Do you prefer your boundary fence to be apparent and well defined or would you would rather hide it? If you choose to define it, it should be part of the design and worth more than a second look: A stone, reed or tea-tree fence would probably be worth exposing, whereas most backyard fences are purely functional and better screened from view.
In the Sydney and Hunter regions, as elsewhere in Australia, there are many handsome, hardy indigenous species suitable for screening a boundary fence: trees or shrubs that grow dense to the ground and reach a height of at least two metres. Selected indigenous plants provide the added benefit of being visually compatible, ecologically friendly, non-invasive and often of survival value to Australia's native wildlife.
Acacias (Wattles) provide many species useful for screening. There are about 1200 Acacia species worldwide, of which over 800 are indigenous to Australia. They are usually found in drier areas although a few occur in rainforest.
Wattles are fast growing, they enrich the soil by 'fixing' atmospheric nitrogen through Rhizobium bacteria that live in nodules on their roots, and they attract insectivorous and seed-eating birds. A few species have bipinnate (fern-like) leaves, although most have phyllodes, flattened stalks that function as leaves. Species bearing phyllodes with sharp points provide suitable nesting sites for small birds and some protection from cats and other predators. These are best grown in sheltered corners of the garden or where they may deter intruders, and well clear of footpaths and sitting areas.
As most wattles have a relatively short life span of eight to 15 years, you can allow for this by planting more enduring species to close the gap left when they die.
Acacia buxifolia, Box-leaf Wattle is an upright shrub of about 2.5 metres by about 2 metres across, with small light green phyllodes. Deep yellow scented flower balls appear in spring and early summer. Although it will grow almost anywhere, it usually occurs naturally in dry open woodland, away from coastal areas.
Acacia fimbriata, Fringed Wattle is a graceful small tree with soft narrow phyllodes dense to the ground. It bears masses of scented, bright yellow flower balls in early spring. It occurs in scattered locations around Sydney and the Hunter, and is easily grown in well drained soils with some moisture.
Acacia floribunda, Sally Wattle is an attractive small tree with drooping branches and slender phyllodes. Pale yellow flower spikes appear in spring. It occurs in sheltered areas, often near watercourses, and will grow in all except very dry soils.
Acacia longifolia, Sydney Golden Wattle is a large shrub or small tree with light green phyllodes. Bright yellow scented flower spikes appear during spring. Although its natural habitat is open forest on sandy soils, the Sydney Golden Wattle thrives in almost any soil or situation, given adequate drainage.
Acacia oxycedrus, Spike Wattle reaches about 2.5 metres by 2 metres across. It has dark green sharply pointed phyllodes and attractive cream or yellow flower spikes throughout winter and spring. It will grow almost anywhere, wet or dry, in sun or shade.
Acacia paradoxa, Kangaroo Thorn is a slightly larger, spreading shrub with similar properties, and is widespread throughout Australia although uncommon around Sydney. It bears masses of small yellow flower balls in spring.
Acacia prominens, Gosford Wattle is a very attractive small to medium tree with narrow blue-grey phyllodes, uncommon in Sydney. It bears bright yellow scented flower balls in winter and spring. It is a forest tree that thrives in sun or shade with adequate moisture. Unlike most wattles, it is generally long-lived.
Acacia terminalis, Sunshine Wattle grows to about 3 metres with a 2 metre spread, and is often seen in bushland around Sydney. It has dark green bipinnate leaves, and produces cream to deep yellow globular flower heads during autumn and winter.
Acacia ulicifolia, Prickly Moses reaches about 3 metres in height and width and is common on infertile sandy soils. It has very sharp narrow phyllodes, and cream coloured flower balls in winter and spring. Acacia brownii and Acacia echinula are similar although with bright yellow flowers. All make excellent nesting sites for finches and other small birds.
Babingtonia similis (Baeckea virgata) Twiggy Heath-myrtle is a bushy shrub around 3 metres tall, upright or spreading, with narrow dark green leaves. It bears masses of small white flowers in summer. Twiggy Heath-myrtle occurs in sheltered places between Queensland and Victoria, often close to waterways. It is fast-growing, adaptable to most soils, and prefers a sunny position with moisture, although it tolerates some shade and periods of dryness. It attracts insectivorous birds.
Baeckea is a genus of shrubs resembling tea-trees, of which Baeckea linifolia, Swamp Baeckea, is one of eight species occurring in the Sydney region. It makes an excellent screen plant. A beautiful weeping shrub with long needle-like aromatic leaves, Swamp Baeckea reaches about 3 metres high and 2 metres across and provides a continuous display of small white flowers, with a larger flush during summer. It occurs in damp, often poorly-drained places close to waterways, thrives in sun or part shade and attracts insectivorous birds.
Banksia is a genus well-known for its trees and shrubs with large cylindrical flower spikes that are highly attractive to honey-eaters and other native birds. The majority of Banksias occur in Western Australia and are difficult to cultivate on the east coast, but why bother? The ten species occurring in the Sydney and Hunter regions all make attractive garden plants and three in particular make useful fence-screeners.
