A Sydney autumn garden

Sunday, 11 March 2012

An exuberant planting in the garden of Sandra Wilson in Sydney, with Salvia, coleus, asters and Pentas

A delightful outing on Saturday made me all the more convinced that autumn in Sydney can see our gardens at their very best. Whilst spring is of course wonderful, in autumn we have so much more in bloom and there is a mature fullness to the garden. I have seen in my own gardening ideas a change over the past 20 years away from the traditional notion that it is all about spring. If we choose plants that bloom in summer and autumn, we can have colour and interest in our gardens for so much longer than that fleeting (though euphoric) 'spring display'.

The garden I visited was that of my friend Sandra Wilson in Sydney, and it was brimming exuberantly with colour - from an abundance of flowers and foliage. The garden is what I would describe as in a modern Sydney cottage-style, with an admixture of some of the classic English perennials and shrubs that do well here, along with many warm-climate plants from places like South Africa, Central and South America and tropical Asia, which thrive in our zone. Many of the plants bloom from summer into autumn; others are autumn-flowering, and the display continues for months because our autumn months are usually so mild. Such a phenomenon could only be dreamed of in colder climates.

Rosa chinensis Mutabilis in the garden of Sandra Wilson in Sydney

Shrubs and some small trees provide a structure for the garden, and include Buddleja, Tibouchina, Duranta and Hibiscus. A lovely collection of roses was showing an autumn flush, including the enigmatic Rosa chinensis 'Mutabilis' (pictured), which transforms through a several colours as its buds open and age. Abutilon add their cute lantern flowers in a range of warm colours, as do the indefatigable Pentas, including an interesting variegated-leaf one with red flowers, called 'Touch of Ice'. Fuchsia are still blooming well at this time of year.

Salvia Meigans Magic with a Dahlia in the garden of Sandra Wilson in Sydney

Many Salvia specimens seem to be at their very best at this time of year, and there are a number in this garden, ranging from some of the compact Salvia microphylla and Salvia greggii cultivars (which grow well under roses) to the taller 'Phyllis' Fancy', 'Van Houttei' and the gorgeous 'Meigan's Magic' (pictured), with its crisp white flowers contrasting against deep purplish-blue calyces over a long period. Plectranthus are coming into their own now, and are among my favourite plants for autumn in Sydney - they are valuable for the soft colour they bring to shady parts of Sandra's garden, with their pretty spires of pink, white, purple and mauve.

Justicia betonica with Pentas in the garden of Sandra Wilson in Sydney

Shrubby Begonia are also adding colour to shaded areas and though they flower very well through summer, they are probably at their peak in March and April. In the garden I saw a well-grown form of Justicia betonica (pictured), one of the lesser-known members of the Justicia tribe, which has slender spikes of long-lasting, white bracts; it does well in shady spots as do most in this genus from the Acanthaceae family.

Classic cottage perennials such as Phlox paniculata, Japanese windflowers, Geranium 'Rozanne', Liriope and many types of perennial asters mingle effortlessly with warm-climate perennials in this garden, including many Dahlia (which flower well into autumn if deadheaded regularly), Verbena hybrids and Streptocarpus. A number of self-sown annuals have placed themselves artfully amongst the perennials throughout the garden: dainty blue Browallia americana, sultry-leafed Perilla frutescens var. crispa (pictured), purple-buttoned Centratherum punctatum, tall burgundy-tasselled Amaranthus caudatus and some robust Zinnia.

As well as all the flowers, Sandra has many foliage plants, which have been arranged to provide contrasts of colour and form. Coleus of many hues are used to create with flowers, and Alternanthera dentata is used extensively to provide a deeper note of contrast. Golden-leaved plants, such as Salvia elegans 'Golden Delicious', illuminate other areas with their bright foliage. One garden 'room' is comprised of a most effective combination of grasses, sedges and rushes around a small pond, along with bolder foliage plants such as Colocasia 'Black Magic', rhizomatous Begonia, metallic purple-leaved Strobilanthes dyeriana (pictured; another member of the Acanthaceae family!) and a number of dramatic succulents. In a very dry, shaded area, Sandra has an incredible range of bromeliads, which provide year-long interest and colour with minimal maintenance.

Many of Sandra's plants have found their way into my garden over the years, and at the moment I am particularly enjoying a beautiful tall perennial form of Salvia splendens with soft pink tones, which she obtained during one of her interstate trips. All the visitors to her garden went home with cuttings on Saturday: surely one of the best thrills of gardening.