Kate Wall95 plants in flower in my late-summer subtropical garden

I’ve counted 95 different things in flower in my late-summer garden. Surprising isn’t it! My garden is a small suburban garden in Brisbane, not the place I would have expected to find so much diversity.

Welcome to my subtropical flower garden

Welcome to my subtropical flower garden

Apart from surprising because I didn’t realise I had crammed so much into my little patch, it is also noteworthy in that traditionally Brisbane is not the home of the cottage garden, and this is a garden that receives much less maintenance than a flower garden is perceived to need.

As I look at the garden I can see that I have achieved more than just a beautiful place with lots of flowers, the garden has become a healthy living ecosystem in its own right. It is alive with colour, but it is very literally alive as well with constant buzzing and scurrying.

Around the garden

Around the garden

Unlike the flowers, I am not keen to try and count how many different insects there might be, I just don’t have the patience! I can see so many different critters and that is the main idea, so I think I have succeeded in creating a haven for good bugs.

Globba winitii (dancing lady)

Globba winitii (dancing lady)

A neighbour commented to me recently that he loves seeing the butterflies about, but that butterfly attracting plants are all weeds so he won’t plant them and besides, his garden is too shady for flowers. I invited him into my garden and showed him the abundance of flowers, which are not weeds at all, that are providing the nectar for the butterflies he was seeing in his garden. I then showed him the abundance of flowers I grow in the shade.

Praying mantis on Salvia 'Anthony Parker'

Praying mantis on Salvia ‘Anthony Parker’

I have always grown flowers, in spite of being told they did not suit Brisbane. I have had visitors comment on my “little slice of England“, by which they meant walking into a dense planting full of flowers. Not that the flowers I grow would really be seen that much in England, it is just that around here, it is not so common to see the cottage garden style.

I am very happy to say that is changing, and cottage gardening is booming in the subtropics. Some of this has been driven by the recent focus on the importance of good bugs in the garden, and on realising that bees needed our support. People started planting more flowers and as they found so many wonderful flowers did grow here, they caught the “bug’ so to speak.

Blue Barleria with orange cosmos

Blue Barleria with orange cosmos

I have always had the bug. With a background in biology and ecology, gardening for nature has always been part of my approach. I was also a passionate organic gardener until I became a professional gardener. I no longer have time to be an organic gardener, either in my own or client’s gardens. I don’t really have time to be a chemical gardener either and although I do use sprays in clients’ gardens occasionally, in the most part I rely on the good bugs to keep the bad guys in check for me.

Over the years I have come to notice that most of the time, plants are more likely to be attacked by bad bugs, or to struggle in general if the conditions are not right for them. If this is something I can fix – like the right amount of light, or water or soil condition, I will move the plant to a more suitable spot. If it is just not liking the climate, I will not nurture it, but will aim to grow something more suitable instead. This has meant losing lots of plants I would dearly love to be able to grow, but for everything I have lost, I have found something new which loves my climate. The development of my garden has been a wonderful journey into new territory with ongoing discoveries of new “must have” plants. Some of this is new plants coming onto the market, sometimes it is the old ones rediscovered, and many many times, it is simply the little known subtropical delights which can be hard to find. These ones usually turn out very successfully, largely because they are the most climate suitable.

Salvias - a mainstay of a summer-autumn subtropical flower garden

Salvias – a mainstay of a summer-autumn subtropical flower garden

Amongst my favourite ‘collections’ are the salvias which create the backdrop of the cottage garden – both in the sun and in semi shaded positions. These account for approximately a quarter of what is in flower at any time for me. The variety in salvias is endless, and with that comes plants suitable for almost every climate zone, so while I have sadly not been able to grow some that I would dearly have loved too, this is more than made up for by the huge number of salvias I can grow. While these are the mass of blooms that fill so many spaces, particularly the sunnier spots, there are some of the larger salvias that burst forth at different times of the year and become real show stoppers – ones like the rosebud salvia, Salvia involucrata.

Ruellia

Ruellia elegans

Approximately another quarter of all my flowering plants are members of the Acanthaceae family. This includes Justicia, Barleria, Ruellia, Strobilanthes and the very dramatic Brillantaisia and Brazilian red cloak (Megaskepasma). This family is largely tropical and sub-tropical of origin but most will grow as far south as Sydney at least. Many of this group flower particularly well in shady spots thereby allowing me to continue the cottage style into a very shady garden. Unfortunately this family of plants has not been extensively bred for gardens and so can be hard to find in nurseries, which is a big shame.

Pseuderanthermum alatum, chocolate plant

Pseuderanthermum alatum, chocolate plant

There are plenty of other tropical and even native plants which will also flower in the shade and a couple of favourites in that regard are the tropical blue ginger (Dichorisandra thrysiflora), and the native cats whiskers (Orthosiphon aristatus).

