5 tips for growing native plants in small spaces

By Jennifer McMillan 14 September 2023

You don’t need a garden green your home. There are lots of ways to attract nature to your courtyard, balcony or windowsill.

Native gardens on balconies, windowsills or courtyards play an important role in providing food and shelter for local wildlife. They can act as a stepping stone between existing wildlife corridors attracting beautiful birds, bees, lizards and other insects. There are lots of delicious edible native plants to feed you too!

Plants in pots rely on you for all their needs: water, food and the right conditions. It’s important to set them up for success to give them the best chance of survival. Landscape Architect and horticulturist Narelle Happ from a Garden for Life has all the tips to help your plants thrive.

1: Soil, mulch and fertiliser 

Native plants require a native potting mix when grown in pots and containers. This is because native Australian plants are naturally very phosphorus sensitive. High levels of phosphorus can cause the leaves to go yellow. A premium quality native potting mix will ensure good water holding capacity and encourage a healthy growing environment. Put a layer of mulch on the top but keep it away from the stem. This will keep the water at the top of the plant and reduce the amount of water that evaporates from the soil.

Like all living things, native plants need nutrients to survive. You can make your own version of seasol by collecting seaweed (if your council allows this) and leaving it in a bucket. Use at the time of planting, two weeks after and four weeks after planting. This helps to strengthen the cell walls.

2: Watering  

Watering is determined by the plant species, environmental factors, type of pot, and weather. A good rule of thumb is to use your finger as a guide. If the soil is moist, wait another day. If the weather is very windy or hot, check plants daily for watering requirements. Ensure that the plants don’t sit in a saucer of water, which will cause the soil to become anaerobic and the soil will start to smell. Move plants into the shade if you're going away to prevent further moisture loss.

3: Pot choices and design ideas  

  • Terracotta is a porous pot material that requires sealing. Plants may require more attention to watering as the water evaporates more frequently than with other pot types. Use a pot sealer or a plastic pot inside the terracotta to make it easier to move around.  

  • Fibreglass is a lighter weight material makes this style of pots easier to move around. 

  • Upcycle objects and turn them into pots. Get creative and reuse old objects: tea pots, wine barrels, tins, cartons, bottles and hanging baskets. While you’re at it – create a decorative bee or insect hotel using easily found materials.  

  • Put multiple plants within one pot.  

  • Look for a good drainage hole or drill more holes if needed and put mesh over the holes.  

  • Be aware the darker the pot the more heat it will attract.

4: Pruning  

In nature plants are constantly being pruned by animals, the weather and environmental conditions. Pruning is essential to encourage healthy growth and abundant flowers.  

5: Plant species  

Select a mix of plant species that will provide a range of food resources for birds and bees and other pollinators. Use combinations of different plants in structure, colour, and flowering times and select plants that are suited to your environmental conditions.  

A selection of edible native plants suited to the Sydney climate: 

  • Warrigal Greens – Tetragonia tetragonioides Use the leaves to make warrigal greens pesto.

  • Native Thyme – Prostanthera rotundifolia A natural mosquito repellent and can be used in a variety of recipes.

  • Powder Puff Lilly Pilly – Syzygium wilsonii Deep pink flowers are followed by an edible berry.  

  • Old-man Saltbush – Atriplex nummularia Silver grey foliage can be dried and crushed to flavour savoury dishes and bread. 

  • Lemon Myrtle – Backhousia citriodora Can be used for tea and in desserts. 

  • Cinnamon/Grey Myrtle – Backhousia myrtifolia Cinnamon spiced edible leaves when dried and crushed.  

  • Finger Lime – Citris australasica  

Contact your local council to see if there are programs or education sessions you can get involved in. Waverley Council runs a Living Connections program with free native seedlings and resources on habitat gardening. Share your garden ideas by tagging National Tree Day on Facebook and Instagram and pledge your tree to make it count towards the national tally.  

Jennifer McMillan
Jen worked as a vet nurse while studying environmental science and completing her master's degree in Journalism. She loves bushwalking, storytelling, caring for baby animals, Australian birds and river red gums. Jen works on the National Tree Day campaign and Planet Ark's Seedling Bank.