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shallotsI always find gardens exciting but this week they excelled, handing me a raft of interesting surprises. The first was in the vegetable garden.

Spring in my part of the country was non existent last year with heavy, persistent rain and bitingly cold temperatures. With summer refusing to arrive until mid February, I watched with dismay as my usually robust, cold-tolerant shallots grew bright green tops then simply rotted in the ground. Fearing I wouldn't have even enough bulbs to replant next spring, I popped several more into the ground part way through December. And lo and behold, when I checked on them this week, these usually long season vegetables (normally planted in early September and pulled from the ground at the start of autumn) were a perfectly decent size. And they'd put on all this growth in just 12 weeks! It's really taught me not to get stuck in my ways. From now on, I won't be planting my shallots until November (or later, if conditions look wet and cold).

My next delight was discovered at a friend's house. Glorious bright red blooms born on slender, long stems were showing off around the edge of his deck. I felt I should recognise these plants but couldn't place them. When I enquired, my friend told me they were narines. “Nerines!” I exclaimed. “But nerines are pink!” Yes, they are pink but it turns out they come in a range of other colours, too, from golden yellow and tangerine to salmon pink and white. The ones I was enjoying were almost certainly Fothergill minor.

Nerines are a boon for time-pressed gardeners like me because they thrive on 'lack of disturbance' (a rather swanky term for 'plant and forget'!). Better still, they enjoy a really hot, dry spot so if you don't have time to water, no problem. My pink nerines grow in a particularly neglected patch at the foot of some native trees, in ground as dry as dust. They bloom faithfully in autumn and there are more and more each year as they divide. I particularly enjoy them because they are so distinctive among they usual orangy-browns of autumn.

Nerines can be planted any time from autumn through until early winter. Some are less hardy than others but this is compensated for by the fact that they can be tucked under sheltering hedges and the eves of the house on the sunny side.

My last dash of excitement came via my neighbour's garden. I live in a region where rata flowers profusely from mid December until early January and I wouldn't be without it. But I also have a hankering for the red flowers of pohutakawa backed by dusky, soft-green leaves. Of course, It's much too cold here for them in the south so when I spotted Metrosideros Excelsa Mmstral (the Mistral Pohutakawa) I thought all my Christmases had come at once. It turns out this tidy, upright tree is a natural hybrid of Pohutakawa and Rata with the hardiness and slower growing characteristics of the latter. Although I don't imagine I'll be requiring the tree I buy to put up with too much drought here in the Catlins, it can apparently handle dry conditions.

Every day, there's a discovery to be made in the garden, so much so that, dedicated travelaholic though I am, I often find as much novelty in my own backyard as I do in some far flung country on the other side of the world!

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