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Using New Zealand Native Plants for Landscape Design

A tui on the branch of a yellow flowering kowhai tree

Designing Landscapes with New Zealand Native Plants

Designing landscapes with New Zealand Native plants celebrates the uniqueness of New Zealand’s native flora and so is deservedly popular. However, it is not always as fail-safe as one might think. As with all themed landscapes, when designing with native plants or creating a ‘Native Garden’, appropriate plant selection is crucial. Choosing ill-considered selections may not create the low maintenance landscapes many people are looking for when using native plant species.

Size matters. Many residential landscapes lack the space to grow many of our New Zealand native plants to full size, so when designing it’s important to consider the mature size of your plant. This is usually not the size on the plant label, which typically shows the expected size at 10 years. As petite, beautiful and graceful as that juvenile rimu (Dacrydium cupressinum) looks in the garden centre trees, as it attains a mature height of 35m +, a smaller growing kowhai (Sophora) or marble-leaved Carpodetus serratus (putaputweta) is potentially a better choice size-wise. 

Conditions counts. When designing landscapes using New Zealand native plants, understanding and designing in response to your landscapes unique growing conditions is important. Choosing the right native plants removes the need to significantly alter existing garden conditions, which is important to those on a budget or embracing environmentally-friendly gardening practices. In New Zealand landscapes clay soils are common. These are prone to water logging and many of our popular NZ native plants and trees, such as titoki (Alectryon excelsa), puka (Meryta sinclarii), pseudopanax and coprosma don’t like ‘wet feet’, so do your research or you may find that your plants rot or drown.  

Some native plants are very adaptable and this gives them an inherently better chance of success so when designing landscapes using NZ Native plants consider plants that cope with both wet and dry growing conditions such as Oioi (Apodasmia similis), manuaka sp. , the iconic cabbage tree (Cordyline australis) and flax such as the large swamp flax / harakeke (Phormium tenax or for the smaller landscape, dwarf green flax Phormium ‘Emerald Gem’.

New Zealand native plants are natural contenders when designing landscapes that echo the patterns and forms of nature such as bush settings or alpine rock gardens, however, natives are equally at home in formal and contemporary New Zealand landscapes, Designing with native plants in these settings usually takes the form of using plants in a more sculptural way especially if you are seeking to achieve a modern ‘architectural’ aesthetic. Nikau, cabbage trees and lancewoods such as Psedopanax ferox (toothed lancewood) have distinct architectural forms that are ideal as single or strategically grouped statement specimens. Sculptural Xeronema callistemon (Poor Knights lily,  Astelia banksia and Phormium  (flax) make a smaller but still dramatic statement and are ideal for pots or dry landscapes.

Modern NZ Native Garden.
Designing with native plants in a deliberately styled manner usually takes the form of using plants in a more sculptural way, especially if you are seeking to achieve a modern ‘architectural’ aesthetic. Nikau, cabbage trees and lancewoods such as Psedopanax ferox (toothed lancewood) have distinct architectural forms that are ideal used as single statement plants or as strategically grouped statement specimens. Sculptural Xeronema callistemon (Poor Knights lily,  Astelia banksii and Phormium 'Emerald Green'  (dwarf green flax) make a smaller but still dramatic statement and are ideal for pots or dry landscapes.

Subtropical  NZ Native Garden
If you are designing in a subtropical style, these lush and textural landscapes can be founded on a strong base palette of New Zealand native plants just by selecting species with bold glossy leaves. Tecomanthe speciosa (Three Kings Climber), shrubby griselina, coprosma and pseudopanx shrubs and bold leaf trees such as large-leaved Meryta sinclarii (Puka) are great choices for tropical landscapes with New Zealand flair natives and will give a lush, green tropical aesthetic.  Punch it up with nikau or tree ferns of differing sizes to provide graceful arching fronds for contrast. You may want to add a few exotics for the flamboyant colourful blooms many of NZ New Zealand natives plants lack or if you are willing to put in the effort to keep the hairy black clianthus caterpillars at bay, Clianthus maximus (kakabeak) provides a stunning, bird attracting display of colourful, red flowers. This is an endangered species worthy of our efforts to preserve. 

Bird attracting NZ Native Garden.
Many other New Zealand natives are also abundant in nectar-rich flowers, along with seeds, berries and fruits all of which are great for enticing native birds into your garden, along with bees and butterflies. The type of birds attracted will depend on their feeding habits so planting native species occurring naturally in your area contributes to what is known as a ‘green corridor’, the route native birds travel across the populated areas between your garden and nearby bush.  Metrosideros excelsa (pohutukawa), Vitex lucens (puriri) and Sophora chathamica (Coastal kowhai) are three attrative, flowering NZ native trees that are abundant food sources for NZ native birds.

Whatever the style of native garden you are looking for,  DIY Designs can help you to discover great NZ native plants and show you how to use them by creating a bespoke planting design for your garden. 

Talk to us about a design for a NZ native garden at your place