If you’re regularly given potted plants that rarely see more than a few months of life in your otherwise leafy courtyard garden, perhaps it’s time to learn a few simple gardening tricks. Nothing too wild; just an idea of how to better nurture a chilli plant in cooler months, or how to maintain herbs.

Hosted by a collective of keen horticulturalists at the Royal Botanic Garden, The Inside Dig is a program of hands-on gardening how-to sessions that allows you behind the scenes of the stunning Sydney landmark, and takes in some garden basics in a relaxed atmosphere (there is usually wine).

Coming up this year is a citrus-growing class; one on winter veggies and herbs; flowers for winter colour; how to properly grow succulents; and for those in a more spacious suburban setting, how to grow the best lawn. Broadsheet attended a Friday-evening session on Australian natives at which Yates Gardening Company horticulturalist and The Inside Dig program leader, Angie Thomas, shared her native-plant expertise. The secret’s not so secret after all – with a little maintenance and care, it’s not too tricky to have a forest of natives in your backyard.

Keep it simple
While Thomas admits there are thousands of native plant species to choose from, perhaps it’s best to start fairly simple. “Lilly pilly is really great for growing in all sorts of gardens in suburbia, as a hedge or in pots on a balcony or in a courtyard,” she says. “There a fantastic, versatile, multipurpose plant to have in the garden.” While maybe not the most outlandish choice of native plant, lilly pilly will maintain its glossy green leaves all year round, and develop a nice ochre tinge in spring. Its fluffy white flowers attract bees, and you can make jams and jelly from its berries.

Thomas also suggests flowering kangaroo paw or dwarf “birthday candle” banksia as a sturdy, easy-to-grow starting point fit for any sort of garden. “[Kangaroo paw] comes in really big varieties that can grow to two metres, and smaller sorts that grow to about 50cm–80cm,” she explains, meaning they’ll happily grow in the ground or a pot. “The flowers come in so many different colours they also attract nectar-feeding birds and look great as cut flowers, too.”

Add some TLC
“Don’t set and forget,” advises Thomas. “New plants will need lots of moisture for the first three or so months.” Pots will also dry out much quicker and run out of nutrients faster, too. “[Potted plants] are completely reliant on you for everything, so you’ll need to be on your toes just a little more.”

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For lilly pilly, kangaroo paw and banksia, early and regular pruning is key. “Right from when the plant is young, pinch out the ends of the shoots, so instead of one or two long shoots growing, you end up with a much more compact, bush-like plant. Be the master of the lilly pilly right from the very beginning, and make sure it’s behaving itself.”

Natives will also respond well to a little extra nourishment a few times a year. “We recommend looking out for a fertiliser that is suitable for native plants,” says Thomas. “Natives can be a bit sensitive to some styles, so be sure to follow the label and directions. Organic fertilisers are best.”

More to try
Whatever spot you have, whatever aspect or microclimate – Thomas says there is a native plant to suit. From edible natives, to ground covers, Christmas bush and vibrant, burnt-orange paper daisies; there are plenty to test out at home. “If you just have a small back yard or a courtyard, you might think you shouldn’t grow a gum tree,” adds Thomas. “Dwarf flowering gums only grow a couple of metres and are smothered in these bright bee- and bird-attracting flowers over summer, and can be grown in a pot, too.”

The next edition of The Inside Dig will take place on April 29. Tickets are $85–$95.