped into a low hedge.
For native garden design in Perth, Planted Passion are experienced and knowledgeable landscapers. We not only design your ideal native garden, but can work with you from preparation and hardscaping through to plant selection and ongoing maintenance.
Get a no-obligation, free quote for any of the services above.