by Will Fletcher

The huge land mass of Australia gives rise to an immense wealth of distinctive plant life. From the humid tropical forests of northern Queensland, to dry inland desert expanses or the windswept mountains of Tasmania, there are many thousands of interesting and unusual plants, most occurring only on this land, isolated by time and vast distances from other lands.

Australians are only just realising what an incredible wealth and diversity of flora we have. We can admire it in the wild and much of it we can include in our own gardens, but not many people realise just how many beautiful and interesting Australian plants will grow quite happily in pots on our balconies, verandahs or patios. You don't even need a garden, just an outdoor space.

On the sunny side of your house in Tasmania, it's quite possible to grow the spectacular Sturts Desert Pea, or some of the colourful flowering paper-daisies while on that shady south-facing porch, the cascading foliage of a potted Huon Pine can be a handsome and long-lived display. Potted bowls with a selection of different plants and maybe some attractive rocks and gravel, can look terrific, and even the carefully crafted Bonsai are quite possible. (Tasmania's Myrtle, Huon Pine and Banksia, are excellent bonsai subjects.)

Growing Australian native plants in containers is quite easy if a few sensible guidelines are followed.

1. Choose a suitable species for your position. If you are not sure, ask at your local Australian plants nursery (see list below). There are numerous plants with beautiful flowers and others with exciting shapes and form; there are quick growing plants, annuals and biennials, and plants that flower in the off season. There are those with aromatic flowers and others with scented leaves. There are striking foliage plants, some with vivid new growth and others with brightly coloured autumn berries - the list is endless.

2. Use a potting mix - not garden soil. Many nurseries supply potting mix suitable for Australian
plants, or you can make your own. (Most soils are extremely unsuitable in pots as the fine particles do not allow adequate drainage, and your plants will die or fail to thrive.) A custom-made potting mix from a nursery will have a blend with adequate drainage, water holding capacity, the correct acidity, and a suitable supply of nutrients for the season's growth.

3. Do not plant small plants into a too-large container. Pot into the next size up and then into a larger container when the plant has grown into its present pot. You can always place your medium-sized plastic pot inside your larger terra cotta pot, for looks, then transplant into the big pot next season. (This rule can be broken, but you can also get into trouble, so if in doubt, ask, or play safe). It's best to avoid potting on in mid-summer, heat stresses and excessive release of nutrients at this time of year can cause problems to a freshly potted plant.

4. Maintenance Watering.  Water regularly. In summer this could be two or three times a week or even
every day in hot or windy weather;  in winter, once a week or less. Big plants in small pots will
need regular watering; small plants in bigger pots will need a lot less. Vigorously growing plants will need more, dormant plants less. Each watering should be enough to soak right through the root ball.
Automatic watering systems are an option if you have many plants with varying water requirements as it's not difficult to set up drippers or small sprays to go on for any period you wish. There are electronic timers - battery or from a power point - from about $150.

5. Fertilising.  Many pot plants will last for years, looking good and flowering regularly, but unless they are potted up every year into larger pots, they will need extra nutrients. A good fertiliser for Australian plants is Osmocote Plus for natives, 8-9 months slow-release. This can be buried just under the surface of the potting mix in spring (anything from 1-5 teaspoons, depending on the size of the plant) and this will keep the plant happy for the entire growing season. In addition, a few light feeds of liquid fertilisers can be used if the plant is looking pale - follow feeding instructions on the pack, using the weakest solution recommended.

6. Trimming.  Many plants require regular trimming to keep them looking their best. This could be as infrequently as once a year, or up to three or four times in the growing season. Tip pruning can be a better option to maintain a bushy plant, and avoids the problem of the plant becoming "leggy" and losing its shape,  (except in bonsai, where trimming is meant to keep it un-bushy!)


Plants of Tasmania Nursery and Gardens 65 Hall Street, Ridgeway 7054  Phone (03)6239 1583.
Fax 6239 1106. Open 7 days 9am-5pm (9-4 in winter) Specialising in Tasmanian plants and having the widest range available, including tubestock and bonsai. Ridgeway is just 15 minutes from Hobart - turn left, off Huon Rd, onto Chimney Pot Hill Road, about 1 km before Ferntree.

Pulchella Nursery, Tasman Hwy, Buckland  Phone (03)6257 5189 Open Fri, Sat, Sun and Monday, or by appointment. Over 500 species of Australian and Tasmanian plants. Specialising in cold-hardy and east-coast plants.

Redbreast Nurseries, 1709 Channel Hwy, Margate  Phone (03)6267 2871 Open 7 days.
Extensive range of native plants for garden, farm and forestry. Bulk plants, tubestock, quantity discounts. Exclusive Redbreast pots.

Bush Garden Design  Australian and Tasmanian plants at Salamanca market (Hobart) on Saturdays.
Garden design service. Phone (03)6248 5192.

Australian plants for sale at Kingston. Good selection at reasonable prices.
Phone Jeanette Closs (03)6229 1710.

Lizard Hill Nursery, Arthur Hwy, Murdunna. Phone (03)6253 5521 Australian and Tasmanian
plants. Garden design and construction.