Joy of autumn

Sunday, 09 March 2014

Salvia leucantha in the garden of Alida Gray in Sydney

I have long believed that the very best time for Sydney gardens is early autumn: in other words, right now! The weather is generally mild, with most of the ferocity of summer behind us. There is a slight crisp note to the early morning air and much of the humidity has gone. And this point in the year sees the convergence in flowering of many of the plants that flourish so well in our climate to create stunning garden pictures.

Shrubby Begonia arborescens

Cane and shrub Begonia (ht 1-2 m) have been blooming for months but are at their absolute peak right now, with their soft cascading trusses waxy of pink, white, orange or red flowers. Many have decorative leaves spotted or splashed with silver or white, or with dramatic dark undersides. They can grow in sun or shade but are most useful for shaded positions such as beneath Camellia sasanqua shrubs (ht 1-4 m) - which are just coming into flower now, with the profusion of scented round blooms in colours of pinks, white, cerise and burgundy. The petals fall to the ground making a pretty carpet beneath the shrubs.

Also in shaded spots, and consorting well with the Camellia and the Begonia shrubs, the many and varied species and cultivars of Plectranthus are coming into flower now, with massed dainty spires. The tallest sort seen generally in our Sydney gardens is Plectranthus ecklonii (ht 1.5-2 m), with pink, white or purple flowers, which make a soft cloud of colour over a long period. Lower-growing forms include the Cape Angel hybrids (ht 60-80 cm) in the same hues, mauve-blue Plectranthus saccatus (ht 1 m), which has already been in bloom for most of the summer, and groundcover Plectranthus ambiguus (ht 50 cm) with deep purple spires.

Another gem in the early autumn garden is the Japanese windflower (Anemone x hybrida, ht 1 m), one of the few classic English-y herbaceous plants that I still grow in my garden. They send up tall stems topped with the most exquisite simple flowers in colours of white, various pinks and burgundy. They like semi-shaded spots and I grow them amongst Hydrangea macrophylla (some of which still have a few antique-coloured blooms left) and with Plectranthus ecklonii. They can cope with quite a bit of sun if necessary but they do need adequate moisture to thrive. I grow them in spots in my garden that seem naturally to be rather moist. Note that once they are established in your garden, it is well nigh impossible to get rid of them but I would never want to be without them in any case!

In sunny spots, Salvia seem to come into their own in autumn. There are specific autumn-flowering types, such as Salvia 'Meigan's Magic' (ht 1.4 m), Salvia leucantha (ht 90 cm to 1.3 m), Salvia mexicana (ht 1.3-2 m) and Salvia madrensis (ht 1.5-2 m), but those that have been blooming in summer seem to get a new lease of life in early autumn - for example, Salvia 'Joan' (ht 1-2 m), Salvia greggii (ht 80 cm) and Salvia microphylla (ht 80 cm - 1 m) cultivars, Salvia 'Van Houttei' (ht 1 m) and Salvia 'Phyllis' Fancy' (ht 1.5-2 m). They are joined by autumn-blooming Salvia lookalike Lepechinia salviae (ht 1.5 m) with its attractive burgundy spires. Canna (ht 1-2 m) and Dahlia plants (ht 50 cm to 1 m) flower on indefatigably throughout autumn and are excellent companion plants for Salvia.

Acanthaceae plants are well represented amongst autumn flowers - as well as those continuing on from summer, such as Justicia carnea (ht 1.5 m), Justicea brandegeeana (ht 20 cm to 1.2 m), Brillantaisia subulugurica (ht 3 m), Ruellia elegans (ht 1 m) and Pachystachys lutea (ht 1-2 m), new ones start to bloom once the weather cools down a bit. Brilliant red Odonotonema tubaeforme (ht 2 m)is creating a colourful backdrop to one of my more shaded borders, with its glossy spires. Justicia brasiliana (ht 1 m) has dainty pink fans of bloom along its slender arching stems, whilst my 'mystery' Pseuderanthemum shrub (ht 2 m) from China has crisp white, scallop-shaped flowers (later found to be Rhinacanthus beesianus. I've found that Acanthaceae plants look good growing together - so I have Justicia brasiliana nearby a similarly coloured Justicia carnea, and my Pseuderanthemum nearby Brillantaisia.

Autumn, more than any other season, induces in me a sort of hysterical gardening euphoria, that makes me want to spend hours in the garden. This is the ideal time to start thinking about moving around plants, putting new plants into gaps created by decluttering, and visiting nurseries, gardens and plant fairs for inspiration (and more plants).