Banksia ericifolia, Heath Banksia occurs in heath and woodland on moist, well-drained sandy soils. It is a bushy shrub of around 5 metres or a small tree, depending on soil depth and quality. Very narrow light green leaves contrast with long orange flower spikes during autumn and winter. White-cheeked Honeyeaters nest within the foliage and feed on the abundant nectar produced by the flowers. Heath Banksia tolerates atmospheric pollution, coastal exposure, some shade and most soils with good drainage.
Banksia marginata, Silver Banksia is usually a dense shrub reaching 4 metres although sometimes a small tree of about 7 metres. Choose the shrub form for fence-screening. Both forms have long narrow dark green leaves, silvery beneath, and numerous short greenish-yellow flower spikes between autumn and spring, favoured by the Tawney-crowned Honeyeater and the Yellow-tailed Black Cockatoo. Silver Banksia, though not as quick growing as the Heath Banksia, has similar tolerances and cultural requirements.
Banksia spinulosa, Hairpin Banksia is a shapely, fast-growing shrub with slender toothed leaves, seldom exceeding 2 metres in height. Orange-yellow flower spikes appear between early autumn and spring, providing a feast of nectar for a variety of honeyeaters. The Superb Fairy Wren feeds on insects among the foliage through most of the year. Hairpin Banksia occurs in open forest on sandy soils, and prefers partial shade.
For screening a damp area in full shade or part sun, Callicoma serratifolia, Black Wattle, is well worth considering. (It is unrelated to Acacia decurrens and Acacia mearnsii, also known as Black Wattle).
Callicoma serratifolia Black Wattle is an attractive fast-growing large shrub or small tree from 5 to 8 metres tall, with long willowy stems and serrated elliptical leaves. The early settlers used the stems with clay to make wattle and daub huts, the name 'wattle' deriving from the resemblance of its small, fluffy cream-coloured spring flower balls to those of several Acacia species. It attracts butterflies and seed-eating birds.
Black Wattle is found between north Queensland and the New South Wales south coast, often on poor soils in rainforest and alongside sheltered creeks. It once thrived alongside the creeks entering Sydney’s Blackwattle Bay between Glebe and Pyrmont, although today not a single specimen remains.
Callistemon is a widespread genus of very hardy shrubs commonly known as bottlebrushes. Of the eleven species that occur in the Sydney district, Callistemon citrinus Crimson Bottlebrush, is probably the best for fence screening. It is a stiff upright shrub of about 4 metres in height with a spread of about 2.5 metres. Abundant red flower spikes appear throughout spring and autumn, providing nectar for Eastern Spinebills and other honey-eating birds. Although Crimson Bottlebrush will grow almost anywhere it performs best in full sun and moist soil. Many cultivars have been developed, most lacking the species' natural grace.
If you like conifers, consider Callitris rhomboidea, Port Jackson Cypress. It is a slender fast growing large shrub or small tree reaching about 9 metres, with dark green foliage and a slightly weeping habit. Yellow-tailed Black Cockatoos, Mallee Ringnecks and Crimson Rosellas feed on the fruit, and Finches, Silvereyes and Wattlebirds nest within the foliage. Port Jackson Cypress also makes a good accent or specimen tree, especially in the company of eucalypts. It occurrs on sandstone soils.
Ceratopetalum gummiferum, New South Wales Christmas Bush, widely used as a Christmas decoration, is found in open forest on sandy soils. It is an upright shrub or small tree to about 5 metres, covered in small white flowers during spring, followed by calyces that turn red during summer. It attracts insectivorous birds and is easily grown with some moisture, in sun or partial shade.
Dodonaea viscosa, Sticky Hop-bush, is a dense, hardy, very variable species of about 3 to 5 metres, with insignificant flowers though sometimes colourful fruits. Most forms are easily grown and make good background or screening plants.
Grevilleas are excellent bird attractors, and several species make ideal screening plants. The upright form of Grevillea juniperina, Juniper Grevillea reaches about 2 metres in height and width. It has sharp pointed leaves that give protection to several species of nesting honeyeaters, and bears yellow to red 'spider' flowers in spring. Juniper grevillea is unique among Sydney region Grevilleas, occuring naturally in shale or clay soils, unlike the other twenty-odd species that generally occur in poor soils derived from sandstone.
Grevillea speciosa and its close relative Grevillea oleoides, both known as Red Spider Flower, grow to about 2 metres. They are attractive slender shrubs with a long flowering period from late winter till summer, preferring a sunny position in well drained soil. They attract numerous birds including the White-cheeked Honeyeater.
Hakea is an Australian genus related to Grevillea. Hakea sericea, Silky Hakea is one of about nine species occurring in the Sydney region. It is a dense, fast-growing shrub, about 3 metres in height and 2 metres wide, with sharp pointed leaves that give protection to nesting birds. It bears white or pink almond-scented flowers in late winter and spring, followed by brown woody fruits. It tolerates most soils in sun or partial shade and attracts honeyeaters, insectivorous birds and seed eaters.
Indigofera australis, Austral Indigo is a shapely shrub reaching about 2 metres in height and width. It has bluish-green ferny foliage and produces masses of perfumed mauve-pink pea flowers in late winter and early spring. Austral Indigo tolerates most soils with good drainage, prefers a sheltered position in partial sun or shade and is particularly attractive to butterflies.
