Other people's gardens

Dead gorgeous perennials and clipped things

Two things struck me on an early winter garden whip-around in regional Victoria. The first was how gorgeous dead perennials can be (or should that be how dead-gorgeous perennials can be?). We don’t get much chance to appreciate this effect in Sydney. Our winters are just cold enough to make perennials look wan and sick, but not cold enough to shock them into brown, grey and black skeletal forms.

garden by Michael McCoy

Michael McCoy is a master of textural perennial planting and on a freezing, rainy afternoon a garden he designed outside of Woodend near Mount Macedon was a picture (even with a rain-spotted phone). Black verbascum stems stood against silvery whisps of perovksia, dark chocolate sedums and the occasional blue-green of euphorbia spires and freeze-framed fireworks of Yucca rigida. I couldn’t imagine it looking any better in flower.

garden by Michael McCoy

While perennial death pictures aren’t part of our gardening palette, clipped things are, and I saw some terrific examples down south. There were hedges of course, as walls, windbreaks, screens, and at one garden as a giant roll of firm grey cushioning along the front of the house. Made from westringia and assiduously clipped into a long cylinder, the owners described it as mirroring the curve of the hills, but it seemed to me more of a massive bolster turning the whole house into a daybed from which to take in the view of those hills.

At the Vineyard Gardens in Mornington Peninsula, the curving perennial borders are walled by high hedges, but it was the fat columns of clipped lillypilly interspersed through the borders that gave the space a wonderful sense of being inside outside.

The vineyard garden

On the other side of the hedge, balls of teucrium and westringia acted as formal grey boulders in a grove of lemon-scented gums. The contrast of formal and informal, wild and clipped, bush and garden had a disorienting appeal.

The vineyard garden

The same idea was given a different treatment in a walled space in the same garden where white-flowered ‘Natchez’ crepe myrtles were underplanted with more trimmed plants, primarily Helichrysum petiolare clipped into undulating mounds like a sleeping body snuggled under a doona.

An international inspiration for this kind of well-clipped, drought-tolerant gardening is the late Nicole de Vesian’s garden la Louve, in the Luberon Valley of Provence. De Vesian was a designer at Hermes for years and when she gave up haute couture for horticulture it was in dry and rocky ground which severely limited her plant choices. As is so often the case, the constraints made for an elegant solution, and la Louve, with its shapely forms of rosemary, lavender and santolina among the fig, olive and yucca, makes visitors itchy to get home to their own garden and a pair of clippers. I had just the same response on my visit to Victoria.

My trip was a speedy famil for a tour I’m leading for Ross Garden Tours in November. As we’ll be visiting regional Victoria in spring, there’ll be no perennial death pictures, but plenty of flowers! See the full itinerary here. (Do you reckon I could gather enough interest to do a cool climate garden tour in early winter – it’s so beautiful!)

It’s time to

Take the tropical tour
Dr Dale Dixon is leading a tour of the public and private sections of Latitude 23, the tropical glasshouses of the Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney this Thursday. Meet the ant plants and the world’s smallest fig among other oddities. Thursday 28 July, 9.45–11 am. $25. Bookings: 9231 8182

Take cuttings
Ensure cold-sensitive coleus aren’t lost over winter by taking lots of cuttings. If you have nowhere warm to overwinter them, keep the cuttings in water. They won’t all survive the transplant from water to soil so make sure you double up.

Collect leaves
Pick the fallen leaves from the foliage of lower-growing plants so they don’t get smothered.

Buy fragrance
Daphne is one of the signature scents of winter. ‘Perfume Princess’ is a new variety that flowers over a long period, with an intense perfume, in gardens or pots, semi-shade or full sun. It’s Australia’s Nursery and Garden Industry Plant of the Year for 2016.



One thought on “Dead gorgeous perennials and clipped things

  1. Yes, yes to a cold climate winter garden tour in Australia. Some of us have frosts for six months of the year and have so much to learn about garden structure and plant choices to enhance our gardens for the whole year.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *