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).

On 15 and 16 March 2014, Helen Curran's lush tropical-style garden, Tropical Breeze, at 24 Johnson Avenue, Seven Hills NSW (parking in Lowry Road) will be open. The garden showcases a wide array of beautiful warm-climate plants, many of them very unusual. There will be plants for sale. Also make a note in your diary about the 2014 Collectors' Plant Fair, to be held on 12 and 13 April 2014 at the Hawkesbury Race Club, Racecourse Road, Clarendon NSW, with over 50 specialist growers and some inspiring speakers. Visit the website for more information.

Reader Comments

  • By margaret 2122 Monday, 10 March 2014

    Agree, I just love this time of year, when plants perk up after the summer heat. Of course, Begonias are stars, and at the moment, the Plectranthus ecklonii is a delight, with a cloud of blue covering a fence, along with a smattering of pink, whilst underneath these, purple Heliotrope and Strobilanthes dyerianus, completes a pretty picture. The Acanthaceae family are also contributing to the colour parade - altogether, a very pleasing time in the garden.Your garden must be gorgeous at the moment, Margaret, especially with all your begonias! Deirdre

  • By Densey 2446 Monday, 10 March 2014

    I agree wholeheartedly about Autumn being the best time. In fact this year I"m having my Open Garden on 12 April. Watching carefully to make sure everything is at its best then but I don"t really have to worry - Nature will take care of that. I just have to deal with the increasing number of weeds (good sign of heathy soil) and do my best to help my poor lawns make up for months of drought. And keep the wallabies, hares, rabbits etc. off my country garden! Densey Clyne Hope all goes well with your open garden - let us know the details. Deirdre

  • By Jan 2582 Monday, 10 March 2014

    I"ve been watching the garden come back to colour after recent rains and caught myself also wondering if autumn could possibly be even better than spring. I think so right now, but don"t quote me on that in spring! I do think autumn is better than spring, at least in my garden. Spring blooms seem to be over so quickly whereas the autumn display goes on and on. Deirdre

  • By Peta 2758 Monday, 10 March 2014

    Love Autumn, it"s almost as if a magic switch goes on. The air is crisper, the light softer, you can actually loll in the sun like a cat. I have this pent up urge to plant up the treasures I"ve been mollycoddling through the heat. Also have a new terraced garden bed empty and ready - my idea of Heaven. Piggy bank is filling with the Collectors" Plant Fair in mind. I have a "want" list but it"s amazing what there is to find if you look carefully. I agree with the magic switch idea. It is such a different time of year and so enjoyable. Deirdre

  • By Helen 2154 Monday, 10 March 2014

    My Autumn garden is an absolute joy. The plants we have been nurturing through the year ready for this, our special time, bloom on and on. The bees are loving it and making very sure I don"t cut anything back! Spring, somehow manages to happen regardless and doesn"t last for long, but Summer and Autumn make everything we do in our gardens worthwhile. Helen I agree wholeheartedly with you, Helen!

  • By PAM 4122 Monday, 10 March 2014

    Deidre, I do like and look forward to your blog but it is mostly for Sydney folk. I live in Brisbane. Do you know of anyone like yourself with a blog about plants in Brisbane. Pam You could try googling Julies Garden Grapevine which is from Queensland. There are also Brisbane bloggers on the Garden Drum website. I only have experience of gardening in Sydney myself. Deirdre

  • By Chris 4034 Monday, 10 March 2014

    It is always a pleasure to read your blog. I was reminded of the Odonotonema which was growing in this garden some years ago. Justicia are very hardy here in Brisbane, and the Pseuderanthemum (love flower)attracts butterflies. I love the colours of autumn down south and I love to read the comments of others. Thanks Christa I think we can grow many of the same plants here as in Brisbane. Enjoy your garden. Deirdre

  • By Carole 2230 Monday, 10 March 2014

    I agree with loving autumn, I"ll qualify it by saying in Sydney. I look out and see all the different flowers now and know that there will be more varieties too soon. Your picture of justicia brasiliana reminded my of my joy when I unexpectedly had the chance to buy one last year and my misery when I discovered the plant had been decimated by rats within a week of purchase before I had a chance to plant it. Yes, we are and have been working on our rat plague as are our next door neighbours. I have had similar problems with rats eating all my plants. We did eventually get rid of them but it was very disheartening at the time. I hope your plant survived - I love that Justicia. Deirdre

  • By Lynne 2479 Monday, 10 March 2014

    Yes, even in far northern NSW there is a slight crispness to the early mornings. It soon disappears to warmth again though. I have noticed a distinct increase in leaf drop this year, especially eucalypts and I put it down to much drier summer conditions. We are used to very wet summers so I think the trees are shedding to adapt to this drier summer. This is the time I get excited about the budding camellias. If they all flower, we re in for a beautiful show this year. Lynne Yes very exciting to see the camellia buds and the sasanquas are already coming into bloom here. Deirdre

  • By Chris 3340 Tuesday, 11 March 2014

    I feel a bit like Pam above, I love to read your blogs, but feel it hardly ever applies to my garden. Can you recommend anyone from Vic? I find early autumn a fairly depressing time of the year when my garden shows the ravages of the hot dry conditions. On the plus side I went to the Ballarat Begonia Festival yesterday and it was absolutely magnificent and really lifted my spirits. Now I"m looking forward to the Melbourne Flower Show. A bit of pruning and feeding and my garden will bounce back. Sorry, Chris - unfortunately, I don"t have the knowledge about other climates. You will find Victorian bloggers on Garden Drum. When I first began gardening I found very little information on Sydney gardening in books - it was all about cool-climate gardening - so the reason for starting the blog was to share what I had learned about gardening in Sydney! Deirdre

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