silver saltbush on the left contrasts with Warrigal greens

Choosing the right groundcovers for micro-forests

When you think of a forest, you probably think of trees. Whilst trees are essential to a forest, other plants layers are important too. These layers include shrubs, climbers and groundcovers.

If you look closely at a forest, you will notice a myriad of plants jumbled together. These plants are randomly spaced and compete for light, nutrients and water. And plants occur at a range of different heights, some have just germinated, some have died and some are in their prime.

Micro-forests popping up in Canberra

The Climate Factory works with community leaders to build climate cooling micro or tiny forests. Since 2020 we have been trialling a range of native groundcovers in our forests. And many of these can be used in home gardens.

Groundcovers a living mulch in the micro-forests

At the forest bottom are the groundcovers. They have a special role to play. They cool the ground and provide habitat for beetles, skinks and lizards. Eventually the forest will become too shady for some of them and leaf litter may take their place.

Below are three groundcovers we trialled at the Downer and Watson micro-forests.

Hardy Hardenbergia

Hardenbergia violacea (also known as False sarsparilla) is an understorey plant of native forests and woodlands. It grows as a groundcover or twines through shrubs. We like to plant Hardenbergia in the same hole as a wattle to mimic nature.

This hardy plant is in the pea family and bears purple flowers. You will often see it flowering at the same time as wattle. This signals spring is on its way.

Purple flowering Hardenbergia growing amongst wattle.

False sarsparilla has leathery dark green leaves and once established is drought and frost hardy.

ACT for Bees says, its flowers provide food for butterflies, European Honey bees and native Leaf-cutter bees.

This groundcover can be grown from pre-treated seed. To pre-treat seeds, soak overnight in hot water. This should break the seed dormancy. Then plant the seeds in a mix of 50:50 coarse river sand to native potting mix. Depending on conditions, seed should germinate within 10 days to three weeks.

It does best in full sun or part shade.

Marvellous Myoporum for micro-forest edges

This is a fast growing groundcover that comes in two types – a fine leaf or broader leaf form. Myoporum parvifolium is also known as Creeping boobialla. The plant bears small white or pink flowers and creates a living mulch over the ground. It prefers full sun to part shade and struggles in full shade.

At the Watson Micro-forest we planted it at the forest edges and in pollinator patches. This is so it gets enough sun to grow happily.

Myoporum parvifolium is easy to grow from cuttings. It prefers full sun to part shade.

Creeping boobialla can be grown readily from cuttings.

Tasty Tetragonia

This sprawling groundcover, Tetragonia tetragonoides is also known as Warrigal greens. It is has edible leaves. Captain Cook is rumoured to have used its leaves to stop his crew getting scurvy. 

silver saltbush on the left contrasts with Warrigal greens
Warrigal greens on the right combined with the silvery Saltbush (Rhagodia spinescens) in the Edible Micro-forest, Lonsdale St, Braddon. Prefers full sun to part shade.

It’s leaves are high in oxalic acid and should be blanched prior to eating. In Canberra, its best grown in a sheltered position with adequate water. Warrigal Greens were planted as a groundcover in the Edible Micro-forest display in Braddon.

Warrigal greens can be grown from seed or by cuttings.

In Canberra and other cool climate areas it’s best treated as an annual. Ideally it will set enough seed in the micro-forests so it self propagates.

Grow groundcovers at home.

At home we are trialling some hardy shade tolerant groundcovers for future inland micro-forests. These include: Ajuga australis, Hydrocytle laxiflora (gloriously known as Stinking pennywort) and Acaena novae-zelandiae (Bidgee widgee).

At the Holt Micro-forest we will plant Stinking pennwort and Bidgee widgee. We will also plant Dichondra repens (Kidney weed) which likes shade and moist soils and Viola hederaceae (Native violet) at the dry creek bed edges.

One of the exciting things about making micro-forests is learning about new plant communities. At the Moruya micro-forest we are replicating the endangered Dry Rainforest. These are blessed with a ferny understorey. One of the ferns we will plant at Moruya is the tough, Prickly Rasp Fern, Doodia aspera, along with Kidney Weed and native violets.

If you’d like to start a community micro-forest or build a micro-forest at home we’ve created videos on these topics.

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