Living Smart


Habitat Garden in a Pot

Population growth, urban spread, larger houses and reduced land sizes means we have less space to establish gardens. The challenge of landscaping these smaller areas has resulted in a shift in the types and forms of plants being cultivated and selected for use in urban gardens, and particularly how they are used in outdoor areas.

Australian native plants are not restricted to only growing in the bush or on larger properties. There are now numerous small native plants and range of hybrid and cultivar varieties of larger native plants now available in dwarf and compact forms that can be grown in pots for use on balconies, in courtyard gardens, on trellis along walls, over fences and railings and in hanging baskets.

So, even if you only have a small backyard, courtyard, patio or balcony you can choose to plant a mix of local native plants to attract native wildlife and reduce the spread of invasive weeds. Your garden design is only limited by your imagination, not the size of your yard.

Planting Ideas and Things to Consider

  • For ideas on suitable plants, download our list of some Australian Native suitable for pots or speak to your local nursery 
  • Select plants that are suited to your environmental conditions. If you have a west facing outdoor area that receives direct hot sun and winds don’t choose plants that like cool shady locations. Similarly if you live on the coast and are regularly exposed to salt spray you will need to select plants that can tolerate being exposed to salt on their leaves and in their soil
  • Use combinations of different plants.  The same theory for structural and floral diversity for larger gardens can be used on a smaller scale to create a pot and small space garden habitat, for example:
    • 3 or 4 plants of the same species can be used to either create a mass flowering effect for visual aesthetics and increased opportunities to attract insects, butterflies and smaller birds.
    • Several of the same species of taller hardier plants such as lilly pillies, can be used at the rear to create a screen, shading or wind break.
    • Vines and climbing plants can be trained along fences and balcony rails to provide screening, privacy or shading.
    • Smaller plants can then be added in front to create layers.
    • Many fruit trees and vines can be trained to grow along horizontal wires secured to walls and fences. This is known as espalier and can be a very useful techniques for growing and controlling the size of traditionally large fruit trees in small spaces.
  • Attractive rocks and pebbles can be placed around pots on concrete or paved areas to create a natural or creative look. You could even add a small twisted or gnarly log.
  • Various mulch types can be placed on gardens and around pots to reduce water loss from the garden soil and pot soil
  • Include a bird bath or water feature amongst your pots. (Only use water features that maintain a shallow pool of slow moving water to allow smaller birds, butterflies and insect species the opportunity to access the water but not get washed away or drown)
  • Group pots together to create planting density.  Pots grouped together will also provide more protection in exposed situations for sensitive plants and will help reduce water evapouration
  • Use a range of pot sizes and styles grouped together for a more creative look and to create height, structure and layers of foliage, flowers, seeds and fruit
  • Incorporate hanging baskets and window boxes - hang baskets from existing trees, attach hanging brackets to verandah posts, fences and house walls.  Don't be restricted to just your floor space or sitting pots on the ground. Be creative.

Pot Requirements and Considerations

There is now an increased range of pot designs, sizes and colours with varying construction materials. Large lightweight pots are available that can be more safely used on decks, patios and balconies and provide further options for creative planting.  If you have a courtyard or small backyard with limited garden area try using a combination of direct planting into the ground and plants in various pots. Some larger plant species including trees such as Ficus spp (figs), syzygiums (lilly pillies), grevilleas, callistemons and palms can be grown in pots to reduce and manage their size.

Choose a good quality potting mix designed for Australian natives that is low in phosphorus, or good quality uncontaminated organic compost mix. Use a mixture that has good water holding capacity while also allowing adequate drainage, correct soil pH for each plant and an adequate supply of nutrients/fertiliser to support the plant through establishment and into the growing season. Look for potting mixes that carry the Australian Standards logo. If you use a regular or low grade potting mix you may need to add fertiliser and wetting agents at the time of planting. It is not recommended to use soil from the garden in pots. You can introduce disease, weed seeds and fungi. The fine sediment in garden soil can become compacted and reduce drainage and oxygen availability to the plant.

