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Originally published August 16, 2013 at 11:06 AM | Page modified August 22, 2013 at 10:12 AM

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Agapanthus make you happy to have the blues

Plantsman Dan Hinkley inherited a clump of agapanthus when he moved to Windcliff and he was hooked. “I love the rich, dreamy quality of all that blue,” he says.

Special to The Seattle Times

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ONE GLANCE at Dan Hinkley’s garden anytime from early July through October, and you’re disabused of the notion that agapanthus are only for hot climates. From terrace to cliffside, Windcliff is awash with blue blooms in shades from clear Aegean Sea to inky-dark cobalt. In the full sun of a southwest-facing bluff, Hinkley grows more than 65 species and cultivars, wholeheartedly demonstrating the fact that the name “agapanthus” comes from agape, one of the Greek words for love.

“The genus found me, I didn’t seek it out,” says Hinkley of his agapanthus adoration. “I inherited a clump when we moved to Windcliff, and that was the start of it.” What’s so special about these South African perennials commonly known as ‘Lily of the Nile’? “They add an almost springlike quality to the late-summer garden,” says Hinkley. “I love the rich, dreamy quality of all that blue.”

Windcliff is the perfect site for agapanthus because they prefer to bake in at least a half-day of bright sunshine. Provide them with heat and good drainage, and they’ll repay you by returning year after year in bigger and bigger clumps. They do require some midsummer watering and resent being mulched. Agapanthus look great growing in containers, but potted ones need some winter protection.

As for fall cleanup, Hinkley advises leaving the spent flower heads to attract birds and provide winter interest as the garden dies down. After the first freeze, agapanthus’ strappy leaves are a big, oozy mess you want to leave to dry in place. By March, it’s a simple task to clear away the dead leaves to make way for the new ones.

So why can’t I get ‘Stormcloud’ agapanthus to bloom in my Langley garden? “Great name, bad plant in my opinion,” says Hinkley. Turns out ‘Stormcloud,’ which I chose for the deep blue of its flowers, is one of the worst performers in our climate. The balky thing takes two to three years to form buds after a bad winter.

Hinkley points out that some agapanthus are more tolerant of cold than others and, unfortunately, the kinds most widely available in nurseries are not the ones that do best in the Northwest. He’s found that the less evergreen the agapanthus, the more hardy it turns out to be. The plants that disappear over the winter are the most likely to reappear and bloom happily the next year.

Of all the agapanthus he grows, which kinds does Hinkley recommend for those of us with gardens less ideally suited?

“I went nuts when I first saw A. inapterus ‘Graskop’ in South Africa,” he says. This deep violet beauty is fully deciduous and very hardy. He admires ‘Loch Hope’ for its statuesque height and late bloom time (it flowers all the way into October). Then there’s Hinkley’s own selection of ‘Blue Leap,’ now produced by Monrovia Nursery. This especially vigorous cultivar blooms in August, with huge flower heads on hundreds of stems. All three recommended varieties are available at specialty sales and nurseries. Hinkley is sure to be selling some of his favorites Sept. 7 at the Heronswood Open House (see for details).

And what plants consort best with these showstoppers? Hinkley grows them with ornamental grasses such as panicum and Stipa gigantea. Crocosmia likes the same conditions, and its orange flowers are a perfect contrast to all the shades of agapanthus blue.

Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer. Check out her blog at www.valeaston.com.

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