Late summer specials

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23 Mar 2016

All of these plants are easy to grow in Sydney, but are not easy to find in garden centres. Track them down at the Collectors' Plant Fair, Hawkesbury Racecourse Clarendon; and if you see them in a friend's garden, beg a cutting.

Deidre Mowat had a dismayingly large box of labels from plants she had killed before revelation struck. “It was when Christopher Lloyd ripped out the rose garden at Great Dixter,” she recalls. “The ideal of the garden changed.” Inspired, she retained the English garden style of harmoniously toned borders but ditched the cool climate perennials she had always dreamed would do well in her Beecroft garden and didn’t, and started to focus on plants that really did do well. On her new list were plants from Sydney-like climates in South and Central America, South Africa and parts of Asia.

Cool climate gardens look tired by the end of summer, but Mowat’s warm-temperate and sub-tropical beauties are at their most vivid and abundant from February through April. There are salvias and dahlias, pentas and gaura, abutilon and cupheas, and in the shade, plenty of justicias.

I interrupted Deidre deadheading the dahlias in the pink and purple full-sun border at the front of the house.

This sub-branch of the Acanthaceae family is often seen in old gardens. Indeed, Mowat picked up the cuttings of many of her plants from generous older gardeners. She pays forward their generosity by passing on cuttings to friends and garden club members, and by sharing her knowledge and experience on her always informative blog, iGarden.

Justicias are untroubled by pests and diseases, easy to propagate and fabulous through late summer. Best-known of the gang is the shrimp plant, Justicia brandageeana. This reliable trouper grows and flowers in sun or shade, pretty much all year. Choose from the common terracotta version, lime green ‘Lutea’, ‘Big Red’ or ‘Fruit Salad’.

Here’s the gold shrimp plant with fellow Acanthaceeae family member, Acanthus mollis. Deirdre thinks the family always looks good together. Sure does here.

Also familiar is Justicia carnea, commonly called plume flower, which comes in a pastel pink; dark carmine with burgundy-backed leaves; handsome but less robust white; or gold. These wilt in the sun but are perfect shaded by trees or large shrubs. Deadhead blackened flowerheads to promote new blooms. Mowat cuts her shrimp plants and plume flowers back by at least half at the end of winter to defeat any lanky tendencies, and follows the chop with a good feed.

Justicia carnea looks great if you can find a protected position where the sun can light the flower plumes from behind.

Also desirable is 1m tall J. brasiliana, which holds a fan of pink flowers in its leaf axils so that they appear to be cascading down the branches. And I just can’t leave the wonderful exuberance and beautiful colour tonings of Mowat’s garden without a cutting of, Justicia scheidweileri, a groundcover justicia sometimes called purple shrimp plant. It lights up shade with its silver-streaked leaves, and has burgundy and purple flower spikes all year except in the worst heat of summer.

Even without the purple and burgundy flower spikes this is a beauty for shade.

In the middle here is one more justicia I didn’t have room to write about in Spectrum. It’s j. betonica, with spires of tight white bracts around pale pink flowers. It gets to a metre. Deidre tip prunes it through the growing season and hacks it back hard in late winter to stop it getting lanky.

Article first published SMH Spectrum by Robin Powell.