When choosing your pots it is important to consider the following:

  • Construction Material -  
    • Weight – when the pot is full of soil will it be able to be moved or will it be too heavy for the balcony.
    • Durability - How well will it stand up to the weather – will it crack easily, become brittle, will the colour fade, will it leach out colour and stain surfaces.
    • Water Loss and Evaporation –  will the construction material draw water from the soil e.g. unsealed concrete and terracotta.
    • Drainage – does the pot have sufficient drainage holes to prevent the plant and soil from becoming waterlogged. (Where drainage holes are all located on the base of the pot and not on the corner you made need to sit pots on pot feet to assist drainage).
    • Size – choose a pot of appropriate size for each plant and location. If you only have a small space, don’t select all large pots or you will run out of room and will only be able to have a couple of plants. Conversely, don’t chose pots that are too small for the plant, always select a pot slightly larger to allow for future growth of the plant.
  • Design and Shape
    • Select pots that are appropriately shaped for the growth habitat of the specific plant. It is not recommended to put tall growing trees into lightweight shallow pots that may be prone to being blown over. 
    • Select pots that will fit into the shape of the space you have and that can be easily grouped together with minimal wasted space. 
    • Beware of pots with a tapered shape that narrow towards the top of the pot, or pots that have an inward turned lip around the top of the pot. These designs and shapes can make it very difficult to remove the plant and compacted soil should it need repotting.
  • Colour and Temperature – The colour of the pot combined with the finished material can have a significant influence on the temperature of the soil in the pot. Particularly with plastic pots, the darker coloured pots cause the soil to become hotter and to dry out more quickly, while other containers such as white polystyrene boxes can actually help to insulate the soil and can be ideal for shallow rooted plants such as vegetables and flowers.
  • Pot Saucers – Ensure you place an appropriately sized pot saucer under each of your pots and hanging baskets if you don’t want dirty water running all over your deck, patio or balcony. Conversely don’t leave plants sitting in a saucer full of water. Many plants don’t like having wet feet and the stagnant water can provide opportunities for mosquito’s to breed.

Care and Maintenance

While many native plants will happily grow in pots, just like any other plant in a pot they will require a little extra care and attention. While you will see native plants growing in natural bushland without any interference from humans, native plants being grown in small garden beds or pots cannot get all the nutrients, minerals and moisture that they need from the soil below them. All plants grown in containers will need continuing care with regular watering, addition of nutrients/fertiliser and correct sunlight or shade requirements.

Plants will need watering more often during the growing seasons and warmer weather than the cooler months. However during hot or windy weather plants may need to be watered each day as they will dry out more quickly. As a general rule smaller pots, particularly those with large plants in them will need more regular watering, while larger pots can hold more moisture and may require watering less often.

Only use fertiliser developed specifically for Australian native plants. The slow release mixes for natives, which have lower levels of Nitrogen and phosphorus are best and can be applied once every 12 months.
Potted plants can lose nutrients from their soil quite quickly and may require regular additions of nutrients and minerals to keep them healthy and flourishing. Regular additions of a weak liquid seaweed solution can give plants a boost.

There is a common misconception that Australian native plants do not need or cannot be pruned. This is incorrect. While many will not like being cut back to a bare stem and couple of short branches like a rose bush they do however benefit from regular light trimming and tip pruning to maintain a bushy appearance and stop then from becoming too leggy and looking straggly. Regular tip pruning will also help to shape native plants and can promote flowering and growth.

Advantages to growing in pots

  • Reduced water usage (only water individual plant)
  • Instant effect and landscape
  • Can plant advanced plants for instant results
  • Choice of pot colours, designs and sizes to complement individual plant texture or flower colour or planting patterns
  • Ability to move plants around to achieve different effects or to respond to heat, cold, shading, screening
  • Can maintain and manage specific needs and soil types for difficult or fussy plants 
  • Increased opportunities to grow vines or climbing plants vertically up walls and fences
  • Create a ready made garden on hardstand (concrete / paved) areas
  • No hard digging required

It is important to note that the accumulated weight of pot plants, soil, water and rocks can be quite heavy and potentially overload some balconies or raised decks. Always check the structural specifications and weight loading of your balcony before you begin. You may need to modify your design to reduce the total weight before you begin.

When planting vines and climbers against or adjacent to balcony railings or safety fences ensure that your plant choice and the growing habitat of that species is not too vigorous and will not produce strong thick or dense stems that could potentially allow children to climb over the railing or fence using the vine. Additionally, ensure that the vine will not become too heavy for the railing and potentially weaken or pull it down.

For further information

Links and Other Resources

Activity Centre

Design your new garden using the Garden Habitat Planner and begin to understand your backyard features by completing a Site Analysis Plan and Habitat Assessment.
These tools will get you thinking about the physical and environmental characteristics of your backyard, existing habitat values, features and/or constraints that you need to consider when planning and designing your new garden.
In the Activity Centre you can setup a Living Smart profile and access calculators,
challenges, tools and games.

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