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.