Botanic Garden lessons

Sunday, 08 March 2015

Hibiscus schizopetalus, Royal Botanic Garden, Sydney

I have always loved visiting Sydney's Royal Botanic Garden since childhood, but more especially since the time I had an epiphany whilst walking along its paths about 15 or so years ago on a hot February day. Surrounded by lush semitropical plants in full and luxuriant bloom, it suddenly occurred to me that I should be taking note of what was right in front of me, instead of what was illustrated in my genteel English gardening books. My attempts to reproduce a herbaceous English-style border in my humidity-ridden Sydney garden were half-baked at best, and in the steamy weather of February, many of my delicate European perennials dropped dead overnight - being completely out of their comfort zone and clearly not cut out for life in Sydney. In retrospect, it was hardly an earth-shattering realisation - but it seemed it at the time, when many Sydney gardeners were caught up in the cottage garden craze.

Since that fateful day, I have visited the Royal Botanic Garden in Sydney many times - in fact, whenever I go into the city I try to have at least a short walk in there. Since I became open to what it has to tell me, I have learned many valuable gardening lessons. A stroll in there last week reminded me of a number of these.

Succulent display, Royal Botanic Garden, Sydney

Obviously, the most important message that the Garden gives is to plant according to the climate in which you find yourself. Plants from the top of tall, snow-capped mountains in Europe are not going to thrive in Sydney gardens as well as those from semitropical regions such as South and Central America, Mexico, and parts of Africa and Asia that have climates quite similar to ours. Many of the plants in the Botanic Garden come from these regions and flourish mightily. In English gardens, they can only be grown outdoors in summer and have to be put in glasshouses during winter!

Dichorisandra thyrsiflora in the Begonia Gardens, Royal Botanic Garden, Sydney

The Garden showcases a number of different plant groups, revealing how very suited they are for our own home gardens. The Begonia Gardens, for example, are a triumph, especially right at the moment when the flowers seem to be at their very peak - each plant dripping with blooms. These areas are planted in a naturalistic way like an actual large garden, with a canopy of tall plants such as Brugmansia sheltering the lower planting; paths meandering in and out of the borders; and a layered mix of Begonia plants of all types and heights - including cane-stemmed, shrub-like and rhizomatous - with other shade-loving plants of different foliage textures, such as ferns, Dichorisandra (pictured above with Begonia), Clivia and Philodendron, to form a complete landscape. Begonia are perfect for our climate, flower over a lengthy period (from November to June or longer in mild suburbs), have attractive foliage, suffer no pests and diseases, and are shade-loving. What more could we ask of a plant!

Rhinacanthus beesianus

I gained my love of the Acanthaceae family of plants from seeing so many examples of them in the Sydney Botanic Garden. These plants - among them Justicia, Ruellia, Eranthemum, Megaskepasma, Odontonema and Strobilanthes species - have been significant in the Garden since the 19th century; a number of keen gardeners in colonial times imported them soon after their discovery in the wild by plant hunters and they were popular garden plants at that time. These plants prosper extremely well in Sydney with very little care, and many flower outside of spring, giving welcome colour in the other seasons. Autumn probably sees the most number of specimens in bloom. Many of these plants will grow and flower well in shaded areas. I enjoyed seeing the scalloped-edged pristine white flowers of the tall shrub Rhinacanthus beesianus (pictured above) last week in the Garden - a Chinese plant previously identified in the garden only as a Pseuderanthemum species.

Bromeliad planting, with Aechmea blanchetiana in foreground, at the Royal Botanic Garden, Sydney

Planted under an enormous tree in the Garden is a wide variety of bromeliads, thriving in quite dry shade. The colours and patterns of the foliage of these tough plants form a wonderful tapestry, and over the years I have copied this solution to dry shaded spots in my own garden. Bromeliads were anathema to me in my English-garden years, but I now embrace them as perfect plants for the Sydney climate!

Amaryllis belladonna with Strobilanthes dyeriana at the Royal Botanic Garden, Sydney

Whereas I once tried (futilely) to grow rare, delicate bulbs from the Himalayas and Europe in my garden, the Botanic Garden taught me that I would have much more success with warm-climate bulbs, especially those from South Africa and South America. My garden is now replete with bulbs such as Amaryllis belladonna (pictured left in the Royal Botanic Garden, Sydney, with Acanthaceae plant Strobilanthes dyeriana), Babiana , Freesia, Watsonia, Hippeastrum and Scadoxus - many with flamboyant inflorescences that mingle well with the surrounding semitropical plantings.

