A how-to guide to planting native plants in your backyard
Planting native plants, as seeds or seedlings, is a great way to support our natural biodiversity and ecology. Seeds amazingly contain all the DNA that the plant needs to develop to maturity. It tells the cells what type of plant it is, and gives it instructions about when to grow, how to develop and how to carry out all the biological processes it needs to carry out to grow into a mature plant.
Planting native plants history
The history of planting native species in Aotearoa goes back a long time. Māori planted tī kouka (cabbage tree) along coastal routes. Settlers planted native trees and shrubs for shelter, and as windbreaks on farms. Pōhutukawa were planted to adorn the first urban centres. Private gardens in the 1970s were popular for planting hebes, kōwhai, cabbage trees, shrubs such as pittosporum, New Zealand flax, and lancewood. In the 1980s, the growing conservation movement encouraged planting native species such as ngaio, kawakawa and mahoe.
Planning a native garden
Before you go ahead and plant native plants in your garden, think about the way they will look. The roots and the crown of the plant are the parts that extend the furthest outward from the stem or trunk. Make sure that they have enough space to grow comfortably without encountering any obstacles, including other plants. Think about how the plants will interact favourably with one another. The best idea is to visit a native forest or a reserve and see how the different species work together in nature. Many trees attract birds with their nectar or seeds. Larger trees with wide crowns can provide wind shelter for smaller plants. Remember that your plants need to develop a sustainable ecological niche where you plant them. You should plan the site in detail.
Preparing the area for planting
- You need a firm bed of nutrient rich soil. If you do not have this, and you are prepared to alter your garden significantly, you should mark out an area of lawn to be spaded out and turned into a soil bed.
- Lift the turf, add manure or compost and aerate the soil by forking or digging.
- Keep the site free of weeds.
- The best times of year to plant are in the autumn months of April to May or in late winter to spring (August - September). The cooler months are ideal.
- You can get seeds or seedlings from native plant nurseries around the country.
- Mark with a stake where you are going to plant the plants.
- Dig a hole that the plants’ roots can spread out comfortably within.
- You may need to cut the root ball with a knife down the length of the roots.
- Invert the bag the seedling comes in, holding the soil with the palm of one hand, and pull the bag loose.
- Cover the roots with soil, pressing it firm layer by layer.
- The soil line at the base of the stem should touch the surface of the ground.
Paying attention to the plant’s natural habitat will give you the best indication of whether the plant will grow successfully, provided you have followed good planting practice.
Caring for the plants
Natives are adapted to the New Zealand climate so generally they do not require watering, apart from in exceptionally hot dry summer weather. They are mostly hardy evergreens, suited to a range of environments, such as mountain, coastal, varied forest types and wetland, and they provide sustenance to a range of birds and insects. However, they can be threatened by trampling by humans or grazing by animals, so fencing them off for protection can be helpful.
Replace mulch if it becomes stale, to replicate the way the leaf litter on the forest floor is constantly evolving.
Weed around the plant if necessary, especially when the plant is young.
Natives plants aren’t propagated for a colourful flower garden, but they are attractive plants, with contrasting forms, textures and foliage colours. A lot of land where native species once grew has been cleared and we want to bring them back. Native plants grew here before other species were introduced and support New Zealand’s unique biological niche. Native plants attract birds and many are valued for both traditional Māori rongoā and cultural practices.
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