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.
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.
One 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.
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.
A 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.