Massed Calathea and Ctenanthe under a tree, Royal Botanic Garden, Sydney

Another lesson I have learned from the Botanic Garden is the value of massing plants. Of course, in the Garden there is plenty of space for having a large planting of the same specimen whereas in our home gardens we are often trying to squeeze in as many different plants as we can. However, seeing a tree underplanted with just a few different shade-tolerant plants such as Ctenanthe or Calathea,as shown above, one realises how coherent and effective it can look. I do now try to plant at least more than one of each type of plant and make a group!

The Botanic Garden has a milder microclimate than many Sydney suburbs because of its proximity to the harbour, and contains a number of plants that are too cold-sensitive for my cooler garden half an hour away. However, I have been encouraged to push the limits in using semitropical plants in my garden by being inspired by what is grown in the Garden. During every visit, I see something new. Last week it was the delightful pendulous blooms of Hibiscus schizopetalus (pictured at the start of the blog), like exotic lanterns, that caught my eye and I started to ponder on where I might be able to grow one at home ...

Reader Comments

  • By Susan 2430 Monday, 09 March 2015

    Thanks for your blog, I have never commented before. We are establishing a new garden on a hectare in the mid north coast. Have only ever gardened in Canberra before and managed to make a good (won some prizes) garden there. But I"m right out of my comfort zone here and lots of old favourites are not working! So you are helping me to learn a whole new vocabulary of plants. Every blog has things that look gorgeous but I have never heard of! Loving the challenge. That sounds a big change of climate for you, Susan. Good luck with your new garden. I am sure it will be as wonderful as your previous one! Deirdre

  • By Gillian 2073 Monday, 09 March 2015

    A great blog as usual! I too had an epiphany moment some years ago when wandering through the Botanic gardens. I have to admit that those gardens are my favourite part of Sydney & constantly draw me back. Having grown up and worked in the horticulture industry in the northern hemisphere it has been a big learning curve to establish a garden in the sub tropics! My garden has been gradually changing & I hope improving ever since! It is always a challenge to garden in a new climate! Even coming to Sydney from the Blue Mountains was a challenge for me, so coming from another hemisphere is huge. You have done extremely well!! Deirdre

  • By Peter 2008 Monday, 09 March 2015

    Oh Deirdre, EVERYTHING you say in this feature of course I agree with WHOLEHEARTEDLY and also wish to thank you for your thoughtful inclusion of the RBG Growing Friends Open Day Sale on Wednesday this week. Many of the plants on tables between 2.30 and 4.30pm that day, have not been offered before and are selections I"ve made for the Friends to grow from experience listening to what the warm temperate coastal frost free garden has to tell us ...... just as you say ! Hope to see you there .. :) It is great that you have helped make people aware of all the wonderful possibilities for us here in Sydney. Keep up the good work. Deirdre

  • By Carole 2230 Monday, 09 March 2015

    Deidre I too had the epiphany after about 5 years living in Sydney with a previous 30 years of cool temperate gardening. I have had an pink amaryllis for years but in the same place this year up popped a cream head of blooms for the first time, beautiful delicate perfume and 13 flowers on the one stem, I was mightily chuffed to say the least. My dichorisandra I have spread all around the back garden and if a falling branch breaks a plant that is merely another cutting and it is looking beautiful. Your cream amaryllis sounds gorgeous! I agree about the blue ginger - every year when I prune it, I pot up those pieces to make new plants. Such a beautiful colour in the shaded garden. Deirdre

  • By margaret 2122 Tuesday, 10 March 2015

    Of course, I agree with all you have said! Absolutely love visiting the gardens, there is always so much to see, plants to obtain and ideas to incorporate in your own garden. Thank you for supporting the RBG, it is a much treasured and valued part of Sydney. Thanks, Margaret. I thought the Begonia Gardens were looking spectacular last week. Deirdre

  • By Chris 4034 Wednesday, 11 March 2015

    I must visit the botanic gardens here in Queensland and get some ideas of combining shade loving plants. The odontonema appears to be back in vogue and my plant is loving my shady tree. Have you ever come across a garlic vine in Sydney, it is a lovely climber and does in fact have a scent of garlic, which can be overlooked for its beautiful flowers. Thanks for the great gardening ideas that you share with us. Thanks, Chris. I have not ever seen the garlic vine you mention - will look out for it. Deirdre

  • By Bren 2540 Tuesday, 17 March 2015

    Yes, the Botanic gardens are my favorite place in Sydney, and I am always looking for inspiration there (and it so easy to find). Also the shop there is a great place to pick up unusual things; in fact just last week I picked up the Hibiscus schizopetalum and the blue "ginger" illustrated in this blog. Great blog, Deidre

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