How You Can Use Australian Landscaping Ideas to Create a Drought-Tolerant Garden

A drought-tolerant garden north of Sydney. Australian gardeners can teach the rest of us a lot about how to garden with a lot less water. (Photo: Gerald Vartan)

The majority of Australians — about 85% — live on the country's coasts. That's because vast areas of the interior of the continent are desert. But even closer to the coasts, there are still plenty of areas that are only seasonally wet, and due to climate change, areas that used to be more temperate are drying up. So Australians have long known about gardening with less water — and they're getting even savvier as drier conditions persist for longer periods.

So when I asked Gerald Vartan (my father, who has gardened in the Sydney area for over 40 years), what his first choice for landscaping plants are, he unsurprisingly said, "Plants that can endure hot, dry conditions and are evergreen."

Vartan has long maintained "a little oasis with a fountained water pond to attract the birds, water dragons, and frogs and create a peaceful lovely sound off the tinkle of water," he says. While flowing water is a central element of his garden, that doesn't mean it needs a lot of it to stay green.

Because of the country's relative isolation from the rest of the world, native plants have always been a big part of Australian gardening, though in recent decades, the country has had greater access to imported plants. But anything water-intensive is out these days. (Yes, the northernmost part of Australia does have rainforests and plenty of moisture, but only a small percentage of the population lives there.)

Banksia prionotes, (Acorn Banksia) flower spikes in white yellow orange color with serrated leaves ,
Many Australian flowers are striking and colorful; this banksia will turn into a cone full of seeds that native birds like cockatoos love to eat. (Photo: imagevixen/Shutterstock)

Choose indigenous plants

Native plants aren't just great for saving water; they also feed birds, bees and other beneficial insects. Flowers like daisies and kangaroo-paw provide what local creatures need.

"For hedges, check out the many varieties of lilly pilly, westringia and callistemon. For shrubberies, look for new forms of the old favourites, like grevilleas, banksias, wax flowers and mint bushes," advises Better Homes and Gardens editor Roger Fox. "For striking architectural plants, you can't go past Gymea lilies and grass trees, with their amazing blackened trunks. And for fabulous low-maintenance tub plants, dwarf acacias like ‘Limelight' and ‘Green Mist' are winners."

As with any garden, weeds are a concern in the Australian garden. If you have a wildlife-friendly garden, birds, small mammals and marsupials will eat and transport the seeds for weeds into your space. One way to fight weeds is to plant low-lying succulents and other plants that live close to the earth. Besides keeping weeds down, "ground covers keep water in the soil," says Vartan.

Pigface is extremely hardy succulent that can tolerate salty conditions and boasts a bright pink flower; other groundcovers have unusual leaf shapes that creep along the garden floor.

A drought-tolerant garden north of Sydney, Australia.
A combination of native grasses and succulents means a garden can get by with very little water for much of they year. (Photo: Gerald Vartan)

Minimize or lose the lawn

Forget the lawn, unless you're using it for a specific purpose like a play area for kids or dogs, and then, keep it small and planted with grasses that don't need much water. If you don't need a lawn, you're much better off planting native grasses that grow freely (no-mow) and blooming bushes.

A small recirculating fountain can make wise use of water resources, and add visual and aural interest. A winding gravel pathway can open up the area visually. So can benches, sculptures, or even an area of low succulents surrounding a tree or larger bush. A rock garden is the ultimate in low-maintenance and low water landscaping, and low-lying plants like the Sydney rock orchid, which can grow in sandy and rocky soils, can add a flowers to the space, flowing over the stones.

Red Kangaroo Paw plant
Kangaroo paw comes in a wide variety of colors, from pink and red to yellow. (Photo: Joanne Harris and Daniel Bubnich/Shutterstock)

Consider sun and soil

Many beginning gardeners forget to take into account the sun's movement throughout the day and the seasons. This is especially important in a dry climate where plants that need a little extra moisture will need to be out of continual, direct sun. When you "aim for a low maintenance garden, take into consideration where the sun is at different times of the year, and make sure the soil is healthy and has good drainage," says Vartan.

You can check drainable yourself by digging a hole, filling it with water, then letting it sit overnight. Fill it again the next day, then check it every hour or so. Ideal soil drainage is about 2" an hour, but can be less if you are planting drought-tolerant plants. But you definitely don't want them sitting around in pools of water; under those conditions, they'll rot and die.

Pay attention to the sun, and ask neighbors and your local garden center experts about the best placement for plants, and when the best time to plant them is.

A garden should always reflect the personality of the person who keeps it, so if you're a foodie, your garden can include local berries, fruits like finger limes and Illawarra plums, and a kitchen garden. If you love color, there are dozens of varieties of local plants (think bottle brush, flame pea and banksia) that will answer that desire, and if minimalist is your style, layers of native grasses, ferns and succulents can make your green space all about the textures.