A Season Full of Bloom

Fifteen tried-and-true perennials, plus a few other thoughts on flowers and foliage.

Every May and June the garden centers are full of enthusiastic gardeners. Longing for the blooms of summer, they buy whatever is flowering at that moment, forgetting that these will not be the blooms that reward them later in the season.

The key to a well-rounded garden is getting long-lasting blooms to provide color and interest throughout the season. A limited plant list, and using enough of any one plant, makes a stronger statement and gives you a bigger bang for your buck.

As a professional gardener, I can suggest a few perennials that are my favorites for providing a backbone of bloom in the garden. If you have that, you can add any bit of fluff that you desire – even if it only lasts a week! These plants are tried and true, and there are also many, many new cultivars of these plants that are worthy, and I’ll mention a few. But sometimes the charm of the original wins out.

Echinacea purpurea: ‘Magnus’ used to be the new improved version of the mauve-rose standard, but now there are so many improved cultivars (‘Kim’s Knee High’, ‘Rubinstern’ (Ruby Star), ‘Rocky Top’, ‘Prairie Splendor’, ‘Elton Knight’), you can find any height, bloom size, and petal habit that you want. And then there are the colors! The whites are many, but I love ‘Fragrant Angel’ and ‘White Swan’, and ‘Pow Wow White’ is a shorter variety. There are orangey, coral, lime green, and gold varieties. They all like well-drained soil, and are a great presence in the garden.

Geranium: A friend of mine says her perennial geraniums – a completely different plant from the familiar cheery annual geraniums that populate many planters – are among the longest-living plants in her garden. They pop up freely here and there, and so reliably offer their bloom with no particular requirements. Most bloom on the early side of summer, but they are great additions that make any garden look established with their relaxed presence. And there are so many colors, foliage, and sizes. Some blues that work well are ‘Rozanne’, ‘Brookside’, the purple ‘Sandrine’, and the white Geranium sanguineum ‘Album’. For a vigorous, unfussy ground cover, I’d pick the macrorrhizum ‘Spessart’, with its fragrant leaves and pale pink bloom. You’ll soon be giving it to friends, as it really takes off and performs. (Pictured with creamy foxglove.)

Salvia: Try Salvia ‘Viola Klose’, ‘May Night’, ‘Lubeca’, ‘Caradonna’, or many other perennial salvias. Their blooms mainly occur until early July – often reblooming in the fall – but their intense blues are so stunning, I can’t ignore them as a brilliant addition.

Astilbe: This plant merits its own article. Preferring light shade, it will withstand full sun if irrigated well or given a bit of shade in the afternoon. There are now a full range of colors, sizes, and varieties, but most importantly, the new cultivars offer a later and longer bloom time. There are the Visions series, the Sprite series, the Keys, the Music series, and all the personalities such as Catherine Deneuve, Elizabeth Bloom, Ellie, White Gloria, and Hennie Graafland. I’d pick any of these by reading the labels. Get some early bloomers, some July/August bloomers, and some late ones, and you will surely have long interest. One of my favorites is the white ‘Rock and Roll’. And as much as I am touting the late bloom, my June-blooming, twenty-five-year-old clump of ‘Peach Blossom’ is stunning. There are plume types for a more relaxed, woodland look, and very thick, floriferous, and colorful plants for a big bang in your border, so the habit of the plant can fit your setting.

Helenium and Heliopsis: They are late-blooming, and if you like the yellows and reds of late summer, in the middle or back of the border, they can do the trick. They have an old-fashioned quality that makes them a very unsnobby addition. Helenium ‘Ruby Tuesday’, ‘Double Trouble’, ‘Sahin’s Early Flowerer’, and ‘Tijuana Brass’ are in the twenty-eight- to thirty-six-inch range, and Helenium ‘Kanaria’ and ‘Flammenspiel’ are four to five feet. Heliopsis ‘Summer Sun’ and ‘Summer Nights’ and ‘Prairie Sunset’ are between three and five feet and are very unfussy. (Pictured is Helenium.)

