Border revamp

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Pruned-back plants make for a bare look in my garden in spring

As I have mentioned previously in a blog, I do not have a spring garden. Because spring seems to pass so quickly in Sydney, I deliberately choose to grow plants that flower from November through to May and my garden is at its best in March rather than September. Many plants are shrubby perennials that need to be cut back at this time of year, or herbaceous perennials that are dormant now, so it always looks pretty bare. However, this year, after my return from being away for a few weeks, I seemed to see my front garden (comprising two large main borders) with new eyes. Many of the plants were looking so old and woody that I doubted the annual pruning would really revive them as it once did. Some plants were taking up a huge amount of space, such as Brillantaisia subulugurica, having gradually expanded their girth over the years, so they were now taking up more than their fair share of the garden border, smothering smaller nearby plants. Others had grown much taller over time than I had expected, so their positions near the front of the borders were all wrong. Clump-forming plants such as Dahlia and perennial Aster were horribly congested.

Salvia Joan had grown into a huge clump in recent years

I found this all rather dispiriting. But something had to be done. I decided to dig up most of the plants - composting some, relocating others after splitting them up. Some were so woody (or not divisible) that they couldn't be salvaged, so cuttings were taken. In some cases, new plants had to be bought (a bonus of the whole ordeal!). I also realised it had been a few years since I had added much organic matter to the borders, so whilst the plants were out of the soil, I took the opportunity to remedy this by digging in lots of compost and aged cow manure. It was also a very good opportunity to properly weed the borders, which I guiltily realised I hadn't done very thoroughly for a few years.

New Salvia hybrid Angel Wings

I wanted the borders to be in bloom as long as possible over the warmer months so I tried to evaluate each of the existing plants as to whether they were really worth it. Such a difficult task, especially where there is a sentimental attachment to certain plants. But I had to be ruthless! Since the borders were created, 20 years ago, my ideas and interests have changed enormously and I have learned about plants I would never dreamed of growing in 1994. I have realised the incredible length of flowering of shrubby and cane Begonia, for example. Many new forms of compact Salvia have been introduced in recent years. I used quite tall ones in my original borders, but they took up so much space that I have now relegated these to wilder areas of the garden where they can have their head without swamping other plants. I have kept those that are just above the one-metre mark, such as bright pink 'Joan' and brilliant blue Salvia guaranitica Large Form, though drastically reduced in width. I am now using the lower-growing microphylla cultivars more - such as the gorgeous soft pink 'Angel Wings' and the bright purple hybrid 'Christine Yeo'.

Dahlia hybrids are border stalwarts

Instead of always craving rare specimens, I have learned the value of common plants grown well: such as Pentas, which flower for almost 10 months of the year, and Justicia carnea which has pretty pink or white feathery plumes throughout the warm months. Dahlia, which I once spurned, have become firm favourites and feature prominently in the borders. After trying many different species Geranium over the years, I have concluded that beautiful blue 'Rozanne' is the pick for Sydney gardens.

Perennial Cleome Senorita Rosalita growing in the garden of Kathryn Hipkin in Brisbane

In place of the annual Cleome that I used to allow to self-seed from year to year at the back of the borders (and which took up a large amount of space and became very gangly as they aged) I am now using the more compact shrubby perennial version of this plant, which flowers literally all year round. I also now have a better appreciation of the usefulness of foliage plants, and in these borders have used silver, cerise and aubergine-coloured leaves as a foil to the blues, pinks, crimson, mauve and purples of the flowers.

I have tried to space the plants better, instead of crowding them together to try to fit more different things in. I am also trying to repeat plants through the borders, to give them more cohesion. It all looks hideously sparse right now, but I hope that once spring kicks in, all my hard work with the spade will pay off. Whilst others enjoy their spring flowers, I'll look forward to seeing the new growth of my plants. The wonderful, wonderful rain that we have received this weekend in Sydney has come just at the right time to settle my plantings in and kickstart their growth.

