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Colorful as marigolds, tough as nails ... the new New Zealand flax.

One of the mild West's basic landscaping plants now comes in an array of new colors and sizes. Directly below, you see one form of the familiar standby, New Zealand flax (Phormium tenax). Filling out the lineup beside it are six new, smaller, more colorful varieties. The new kinds can stand alone or color-blend with other perennials.

It's their foliage that makes them so useful in the garden. Colorful all year, but especially brilliant in spring, flax grows in upright spikes or billowy fountains. The tong-lasting leaves are a bouquet-maker's delight.

Like new car models, the new flaxes have great promise but a performance record that's not yet consistent. Similar-looking plants are so by sever names, each growing a little differently. Kinds shown here are among the favorites so far.

Plant sizes in nurseries are deceptive. Most new hybrids grow to 3 to 4 feet tall, but some stay under 2 feet, and a few renegades rise to 6 feet. Still, their smaller size makes them more useful in most gardens than the old 10-foot P. tenax.

To test local performance, especially in hot areas, start with a single plant or small cluster. If this succeeds, then consider a larger planting, as at far right.

Easy near the coast, less so inland. In mild coastal areas, the new hybrids seem to be reliably rugged and extraordinarily easy to grow. The first year, water regularly. In coastal areas, plant in sun for brightest leaf color; for lushest growth, water established plants every two to four weeks in the ground, every 7 to 14 days in large containers. Flax in these areas can get by on considerably less water without hurting its looks. "The second summer, we watered flax in city median strips only twice during the dry season," says Santa Barbara maintenance supervisor Jim Anderson.

Plants are moderately hardy. Ones in coastal California survived temperatures down to 18 [degrees] last winter with little or no damage (the hillside at far right was photographed only days later). Sustained temperatures below 150 will kill them. Potted plants are especially vulnerable; bring them inside in a hard freeze.

Inland, the hotter and drier the climate, the more difficult flax is to grow. Plants will need more water, and shelter ftom intense heat. Plant along an east or north wall for afternoon shade and among low ground covers or under mulch to give them a cool root run. Upright forms such as 'Sundowner' and the old P. tenax are most tolerant of heat.

Maintenance is minimal

Plant in fast-draining soil that's not too fertile. To encourage colorful new growth, feed once in early spring, perhaps once again in early summer-no more.

A few times a year, cut off shabby leaves at the base. To keep plants from reverting to green, remove any plain green leaves. If leaves scorch, provide more water, shade, or both; pastels are most susceptible.

In gopher country, protect roots by planting in a cage of 1/4-inch wire mesh.

Where to hunt for the new flaxes

Check nurseries known for uncommon plants; they may order them for you. A 5gallon plant costs about $15 to $20. Or mail-order from Stallings Ranch, 910 Encinitas Blvd., Encinitas, Calif. 92024 (catalog $3, refundable with order).
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Copyright 1989 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Date:Jul 1, 1989
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