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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.