Ideas for Using Plants in Garden Design

Some of the most interesting gardens are ones built around the theme of just one type of plant. Be it a rose garden, herb garden, fernery or something else, there is no doubt that most types of plants create a spectacular display when at least several of the one type of plant are clustered together.



Turn a rocky bushland setting into an orchid garden. At O'Reilleys Guest House in Lamington National Park, native dendrobium orchids have been attached to rocks or tree trunks while hardy cymbidiums have been planted in the soil or in hollow tree trunks filled with soil. During late winter and early spring the bushland comes alive with masses of orchid blooms. The same affect is easy to achieve in home gardens from Melbourne to the Atherton tablelands. It will take longer for plants to mature in cooler climates, but dendrobium and cymbidium species are hardy across much of Australia.


Create an orchard in part of your backyard. Even as few as half a dozen carefully selected fruit trees will not only provide you with buckets of fruit, but will also create a different atmosphere in that part of the garden. The orchard is a great retreat area where where you can sit in the shade, read a book and pretend you are somewhere else.

The ground underneath fruit trees can be either mulched, to keep maintenance minimal, or used to grow a lawn or other shade loving plants. If you choose lawn, it's advisable to use at least 50% deciduous trees (eg. Peach, Apple, Pear), which will lose leaves and let light get through to the grass during winter.



Make a vegetable Garden

There are lots of different ways to grow vegetables; in pots, hydroponics, raised beds, in a greenhouse or even mixed amongst other garden plants. You don't necessarily need a lot of room. It's surprising what you can grow on a balcony in pots. If you have the room though, it's ideal to allocate at least 10 to 30 sq metres in an open sunny spot for growing vegetables. In windy areas you may need to either plant or build a windbreak to protect your crops.

The best crops are achieved if extreme heat or cold is avoided. A good, loose fertile soil is best. Dig the bed over then mix in lots of compost or well rotted manure at least 2 4 weeks before planting. Water well after digging this material in.

Some vegetables can be planted all year round in most parts of Australia (eg. Potatoes, cabbage, lettuce and radish). Other varieties need specific weather conditions to do well. If you watch the seedlings which appear for sale in local nurseries you will get a good idea of what to plant when. It's better to plant seedlings at least a few weeks into the season and avoid planting them too late in the season. Avoid buying seedlings that look very young and immature or very old and woody.



Building a fernery to provide a protected environment ideally suited to ferns, orchids, violets and other tender plants can add an extra dimension to your garden. Roofing an area with shade cloth or brush, will not only provide shade but also protection from wind, extreme heat and extreme cold. If you prefer, a simpler way is to buy a prefabricated shade house from a greenhouse/shade house manufacturer. Either way, the basic shade structure is likely to cost at least a couple of hundred dollars. If you locate your fernery somewhere protected from prevailing winds (eg. against the wall of a house or a fence; or better still between the house and fence) you will increase the amount of shade, and also improve protection. Ferneries in such positions should have a lighter grade of shade cloth than one in the open.

Because there is less air movement inside a fernery or shade house, humidity can be a problem. Overwatering must be avoided, and in humid climates, a close check must be made of any fungal diseases which start to develop.



Make an Rhododendron and Azalea garden

These can be massed planted to provide a large splash of colour to a garden or planted in garden beds adjoining the house to add colour to the entry. Azaleas will generally not create any problems when planted next to a wall. Beware of the soil pH near a newly constructed house, where lime, plaster or cement left by the builders can make soil very alkaline and totally unsuitable for growing Azaleas and Rhododendrons.

You can grow azaleas and rhododendrons in most places, but you must use the appropriate variety for your climate. In warmer areas, concentrate on Vireya rhododendrons, and always provide a little shade. Filtered sunlight is fine. In mild climates, most types of Azaleas and rhododendrons grow well, but in cold areas, the Vireyas must be well protected.

A moist, well mulched soil is always best. The roots should never dry out, but should not be waterlogged either. If possible, provide shade for at least part of the day, particularly during the warmest times, but avoid heavy shade.



Create a Plant Collection

Some people get a real buzz out of collecting plants, the same way a stamp collector collects stamps. There is a challenge in finding new varieties of plants of the type you are interested in, and even more of a challenge in getting them to grow. Enthusiasts such as this often join garden clubs devoted to their specialized group of plants. They can breed new varieties or collect old ones which are almost extinct. They exhibit their collections and compete for prizes, and some will even make good money from their hobby by propagating and selling their plants.

