Habitat in a pot
  • Last updated:
  • 05 Aug 2020

The following information is available as an information sheet.

Changing environments

You don’t have to have a large backyard to create a habitat garden. Even if you only have a small backyard, courtyard, patio or balcony you can still plant a mix of native plants to attract local wildlife.

There are now numerous native shrubs, grasses, herbs and climbers that will happily grow in pots, along walls and fences or in compact spaces. In addition there is also a growing range of hybrid and cultivar varieties of larger native plants now available in dwarf and compact forms.

How to create a habitat in a pot or small space

If you have a courtyard or small backyard with limited garden area try using a combination of direct planting into the ground and plants in various sized pots.

Some larger plant species including trees such as Ficus spp (figs), syzygiums (lilly pillies), grevilleas, callistemons and palms can be grown in pots to reduce and manage their size.

If you only have a balcony, use a combination of lightweight pots and containers for creative planting.

Advantages to growing in pots

  • Reduced water usage (only water individual plant).
  • Instant effect and landscape.
  • Can plant advanced plants for instant results.
  • Choice of pot colours, designs and sizes to complement individual plant texture or flower colour or planting patterns.
  • Ability to move plants around to achieve different effects or to respond to heat, cold, shading, screening.
  • Can maintain and manage specific needs and soil types for difficult or fussy plants.
  • Increased opportunities to grow vines or climbing plants vertically up walls and fences.
  • Create a ready-made garden on hardstand (concrete / paved) areas.
  • No hard digging required.
  • Group pots together to create density. Pots grouped together will also provide more protection in exposed situations for sensitive plants and will help reduce water evaporation.
  • Use a range of pot sizes and styles grouped together for a more creative look and to create height, structure and layers of foliage, flowers, seeds and fruit.
  • Incorporate hanging baskets and window boxes – hang baskets and pots from existing trees, attach hanging brackets to verandah posts, fences and walls. Don’t be restricted to just your floor space or sitting pots on the ground. Be creative.
  • Select a mix of plant species that will provide a range of food resources, including nectar, pollen, seed, fruit and berries.
  • Use combinations of different plants. The same theory for structural and floristic diversity for larger gardens can be used on a smaller scale to create habitat, for example;
    • three or four plants of the same species can be used to create a mass flowering or fruiting effect for visual aesthetics and increased opportunities to attract insects, native bees, butterflies and smaller birds
    • several of the same species of taller hardier plants such as lilly pillies, can be used at the rear to create a screen, shading or wind break
    • vines and climbing plants can be trained along fences and balcony rails for screening, privacy or shading
    • smaller plants can then be added in front to create layers
  • Select plants that are suited to your environmental conditions. If you have a west facing outdoor area that receives direct hot sun and winds don’t choose plants that like cool shady locations.
    Similarly if you live on the coast and are regularly exposed to salt spray you will need to select plants that can tolerate being exposed to salt on their leaves and in their soil.
  • Attractive rocks and pebbles can be placed around pots on concrete or paved areas to create a natural look. You could even add a small twisted or gnarly log.
  • Various mulch types can be placed on gardens and around pots to reduce water loss from the garden and pot soil and create habitat for invertebrates, skinks and geckoes.
  • Include a bird bath or water feature amongst your pots.
    Note: only use water features that maintain a shallow pool of slow moving water to allow smaller birds, butterflies and insect species the opportunity to access the water but not get washed away or drown.

Choose a good quality potting mix designed for Australian natives that is low in phosphorus, or good quality uncontaminated organic compost mix. Use a mixture that has good water holding capacity while also allowing adequate drainage, correct soil pH for each plant and an adequate supply of nutrients/fertiliser to support the plant through establishment and into the growing season.

It is not recommended to use soil from the garden in pots. You can introduce disease, weed seeds and fungi. The fine sediment in garden soil can become compacted and reduce drainage and oxygen availability to the plant.

When choosing your pots it is important to consider the following:

Construction material

Will the construction material draw water from the soil e.g. unsealed concrete and terracotta? Is the pot made from heavy or light weight materials? How much will the pot weigh when it is full of soil? Will it be able to be moved or will it be too heavy for the balcony?

Drainage

Does the pot have sufficient drainage holes to prevent the plant and soil from becoming waterlogged? Where drainage holes are all located on the base of the pot and not on the corners you made need to sit pots on pot feet to assist drainage.

Size

Choose a pot of appropriate size for each plant and location and that allows for future plant growth. If you only have a small space, don’t select all large pots (or plants) or you will run out of room and will only be able to have a couple of pots.

Design and shape

Select pots that are appropriately shaped for the growth habitat of the specific plant. It is not recommended to put tall growing trees into lightweight shallow pots that may be prone to being blown over. Select pots that will fit into the shape of the space you have and that can be easily grouped together with minimal wasted space.

