Late autumn, and many of my beloved perennials are yawning and shuffling off to bed for their winter sleep. But not salvias, with maybe 20 kinds, of blue, purple and pink throughout the garden continually flowering, adding colour, mainly in petite blooms, and a magnet for honeyeaters.
Some of the blue Salvias are true blue, a rare colour in the vegetable kingdom, and reflect the sky, or replicate it, just as it clouds over on these chilly days.
But how did I end up with five different blue Salvias, all near the lilac front gate? And why have I just noticed?
Well, it's autumn, when sun-loving sages peak and some, like midnight Salvia `Anthony Parker' (below), have just started to bloom. How I wish this one would start flowering at, say, the summer solstice (and continue for 5 months) but no, here at `Possum Creek' at 170m elevation it is not a team player but arrives like some self-important diva only to glance around disdainfully and disappear after (it seems) 5 minutes. I've pulled several plants of it out from in front of the yellow roses - it was too tall - and plonked the plants uphill where their quite neat sub-shrubbery works well and lack of floral decoration matters not a bit. And yes, now that it's flowering, nearly all is forgiven - for those dark, velvet blooms.
It's quite boggy near the front path and although Bog Sage (below) does not require this, nor does it mind it, either. Salvia uliginosa is one of those rather non-neat cottage-y perennials from the 1980's that still linger in some gardens - mainly, I suspect, for its glorious cool-climate-sky-blue flowers, and these have been blooming atop 1.8m stems for several months now. It's a plant I'm ambivalent about (at present very happy with); the random, almost wispy nature is forgiven as it wends about yellow Phlomis and purple iris without overwhelming either. (Yes, it wanders, but is so easily pulled out that it's no trouble. Maybe I like it now because there's enough of it for a reasonable impact.) I like having happy neighbours that flower at different times or in complementing colours, or effective contrasts. And it's also won me over by being neater than, and superior to, Salvia `African Sky'.
Salvia `African Sky' is at first glance a nice little perennial: it doesn't spread and it grows fast into a soft subshrub covered in little, mid-blue flowers for a good chunk of the warm months...but then looks just a bit too messy. I liked having a few along my front path over summer but they obscured (and competed too much with) other plants, got a bit tall and straggly over autumn and now almost overshadow the path. (I rather like its riotous laughing - but not along the edge of the front path, the only place where I want to keep a semblance of neatness.) I've started cutting them back and it's great to see the double row of green balls again, my spheres of Syzygium `Tiny Trev' which give this area structure amongst the softer perennials as we walk along the path to the front door. I will pull out the salvia (I'd rather have the iris and Phlomis flower) but...I have visitors coming in a week's time. I don't want this area messy and I like having some flowers here, they welcome people...so the execution date has been postponed. They don't need replacing; there's the Phlomis and iris, but, in front, also large leaved bugle (Ajuga) grows luxuriantly between the lilly pilly balls, a perfect marriage of carpet to feature, straight man to...star, as it were.
It's a long time since I acquired Salvia chamaelagiana; I believe I propagated and sold it when I had my mail order nursery of rare bulbs and perennials, Possum Creek Perennials, in the 1990's. It's stiffly upright which might work en masse but in small numbers can look self-conscious. I like the flowers of soft blue and white but they can look washed out from a distance; but it does have them for at least 2 months, maybe more. Currently it's uphill in awful clay soil, not complaining, just adding to the backdrop of pleasant perennials I've exiled from the garden proper. A dreadnought, as my hero, James Hitchmough, would say, and they are bloody useful.
There's one or 2 Salvia `African Sky' near the roses and they are too tall, too. So, how about Salvia chamaedryoides `Marine Blue' (above), a pretty little thing? On close inspection, the flowers have a touch of violet, although they look like a delightful fairly deep blue from a distance, over slightly silvery foliage. I'd like them at the feet of the roses, to hide their petticoats (so to speak) but I'm worried that this one is too messy and, because it needs cutting back in winter, won't do the job year-round. But...I love this garden of yellow and blue, and I think S. `Marine Blue' is probably the best candidate. (Alternatives could be: Salvia nemorosa (below)? Deep blue - but too short. Convovulus cneorum? Too small and silver. Correa? Too large and competitive...et al. But my existing S. chamaedryoides `Marine Blue' is goldilocks just right for height (reputedly 30cm, but almost twice that so far), colour, ability to blend in with that quality of perennials: it won't compete too much with the roses (physically or to the eye).) So...we cut back the Salvia when the other perennials are awake in spring, and distracting the eye, minimally at least. Let's see.
So my 5 salvias are very different. Salvia `African Sky' can be moved uphill, relegated to `The Gods' as my mother called the cheap seats at the theatre, high, high up above the real action. With a garden carved into the side of a hill, the flat areas are at a premium and plants relegated to the `batter' above are rather like undesirables cast outside the city walls.
I'll fertilise my Phlomis and iris and ask for forgiveness (these are just behind the green balls). Bog sage will continue its gentle invasion (and I'll continue its easy restraint). Over the path, in my garden of sunshine and sky, Salvia chamaedryoides `Marine Blue' will be trialled in front of the roses.
But it had better be good.
Jill Weatherhead is horticulturist, writer, garden designer and principal at Jill Weatherhead Garden Design who lives in the Dandenong Ranges east of Melbourne, and works throughout Victoria (www.jillweatherheadgardendesign.com.au)