Blue ginger - Dichorisandra

Blue ginger – Dichorisandra thrysiflora

Blue ginger is a very easy care plant which thrives in dry shady spots. It has large fleshy nodules on the roots which make it fairly hardy through dry times as well, although it won’t flourish when things are very dry – a good drink every so often will make a big difference. In Autumn the bright purple blue flowers make a dramatic show and are popular with both blue banded bees (Amegilla cingulate, which prefer flowers which are blue or purple), and the large teddy bear bee (Amegilla bombiformis). The plant will sucker to form a clump but is not invasive. Pruning will also result in bushier growth and cuttings strike readily. Not actually a ginger at all, this is an old fashioned plant that is finding new favour in frost free gardens.

Orthosiphon aristatus - cats whiskers in the morning sun

Orthosiphon aristatus – cats whiskers in the morning sun

Cats whiskers is also a very easy care plant, and much loved by both bees and butterflies. This rainforest understory plant is native from Queensland through to Indonesia. It flowers abundantly in autumn and through winter with white flowers which resemble cats’ whiskers. It flowers equally well in full sun and in full shade, and the white flowers really brighten dull areas. It can get woody so a hard prune annually helps keep it in shape and bushy growth means more flowers. It is tough and can survive hot sun and dry soil, but will do better with some shade and moisture.

With the rise in popularity of cottage gardening, it is wonderful to see some of these old fashioned plants being sold in nurseries again, and in the case of these two, you won’t just get flowers, you will also get delightful pollinators in the form of bees and butterflies.

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Kate Wall

About Kate Wall

Kate has gardened since she was a child. Gardening as a profession came almost by accident - after volunteering to rescue flooded gardens and working in over 100 gardens, she felt her trial by flood had directed her to her true calling, and she has gardened professionally ever since. Kate is primary care giver to approximately 20 gardens concurrently (including her own), in addition to consulting, garden makeovers and creating new gardens. She lives and works in Brisbane, Queensland, and is passionate about gardening to suit our sub-tropical climate.

11 thoughts on “95 plants in flower in my late-summer subtropical garden

  1. Lyn Ebert on said:

    Thank you for this post and the earlier one about growing flowers. There is such a dearth of writing about Brisbane gardens.. I look forward to reading more in future

  2. Thanks Lyn, I agree wholeheartedly and will do my bit by writing more! I am also speaking about subtropical cottage gardening at the Ekka this year, so hope to share the love of subtropical flowers further then too

  3. Sue on said:

    I’m in the process of converting my gardens into a predominantly perennial cottage garden and keeping my much loved annuals in pots here and there. I’m delighted with the butterflies that have discovered it. I’ve even planted milkweed for the lovely monarchs and it’s such a joy to watch the tiny caterpillars grow and pupate into beautiful butterflies which return to lay their eggs. Gauras, gomphrena, Pentas all provide nectar for so many good bugs and just make me happy to behold. I’m working on obtaining more salvias. I have the mauve cat’s whiskers and I’m wondering when I should prune it?
    I’m also working on obtaining more host plants for the caterpillars to feed on which is as important as providing the nectar plants for the butterflies.
    Just wish we’d get a bit more rain!
    Thanks for you lovely article. I loved looking at your pics!

    • Hi Sue, thanks for your comments and your garden sounds lovely! You are very right, without caterpillars there will be no butterflies. If you have lots of different things in the garden you will usually find that through the diversity you will be providing not just for caterpillars and butterflies but other good bugs as well, without even trying to. Pentas are one plant I actively remove caterpillars from as they can kill them through over eating quite quickly, but in general most things are ok with a few holes in the leaves.
      In the subtropics cats whiskers can be pruned almost any time of year, although I prefer to wait till they finish flowering which is a good general rule for most plants – if in doubt, prune after flowering has finished, unless risk of frost is likely to burn new growth, in which case wait till that risk has passed.

      • Sue on said:

        Yes I’ve lost a few Pentas due to the dreaded hawk moth. But I try to just keep them under control rather than wipe them out completely. They are such a beautiful moth and good bird food. Thanks for the cats whiskers advice. I’d hate to kill it with over zealous pruning. ✌️

        • not sure if that’s possible but that might depend where you are, I hack mine (cat’s whiskers) back very hard once a year and smaller prunes every time I want them to get back a little. The hawk moth is wonderful to watch in the garden as it buzzes around the flowers!

  4. Michael McCoy on said:

    I only counted four things in flower in my cool climate garden, Kate. And five of them were weeds.

    • Sounds like the weeds are winning there Michael! I am surprised! I know we are lucky here in the subtropics but in the last year I have not had less than 70 – not all peak flowering of course but still something there for the birds and bees. Mind you when I started counting regularly I was very surprised at how many different things I did have in flower in my small garden, but it does explain why there are so many butterflies……

  5. Rosemary Harris on said:

    Hi Kate, I’m over in Taiwan looking at your lovely photos and story of your garden. I want all those that you have pictured! I know I already have a few in the garden you helped plant. I look forward to seeing it and you after I return. Rosemary

  6. Francine on said:

    Love the dancing lady. You are a brilliant flowerer! We have makaya bella in South Africa, but for some reason I’m terrible at growing it, Joburg and in Durban. Didn’t know they were all related either, so thanks for that. Acanthus spinosus grows well here.

  7. Lainie Anderson on said:

    Lovely to see all your flowering plants in the sub tropics, thanks for the wonderful inspiration.

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