Hurrah for autumn

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Vriesea platynema and Tradescantia Zebrina in the garden of Alida Gray in Sydney

Finally, last week, I felt we had a glimpse of autumn in Sydney. I gather further hot weather is on the way this week, but we had a couple of gloriously cooler days of low humidity, which gave me hope that soon we will have a change of season. I have long believed that autumn can be one of the highlights of the gardening year in Sydney.

Plectranthus saccatus, Bergenia cordifolia and potted succulent in the garden of Alida Gray in Sydney

A visit to a friend's garden on Sydney's northern beaches last week confirmed how much colour and fullness can abound in an autumn garden. In recent years, Alida Gray has streamlined this garden to reduce maintenance: removing many of the smaller, fiddly plants that need a lot of cosseting and protection from being swamped by neighbouring specimens, thus giving individual plants more room (so that once where there were five plants there may now be just one); reducing the number of potted plants that once adorned paved areas in the garden; and introducing plants that have an overall lower 'fuss factor' than others. Repetition of key plants gives a sense of strong cohesion. The resulting garden has a fabulous visual impact, proving again that less is indeed more.

Front garden of Alida Gray in Sydney

The garden is at its peak in early autumn, when the lush growth and the flowers of summer meet the stars of autumn. Many Salvia bloom through summer, but they seem to look their very best once autumn comes, when they are joined by the glorious Plectranthus, which are sometimes mistaken for Salvia: they belong to the same broad Lamiaceae family of plants. In Alida's front garden, robust specimens of Salvia 'Joan' and Salvia 'Phyllis' Fancy' grow side by side with a statuesque white version of Plectranthus ecklonii, one of the tallest of the Plectranthus tribe. This flowering trio is complimented by a flourishing cerise-leaved Iresine herbstii 'Brilliantissima', a foliage plant that looks good pretty much all year round in Sydney. The strappy leaves of giant Liriope and a flowering burgundy-leaved Pennisetum setaceum 'Rubrum' provide textural contrast, and some tall white Japanese windflowers lend their elegance to the scene.

Plectranthus ecklonii with Ceratostigma willmottianum in the garden of Alida Gray in Sydney

A purple version of Plectranthus ecklonii is as equally floriferous as the white one and grows near the house in a shadier spot: these plants will do well in sun or shade. It is fronted by a row of tough Ceratostigma willmottianum with intense blue flowers at this time of year, and leaves that take on autumnal tints in the cooler months. The lovely silvery, strappy leaves of an Astelia and a variegated holly provide contrast, and a large urn anchors the grouping.

Hot-coloured border in the garden of Alida Gray in Sydney

In the back garden, a border of hot colours has bright orange Dahlia and Canna bloom on from summer, and are joined by the brilliant spires of the so-called 'red justicia' (Odontonema tubaeforme), and excellent shrubby plant for autumn in Sydney. A lime-flowered shrimp plant (Justicia brandegeeana), which more or less flowers all year but is particularly brilliant at this time and a yellow and orange Abutilon megapotamicum add their colour, along with the foliage of both the crimson and the yellow variegated-leaved forms of Iresine herbstii, gold-leaved Pelargonium and deep purple Tradescantia pallida 'Purpurea'. A delightful red-roofed birdhouse provides a focal point to the border.

Mixed bromeliads in the garden of Alida Gray in Sydney

In a very difficult part of the garden, atop a rock shelf in shade, with limited soil, a diverse collection of bromeliads has been planted, providing a fantastic, low-care solution. There are always flowers in this border, many of which last for months on end, and coloured foliage is also a feature. Occasional division of the clumps ensures that the plants continue to grow well.

As already noted, much interest and colour comes from foliage plants in this garden, one of the keys to its success: such as in a simple yet very satisfying pairing of the bromeliad Vriesea platynema with a rug of Tradescantia zebrina (shown at the start of the blog), the colouring of the Tradescantia picking up the hue of the subtle markings of the bromeliad leaves.

This garden has evolved over the years to its current incarnation, and shows that streamlining a garden in no way reduces its visual appeal, and in fact strengthens it.