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There’s a rainbow of colour waiting for you in August and September gardens

by Jodi Delong

Back in the not-so-merry month of May, we wondered if the sun would ever come out and warm up the gardens—and the gardeners. Happily, as I write this, it’s balmy outside, there are bees and butterflies and hummingbirds everywhere, and the gardens are bursting with flowers in every colour imaginable. It’s the peak of early summer bloom, but before long, some gardeners will be frustrated about the dreaded “midsummer meltdown” when the delphinium and peonies are past, the early bloomers have gone back to sleep, and there’s “no colour” in the garden.

The truth of the matter is, there is always colour in the garden, and especially in high summer. You may need to plan a little before the midseason comes, but there are all sorts of ways to keep your plantings awash in colour, with a little effort and imagination.

Colourful foliage

We often select shrubs and trees for their fall colour display, but there are many choices for spring and summer colour, too. Of course, green is a colour, and there are many shades of green, but they can be complemented by foliage that is gold, bronze, mahogany, purple or variegated throughout the seasons. Among my favourite shrubs are ninebark varieties like ‘Amber Jubilee’ and ‘Summer Wine,’ barberries like ‘Rose Glow’ and ‘Sunjoy Gold Pillar,’ golden-foliage forms of shrub willow and dogwood, the lovely if exuberant dappled ‘Nishiki’ willow, and some of the weigelas like ‘My Monet.’

Evergreens, too, don’t have to be only ever-green—they come in gold, bronze, blue, and variegated forms, some in very dwarf size which makes them ideal for smaller gardens, or even containers.

Perennials also can sport flashy foliage colours, from the blazing oranges of Euphorbia ‘Fireglow’ or ‘Bonfire,’ to deep purple-foliaged penstemons, to various hostas and heucheras (coral bells) to the spring flowering Pulmonaria with their silver-spangled leaves, and a host of newer perennials with variegated foliage.

Reblooming plants

While most shrubs and trees flower once a year and that’s that, some have a very long season of bloom, like the Cornus kousa varieties of dogwood. One of the most beautiful of flowering woody plants is Heptacodium, or seven sons flower. This large shrub puts up multiple stems and flowers in mid to late summer with fragrant white flowers, which turn into striking rose red fruit in autumn. Some clematis will rebloom, or even come into full bloom in late summer: ‘Sweet Summer Love’ covers itself with sprays of small purple blooms throughout the growing season, and ‘Sweet Autumn’ clematis is so heavy with blooms you can scarcely see the foliage. Many roses, too, will rebloom especially if you’ve been diligent in feeding and deadheading them. There are numerous reblooming lilacs on the market as well, and for those who are prepared to baby them a little, many Buddleia (butterfly bush) and hardy Hibiscus varieties also put on their best show in mid to late summer and beyond.

With perennials, you can often get a reblooming period if you have deadheaded your plants of spent flower stalks, but some perennials bloom once and are done until next year. Peonies, most poppies, delphinium, baptisia, penstemons and many daylilies bloom just once a season. Other perennials will happily rebloom, including foxglove, delphinium, echinacea, coreopsis, Gaillardia (blanketflower), Achillea (yarrow), Scabiosa (pincushion flower) and certain daylilies like ‘Stella d’Oro,’ ‘Happy Returns,’ and others.

Containers of colourful annuals help to perk up a part of the garden where there’s a lull in flowering

Supplementing with containers

It could be said I have a problem with containers, in that I plant a lot of them, primarily in annuals to provide moveable colour throughout the summer. Over the years I’ve amassed quite a number of glazed ceramic pots and spend a good chunk of June creating containers brimming with colour. It’s a bit late now to go look for annuals for containers, (except for the approaching fall colours of chrysanthemums, annual grasses, flowering kale and such) but if you have been looking after your containers with care, deadheading, watering and feeding them, they should do well throughout summer until frost. 

As with garden plantings, most of my containers include a mixture of colourful foliage and blooms—foliage plants like coleus, sweet potato vines and ornamental clovers adding beautifully to mixtures of African daisies, verbena, million-bells and other annuals that followed me home in May and June.

