Of all the native Australian plants none are more iconic of this wide brown land than the ones growing outback. Wattles, Gum Trees, Grevilleas, Grass trees, Spinifex and Banksias give this country that unique flavour that’s so easily recognised. If you live in Mareeba or further out west, re-creating such a dryland garden is a piece of cake. However many gardeners in Cairns have already discovered that growing outback plants on the tropical coast can be a frustrating experience, and some grevilleas die so rapidly you’d swear they were annuals.
Growing outback plants on the tropical coast isn’t easy, but it is possible if you create a suitable micro-climate and select the right plants. There are three key criteria that have to be met to create a dry land garden bed. The most important of these is drainage. Most outback plants require well drained soil, so unless you live on a steep rocky hillside, you’ll have to create raised garden beds with a soil that drains freely. Excellent drainage is of such high importance because most outback plants will not tolerate waterlogged soils. In fact poor drainage is the main culprit when grevilleas on the coast turn yellow and die during the wet season.
Outback plants also require ample sunlight and airflow to grow well, and so if they are squashed up too closely they often develop black leaves where they are in contact with other plants. In drier parts of Australia these plants can be grown close together, however if they are grown too closely in the tropics they’ll basically get too hot and sweaty during the wet and start to look sick. Planting them in such a way that they are not growing into each other will allow air to flow between them, and this in turn will help them to dry a little quicker after rain.
The final important criterion is to choose the correct plants. The easiest way to get the right plants is to visit Yuruga Native Plant Nursery and simply select from their extensive range of native Australian dryland species which have been tried and tested in local conditions for many years. Regardless of where you get your plants from, it’s important to make sure that they will grow in the tropics, because many outback plants will not tolerate our hot humid weather during the wet season. So look for plants which originate from Australia’s tropical regions or plants which have been proven to be resilient enough to handle these conditions. From my experience plants from the southern states and Western Australia are not worth the heartache regardless of how desirable they may look, because most won’t make it through the first wet. Plants from the monsoonal part of the Northern Territory are worth a try by experienced gardeners, while plants which occur naturally between the Tablelands, Georgetown and the tip of Cape York are the most suitable for Cairns gardeners.
Even though it may take a little more effort initially, once established an outback garden on the coast is definitely worth the effort, especially when the honeyeaters discover the grevilleas.
(Published in Cairns City Life magazine, October 2009)