Reader Comments

  • By Peta 2758 Monday, 18 August 2014

    I"ve just read Sir Roy Strong"s theory about revitalizing a garden."People seem to be paralysed as they get into their late 50s and 60s. To them, making a garden is, you plant it, and that"s it, and they sort of fiddle around on the edges..the idea of being radical is quite rare. It gives you energy....I"ve always liked change. I find people extraordinary that they can"t change anything." Yours truly is faced with removing a mass of rogue Rugosa roses. Well done with your efforts Deirdre.Thanks, Peta, you have made me feel as if I am not mad to be doing this! The rain has come at the right time, too! Deirdre

  • By Neville 2541 Monday, 18 August 2014

    Dear Deidre, lovely as always to read your blog. I too put in a border recently. We started in June digging up the grass on our footpath making a 40cm wide border along our front and side fences. Lots of things have struggled as I"ve only watered it once a week or so. It"s been a philosophy of shape up or compost. The old fashioned argyanthemums, salvias and wallflowers look very happy. So thrilled to have rain which should really tickle them up. Kind regards, Mim Thanks, Mim. I agree the plants have to be tough these days in order to keep their spots in my garden. The rain is wonderful. Deirdre

  • By jantina 2075 Monday, 18 August 2014

    I feel exhausted reading your blog. I bet you slept exceedingly well and felt mightily satisfied each evening your head met the pillow. I do a similar thing each winter and my friends think I am bonkers. But ... I love seeing the new flourishes in my garden. Congratulations Deidre. Tina Thanks, Tina. It is certainly very rewarding to see a newly planted area come together as spring progresses. There is a sense of satisfaction after days" work like this! Glad others also do the same thing. Deirdre

  • By Jan 2582 Monday, 18 August 2014

    Thanks for the motivation Deirdre. I"ve been looking at my frost stricken garden, telling myself to make some tough decisions while things are looking grim. It"s so much harder to take things out when they recover in spring. It"s gutsy to decide there could have been another way and just pull things out! I gather you have had some very cold weather there this month. Hope things warm up for us all soon. Good luck with your decision-making in the garden. Deirdre

  • By Chris 4034 Monday, 18 August 2014

    I feel your aching bones, Deirdre, and there is nothing that feels as good as seeing a new plant grow and flower. My neighbours have to put up with me, searching my garden early each morning, in my dressing gown. My garden is aging along with me, though it has just been revived with a row of salvia plants. We look forward to seeing your spring garden. I too often wander the garden in my pyjamas in the morning. Currently we are being deluged with rain so have to just look out the windows at my bare borders. Deirdre

  • By Pam 2159 Monday, 18 August 2014

    All the plants you mention are terrific for long flowering. I have added quite a few seedling dahlias amongst the shrubbery. The online seed company, Royston Petrie Seeds (Mudgee, but previously Glenorie) have huge numbers of bulk flower and vege seeds (from 5g). I have bought seeds of perennials like pom pom dahlias and centranthus.

  • By Lynne 2479 Monday, 18 August 2014

    How satisfying that must have been Deirdre. When I renew parts of our garden, I begin to look at other parts with fresh eyes too. It is like creating a new artwork. Thanks, Lynne. It is good to have taken the plunge now. Deirdre

  • By Helen 2154 Monday, 18 August 2014

    So good to know I am not alone in getting in there and getting rid of stuff that has "had it"s day". Don"t you find that you can spend the whole day in the garden and feel invigorated. And yet, a couple of hours dusting can leave you feeling exhausted? I love it. Helen I agree totally - gardening wins over housework any day! Deirdre

  • By beverley 2113 Saturday, 23 August 2014

    You are so right what you are doing. I recently visited a garden I last saw about 20 years ago are everything was the same. The same plants in the same places and I found I was disappointed. Im terrible for changing things but it is good for me. I enjoy lying awake thinking what I will put where.Happy planting everyone. Beverley Thanks, Beverley. I was really impressed with all the changes you have made to your garden this winter. I can"t wait to see those roses in bloom later in the year! Deirdre

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