Whatever you choose to collect, it is essential to label your plants. A plant collector's garden is a wondrous place, and labels there don't look ugly like they might in another type of garden. If you are lucky enough to be given a tour of such a garden by it's owner, you might just become hooked and end up developing your own plant collection.



Create a very different affect by using nothing but grasses, bamboos and grass like plants. These plants don't have lots of brightly coloured flowers, but they come in all sizes and shapes, and in a surprising variety of colours. The unique textures of a grass garden creates a character unlike anything else you might see. The gentle movement of this type of foliage, the swaying of soft plumes of flower heads in the wind and the flickering of sunlight through banks of grassy foliage all goes to create the beaty which characterizes these gardens.

Grass and bamboo gardens are well suited to low lying, moist parts of a property. Many of these plants thrive on moist, or even waterlogged soils. Be warned though that many of these plants can be invasive, spreading to places where they are unwanted. They should be kept well away from drainage or water pipes or any structures such as buildings or stone walls.

Grasses and Grass like Plants

Tall: Bamboos, Cortaderia sellowiana (Pampass Grass), Cordyline terminalis

Medium to tall bushes: Phormium (Flax), Lomandra

Small: Mondo grass, Pennisetum, Poa australis, Liriope, Scirpus



Use the dominant trees carefully. The tallest plants in a garden are the plants which most of all influence the character of a garden. If the dominant plants are tall palms, the garden will take on a tropical character. If eucalypts (ie. gum trees), pine trees or deciduous autumn foliage trees were used instead, the character would be quite different. It's best to not confuse the design by mixing too many different types of tall trees, unless you have a large property. Think carefully about the character you want, where you want shade, and what will eventually be under the trees.

Trees which drop lots of leaves can cause problems by clogging spouting and pool filters, and making more work sweeping or raking the leaves up.

Consider the habitat where the tree comes from to give you an idea as to what theme of a garden it would best suit. Trees which are native to rainforests look and grow best in a rainforest style garden. Trees which are native to deserts look and grow best in a desert style garden.



Create a rose garden. Roses always look their best when you have a lot of them together, in fact some of the most renowned gardens in the world have large areas of garden which grow nothing but roses. For a spectacular affect, devote one whole section of your garden exclusively to roses. If you're a rose fanatic, you might turn the whole front garden into a rose garden; but if your ambition is more modest; a garden bed in the centre of a large lawn will do.

There are thousands of different rose varieties to choose from; tall ones, short ones, compact miniatures only 30cm tall, ground covers and climbers. Though most flower best in spring or autumn, you can have flowers almost all year round with a careful choice of varieties.

Try using one or several taller roses (eg. weepers or standards), in the centre of a bed, and smaller bush roses around the outside. If you have enough room, you might grow a row of miniature roses around the edge to border the bed.

For height and shade garden arches, pergolas or fences adjacent to rose beds can support climbing roses.



Make a Conifer Garden

Conifers don't flower, but their variety of attractive colours, textures and shapes allow us to create conifer gardens which are just as colourful and spectacular as any flower garden with the display lasting much longer. When you make a conifer garden, always do five things:

1. Allow plenty of room between each plant, both for appearance and plant health.

2. Make sure you use a good variety of different shapes, colours & textures.

3. Arrange all of the plants you intend using in their pots before you actually plant them. Stand well back and look hard at your arrangement. Visualize the plants fully grown. Rearrange plants to achieve more contrast if necessary.

4. Mulch the soil after planting to keep the roots cool and moist, conditions which are essential for most conifers to grow well.

5. For the best affect, don't plant anything but a conifer in the conifer garden.

Conifer gardens are ideal in temperate climates, particularly in cool or cold areas. Heat and high humidity makes it difficult to grow many conifers in warmer areas, though the following varieties can be successful, particularly if plants are kept well spaced so air can circulate freely around each individual plant.

Conifers for warmer climates: Araucaria, Cupressus macrocarpa aurea, Cupressus 'Swanes Golden', Podocarpus macrophyllus, Juniperus chinensis aurea,



Develop a daisy garden, to provide flowers most of the year. There are hundreds of different types of daisy plants to choose from, in all shapes, sizes and colours. Flowering is strongest over spring and autumn, and some varieties in the right climate can flower virtually 12 months of the year.

