Low Water Gardening With Australian Natives

Leafing through home and garden magazines I’ve always been envious of the women in photos carrying bulging armloads of colorful blooms.  Late last winter while I was considering how to landscape my front yard a friend suggested that before making any decisions I visit the Australian Native Plant Nursery in Casitas Springs.  It was the best advice I’ve had.

Jo in her "shop"

What are these spectacular Australian and South African natives?  Drought hardy, pest-free and sometimes even alien-looking, these botanical wonders are a world apart from the cacti and succulents often suggested as the ideal solution California’s water shortages.  Sporting such unlikely genus names as Hakea, Grevillea, Banksia, and Protea, I’m convinced they are the new century’s answer to low water gardening.

“I know just where that should go in your garden” says Jo O’Connell, co-owner of Australian Native Plants Nursery in her welcoming singsong lilt, as I fondle the velvety branches of a Woolly Bush.

Lush and low-water in Ojai's Taft gardens

Organized yet not pretentious, the Australian Native Plant Nursery – the largest of its kind in The West – has been tucked behind a nondescript stucco wall on Hwy 33, outside Ojai, for 15 years.  A step into the nursery is visual candy for a flower junkie.  Greenhouses and rows of potted plants cluster around a central walkway.  Hand thrown, large clay pots of all sizes landscape the half-acre space, one of which I bought later and converted into a one-of-a-kind fountain for my courtyard.

“In six months you’ll be ringing up, asking for plants by their scientific names,” says O’Connell, apparently confident in my Latin skills.  But she was right.  Over the past six months I’ve mastered the Australian garden lingo.  Leucadendron Safari Sunset, Banksia seminuda, Acacia cultriformis drop as easily from my lips as supercalifragilisticexpialidocious

O’Connell is used to my type of customer:  more interested in color and flair than in an organized approach to landscaping.  Truth is most of us were raised with a more traditional landscape design:  a grassy yard surrounded by flower beds and shrubs.   But gardening with Australian and South African natives means rethinking your vision of a yard not as an open space but as an interactive garden where the three must-haves are winding paths, mulched plants, and drip lines.  I soon discovered there are so many varieties to choose from, in so many colors, textures, and forms, you can easily find an array of styles to match your particular home. 

The "tropical" style

Mediterranean was the obvious choice for me because of the architecture:  arched doorways, clay tile roof and bricked courtyard.  The result?  A Santa Barbara hacienda look, planned but casual, bringing the architecture more in tune with its natural environment.

Most of what you’ll find in the nursery is hardy.  “Australian natives rarely get pests or blights, even during our foggy spring weather,” says O’Connell.  “Only occasionally do we have problems and that is almost always when an Australian pest is introduced here by accident.”

Australian Native Plant owner Jo O'Connell harvesting flowers

Sometimes the nursery feels like a learning center.  According to O’Connell, Australian soils are poorer than those in this country with the plants developing special root systems.  A tap root goes go deep searching for water; shallower roots seek nutrients from the mulch near the surface.  This efficient system is a huge advantage to California gardeners whose mandate is increasingly less water.

Pots lie as if there for decades amongst plants

“But,” says O’Connell, “California gardeners should be wary of fertilizers and especially phosphorous, or the letter “K” in the fertilizer formula “NPK.”  Remember, you can kill them with kindness.”

Over a few weeks time and with O’Connell’s guidance we created an abundant garden that looks healthy and is already producing a few of those crazy big flowers. Installation was quick, and the irrigation system was inexpensive.  Just a few valves and spigots, a timer, and drip hoses did the trick.   Most of O’Connell’s clients become customers for life.  Melinda Pepper’s tropical garden in Ojai, now mature – dense, green, and shady – was developed to suit its hot summers and cold winters.

A sign reposes in Jo's nursery

“The best thing I ever did was get out of my own way,” Pepper says, leaning over a  Banksia ericifolia, cutting a large stem to add to an already brimming bucket of blooms.  “Just do what Jo says and you’ll end up with a smashing garden.”  As I look out my window at three new piles of mulch trucked in from Ojai, I remember the mantra “mulch, mulch, mulch.”  And I do as I am told, rake rake rake.

For more:  The nursery is open by appointment on Nye Road in Casitas Springs.  Call 805-649-3362; or visit www.australianplants.com.

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