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The Canberra Times
The Canberra Times
Jackie French

All hail the drought-hardy hybrids

Bougainvillea give more reliable colour for longer than any climber I know. Picture Shutterstock

When I was a kid, you didn't ask for a variety of spud at the corner store, just "potatoes". "Spinach" was silverbeet, lettuce was "Iceberg" and watermelons were "watermelons", long and oval. These days we live in plant choice paradise, with hybrids bred to be tough, spectacular and not needing two hours of sweat work a day.

Most hybrids occur because humans get involved in the sex life of plants, crossing this variety with that, a kind of plant orgy producing hundreds of different progeny, with the best propagated and sold. I once had the joy of wandering a vast paddock of "new" golden roses, only one of which would be developed commercially.

Most new varieties don't stay on the market for long. Grab them while you can. I planted plum/apricot crosses called "plumcots" about 30 years ago. They are hard to find now, possibly because the trees gave inconsistent fruit, some more plum-like than apricot. But they were all good, and far more fruit fly resistant than apricots. Peachcots seem to have vanished too. But the cherry/plum cross I planted last year is in full white bloom and as tall as I am. I can't wait to see what it looks and tastes like - if I can grab some before the birds do.

Breeding has turned boring blooms into beauties. Hydrangeas used to be dull green, gaudy pink or gaudy blue, suitable only for the shady side of the house that no one bothered with. Now hydrangeas come in dozens of subtle shades and fascinating leaf shapes. Native erigeron bloom nearly all year round, which would have been glorious if only the tiny flowers were noticeable under the leaves. New varieties give larger flowers on strong, upstanding stems in stunning shades of pink, mauve, purple or white.

Sunflowers were always stunning, but usually produced only one gold bloom or a single head of flowers, which faded in a week or two. Modern "branching" sunflowers were bred for the cut flower market. They flower for months because they don't waste energy on pollen production. Sunflowers can now be short, medium or enormous Giant Russian, in white, mauve, red, deep red shading to yellow, pure gold, double or even "Teddybear" shaggy.

Cosmos once came in any colour as long as it was pale purple. Now they are a hundred shades of mauve, white or even multi-coloured. Nasturtiums and Californian poppies were once orange, orange or orange, but now have branched out into half a dozen colours.

Bougainvillea was purple, thorny and smothered everything in its path, even the cat if it failed to move fast. Purple bougainvillea is still the most frost-hardy and vigorous variety - ours grows over a couple of pittosporum trees. I planted a 30cm cutting just by sticking it in the ground where I wanted it to grow. Now we have an enormous mound of startlingly bright purple bracts to cheer us up when the rest of the garden is wilting.

The Canberra region's cold winters keep bougainvillea's "land grab" tendencies in check. I love them sprawling over archways, faster growing and giving more reliable colour for longer than any climber I know. Miniature bougainvillea look tidily elegant in hanging baskets along a sunny wall or patio, loving the heat and glare that make other plants wilt.

Sunflowers, erigeron, cosmos, nasturtiums, Californian poppies and bougainvillea are all great choices for a hot, dry summer. They love heat, and tolerate dry soil once established, though they do need water to grow much.

Our bougainvillea is already beginning to colour, six weeks earlier than it has in all the 30 years we've grown it. Every time I look at it - and the dwarf apples easily covered in bird netting, and the dwarf self-fertile almonds and cherries, I bless the plant breeders of the world, their garden lusts and their multi-plant orgies.

  • Next week: The complete guide to planting absolutely everything now.

This week I am:

  • Not picking the first asparagus spears, because they are still thinner than my little finger - the minimum size to pick if you want healthy plants. I need to water the vegie beds to get some luscious fat ones.
  • Not mulching. Mulch is glorious stuff for weed control and keeping moisture in. Mulch can also keep moisture out. Drought's 2mm rain showers tend to be soaked up by mulch before reaching the soil. Only mulch if you plan to water, or...
  • Mulch with rocks. Their reflected heat will speed up growth, and dew will condense on the stones at night and trickle onto the soil, enough to keep plants alive till the weather turns back to "wet". Use your own or buy those gorgeously smooth white, grey or grey-blue stones that come in several sizes. Use larger rocks in the garden, and pebbles for pots or hanging baskets.
  • Don't let warm breezes fool you. If the soil is warm enough to sit on, it's warm enough to plant. Get seed ready for next week's planting.
  • Stuffing red, purple, white, green, or multi-coloured hellebores into vases.
  • Hoping all the baby roos and wombats mean there'll be enough thunder storms for green grass and happy gardeners.

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