Gardening: Colour for kitty corner

By Leigh Bramwell

We have what I call "the cat garden" beside our studio.

It's been neglected for the past couple of years because we're always planning to extend the studio but never quite get around to it. So it's home to a rampant Queen of the Night that I can't bring myself to kill, lots of tall weeds with scary numbers of seed heads, and two cats (hence the name) who like to sleep there during the day because it's shady and private.

Last year, in a rush of blood to the head, we cleared alongside the path, planted something that looked like it might cover a multitude of sins, and then forgot about it again. The unidentified plant made pretty mauve flowers, died in the winter, and reappeared a while ago twice its original size with more pretty mauve flowers. "I'm liking that stuff," I told The Landscaper.

I had no idea what it was until I read an article on an American website yesterday about the Perennial of the Year. Every year in the US, a group of plant breeders, nurserymen, and garden writers select a Perennial of the Year. The article detailed their picks right back to 1990, promising that "these plants are sure to be winners in your garden". And on the list was the mauve sweetie from our cat garden.

Allow me to introduce the 1994 Perennial of the Year, Sprite Astilbe. "This," promised the write-up, "will fill your shade garden with charm and colour. It features pink, feather-like plumes in early summer over finely textured rich green foliage. It will grow 1m x 80cm. Plant it with hosta, bleeding heart, or Canadian wild ginger."

Ours is planted with cats and weeds but there's no question it deserved its 1994 title.

These perennials, I thought, are worth checking out. A group of gardeners and plants people far more knowledgeable and dedicated than I am have done the legwork on them and saved me a load of research.

A couple of years later, Husker Red Penstemon took the title.

The judges found it one of the easiest perennials to grow, reaching 1m by 80cm, with purple-red foliage and white flowers all summer long. It's native to areas of southeastern and central North America, so it stands up well to heat and humidity. Not to be relegated to the cat garden, then, but definitely a starter for most other places on our property.

The Landscaper, however, is enamoured of this year's choice as a suitable plant for his almost-totally-native shady garden at the lower end of the property. Variegated Solomon's Seal is not a Kiwi but an easy-grow North American plant ideal for shade and woodland gardens. It offers white, bell-shape flowers in spring, variegated foliage in summer, and warm, golden shades in autumn.

Last year, another shade lover, Brunnera Jack Frost, took the honours. Another stunner for the almost-totally-native garden, it has silver-variegated leaves that look good from spring to autumn, and clusters of sky-blue forget-me-not flowers.

In 2010, a wee charmer called Baptisia australis took the honours.

The panel said it had everything going for it: heat, drought, deer and rabbit resistant, it doesn't need to be divided, lovely seed heads, it thrives in sun but tolerates part-shade - and it's purple, my favourite colour this month. It also has blue-green foliage that looks great in the garden from spring to autumn. It gets big, too - close to 2m tall. It was suggested that it be planted with giant allium, which sent me trawling the net to find out if these stunners could be found in New Zealand. They can, so it's entirely possible a new love affair is about to begin. Fifteen years before, Russian Sage was the Perennial of the Year and would go well with the Baptisia. It thrives in hot, dry spots and produces silvery foliage topped with clouds of lavender flowers. I am in love.

Little treats to inspire

Need a break from the garden, or an infusion of new ideas? Then check out some of the upcoming garden events.

The New Zealand Edible Garden Show, scheduled for February 22 and 23, sounds like a tasty one to me. It's a three-day event celebrating all aspects of edible gardening including food, landscape design and animals, plus workshops and presentations. It's on at the A&P Showgrounds in Hastings and there's more info at

There's more about food at the Ocean & Orchard Wine & Food Festival, Kerikeri, on February 23. This event showcases the variety of produce being grown in the region, the artisan foodie culture, boutique vineyards and seafood. Grab a complimentary glass of bubbles and eat your way through the day.

Trust Dunedin to come up with a gorgeous, old-fashioned Horticultural Society Grand Summer Show. You'll find summer flowers including dahlias and roses, floral art, bonsai, fruit and vegetables, a plant sales table, raffles and, of course, afternoon tea. It's at Forbury Park Raceway on February 23 and 24.

Put Taupo's Baches to Beautiful Homes Tour on your schedule and enjoy the opportunity to view a diverse selection of private homes. The properties feature creative interiors, dynamic architecture, sustainable design and fantastic autumn gardens. It's on March 22. Have a sneak preview at


- Hamilton News

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