James BeattiePlants for a south-facing garden

Like small, burrowing native animals, my urge to dig in the winter is one I just can’t ignore. There’s an enthusiasm I have for undertaking the more heavy garden work in the cold that just isn’t there in the summer. In the height of summer I rarely do anything other than maintain, but in the cold weather I’m very much open to suggestion.

The shady southern aspect

The shady southern aspect

Sledge hammer and rip up a ton of concrete path? No problem! Double-dig 20 meters of old lawn? Sounds great! Barrow 4 cubic meters of compost about? Don’t mind if I do! The heavy work is easy in winter. Well, not easy per se, but the weather makes it easier to do with a smile on your face. With the heavy work out of the way and a good month or two ahead for the compost work its magic before I plant, my mind has turned to what plants I’m going to use to fill the spaces I’ve created.

It sounds an exciting time, but I approach the task with trepidation because two of the new beds face south, right up against our brick veranda. South-facing aspects are one of the most challenging spots for gardeners in the southern hemisphere as they get no sun in the winter but face summer’s unbridled, baking onslaught in temperate Melbourne. Plant selection needs to be thoroughly considered, and I’ve spent the last few nights bent over in deep thought, going through lists of plants that might be of use.

Digging new beds in winterOne of the ways I’ve gone about listing suitable plants is a great method of research for gardeners everywhere – have a walk around your neighbourhood and see what grows well in a similar setting. I take Whisky (the dog, not the spirit) on a 30-minute walk most mornings before work and not once have I gone more than 1 kilometre from home. I wind my way through the surrounding streets and have a nosey into other south-facing front yards.

I want a mixture of foliage in my new garden beds, from architectural plants to soft textures, vertical elements and bold, in-your-face leaves. On my morning walks I have earmarked Agave attenuata, Sarcococa ruscifolia, Dhalia imperialis (thriving on neglect in one south-facing garden I know of) and Monstera deliciosa respectively, among many others.

My neighbourhood presents planting possibilities

My neighbourhood presents planting possibilities

One of the biggest challenges with planting out south-facing aspects is adding colour, as the vast majority of flowering plants require at least some sun to flower in head-turning quantity. Foliage colour is one weapon to brighten up dark spots, but I do love flowers (are flowers fashionable any more?). In shade there are a number of plants that fit the bill if you know what to look for. Arum lilies will grow and flower in moist shade very well, but I’ve spent too many hours removing them from Melbourne’s creek lines to feel comfortable with putting one in my own garden. Mackaya bella is a wonderful flowering plant for dark spots that is tragically unheard of in some circles. It grows into a large shrub, but it easily pruned to shape to form a small tree, providing cover for other plants below it. Justicia carnea does surprisingly well in a shady spot and survives Melbourne winters admirably given its subtropical origins.

The genera justicia and mackaya both belong to the Acanthaceae, which is a family that holds a number of treasures for gardeners scratching their heads in the shade. The family includes the oyster plant, Acanthus mollis, but its enthusiasm for enveloping surrounding plants precludes its use in my new beds. A sibling, Acanthus spinosus, is a less-errant addition to shady areas but replete with striking spires of meter-tall flowers in late winter/early spring.

Home grown possibilitiesA number of bulbs and bulb-like plants will also grow happily on a southern aspect. I have noticed nerines around the neighbourhood flowering brilliantly at the moment, particularly on southeast facing fence lines in minimal winter sun. Summer and autumn bulbs are another good choice for a southern aspect because by the time they start shooting in spring, sunlight is again beginning to fall upon areas that were previously without it. Liliums, begonias, even dahlias for autumn colour are possibilities for a south-facing garden, as are some herbaceous perennials such as eryngiums. I even grew three Echium simplex a couple of years ago only a metre from my front veranda – an area which is now home to a new, empty garden bed, just waiting to be planted out. The number of decisions I have to make with planting in the next few months number in the several dozens, but each is deserving of careful consideration. If anyone has a stellar performer they recommend I take advantage of – it’s winter, so I’m very much open to suggestion!

Until next time, happy gardening.

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James Beattie

About James Beattie

James is a horticulturist working in the Melbourne area. His work in the industry has included landscape planting design, hard landscaping, bushland management, garden consulting as well as extensive experience in the horticultural media. He worked for four years as one of the horticultural guns for hire behind the scenes at ABC TV's Gardening Australia program and has been a semi-regular guest on Melbourne's 3CR Gardening Show (855 AM). You can follow his whimsical garden musings at Horticologist

12 thoughts on “Plants for a south-facing garden

    • Cheers, Sandi. A neighbour has Banksia rose rose growing beautifully in their front yard – it’s something I’ve thought about training along a simple wire fence. I reckon it would work rather well!

    • A great plant, and one that I hadn’t thought of! In Melbourne a south facing aspect is sheltered from the hot northerlies we get in summer/autumn – perfect for windflowers.

  1. Hi James,

    How do you think asiatic jasmine would look and do as a groundcover under some standard roses and crab apples, all in a south facing garden?

  2. Hiya Bernadette,

    I’ve since planted out the front yard after landscaping it. Keep reading for un update on the progress in the next couple of weeks!

    • Hi Zia,

      If you are in the southern hemisphere then, yes indeed, you can plant hydrangeas off your south facing veranda. I once lived next door to an old Greek lady who grew fabulous moptop hydrangeas hard up against a south facing wall here in Melbourne. They were taller than she was (though, to be fair, she was only about the size of a post box)! They are very tolerant of shade.

      If you are north of the equator then I wouldn’t recommend it as they will be in full sun. They get sunburn very easily and prefer dappled shade.

  3. Your photo “My neighbourhood presents planting possibilities” – please remind me the name of the round leaves at foreground-right with mauve flowers.

  4. Hi James,

    I have a south facing fence line that slopes up a (not overly steep) hill in the mid south of NZ.
    Do you think Prunus laurocerasus or Prunus lusitanica would grow ok there?
    Viburnum has been suggested, but it tends to sort of open up with age, which would create more shade I’m thinking… and looks a little ‘nana’ ha

    Thanks for any suggestions : )


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