For a number of years now, I have been convinced that March is the very best time of year for Sydney gardens. Forget spring: think early autumn, even though the weather in March these days often still feels very much like summer. This month sees the confluence of the persistent flowering of summer plants, with those that come into bloom as the days grow shorter, combined with warm-climate foliage plants looking at their very best - and the result is nothing short of spectacular.
Last week, I had the opportunity to visit two wonderful Sydney gardens created by friends of mine, and to revel in their beauty and extraordinary colour. The garden of Sandra Wilson is only two years old, but is filled with a profusion of flowering shrubs, perennials and self-seeding annuals. Salvias that bloom from late spring through to autumn seem to have a resurgence in March, looking at their very best. In Sandra's garden, the rich blue of the Salvia sagittata 'Mosquito' and Salvia 'Indigo Spires' consort brilliantly with many specimens of Dahlia, roses having their autumn flush, and a variety of Cuphea. Other salvias offering rich colour include Salvia 'Van Houttei' and 'Magenta Magic', along with many compact Salvia microphylla cultivars.
A number of long-flowering shrubby Pentas in the garden continue to provide blooms well into autumn, joined by Abutilon of different hues, which begin to flower again now and continue until November. They are complemented by Tibouchina multiflora, a stunning shrub with broad, silvery leaves and sprays of bright blue flowers that appear at this time. Daisies of many different sorts add to the tapestry of plants, including Echinacea, perennial Aster, Gerbera and its cute cousin Gavinia, self-sown Cosmos, marigolds and Zinnia - and of course all the Dahlia, a favourite plant of Sandra's, in a rainbow of tints!
Amidst the flowers, there are many stunning foliage plants to provide extra colour. A huge collection of coleus in pots, along with some dramatic-looking Colocasia and Xanthosoma, form a feature in a shaded corner of the garden. Grasses and grass-like plants give contrasting texture: Miscanthus sinensis 'Zebrinus' caught my eye along with a variegated Acorus.
The other garden I visited belongs to Margaret Chedra, which was also full of colour and interest, with so much to see. One of Margaret's passions is the Begonia genus, and her garden is brimming with a huge variety of these plants - ranging from the ground-covering rhizomatous sorts in myriad shapes, colours and textures, to towering cane types - all grown to perfection and dripping with flowers. March is the very best time of the year for shrub and cane Begonia, even though they are in bloom for many months. A number of Margaret's rhizomatous Begonia are grown in pots on stands under the cover of a verandah, along with a display of beautiful and unusual potted examples of the Gesneriad family, another favourite type of plant for Margaret, which has many intriguing members, the most well known being the African violet. Streptocarpus, smothered in flowers, Achimenes with their colourful rounded blooms, Nematanthus of various types and Kohleria are all grown to perfection by Margaret and provide a stunning display, like treasures in a jewellery box.
As in Sandra's garden, self-sown seedlings flourish here and add to the feeling of lush abundance. A stand of tall, yellow-flowered Cosmos is about to bloom, and Amaranthus plants tower overhead, one specimen at least 3 or 4 m tall! Salvia coccinea, a keen self-seeder, appears in various spots, in colours of white, apricot pink and red, growing quite well in sun or shade. Of particular interest is Euphorbia cyathophora, which has tiny central clustered flowers with a surrounding vivid orange pattern on the green leaves, looking as if it has been applied using some sort of matt folk-art paint. The overall effect is like a miniature poinsettia, and its display lasts for ages.
Margaret uses foliage plants to create a succession of colour echoes in the garden: coleus are particularly useful in this regard, with their enormous array of different varieties - as seen in the photo (left) where a pink coleus in the foreground echoes the flowers of cane Begonia 'Sophie Cecile' in the background. Fancy-leaved Canna, such as 'Tropicanna', with its striped orange, red, green and bronze foliage, and Canna 'Striata', with yellow-veined leaves are also used to reflect the colours of nearby flowers, such as Dahlia. Hot colours are also handled with panache: I admired the combination of a brilliant orange Lantana (not a scary self-seeding type!) with a yellow and red-flowered Canna and the golden foliage of a red-bloomed Pelargonium.
Another striking vignette (pictured at left) was created with an orange Abutilon, a tall orange-flowered Canna, a big orange Dahlia, burgundy-flowered Amaranthus and the red spires of Odontonema tubaeforme, one of just many Acanthaceae plants grown in the garden: others include various Justicia species (inclusing the tallest specimen of Justicia brasiliana I have ever seen!) and Ruellia.
In the front garden, a crimson Gladiolus (pictured) is placed dramatically with a backdrop of misty purple Plectranthus ecklonii. The garden features a variety of Plectranthus, quintessential early autumn flowers for the Sydney garden, most useful in shade. One unusual species growing nearby is Plectranthus zuluensis, with powdery blue blooms over a long period; another is a robust specimen of Plectranthus barbatus with long spires of soft blue flowers that are out now.
My visit to these two gardens affirmed my belief in the joy of March gardens in Sydney!
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