Phlox paniculata: Groupings in the garden can really give August the punch of color it needs, and phlox is about the only perennial that can give it so reliably. The only warning is to get the mildew-resistant varieties, and do not overhead water the garden or you’ll tempt them to develop moisture issues. Careful choosing of phlox varieties will provide wonderful color in your garden in the summer. My favorites? ‘David’, ‘Eco Pastel Dream’, ‘Little Princess’, ‘Speed Limit 45’, ‘Tracy’s Treasure’. A wonderful flower for August.

Rudbeckia: If you have a nice sunny spot and want the most impact for the least amount of work, and if you like bold color and texture, then black-eyed Susan is your plant. Rudbeckia fulgida ‘Goldsturm’ is the most popular and readily available, ‘Early Bird Gold’ is said to be earlier and longer-blooming, fulgida var. fulgida has a smaller bloom, and fulgida var. deamii is also really reliable. All of these plants hold up to any of the season’s challenges. There are also other rudbeckias that are useful in the landscape, but I mention the ones that are tried and true occupants of the perennial border. They fill in quickly too.

Leucanthemum ‘Becky’: Shasta daisy, a robust choice, has large white flowers lasting most of the summer (with no need for staking). It’s very shallow-rooted, and I’ve found that it’s best not to move it after September; I’d encourage dividing or moving in the earliest part of the season. Water it, but not too much, since it likes well-drained soil. Leucanthemum grows into a huge clump, so you can space the plants a little farther apart, as they will grow together very quickly.

Platycodon: Use this occasionally to accent the garden, because it is blue when there is hardly any other blue in the garden, and blue plays off all the other colors. It can cool things off, calm them down. Platycodon grandiflorus ‘Fuji Blue’ has inflated balloon-like buds (hence the common name, balloon flower). ‘Hakone Blue’ is a favorite because it’s a starry cup within a starry cup. ‘Hakone White’ is double as well, and the clear white lights up the evening and sets off the greens in the garden. There are pinks, whites, and blues. Platycodon is a strong performer.

Achillea ‘Moonshine’ or ‘Anthea’: These are my favorites, since I find the other pastels or hot colors just don’t perform as well on the Vineyard. I use some of ‘Apricot Delight’, ‘Wonderful Wampee’, ‘Strawberry Seduction’ (part of the Tutti Frutti series – the marketing!) and they do better than most, but I can really rely on ‘Moonshine’ and ‘Anthea’. ‘Coronation Gold’ is an old variety and reliable but more gold in color, and I like the true clear yellows the best. Well-drained soil is key, so don’t run your soaker hose through the middle of them.

Amsonia and Baptisia australis: These are very shrub-like with their three- to four-foot bushy foliage. Each of their blooms are very distinctive, and their blues are early, but with their interest of shape and their later season offerings of foliage color (Amsonia’s lanceolate leaves turn a glowing golden yellow and Baptisia has pea pods that turn black), they are interesting amid the other foliage in the late season. (Pictured is Baptisia.)

Peony: They are early but are so beautiful and fragrant that you must have some place for them. Irresistible! They have shrubby foliage after they bloom, so they retain usefulness in the summer landscape and in some drier seasons the fall foliage is a beautiful coral color. The whites are just lovely and ‘Duchess de Nemours’, ‘Festiva Maxima’, ‘Bowl of Cream’ are big doubles that are gorgeous and oomphy. There are more delicate single and semidoubles as well. My all-time favorite double pink is ‘Sara Bernhardt’, but ‘Dr. Alexander Fleming’, ‘Eden’s Perfume’, ‘Raspberry Sundae’, ‘Moonstone’, and ‘Pillow Talk’ can all vie to challenge this title. Peonies can last fifty years or more, so plant them where they can stay undisturbed. If you need to move them, do so in the early fall, and make sure their eyes are not buried too deeply.

Nepeta: A billowing silvery froth of blue blooms that last all summer. Some years it benefits from cutting back to the new mound of growth filling in at the center, and it keeps right on blooming. Last summer it just kept going and I never cut it back. Known commonly as catmint, it’s great paired with roses or in the front of the border. It complements other silver-leaved plants such as Perovskia, Caryopteris, and Artemesia ‘Powis Castle’. Remember that silvery plants generally need well-drained soil, so some might languish in soil too rich or damp. (Pictured with pansies.)

