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Spidery pink 'Flamingo' grevilleas attract an array of small finches, wrens and spinebills. Photo - Andrew Lehman

An inspiring native garden rings bells for Linda Ross and to the sound of birdsong she changes her tune about the best plants to create pretty gardens.


I came late to an appreciation of native flora. European sensibilities clouded my judgement and I was always choosing gardenias rather than grevilleas to adorn the table. I loved walking through wildflowers in the bush but was reticent about putting them in my garden. But the tide has turned and now my garden is full of the prettiest cottage-gardenesque wildflowers: mint bush; flame pea; hardenbergia; kangaroo paw; emu bush; flannel flowers; fan flowers; blue grasses and grevilleas.


The inspiration for the change was my first visit to Boongala, a breathtaking wildflower garden in the north-west of Sydney. I’d never seen an eastern spinebill up-close until I visited Boongala, The beautiful chestnut-coloured bird returned to the same grevillea throughout the day, to dip her gently curved beak into the flowers, all while hovering in mid-air. Beautiful! And she wasn’t a lonely avian guest: blue wrens darted from shrub to shrub; eastern rosellas, lorikeets and native finches chattered in the taller trees; and every now and then a yellow-tailed black cockatoo screeched overhead.

With birdsong in my ears I walked along the flower-flanked paths at Boongala and realised I could achieve a garden with a completely Australian sense of place, with the pretty textures and colours I’ve loved in northern hemisphere cottage gardens, as well as habitat for eastern spinebills and blue wrens – all with native wildflowers.


Boongala is set against a backdrop of rainforest and gum trees alive with birdlife. Photo - Andrew Lehman


The garden

Boongala Native Gardens is a 4.4 hectare property in Kenthurst, north-west of Sydney, the result of more than 20 years of love and devotion by Malcolm and Jenny Johnson. The garden itself is significant and pays homage to Jenny’s uncle Sid Cadwell, a legendary figure in the cultivation of Australian plants. Mr Sid had a real eye for selecting plants. He travelled widely throughout Australia looking for new species and seed to bring back to his Annangrove property. Mal and Jenny’s garden is named after Sid’s Boongala Nursery, which was one of the first nurseries in Australia to specialise in growing Australian plants. In his lifetime Sid bred some stunning grevilleas, including ‘Boongala Spinebill’ and ‘Sid Cadwell’, both of which thrive in this garden.


Dense shrubs thick with foliage and flower make perfect homes for finches, blue wrens, whip birds and spinebills.  Photo - Andrew Lehman 

The plants

A gorgeous, three-metre-high, weeping, lime green wattle (Acacia ‘Limelight’) hogs centre stage, especially when the afternoon sun lights it up. Three big-bottomed Queensland bottle trees stand sentinel, under-planted with mounds of moss-like Canberra grass (Scleranthus biflorus).

Shrubs create the rise and fall of the garden. Native hibiscus (Alogyne huegellii) loom in a smoky purple haze, while textural accents are achieved with the blue tinge of grass trees (Xanthorrea glauca) and tall-growing 'Big Red’ and 'Yellow Gem' kangaroo paws. Waratahs and correas are also in the mix, providing spiky-leafed hideaways for a family of finches.

Sweeping beds are mounded high with imported soil for maximum drainage, and feature plenty of grevilleas and bottlebrush. Pretty perennials edge the beds with soft gelato colour. Mass-planted fan flowers, paper daises, bluebells and flannel flowers spread out like plush Persian carpets. Other ground-dwelling favourites include the azure blue Lechenaultias, from West Australia.


Photo - Andrew Lehman

The stars

Grevilleas are the stars of this show and Malcolm says there is one to suit every condition, whether wet, dry, arid or frosty. Large-flowering hybrids attract honey-eating birds and the smaller-flowering grevilleas provide protection for nesting birds such as wrens, finches and eastern spinebills. There is a huge range of hybrid grevilleas from which to choose. A mix of ‘Honeybird’ and ‘Moonlight’ types, along with some of the Sydney basin species, such as Grevillea speciosa, and G.buxifolia seems like a fine combination of sizes and colours to suit both bird and human desires.

Mal and Jenny have inspired not just me, but thousands of other garden-lovers who have visited their garden. We’ve been educated about the intrinsic beauty of wildflowers and encouraged to grow a little bit of Australia’s unique floral heritage in our own backyards. I left the nursery with the Kombi full of natives and hope to soon be spotting an eastern spinebill drinking nectar from a grevillea near my back door!


Grevilleas pinned to the door include members of the 'Honeybird' series, including Sylvia, Majestic, Tango, Golden Lyre, Peaches and Cream and Moonlight. Photo - Andrew Lehman


Text: Linda Ross 

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Author: Linda Ross