Claire Dunn | Flamingly lovely autumn

SHOW-STOPPERS: Autumn is a time for flamboyant foliage.

SHOW-STOPPERS: Autumn is a time for flamboyant foliage.

April-May has to be my favourite time of year, the weather over Easter a welcome confirmation of this. After the hot westerly wind of summer, a still-warm autumn afternoon in the garden is akin to the joy of a hot bath in winter. I could be a dandelion pom pom, floating in the barest of breezes through the yard from task to task.

Gone is the survival agenda of just keeping the garden alive. Instead there is inspiration, a creative urge to plant, tend, build, beautify and expand. Even though I value natives in the garden for their contribution to urban biodiversity (and beauty), there’s also nothing quite like a deciduous tree to mark boldly the turning of the seasons.

The colder areas of the Hunter and south of Sydney are already gasping at the sight of a tree in full autumn alchemy, leaves fluttering like prayer flags on a continuum from yellow to fire engine red. Just as you might check out the Christmas lights in December, over the next couple of months walk or bike ride around your neighbourhood and admire the autumn foliage display. If you see one you like, take a few leaves to your local nursery for identification.

Better still, put one in the ground. Liquidambars are a great choice, the foliage turning yellow to orange to scarlet purple. These fast-growing deciduous trees can reach 25 metres, although the most stunning one I know is a standard planted in a half wine barrel. There are new varieties available, including ‘Gumball’, ‘Gold Dust’, ‘Parasol’ and ‘Rotundiloba’. A good choice for a smaller backyard tree is a Japanese maple. Growing to around five metres, as the leaves mature they darken in colour, then turn orange-red and crimson this time of year. Other favourites are claret ash, golden ash, gingko, tupelo and the Chinese tallow tree.

Contrary to popular belief, autumn beats spring as the best time to plant, the ground still warm from summer, but the humidity gone. Anything planted now has a chance to send its roots out and establish, rest over winter and then power away in spring. If you’ve been battling with lavenders in the heat, now is the time to plant afresh and reap the rewards of the fragrant spikes in spring and summer. Citrus and hedge plantings are recommended now too. 

Autumn annuals like primula, poppies, pansies and violas give a lovely show over winter. For the vegetable garden, it’s time to turf out the old tomatoes, capsicum and chilli and replace them with cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, broad beans and leafy greens such as rainbow chard, english spinach and kale. Fill pots with a good organic potting mix and bury spring flowering bulbs such as daffodil, jonquils, ranunculus and snow flake. It’s also time to do the last of the garden feeding with a certified organic feed such as Rapid Raiser or Organic Xtra, and follow it up with a layer of good mulch. As well as all the garden ‘doingses’, don’t forget a bench seat.

Autumn is a time to harvest and reflect, and prepare for the quiet of winter. 

Claire Dunn is the author of My Year Without Matches.