Coreopsis verticillata ‘Moonbeam’: So reliable that if you choose to introduce yellow at all, and you don’t want to fuss much with the individual plant, then this is a fine choice. Although coreopsis is now available in other colors, I find that although the label says that the feature is a larger bloom, I personally don’t want to have to deadhead larger blooms. The ‘Moonbeam’ really doesn’t need a deadhead. If you wish to shear the blooms when all are spent then you’ll get a full round of another bloom, but the larger blooms get messier when gone past.

Agastache ‘Blue Fortune’: This great plant requires no staking, is three feet tall, has spires of Wedgwood blue, and lasts until at least mid-August. Its bottlebrush bloom provides a subtle blue that is difficult to find after June. It is not at all fussy about soil type.

Other ideas for planting

There are so many plants, color themes, interesting foliage, and sun/soil conditions that it is extremely difficult to tell someone what to plant without seeing their space. Just know that you can hardly go wrong if you enjoy trying something and moving things around, but most importantly watch and listen. Ask yourself what you’re missing, what you need, and how you want to feel when you are in the garden.

To augment your perennials, consider a clump or two of annuals to brighten the late season. Choose several places among the perennials where you could add a group of a certain annual, or one color combination (for instance: white zinnias, white ageratum, ‘Envy’ zinnia, or pink snapdragon, pink zinnia, pink dahlia), and use a big enough space that the grouping is as substantial as your groups of perennials. The use of annuals in this fashion is justified because it creates a balance of shape and color. Tender salvias have a great blue to add to the late-season garden, and bloom until frost. Again, used with some careful thought about placement, they round out the garden.

A banking of roses can be a simple planting. ‘Seafoam’ and ‘Fairy’ are favorites, and all of the ‘Knock Outs’ are great. They are improving the varieties of roses so that you don’t have to spray them with chemicals or add noxious systemics to the soil. There are the little caterpillars in the early summer that you can treat organically, and you should be sure not to top-water, to avoid promoting disease.

An abundance of lavender is always a good thing if you have a sunny, well-drained area. ‘Provence’ or ‘Grosso’ are good choices.

The green of foliage should never be forgotten. There are so many different leaf types and plant habits that should be appreciated for just that. And the additions of ornamental grasses give a relaxed, cool, and calm look to any landscape. There are several heights of Pennisetum, Calamagrostis acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’ (a beautiful straight upright grass that “blooms” early), and some Hakonechloa for shade. And don’t forget ferns: This greenery can’t be beat. It’s far more interesting than mulch and does the same job.

The garden is ever-changing as things thrive, spread, or die out. Your needs change, your tastes change, the times and trends change, your interest in maintenance and willingness or ability to get into the dirt changes. There was a time when gardens were all about fluffy pinks and blues. White gardens, hot gardens, and then tropicals became popular, adding their gorgeous large leafy drama and color. And whoever would have thought that orange would have such a presence in the garden in recent years? Everything constantly changes and gardens are not exempt. The beauty of gardening is that these changes are not life-threatening, and somehow, even if we’ll never know if it was the wet winter or dry spring that caused our plant or garden to perform not so well, we still forge ahead. Somehow we almost embrace our ability to cope with the twists and turns and can commiserate with others to show how well we handled our crisis!

Perennials of the year

The Perennial Plant Association names a Perennial of the Year and recent awardees can be helpful with your choices. Still, be aware of your soil in choosing them, as not every entry in this list is perfect to coexist with the others, either on Martha’s Vineyard or at your particular site. It is good inspiration, however, and there are many new cultivars of each plant that should not be overlooked.

2012: Brunnera macrophylla ‘Jack Frost’

2011: Amsonia hubrichtii

2010: Baptisia australis

2009: Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’

2008: Geranium ‘Rozanne’

2007: Nepeta ‘Walker’s Low’

2006: Dianthus gratianopolitanus ‘Feuerhexe’

2005: Helleborus x hybridus

2004: Athyrium niponicum ‘Pictum’

2003: Leucanthemum ‘Becky’

2002: Phlox paniculata ‘David’