Isopogon is an Australian genus of about 35 species, five occurring in the Sydney region. Isopogon anethifolius, Narrow-leaf Drumsticks is an attractive, slender shrub with light green forked leaves, and grows to about 2 metres in height and width. It is often visited by insectivorous birds, and in spring and early summer it produces globular heads of yellow flowers. It tolerates dry conditions and is very hardy in light well-drained soils, in an open sunny position. Like most other members of the Proteaceae family, it is highly sensitive to excess phosphorus in the soil.
Lambertia formosa, Mountain Devil is an outstanding garden plant and the only Lambertia species found in eastern Australia, the other nine being confined to Western Australia. It is an upright shrub with narrow pointed leaves, and reaches about 2 metres by 1.5 metres in width. Glowing orange-red flowers occur throughout the year, providing a continuous supply of nectar for honeyeaters. Mountain Devil prefers sun or partial shade and is tolerant of most soils with good drainage.
Leptospermum rotundifolium, Round-leaf Tea-tree is among the most attractive of Sydney’s seventeen Leptospermum species. It is a fast growing shrub of about 2 metres by 3 metres across, with small rounded leaves. Flowers in spring and early summer are white or pink, selected forms having larger deep pink flowers. Round-leaf Tea-tree attracts insectivorous birds and prefers light well drained soils in sun or part shade.
Melaleuca hypericifolia, Hillock bush is a large shrub with oval leaves and weeping branches, reaching about 4 metres by 3 metres across. Its rusty red 'bottlebrush' flowers appear throughout the year especially during spring, and attract numerous honeyeaters. Hillock bush makes a good windbreak and is tolerant of most soils, wet or dry conditions and poor drainage, in sun or heavy shade.
Melaleuca nodosa is a dense shrub with narrow, pointed dark green leaves and drooping branchlets, that reaches 2 to 3 metres in height and width. Globular heads of pale yellow scented flowers occur in spring and early summer. Melaleuca nodosa tolerates dry to very wet conditions in almost any soil, in sun or partial shade.
Melaleuca squamea is an upright shrub reaching about 2 to 3 metres tall and 1.5 metres across. It has corky bark, white branches and small pointed leaves, and it produces mauve-pink pompom flowers in late winter and spring, providing nectar for honeyeaters. It prefers sun or part shade, tolerates almost any soil with moisture and is often found in very wet conditions.
Melaleuca squarrosa, Scented Paperbark is a fast-growing shrub of about 3 metres in height with a similar spread. Fragrant creamy yellow flower spikes are produced each spring, providing a source of nectar for honeyeaters. Scented Paperbark also makes an excellent windbreak, preferring sun or part shade, tolerates almost any soil with moisture and is often found in very wet conditions.
Persoonia pinifolia, Pine-leaf Geebung is one of the most attractive of Sydney’s 15 Geebung species. It is an erect bushy shrub that reaches about 3 metres in height. In summer and autumn it produces long racemes (clusters) of yellow flowers followed by green fleshy fruits, food for Silvereyes and other native birds that often build their nests amidst the dense, dark green pine-like foliage. It is a protected plant throughout New South Wales, and occurs in dry sandstone and loamy gravel soils. It thrives in most well-drained soils in an open sunny situation.
Pittosporum revolutum, Yellow Pittosporum varies from a bushy shrub of about 3 metres to a small tree. It has large elliptical leaves and carries fragrant yellow flowers in spring, followed by large orange fruits that open to expose bright red seeds, a source of food for many species of native birds. Yellow pittosporum is found in rainforest and sheltered forest between south-east Queensland and Victoria. It prefers moist well-composted soils in some shade and grows well beneath the canopy of trees.
Prostanthera is an Australian genus, mainly of aromatic shrubs with a short life span of about 6 years, longer if they are grafted. Several of the Sydney region’s twenty species are suitable as fence-screening plants.
Prostanthera lasianthos, Victorian Christmas Bush is found in sheltered forest and cool gullies in all the eastern states. It has narrow dark green leaves and varies from a bushy shrub of 2 metres to a small tree, and it produces masses of showy mauve or white flowers in summer. It is fast-growing, tolerates sun or shade, and thrives beneath the canopy of trees, provided it has good soil with perfect drainage.
Pultenaea, Bush Pea is a large Australian genus of shrubs with small leaves and red or yellow pea-flowers. Among Sydney’s thirty-odd species, Pultenaea flexilis is one of the best for screening. It is an upright shrub reaching about 3 metres by 2 metres across, often found in sheltered gullies. In late winter and spring it produces a mass of yellow flowers, each with a small red centre. It tolerates most soils with good drainage and prefers semi-shade to full shade.
Westringia fruticosa, Coast Rosemary is a very hardy shrub, often occurring in exposed positions close to the sea, where it makes a dense screen up to 2 metres high and about 3 to 4 metres across. It has small grey-green leaves and bears small white flowers for most of the year. It tolerates almost any soil in sun or semi-shade.