Choosing a garden winner


By Clare Jackson and Tim Newton

Choosing the right plants for your gully or garden is a challenge.

Not only are we spoiled for choice with thousands of species to choose from but it’s not unknown for a plant to thrive in one corner of your garden and sulk in another.

Even expert gardeners often rely on trial and error for best results.

A proven local, kowhai (Sophora mycrophylla), are graceful in the garden

In our work as arborists and gardeners we’ve seen and admired some real winners; high performing varieties, beautiful combinations, the perfect plant in the right place.

We’d like to share a few of the ‘winners’ that we’ve noted over the years, alongside some from our list of plants which are over represented in removals we’re asked to carry out. These ‘poor choices’ are the plants to think twice about, even if they are a bargain.

Of course, It’s a challenge to know what your chosen plants will look like in 10 or 20 years’ time, so some research is always advised.

With GreenFootprint’s focus on ecological restoration, we plant a lot of native plants. Usually the goal is to create an area that will, in time, look after itself. We also use native plants for foliage and colour, in some cases for their ability to thrive in the shade, or to compliment exotic species.

For example, Daphne odora looks great in midwinter with a backdrop of native horopito (Pseudowintera colorata). These evergreens both like a good rich soil and prefer to be out of the full sun.

Just as every garden should have a daphne, every house should have a deciduous tree to the north for summer shade. A copper beech (Fagus sylvatica), strong, balanced and friendly to have near the house makes a good choice. A pin oak (Quercus palustris) is not so great in this role because it requires frequent pruning to keep in shape and tends to hang on to its dead leaves, blocking the autumn sun.

An ideal specimen tree should be strong and long lived. So often we are asked to remove silk trees (Albizzia julibrissin) and liquidambars (Liquidambar styraciflua), both attractive species, but here in the Waikato these trees are relatively short-lived and therefore prone to breaking branches.

Choose a proven local such as the graceful kowhai (Sophora microphylla) or a tough and gorgeous deciduous magnolia such as Magnolia ‘Iolanthe’.

The plant for the place

It’s a help when choosing plants to know where they are from and therefore the conditions they like.

Desert plants are unlikely to be at their best in our humid climate or, in the case of some palm species they can be a little too successful and attract pigeons and rats which help to spread them further.

Choose the native nikau (Rhopalostylis sapida) or exotic queen palm (Syagrus romanzoffiana) over invasive phoenix palm (Phoenix canariensis) or fan palm (Trachycarpus fortunei) both of which feature in our list of most unwanted trees.

Give some thought to finding the best place to plant a palm. Nikau can look a bit tattered in an exposed site but will love a sheltered north facing corner in the garden or a shady spot in the gully.

Whether you’re planting trees in the gully or the garden this winter, rather than just focusing on quick results, think long term. Plant for now and for the future. Aim to build a vibrant, resilient ecology which doesn’t need constant replacements. The right plant in the right place not only saves dollars and reduces maintenance but, more importantly makes your garden a delightful, satisfying place to spend your time.

Happy planting.

*Landscapers and plant scientists Clare Jackson and Tim Newton, of GreenFootprint, have 30 years experience designing and building beautiful, sustainable landscapes, and working in gully restoration and tree care.

If you’d like help with any aspect of your gully, trees or garden, they welcome your inquiry. Contact Tim, phone 021 103 5755; email

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