Colour and temperature

The colour of the pot combined with the finished material can have a significant influence on the temperature of the soil in the pot. Particularly with plastic pots, the darker coloured pots cause the soil to become hotter and to dry out more quickly, while other containers such as white polystyrene boxes can actually help to insulate the soil and can be ideal for shallow rooted plants like ground covers and flowers.

Pot saucers

Ensure you place an appropriately sized pot saucer under each of your pots and hanging baskets if you don’t want dirty water running all over your deck, patio or balcony. Conversely don’t leave plants sitting in a saucer full of water. Many plants don’t like having wet feet and the stagnant water can provide opportunities for mosquito’s to breed.

While many native plants will happily grow in pots, just like any other plant in a pot, they will require a little extra care and attention. Native plants being grown in pots cannot get all the nutrients, minerals and moisture that they need from the soil below them.

All plants grown in containers will need continuing care with regular watering, addition of nutrients, fertiliser developed specifically for Australian native plants and correct exposure to sunlight and shade.

Potted plants will need watering more often during the growing seasons and warmer weather. During hot or windy weather, plants may need to be watered each day as they will dry out more quickly. As a general rule smaller pots, particularly those with large plants in them will need more regular watering, while larger pots can hold more moisture and may require watering less often.
Australian native plants can benefit from light trimming and tip pruning to maintain a bushy appearance and stop then from becoming too leggy and looking straggly. Regular tip pruning will also help to shape native plants and can promote flowering and growth.

Scientific name and common name

  • Acacia cognate (cultivar) - Limelight
  • Alpinia arundelliana - Dwarf ginger
  • Anigozanthus spp. - Kangaroo paw
  • Archontophoenix cunninghamiana - Piccabeen, bangalow palm
  • Asplenium australasicum - Birds nest fern
  • Atractocarpus chartaceus - Narrow-leaved gardenia
  • Austromyrtus - Copper tops
  • Austromyrtus dulcis - Midyim, midgen berry
  • Banksia ericifolia (dwarf) - Little eric
  • Banksia spinulosa (dwarf) - Birthday candles
  • Banksia spinulosa (cultivar) - Coastal cushion
  • Banksia spinulosa (cultivar) - Honey pots
  • Callistemon spp. - Bottlebrush
  • Cordyline stricta - Slender palm lilly
  • Cordyline terminalis - Palm lilly
  • Dianella caerulea - Blue flax-lilly
  • Dianella congesta - Flax lilly
  • Ficus benjamina - Benjamin tree
  • Ficus hillii - Hills weeping fig
  • Ficus macrophylla - Morton Bay fig
  • Ficus obliqua - Small-leaved fig
  • Ficus platypoda - Desert fig, rock fig
  • Graptophyllum ilicifolium - Mount Blackwood holly
  • Grevillea spp. - Grevillea, silky oak
  • Hardenbergia violacea - Purple coral pea
  • Hibbertia scandens - Snake vine, guinea flower
  • Hoya australis - Waxvine, common waxflower
  • Kunzea spp.
  • Leptospermum spp. - Tea tree
  • Linospadix monostachyos - Walking stick palm
  • Livistona australis - Cabbage-tree palm
  • Livistona decora - Weeping cabbage palm
  • Melaleuca thymifolia - Thyme honey-myrtle
  • Melia azederach (dwarf) - Dwarf white cedar
  • Myoporum spp. - Creeping boobialla
  • Myrsine howittiana - Brush muttonwood
  • Myrsine variabilis - Muttonwood
  • Piper hederaceum - Native pepper
  • Podocarpus elatus - Plum pine
  • Polyscias elegans - Celery wood
  • Scaevola spp. - Fan flower
  • Stenocarpus sinuatus - Fire tree
  • Syzygium australe - Scrub cherry
  • Syzygium australe (cultivar) - Bush Christmas
  • Syzgium hemilamprum - Blush satin ash
  • Syzygium luehmannii - Cherry satinash
  • Syzygium australe (cultivar) - Tiny Trev
  • Syzygium australe (cultivar) - Aussie compact
  • Viola hederacea - Native violet
  • Xanthostemon chrysanthus - Golden penda

NOTE:

The accumulated weight of pot plants, soil, water and rocks can be quite heavy and potentially overload some balconies or raised decks. Always check the structural specifications and weight loading of your balcony before you begin. You may need to modify your design to reduce the total weight before you begin.

When planting vines and climbers against or adjacent to balcony railings or safety fences ensure that your plant choice and the growing habitat of that species is not too vigorous and will not produce strong thick or dense stems that could potentially allow children to climb over the railing or fence using the vine. Additionally, ensure that the vine will not become too heavy for the railing and potentially weaken or pull it down.