It’s late March as I write and autumn has arrived – at least in the mornings, though the days are still warm and sunny, tempting me outside.
As always, there’s heaps to do. And talking of heaps I have a wonderful big heap of mulch sitting beside our garden, from where it travels in the wheelbarrow to be spread thickly, covering any bare patches among the plants. Last week workers from Asplundh were trimming the trees on our street and in exchange for a small bag of tomatoes and some baking I had done that morning, I wheedled them into delivering the mulch to our place. A great start to bedding down the garden for the winter! As the perennials die back there will be many more gaps to blanket.
The trees may be starting to turn but there’s still plenty of colour in the flower garden. A large clump of Persicaria amplexicaulis with deep pink blooms grows at one side of the house, alongside a mixture of dahlias in shades of red and orange. Once upon a time we would never have put reds, pink and orangey tones alongside each other but with today’s liberated approach to colour it works.
Over the years I have discarded the spent dahlia blooms over the soil as I deadhead. Most of these are single species and their patch had become crowded with self-propagating tubers so, come spring, I moved big clumps and dug them in beside the vegetable garden in what is essentially wasteland. In totally undisciplined, un-designed splendour they are right now a blaze of colour.
I have a love-hate relationship with Persicaria – it has thuggish tendencies, large leaves that look like dock and as it dies down in late autumn it needs hacking off fast as the dying foliage is not pretty. But it flowers for a long season and is a real stalwart for late colour.
Just in front of it, with blooms in a similar colour range, is Salvia greggii. The flowers initially seem small and insignificant. I think a bird gifted me my plant and I wasn’t sure I liked it when it first appeared. But it formed a clump about a metre high and flowers from late spring to the end of summer with a profusion of red flowers so of course it’s staying.
Salvias offer a wide range of varieties aside from the culinary species. Salvia officinalis ‘Purpurea’ is a long time favourite of mine both for its dark leaves that I use in the kitchen and for its blue flower spikes in December. Then there’s S. ‘Blauhugel’ and S. ‘Mainacht’ (Midnight), which are not culinary varieties. The plants are very similar – both have dark, purple/blue blooms, though ‘Mainacht’ is slightly darker. The flower spikes are smaller and much denser than those of ‘Purpurea’ and they start flowering in late spring continuing right up until now, in autumn, if they are cut back on a continuing basis during the summer. And it’s not only their colour that I love but also the rather strong, penetrating perfume of their leaves. Recently I bought several plants of S. patens with sky-blue flowers and I’m hoping they will form bulky clumps quickly.
In my Auckland garden, which is mainly a weedy jungle Salvia elegans, better known as pineapple sage, is one plant that thrives on neglect. Taller than its cousins and leggier, its flowers ressemble bright scarlet flames. Frost-tender, this is a plant that likes dry conditions and if for no other reason, I love it for its fragrant, pineapple-perfumed leaves. My granddaughters like sliding the flowers off and sucking out the honey that sits at the base of the tube. So it’s no wonder that bees are constantly foraging in all my salvias.
Recently we were in Nelson and the display in the beds at the public gardens surrounding the war memorial were sensational. Bedding begonias, bright yellow rudbeckias and marigolds plus a few beds of pale blue petunias looked amazing.
Of course we all know that modern roses have a repeat flowering ability if they are dead-headed but most perennials benefit also from constant dead-heading which extends their flowering season often right through to autumn. I even have dianthus, which I thought were single flowering varieties, re-flowering now because I was much more particular about dead-heading them this season.
When the flowers eventually die back in southern climates think about berries. In Central Otago hillsides are aglow with burnished red – the effect of masses of briar rose bushes covered in hips. They look great but are a terrible scourge.
I was out early recently collecting rose hips from wild briars near the lake and it proved to be a chatty morning as people coming by walking their dogs wondered why I was picking these oh-so-common berries. They can be made into jelly or a syrup, rich in vitamin C, just like the commercial product of yesteryear. Well I remember an Easter holiday when I was at high school and, with a friend, picked a sack of the hips. Hard-earned cash at five cents per pound!
In the home garden heritage roses in particular can provide a similar effect – if not quite so overwhelming. Because most of them have only one flowering season we don’t dead-head them and they often have spectacular hips. In my street garden the old ‘Scotch Rose’, Rosa spinossissima which has single white flowers in late spring, bears spherical black hips at this time of the year.