Maximising the environmental benefits of your plantings - National Tree Day Blog

Maximising the environmental benefits of your plantings

When it comes to environmental outcomes, not all plants or planting styles are equal!

Whether you’re planting a few seedlings in your own garden or organising a larger planting for National Tree Day, the plants you choose will determine how much of a positive environmental impact you make. 

Before we delve into some tips for ensuring you make your plantings seriously count, it is very important to note that, when done in a considered manner, plantings in backyards and suburban streets can have huge environmental benefits. This means our ability to positively impact the native flora and fauna is not strictly limited to our actions in bushland areas and reserves. 

Building habitat in a southern Sydney backyard 

To illustrate just how important backyard plantings can be, here’s a patch of my family’s backyard in southern Sydney. Despite having grown native plants in our garden for a lot longer, about 15 years ago we decided to devote a corner of our backyard to become dense native habitat.  

For more than fifteen years we have been building up our native backyard planting in southern Sydney. Photo credit: Claire Laws

For more than fifteen years we have been building up our native backyard planting in southern Sydney. Photo credit: Claire Laws

We aimed to incorporate as many local native plants as possible (including some from the vegetation community that would have occupied the area originally, the critically endangered Eastern Suburbs Banksia Scrub). This now wonderfully lush corner of the garden has been hugely successful in attracting many species of birds, Blue-tongued Lizards, frogs (and more) to our humble backyard.  

Now, with that bit of inspiration in mind, let’s run through a few general tips to help you maximise the environmental benefits of your own plantings. 

1. Think local, plant native

Whilst using native local plants for revegetation activities in bushland and reserves is a no brainer, when planting in our backyards or in other private areas, it might be tempting to choose non-native and specifically ornamental plants. However, many weeds now widespread in Australia’s natural areas are the result of escaped garden ornamentals. 

The good news is, by planting native species, you don’t have to compromise on ornamental benefits. By choosing to use native plants local to your area, you can have both ornamental AND environmental benefits.  

Many native plants, including Banksias, Grevilleas and Callistemons (also known as Bottlebrush) have wonderfully vibrant and showy flowers. These plants also produce lots of bird and bee-attracting nectar and provide great habitat for local bird visitors. 

By selecting native plants that are local to your area, you will provide the right food source and habitat for local wildlife. Local plants are also better suited to the environmental conditions (including climate and soil type), meaning they should require less maintenance and have better survival, leading to longer-lasting environmental outcomes.  

If you need help identifying some local plants appropriate for your plantings, you can get in touch with your local council. Your local council’s nursery or your local Bushcare Officer will have a wealth of information to share with you and can assist with species selection. Local council nurseries often grow seedlings from locally sourced seed. 

2. Think diversity, plant multiple growth forms 

When choosing your plants for both backyard plantings and larger scale planting events, including National Tree Day plantings, it is important to think about building habitat complexity. In other words, to maximise the environmental outcomes of your plantings, you need to select both a range of species AND growth forms. 

Vegetation communities can be generally broken down into three layers; the canopy (usually trees or large shrubs), the understorey (usually smaller shrubs) and the ground layer (usually grasses and other ground covers).  

Whilst trees are important for providing shade, storing carbon and creating habitat such as nesting sites for birds, the understorey and ground layers are just as important and should not be neglected. For example, a dense shrubby layer provides crucial habitat for smaller woodland birds and a well-developed ground layer provides habitat for smaller creatures such as lizards and skinks, and stabilises the soil, reducing run-off and erosion. 

Ultimately, thinking about your plantings in terms of needing to creating vegetation layers will increase diversity (of both plants and animals) and ensure you end up with a more natural and resilient habitat. 

As an example, in my family’s backyard planting in southern Sydney, the canopy layer consists of plants such as an Allocasuarina (Black Sheok), which has proved popular with the illusive Black Cockatoo, as well as families of the native Pied Currawong. There’s also a couple of Banksias (Coast Banksia and Old Man Banksia) which are both very popular with the cheeky local Rainbow Lorikeets. Bushy Grevilleas and a White Kunzea make up the understorey layer, which are both excellent for attracting birds and buzzy bees. Finally, the ground layer consists of numerous native grasses (including Microlaena), as well as Native Viola and Plectranthus (Cockspur Flower). 

We made sure to include vegetation layers in our native backyard planting in southern Sydney. Photo credit: Claire Laws

We made sure to include vegetation layers in our native backyard planting in southern Sydney. Photo credit: Claire Laws

3. Think long-term, continue beyond the planting 

Even after choosing local plants and planting out different vegetation layers, perhaps the most important part of your planting involves what you do AFTER you put the plants in the ground. If you want to ensure your planting results in long-lasting environmental benefits, follow-up maintenance, including regular watering, weeding and monitoring, is essential! 

The importance of watering and weeding for plant survival is pretty obvious. However, regular monitoring and observance of your plants is also important. All plantings will result in both winners and losers, therefore by taking note of which plants thrive in your conditions, and observing how the different species grow, you will be better equipped for any future plantings, including any supplementary plantings needed to account for plant losses. 

If you ask me, the monitoring stage is the most exciting part of any planting! Being able to sit back with a cuppa whilst watching your plants thrive, and observing all the animals benefiting from the newly created habitat, is something worth looking forward to! 

Now, are you ready to put this into practice and do some environmentally savvy planting yourself? 

How about getting on board this National Tree Day (Sunday 31st July) and organising your own community planting event?  

If you’re not quite ready to run your own community planting just yet, you can join a public planting near you or even get involved at home

Claire Laws

Claire joined the Planet Ark team in 2021. With a background in Environmental Science and a Masters in Environmental Law and Sustainable Development, Claire is keen to build on her previous work in ecological research and be part of Planet Ark's actions-based approach to environmental protection.