The starry flowers, if large enough, could be cut to make a daisy chain, or collected for an indoor flower arrangement. Many of the daisies can be readily be dried. Many pot pourris use daisy flowers, especially the everlasting types. A mixture of annual, biennial and perennial daisies will ensure that the garden will still look green and lush over winter.

A trip to your local nursery will surprise you with the wealth of daisy plants available. Let us not forget the love bees have for the daisy group of plants. Most daisies have not only striking flowers but also attractive foliage colour or growth habit. There are some daisy plants that can range from small prostrate groundcovers, up to large shrubs.


These are great for adding colour to a sometimes drab native bush garden.






These are soft wooded plants which commonly die back, or are cut back, after flowering, then fertilized and mulched prior to regrowth in the next season.

Chrysanthemum maximum (Marguerite Daisy)

Erigeron (Fleabane)

Gaillardia aristata

Pyrethrum sp. (Feverfew)

Rudbeckia (Coneflower)


These are sprawling, low plants, suitable for rockeries, or as a border in the front of a garden bed.

Coreopsis (some varieties)

Felicia angustifolia

Gazania sp

Mesembryanthemum (Livingstone Daisy)

Wedelia trilobata (Singapore Daisy)


These grow fast, flower soon after planting, but often die after a period and need replanting the following year. These can be grown from a packet of seed, or a punnet of seedlings.

Arctotis (African Daisy)

Bellis perennis (English Daisy)

Calendula officinalis

Calistephus (Annual Aster)


Helianthus (Sunflower)




Create a Eucalypt forest.

Eucalypts or gum trees have a character all of their own. The varied patterns and textures of the bark can create attractive, even striking features , and the trunks of many varieties grow into twisted natural sculptures. Many species have spectacular colourful flowers, from bright reds, yellows and pinks to more subdued tones. They do drop leaves all year round, and in a finely manicured garden, this can be a problem; but in other situations, the leaf litter adds a natural character and helps deter weed growth.

Be careful of planting larger species in small gardens. The roots may cause damage eventually. You are usually safer keeping with varieties under 10metres tall on a suburban block and planting as far away as possible from buildings, driveways and footpaths etc.. Cross check the height with a few different books before you buy. Labels are not always accurate, and neither are books.



Plant Casuarinas to minimize weed growth and create a soft foliage affect all year round. Though their flowers might be obscure, the casuarinas (ie. She Oaks) have a unique beauty. The fine foliage drops to create a soft mulch which makes growing grass difficult, but also helps deter weed growth. The aboriginals believed that the whistling sound of the wind blowing through these trees was being made by spirits hence they would not sleep below the she oaks.



Create a cacti and succulent garden. This type of garden is very easy to grow provided you don't get the plant roots too wet. Most of these plants love well drained dry soil, and are generally very drought tolerant. Weeds are commonly controlled by a thick pebble or coarse sand mulch. Plants are often put on mounds to improve drainage, with lower pathways in between.



Make a flower garden. All or part of your garden may be devoted to colourful beds of flowers. Bulbs, annuals and perennial flowers generally grow best in full sun for at least part of the day. Though some flowers will remain colourful for months on end, in some climates; many tend to flower for only a short period of the year. To have spectacular shows of colour in your garden all year round will require careful planning to ensure a sequence of plants with different flowering times. To get the best may also require removing, or foregoing planting large trees in your garden as flowering plant generally prefer full sun. There are a few plants however that do flower in more shadier spots.



Create a fragrant garden. Don't plant strongly scented plants too close to each other otherwise the smell can be overpowering and confused. Plant near doors and windows so the scents drift into the house. Plant beside paths so that when you walk past the brushing of the foliage and flowers will release the fragrant. Try to choose plants that will either have a long flowering period or choose plants that will come into flower/scent at different times of the year. This way you extend the delights of the garden.

Fragrant Plants for Cool Climates

Boronias, Conifers, Daphne odora, Gardenia, Lilac, Scented Roses, Wattles, Geraniums, Freesia, Hyacinth

Fragrant Plants for Warm Climates

Cestrum nocturnum, Gardenia, Scented Roses, Magnolia grandiflora, Port Wine Magnolia, Native Dendrobium Orchids, Lemon grass, Lemon Scented Tea tree, Star Jasmine, Wattles, Backhousia, Eupomatia, Hoya, Hymenosporum, Lomandra, Melia azedarach, Freesia.

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