Gardening with Em: Elements of great garden design

Well everyone, it’s coming to that delightful time of the year again where plants seem to come alive over those cold winter months, bursting into bloom with a diversity of shapes and colours and displaying their new healthy green foliage, getting ready to soak up that warm sun and spring rain.  It’s also that time where we get especially busy because spring offers us time outside, to exercise, to socialise and it inspires us into the garden. But let’s not forget it’s also a busy time for all our wonderful critters that we share this beautiful planet with, for they are gearing up to fill their stomachs, pollinate and have their young whilst food, warmth and shelter is plentiful.

So I thought this write up should be about garden design and how to create an aesthetically pleasing garden using native plant species so we can encourage our wonderful wildlife into our backyard. Read on to learn about how we can create a beautiful garden area that benefits everyone and everything using native plants with the exception of some flowers, fruit and herbs; because lets face it, there is nothing better than a lovely afternoon in the sun drinking a mojito with fresh mint leaves picked from the garden…


All spaces need a base plan, so document the things that that you would like to retain or remove on your site. You might have some established trees and favourite plants as well as logs and boulders that can come in handy when creating your garden.

Think about the sun aspect on your site, where does the sun rise and set and what areas get the most and least amount of sunlight. I like to orientate seating and relaxing areas in locations that get a nice amount of sunlight during the morning up to midday but then protected during the hot afternoon, and for areas where I would position a pond I tend to go for a similar approach where you get that nice morning to midday sun and shaded in the hot afternoon.  


It is a great idea to break your garden into zones.

Here are a few we use as a foundation:

1. Human occupying zone: This is so we have our own private space that is away from plants and animals, so we don’t trample and disturb them.

2. Herb garden zone: I tend to create raised, contained garden beds for fruit, vegetables, herbs and exotic flowers. Mainly as it makes them easy to contain and prevent them from going wild in the garden and also to cultivate when it is time to rotate the stock. 

3. Water zone: Water is very important in all habitat design, water naturally cools down the environment but it also aids in providing a water source for a variety of animals especially during warmer weather. Ponds are a great addition and I usually make sure the pond has different depths from shallow to deep. This allows birds and animals to bath and drink from, and aquatic and amphibious species to thrive. It is so important to have flowing water as this offers relief for many birds and animals during very hot days. Ponds are also wonderful to have as the sounds of trickling water calms the mind. We use a variety of plants in our ponds to attract all kinds of animal species, birds like Dusky Moorhens, Black-tailed Native Hens, Eurasian Coots, Nankeen Night-herons and a variety of duck species love to inhabit areas where plants like Eleocharis acuta, Ficinea nodosa,  Juncus procera and Baumea articulata are present. These rush species provide protection, nesting material and a food source to many birds. Plants such as Myriophyllum crispatum, Marsilea drummondii and Villarsia reniformis provide habitat for a variety of frog, insects and other aquatic species and are also a valuable food source to many other bird and animals species.

4. Habitat garden zones: My favourite part of designing a garden, this is where you can go wild with plants, rocks and logs. Position your larger objects first, such as boulders and always try to keep them in clusters of odd numbers. Have one large boulder positioned in a way so a pathway curves around it with a grouping of three boulders to determine the next curve in a path. Around these areas we tend to use ground covers and grasses, like Viola hederacea, Dichondria repens, Kennedia prostrata, Poa labillardierei and Dianella revoluta just to name a few. Having lower plants allow boulders to become a feature and the grasses and rocks help provide cover and protection for skinks and insects. Fruits dropped from plants like Dianella provide a food source for not only these lizard and insect species but also for an array of mammals as well as fructivorous and predatory bird species like magpies, kookaburras and butcherbirds. Clusters of small to medium flowering plants and shrubs like Brachyscome multifida, Isotoma axillaris, Xerochrysum palustre, Tetratheca, Corea alba and Corea reflexa expand behind the lower ground level planting and then larger shrubs and trees should be positioned to the back. Mixtures of dense, prickly and open plants are great to attract different species of birds and animals. Some of these plants include Acacia paradoxia, Bursaria spinulosa, Leptospermum scorparium, and Goodenia ovata. These plants protect small birds like fairy-wrens and Silvereyes. While larger trees such as Acacias, Callistemons, Eucalypts, Banksias and Allocassurinas provide shelter and food sources to a variety of different bird species. It’s usually a good idea to position trees first into the locations desired and in areas so theycan protect you and the garden. However do not situate directly over a water source as they can drop a lot of leaf litter into the pond.    

Keep it simple.

Too many elements in one space can make it feel overcrowded, especially more so in smaller backyards.  But this does get tricky, as you also need to have a mixture of open areas and densely planted areas in your garden.  I like to think of natural landscapes when I design.  So picture how the trees grow and provide shelter whilst shrubs dominate the middle layers, and in areas close to paths or around boulders and logs low lying ground covers and grasses dominate these areas.

So remember to structure your plants using different heights. Preferably, higher plants should be at the back, medium sized shrubs to the middle and pockets of ground cover towards the front.

Plant Variety

One of the biggest mistakes I have noticed in gardens is the lack of plant diversity. Everyone has their own preference regarding type of garden they want, just like art. But if the goal is to create a garden that attracts wildlife, then diversity is a must, and it can look stunning.


This article was kindly written by Emmaline Bowman from STEM Landscape Architecture and Design | | Studio 3, 1/177 Beavers Road, Northcote, Vic, 3010

 and   @birdsinbackyards
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