In recent years, a fervour for rooftop gardens has begun to grow among city dwellers across the globe. From Tokyo, to Berlin, to Melbourne and Sydney, rooftop gardens are beginning to sprout up as havens for stressed office workers and wildlife alike. Sadly, while many of us live in cities, few of us have access to the rooftops that are now so frequently converted into green spaces. Most of us have a tiny balcony instead. Though for those with a passion for preserving our native species, a great deal can still be done on even the smallest of balconies, and growing your own native grassland is a great way to start!
Balconies can be harsh spaces to garden. They are often windswept and frequently cycle between deep shade and scalding sunlight. This can be a headache for gardeners who try to grow either shade loving plants, like ferns, or lovers of direct sun, like cacti. The good news is many Australian grassland plants will thrive in these variable conditions. Sadly though, native Australian grasslands are becoming rarer, as they have been obvious targets for housing developments and farmland. So, by growing a native grassland on your balcony, you’ll not only be cultivating an attractive, water saving garden, you’ll be helping create a pocket of habitat for native grassland insects, and if you pick the right plants, you’ll even be helping preserve some of our endangered flora!
Though at first they may appear plain, Australian grasslands are teeming with wildflowers. To avoid becoming overwhelmed at the shear diversity of plants that make up our native grasslands, I like to break them down into three main groups:
3) other wildflowers
To create your balcony grassland, all you need to do is pick five suitable indigenous species. Try to choose one species of grass to provide the backbone of your grassland, two daisies, and two other wildflowers to add colour, texture, and diversity to your balcony garden.
Before you start, though, there are a few things to keep in mind.
Firstly, you’ll need to choose an open, free-draining soil mix, as grassland plants rarely like to sit in damp soil long-term. If you can’t find a well-drained potting mix, you can always add sand to decrease the water holding capacity of whatever soil you can get. Secondly, you should choose indigenous species as they’ll be suited to your local climate and will be good habitat for native insects. These can easily be purchased at your local indigenous nursery at very reasonable prices (e.g. $3 a plant). Lastly, how you choose to pot up your grassland is up to you, though long window box pots work well and allow you to plant all of your grassland species together.
While Australia is home to hundreds of grass species, a few are standouts in our grasslands, and lend themselves well to balconies of varying light levels. For hot, sun-drenched balconies, kangaroo grasses (Themeda spp.) and wallaby grasses (Austrodanthonia spp.) are a good pick. They have many species ranging across Australia, so you should easily be able to find a local type that suits your climate. Weeping Grass (Microlaena stipoides) is also excellent for hot, sunny balconies and occurs through most of Australia. For balconies which are shadier, or only receive bright light for a short time each day, Common Tussock Grass (Poa labillardierei) is a must-have. It will handle lower light levels well, and will form attractive silvery-grey mounds once it has been growing for a year or two. It also occurs throughout much of eastern Australia.
By far the most dominant wildflowers in most Australian grasslands are the daisies, and we have countless beautiful species which are stunning addition to a balcony grassland. For hot, sunny balconies you can’t go past Billy Buttons (Craspedia spp.), Everlasting Daisies (Chrysocephalum spp.) or Scaly Buttons (Leptorhynchos spp.). They’ll handle hot dry conditions extremely well, and will reward you with cheery yellow blooms in the hot summer months when little else is flowering. Everlasting Daisies and Scaly Buttons are lower growing and will suit windy balconies well, while billy buttons will produce tall drumstick shaped flowers and suit more sheltered conditions.
For shady balconies, Yam Daisies (Microseris spp.) and Podolepis Daisies (Podolepis spp.) are perfect candidates and in the case of the Yam Daisy, you can harvest their tuberous roots once a year and cook them up just as the aboriginal people did for thousands of years! On top of this, the Yam Daisy is now threatened with extinction through much of its range, so when it produces its dandelion-like flower you can harvest the seeds and propagate them to share with friends and family, to spread this threatened plant around your city. Yam Daisies and Podolepis Daisies aren’t too fussy and can still be grown on hot, sunny balconies as well.
Though daisies dominate many Australian grasslands, there is a suite of other stunning wildflowers that grow too. On hot, sunny balconies Bluebells (Wahlenbergia spp.), Blue Pincushions (Brunonia australis) and Blue Devils (Eryngium spp.) are perfect additions to your grassland, and their blooms will produce a lovely contrast with the native daisies you’ve picked.
For shadier balconies, Grass Trigger-plant (Stylidium graminifolium), Matted Flax Lily (Dianella amoena) and Black-anther Flax Lily (Dianella admixta) are good choices, and if you decide to grow Matted Flax Lily, you’ll be helping to protect another threatened plant species, now missing from much of its former range. Many of the aforementioned species occur through much of Australia, though if they aren’t native to your area, your local indigenous nursery staff will be able to provide some suggestions of what you can supplement your balcony grassland with.
While rooftop gardens may be in vogue, they’re commonly planted with foreign species, and are often difficult to access. A balcony grassland is right on your doorstep, and can be filled with a range of indigenous plant species which will not only stand up to your climate but will provide habitat for wildlife too!
So, this week, while our native grasslands continue to be gobbled up by sprawling housing developments, why not extend a helping hand to our native grasslands by planting one on your balcony? You’ll be helping to preserve threatened plants and providing habitat for native animals.
Banner image courtesy of Liz Fenton from the Facebook Page Beautiful Hamilton, South West Victoria.