Sunday, July 6, 2014

Summer Stalwarts

I've maintained this northern Virginia garden for a little more than 10 years, tending it one day a week, which never seems enough.  (Notice the yew hedge on the left needs trimming?)  A talented engineer turned garden designer is responsible for the garden's basic structure and layout, but I've tweaked the plantings quite a bit during my time--adding, subtracting, and moving things around.

I took these photographs about three weeks ago.  Now that the heat of summer is coming on it's the stalwart plants that have to carry the garden.  Sometimes the attraction is the flowers, but it's foliage, too, like the cool blue of  Dianthus 'Pixie' along the pea gravel path (they finished blooming several weeks ago) and the yellow leaves of Spiraea thunbergii 'Ogon'  just to the left of Clematis 'Etiole Violette.'

This is probably the most formal part of the garden. It was once a rose garden, but, about three years ago, the owner asked me to redesign it (the roses weren't getting enough sun) and it became a blue, white, and yellow garden.  There's a row of Hydrangea arborescens 'Annabelle' on the right and towards the back in the photo below.

Some shade helps this plant look its best and keeps it from flopping and wilting in the heat and humidity of our Virginia summers. They always bounce back when it cools off but they can look pretty forlorn when they droop. Annabelles are planted in deep shade in another part of the garden and they still bloom, though the flowers are a bit smaller and tinged a more greenish shade of white.   I think they could be used more often as a shade shrub, brightening up areas with low light; after all, that's where they occur in nature.   Like Oak Leaf Hydrangeas, the blooms of H. arborescens are effective for a long, long time and still interesting when they dry to the color of creme-brulee, often remaining presentable through most of  the winter.  When pruning them back in late winter or early spring (they bloom on new wood), I now leave a longer cane-- maybe 8 to 12 inches when I used to whack them back to about 4 inches--which also seems to help them stay more upright and avoid the splay that can occur when they are in full flower.  I've forgotten to prune the ones in the shady outlier bed and they've looked fine, so it's possible to skip a year of pruning, but they will fill out more quickly if you do prune.  And, by the way,  H. arborescens and quercifolia were unfazed by the severe winter, unlike macrophylla and paniculata (though these are resprouting from the ground.)

Below is a better view of Spiraea 'Ogon' on either side of the bird bath.  Kalameris 'Daisy Mae'  is the little white composite in the foreground, an Asian aster that's a workhouse, blooming steadily through August and then fizzling out about when our native Asters get going.   The tall, narrow spikes of  Liatris spicata 'Floristan White," are blooming now, but weren't when I took this picture.

If the pots in the foreground of the photo above were visible, they'd be to the right
That's Sykes dwarf Hydrangea quercifolia in between the Spiraea.  I also planted a H. 'Pee Wee,' though it hasn't remained particularly small; I've had to prune it to keep it in bounds.

Liatris flower spikes are interesting even before they bloom. 

One of the many new cultivars of Echinacea  below.  This one I think is 'Sundown.'  It blooms orange, but tends to fade to pink.   The white flower behind it is Daphne x transaltantic 'Summer Ice' and seems quite robust (especially for a Daphe).  It came through our crazy cold, snowy winter virtually unscathed.   And it's variegated, which should make it even more popular.

The garden's biggest and boldest feature is this pond.  It looks natural but isn't.

We, the owner and I, wade in about twice a year to pull out decayed plant debris and thin all plants, including the cattails, which had to be removed soon after the owner  planted them. (They are incredibly aggressive and probably will always reappear.)  Once a pond is dug maintaining it is all about keeping it from filling in again.  Given that this one has a liner it will happen a bit more slowly, but still that's the trend. Claude Monet's Giverny, which I've only seen in pictures, is the inspiration for this pond and certainly the profusion of water lilys and the general exuberance gives it a similar feeling.

The native water lilys (Nymphaea) never fail to reappear each summer and require little or no maintenance, except to be thinned out occasionally.

A path leads around the back of the pond and over a small water fall where native Tradescantia virginiana grows.  The flowers are a nice shade of blue, but it has a somewhat gawky habit, so I have to think twice about where to put it.

Also at the back of the pond (you can see it in one of the larger scale photos above) is one of my favorite shrubs, Bottlebrush Buckeye (Aesculus parviflora), which is now blooming its head off but was just beginning when I took these photographs.  Some may remember an earlier edition of Michael Dirr's Manual of Woody Plants, which featured a cover photo of this adaptable, bold-foliaged member of the Soapberry family (Sapindaceae) turning yellow, which it does reliably in the fall, as well as blooming on and around the 4th of July.  In fact, the blossoms call to mind some sort of botanical sparkler.

Back in the mixed border tough plants like Gaillardia (Blanket Flower), Rose Campion (Silene coronaria), Oenethera fruiticosa (Evening Primrose), Allium sphaerocephalon, (Drumstick allium), and Echinops ritro (Globe thistle, not yet blooming in these photos) soldier on even in the murk of 90% humidity.  Okay, Rose Campion often ends up with ratty looking legs (caused by a fungus that comes with high humidity and rainfall) after it blooms, but I just cut it back hard or pull it out completely.  It will always reseed somewhere else.

Some might find the magenta Rose Campion and the mustard yellow Gallardia  a jarring color combination, but when the Allium blooms a deep purple they seem to temper things.

This Yucca recurvifolia below provides some architecture to focus on in the midst of the chaotic, intermingling perennials.

What favorite summer stalwarts do you use to keep the garden looking good through the hottest summer months?


  1. Beautiful garden! And great photos!

  2. Thanks, Susan. I'll have to show it to you next time you visit.

  3. Beautiful. And it's so good to have input on what stands up to D.C.'s summer heat and humidity.

    1. Thanks, Cindy. I could probably continue on into the really HOT days with more info about what withstands the heat and humidity of July and August

  4. Great topic and fabulous photos - especially liked the upright liatris in front of the garden bench. I took notes on quite a few of the plants.

  5. Interesting that you liked that pic -- I skipped over it at first and then went back and, on reviewing, decided I liked it too. Learning to look at photos is an skill in itself, I think, as photo editors must know....

  6. Wonderful post and some outstanding photos!

  7. Thanks, Melissa. High praise coming from you.

  8. Sarah, a very interesting garden indeed. I'm a fan of the Spirea 'Ogon' as well. Such a brilliant green. Not having a water feature is the biggest failing of my garden but I can see that it must be a tremendous amount of labor. Especially without having the same size staff as Monet. Thanks for stopping by MacGardens by the way.