Today was a bleak winter's day in Sydney, and as the last of the autumn leaves flutter to the ground and many of my semi-tropical plants begin to look rather tatty, I find myself craving the comfort of evergreen shrubs that hold their good looks through the colder months. I remember too the value of the colour green. Without a distracting plethora of flowers in winter, the need for enduring green structure in the garden becomes much more apparent. A satisfying framework of evergreen shrubs or trees, hedges and screens can provide this, and can be used to enclose the boundaries of the garden and create internal divisions within it. In winter I am reminded that these are the fundamental necessities of a garden, rather than boring concepts which hardly rate a second thought compared to the spectacle of beautiful flowers. Whilst such structure is most apparent in winter, when the garden is stripped bare of many of its trappings, its presence is still a strength when the garden is more completely clothed in spring and summer, as it is a strong underlying framework which usually holds a successful garden together in an aesthetically pleasing way, rather than the number or variety of plants which the garden contains. I like the contrast of a strong garden architecture against the exuberant profusion of flowering plants which have a looser form, such as many of my warm-climate shrubby perennials.
We are fortunate that in Sydney's mild climate, a wide variety of evergreen shrubs flourish and retain their shape and their foliage through winter to furnish our gardens. These plants come from many sources. Almost all our native shrubs are evergreen, and include the more subdued greens of Grevillea, Westringia and Callistemon, for example, as well as the more vibrantly green, lush-leaved rainforest specimens such as lilly pilly (Syzygium) cultivars. The shrubby lilly pillies have dense growth and can be pruned quite heavily to form them into hedges or shapes. Many of them have prettily coloured new growth in spring.
Most glossy-leafed warm-climate exotic shrubs - such as Murraya paniculata (ht 3m), Rondeletia amoena (ht 3m), Xylosma japonicum (ht 2.5-3m) and Mackaya bella (ht 2-3m) - look handsome all year round and lend themselves to being used as informal screens, hedges or clipped shapes. Mackaya bella is particularly useful as it will grow in shaded gardens. Most of these shrubs have the bonus of flowers during the warmer months.
Shrubs from China and Japan are also important contributors of sleek greenery in our winter gardens - for example, Camellia sasanqua and Camellia japonica (ht to 4m), Sarcococca ruscifolia (ht 1m), Osmanthus fragrans (ht 3m) and Rhaphiolepis species (ht 1-2m). The tough Mediterranean shrubs laurustinus (Viburnum tinus, ht 2-3m) and myrtle (Myrtus communis, ht 3-4m) are also useful plants, the laurustinus producing its white lacy flowers in winter. Dwarf English box (Buxus sempervirens 'Suffruticosa') is often used to create low parterre-like patterns and miniature hedges, whereas Japanese box (Buxus microphylla var. japonica) is excellent in our climate for topiary shapes such as spheres and pyramids to give a structured element in gardens.
We probably should be more appreciative of these evergreen workhorses in our gardens: they do not have the glamour-girl charisma of showy perennials or spectacular bulbs, and the sight of them may never set your pulse racing, but they are essential for an effective garden. When spring comes around, reward them with some fertiliser and mulch, and keep them watered in dry weather. They will repay you for years to come.
18 Oct 20
Although my garden is semi-tropical in nature now, I still have some vestiges from my cottage garden days!
11 Oct 20
Consider training a shrub into a small tree.
04 Oct 20
October is iris time in Sydney gardens: the best are the tall bearded irises and Louisiana irises.
One crowded hour
27 Sep 20
Much can be achieved in regular short stints in the garden.
20 Sep 20
We may not be able to grow massed displays of tulips in our climate, but try some of these South African corms instead.