Silver lady fern
Other people's gardens

5 must-have plants for Sydney

Based on my thrill-a-minute, rain-sodden ride through Sydney’s professionally designed gardens open for Hidden Festival of Outdoor Design last weekend, these are the ‘it’ girls of current garden design. Not a flower among them, these are about texture, flexibility and privacy. And who doesn’t need some of that!

1. Zoysia

The bright green fluffy mounds planted on the two islands in this courtyard are Zoysia. It’s so fine and fluffy you just want to pat it, and sure enough one of its common names is petting grass, which makes it sound sleazy. Zoysia is a group of creeping grasses. There are some that make great turf lawns, but not this one, Zoysia tenuifolia.

Art in Green garden Sydney

It’s too slow-growing to bounce back after heavy traffic, but while slow, it does keep right on growing. Turn your back to too long and it will have mounded and lumped its way into a fluffy green carpet that buried your garden. Keep it to confined areas, like this.

Art in Green


This garden is by Art in Green. A deceptively traditional Federation house and garden façade hides a thrillingly modern and minimalist house. Here you can see how those lines of zoysia form a detail in the courtyard that adjoins the master bedroom.

Art in Green garden Sydney

2. Slender weaver bamboo

Slender weaver is the go-to screen for narrow spaces. It’s so popular it has its own TLA (three-letter acronym)  – BTG for Bambusa textilis gracilis. Here it is in the same Art in Green garden, beautifully controlled.

Art in Green

BTG is a clumping bamboo, not a runner, though it will make enemies of your neighbours if you plant it too close to your fence line and don’t keep control of it. Left alone it will form a big clump and grow to 6m. In this garden it’s trimmed about every six weeks through the warm season to keep that forest of green uprights clean, and to keep the hedge sharp.

Here it is in a more naturalistic planting, in a new garden by Brendan Moar in an aged care facility in Northbridge. BTG  can reach for the sky here, as the scale helps link this garden to the one on the level above.



Brendan told me that the main challenge in this garden was the nine months of deep shade, contrasted with the blasting heat of full sun over the height of summer.  Alcantera, cycads, philodendron Xanadu, variegated shell ginger and birds nest ferns all survived their first summer. Even the rhipsalis that forms waterfalls of green down the walls and over the edges of the pots coped with the scorch.

Brendan Moar garden

3. Silver lady fern

Do you love those ferns catching the light at the top and the bottom of the wall?  It’s silver lady fern, Blechnum gibbum, a dwarf tree fern. It grows fast, is beautifully symmetrical, with a delicate softness to the foliage. It loves a shady position, preferably with some moisture. If you have a difficult boggy spot this could be the answer. I saw it in Brendan’s garden and in quite a few others as well. Everywhere its lacy freshness caught my eye.

Silver lady fern

4. Malay pygmy bamboo

This garden is by Ian Arkins Landscapes and Landsberg Garden Design.  I took the shot from the tree house – just one child-engaging element of a garden designed to keep the four kids in the family off the streets.

Landsberg garden design

There’s also an infinity-edged pool, a slippery dip, and enough lawn for cartwheels and soccer, with plants chosen for their ability to recover from a wayward kick.

The soft hills of foliage to the left of the stepping stone path are Malay pygmy bamboo, which is not a bamboo at all but a clumping grass that forms a dense mound about half a metre high.It will handle sun or shade (or indoors – there’s an idea!) but won’t stand drying out so once the next El Nino event comes along you’ll be bucketing out the bath to keep this one going

Also in this picture, rampant native violet as a groundcover, gorgeous alcantera rosettes, birds nest ferns under the palms, blue ginger on the right, and BTG (see above!) providing the screening against a black-painted fence.

5. Tiger grass

Again this is not a bamboo, but a clumping grass (real name Thysanolaena maxima, origin Thailand). The appeal is the fountain effect of that luxuriant foliage, which is just the right height to block the neighbours’ fence without shutting out the sky.

Tiger grass

Expect it to form a clump that is a metre wide at the base and quite a lot wider than that at the top. The owner of this garden trims it up a couple of times a year. The garden is by Ken Lamb of Imperial Gardens and it masterfully creates privacy without blocking any of the lovely views over the valley. It’s only small  but planted with lots of seasonally interesting plants.

Ken Lamb garden

Here the feature is the crepe myrtle, pruned Japanese style, with silver lady ferns in the foreground on the left, the red-flowered Bauhinia galpinii, and burgundy cordylines. You can also see mounds of Malay pygymy grass and on the right that dark-leafed column is the Eumundi quandong, a native rainforest tree with dark glossy leaves that takes clipping into whatever you like – column, hedge, elephant!

The Hidden weekend was inspiring. So many ways of making a garden, of living with plants, of creating spaces – so many ideas! I have written elsewhere on using sculpture in the garden, based on some Hidden examples. Let me know if you’d like to see some more shots from the gardens.


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