Autumn swoon

Sunday, 03 April 2016

Rosa Marie van Houtte in the garden of Janet Sefton in Sydney

Can there be anything more delightful than a sunny, early autumn afternoon spent visiting a beautiful garden in the company of other mad-keen gardeners? Saturday afternoon saw me travelling to the north-west edge of Sydney, to visit the garden of Janet Sefton. The garden demonstrated to me, beyond any doubt, that early autumn in Sydney is one of the most magical times of the year. I know I keep going on about this but it is really true. Spring is lovely, but its beauty can be transient: a few hot days and the fragile flowers can be ruined. Early autumn, on the other hand, sees the confluence of a number of long-blooming plants - some continuing on from summer, others just beginning their flowering period. The explosion of colour and form sends me into a spin every year. In a large semi-rural garden like Janet's, where there is room to let these plants have the space they crave, the result is spectacular.

Salvia Van Houttei in the garden of Janet Seftom in Sydney

Many Salvia - though they bloom through summer - seem to be at their peak in early autumn (and others join in the display at this time), and their long spires of flowers glow at their brightest at this time of year. Our group of salviaholics was thrilled to see Janet's plump, robust specimens of tried-and-true shrubby salvias for Sydney, greeting them like old friends: 'Van Houttei', 'Joan', 'Phyllis' Fancy', 'Waverly', 'Indigo Spires', 'Santa Barbara' and 'Wendy's Wish' being just a few of them. The salvias are grown in great sweeps that border the generous lawns, which are studded with magnificent mature trees. The salvias mingle effectively with dahlias continuing on from summer, and with the autumn flush of bloom on Janet's huge collection of roses, both shrub and climbing forms, the latter clothing elegant structures that divide and shape the 'rooms' of the garden.

Mandevilla sandleri with Plectranthus ecklonii in the garden of Janet Sefton in Sydney

Other trellises, pergolas and walls are softened by a variety of climbers, including Bouganvillea, the snail vine (Vigna caracalla), Mandevilla sandleri and the vigorous Solanum wendlandii. Because of the size of the structures, the more hearty vines can reach their full potential, providing a thrilling display, though they still need to be reined in every so often even so!

Pink, white and purple forms of Plectranthus ecklonii in the garden of Janet Sefton in Sydney

In shadier parts of the garden are grown many members of the vast Plectranthus tribe, autumn bloomers which are right at home in our mild climate. Amongst the most prominent right now are the shrubby Plectranthus ecklonii forms (ht to 2m) with large feathery plumes of purple, pink or white. Janet has a number of these planted repeated around her garden, forming stunning backdrops; in some spots all three colours were grown together to produce a superb haze of pastel colour.

Sasanqua camellia with Plectranthus ecklonii in the garden of Janet Sefton in Sydney

There are lower-growing shrubby forms, such as the pretty 'Cape Angels' series; Plectranthus ambiguous with bright purple-blue chubby spires; and lilac-flowered Plectranthus saccatus, which Janet has clipped into an attractive oval-shaped mound. The Plectranthus form pleasing combinations with many other plants in the garden; I particularly enjoyed seeing the purple Plectranthus ecklonii grown nearby a dark pink Camellia sasanqua: these glossy evergreen shrubs are another superb component of autumn in Sydney, providing a profusion of satiny blooms that are often subtly scented. They can be used to form hedging or screens, or trained as a small tree by removing the lower branches. They can grow in sun or semi-shade. Groundcover Plectranthus such as Plectranthus ciliatus, with its dainty wands of tiny white flowers, look very effective grown underneath these camellias.

Tall red-flowered cane begonia in the garden of Janet Sefton in Sydney

All members of the Begonia clan will thrive in shade, and the extremely long flowering period of the shrubby and cane types (which runs from November to May) overlaps with the appearance of the Camellia sasanqua and all the Plectranthus. Janet grows many of these Begonia in a shaded garden beneath tall gum trees; some of the cane ones soar to 3 m or more. We admired an unusual tall 'thick-stemmed' form (Begonia egregia) that develops into a small tree and has bold leaves that feel like sandpaper! It has large clusters of white flowers in winter and spring. Little winding paths beneath the trees are bordered by other tough, dependable, shade-tolerant plants, including many from the Acanthaceae family, such as the lime-flowered shrimp plant Justicia brandegeeana, pink-belled Strobilanthus cusia (previously called Strobilanthes flaccidifolia), tall blue-flowered Brillantaisia subulugurica and wide swathes of Acanthus mollis.

We all came away inspired and enthused, clutching handfuls of cuttings that Janet so generously gave us. I can only encourage everyone to visit a garden at this time of year (and for garden clubs to incorporate an autumn ramble of members' gardens into their programs) to appreciate how wonderful autumn can be in Sydney!