There are other annuals planted out in the gardens in a sort of scattershot approach, most of which bloom throughout July and into August—poppies, marigolds, cosmos, nigella—and some of which will keep going well into fall. If you can find it, I hugely recommend a type of verbena with the somewhat clunky name of Verbena bonariensis. This can grow up to six feet tall and covers itself in clusters of small purple flowers which besot hummingbirds and butterflies and bees galore.

The late bloomers

Then there are those perennials and shrubs that start to show off in midsummer or a little later, and keep going until well into autumn. We mentioned Buddleia and Hibiscus earlier, and they can be very gratifying. Butterfly bush grows very quickly, but it’s marginally hardy in much of our region, so I tend to buy it as a small plant in the spring, put it in and let it do its thing all season: and if it doesn’t survive the winter, so be it. With hibiscus, there are a number of varieties that are touted as being hardy, like the Rose of Sharon varieties that bloom on handsome shrubs. The ‘Luna’ hibiscus, however, are tender perennials, so they may come back each year or may not. They grow quickly and produce huge, spectacular flowers in shades of red, pink and bicolour combinations, and they are usually reasonably priced.

Hydrangeas too can be long blooming show-offs, although you do have to be careful in choosing the right ones for your hardiness zone. You can’t go wrong with the Annabelle types, which are tough as nails, or with the so-called PeeGee varieties with their cone-shaped clusters of flowers. These tend to bloom on old and new wood, so they rarely fail.

The problem comes with varieties of so-called mop-head and lacecap hydrangea varieties, many of which bloom on last year’s wood. I dug up and tossed out five such varieties this year, after going through them dying back to the ground every year for the past three, and never flowering because they were always producing new growth from the base of the plant. Sometimes, you have to be firm with plants! My favourites these days are ‘Limelight,’ ‘Quickfire,’ and ‘Invincibelle Ruby,’ all of which are tough as nails and flower vigourously all season long.

With perennials, there are a number that start their show in August. I am particularly fond of gentians, which come in an amazing number of species and produce truly gentian-hued flowers—a nice relief or contrast to the myriad yellows and oranges and reds of the later garden. We all know about the late season asters, which come in a rewarding number of heights and colours and bloom often well into October. If you see it anywhere, pick up New York ironweed (Vernonia, not to be confused with Veronica). This plant has presence—often towering seven feet or more in the back of the garden, with brilliant purple flowers that bees and butterflies love. Others to look for include echinaceas, which will bloom for months with deadheading—look for ‘Cheyenne Spirit,’ one of the most interesting hardy choices as it flowers in a variety of shades (if you have several plants). An underused yet stunning perennial is Tricyrtis, the so-called toad lily, which has dozens of loonie-sized pale flowers dappled with contrasting purple spots. There are also a number of Rudbeckia, Helianthus and Heliopsis choices that bloom throughout August and September: these are all members of the aster/sunflower family and come in striking shades of yellow. Among my favourites are Heliopsis ‘Prairie Sunset,’ Helianthus ‘Lemon Queen’ and Rudbeckia ‘Herbstsonne.’ These sunny-flowered beauties are fairly tall, so plant them near the back of your border for greatest impact.

Many ornamental grasses don’t come into their glory until later summer, with lush clumps of foliage and graceful stalks of flowers that wave in a breeze and sing songs to the gardener. There are smaller ornamental grasses if you don’t have room for tall Miscanthus plants, but one thing to make sure of is their growth habit—make sure they are clumpers, not spreaders, or you’ll be digging out errant plants. Among my personal favourites are little bluestem (Schizachyrium), northern sea oats (Chasmanthium), and any of the switch grasses (Panicum) includingHeavy Metal’ and ‘Rotstrahlbusch.’ And if you have room for only one Miscanthus (Japanese silver grass), make it M. sinensis var. purpurascens, which is also known as purple flame grass and has spectacular fall colour and showy seedheads well into winter. 

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