Cultivating a Culture of Gardening™

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Summer Perennials

Enjoy the High Notes of a Soaring Summer Sonata

Sonata - Music of a particular form consisting of four movements. Each of the movements differ in tempo, rhythm, and melody; but are held together by subject and style.

In the ebb and flow of a garden’s transition, the profusion of plants can take on an orchestrated rhythm. With an experienced hand, a gardener can create a horticultural sonata throughout the year, with each of the four seasonal movements filled with tempo, rhythm, and melody. The idea of exploring the parity of plants and music is the passion of poets, and can best be visualized in the Toronto Music Garden designed by Julie Moir Messervy. But in this article the focus is going to be on the high notes – those soaring summer perennials that lift your eye and gladden your heart.

Reaching upwards like the final notes of a Martina McBride ballad is one of this country girl’s favorite golden flowers – Rudbeckia maxima. Tall and bold, this perennial can reach up to 7 feet with central cones around 4 inches tall. The bluish oblong leaves look almost like a stuffed bunny’s floppy ears, but there is nothing floppy about these long, thin stems. You’ll find the flowers shooting off in all directions but you’ll rarely find them batted down by heavy rains. These plants are tough and easy to grow in all but soggy soil. Add this Rudbeckia in your cut flower bed to liven up your bouquets and to bring in the goldfinch.

While being listed continually as a tropical plant, I have yet to have a canna refuse to return in my zone 6b area. The foliage alone on varieties like ‘Bengal Tiger’, ‘Tropicanna’, ‘Red King Humbert’, and ‘Black Knight’ will jazz up any flower bed. Prolifically blooming on 4’-6’ stalks, these thrive in full sun and flower best with moist soil. Use these as a summer hedge (you will cut them back to the ground in late fall) or as backdrop to your perennial bed. ‘Cleopatra’ and ‘Yellow King Humbert’ will make you feel like dancing with their happy bicolor flowers.

Hollyhock, Alcea rosea, is an old fashioned favorite that is hard to beat for height and flowers the size of a 45 album. (Those younger than 50 will need to ask your parents about that comparison). ‘Chatters Double’ is a nursery center favorite with it long blooming season and its towering flowers of up to 6 feet. The Hollyhock’s big lobed leaves make an attractive mound before flowering but will need shorter perennials in front to hide it’s late season rattiness. They thrive best in dry soil and seem to never need staking. Varieties like ‘Indian Spring’ are easy to grow by seed, and I love the heirloom quality of these single blooms.

If you love a self-sowing perennial, Verbena bonariensis is an airy purple flower that will lighten up the mood of your garden. Gently swaying in the summer sun, these blooms last through until the fall. Give them sun and watch them reach up to six feet tall.

Short-lived but as vital to a summer garden as a falsetto to an American Idol contestant are the myriad of tall bearded Irises (the Tennessee state flower) and Hemerocallis hybrids. Daylilies and Iris are about as drought tolerant and easy to grow as a beautiful flower can be. Because they multiply quickly you will find that you can become wildly popular during August when you let folks know that you are dividing your iris or daylilies. Hemerocallis ‘Ruby Spider’ was a favorite among the daylily diehards, but ‘Bela Lugosi’, ‘All American Chief’, ‘Chicago Apache’, and ‘Hyperion’ are a few faithful giants.

As with any classic musical piece, the story’s not over until the fat lady sings. Late in June the fat lady of my garden starts singing – only this fat lady is named ‘Lord Baltimore’. Hibiscus moscheutos, perennial hibiscus, will bloom until the nights get cold bringing more bodacious color than you could hope for. Flowers that are 8-12 inches wide bloom a brilliant crimson red on a lush green bushy plant. But don’t be surprised if you can’t find it in early February; it will die back to the ground and come bursting out in May. Look for ‘Disco Bell’ or ‘Lady Baltimore’ for your pink tones.

Let the inspiration of these high notes take you to orchestrating your own garden sonata, full of rhythm, melody, and tempo to bring music to your eyes.