By August, most perennial gardens are fading away. But with a little planning, you can tailor your plantings for a strong end-of-summer show
Once the dog days of summer hit, flower gardens generally start looking tired. Colors wash out, edges brown, blossoms become fewer in number. But Catherine Mix needs glorious, color-filled beds from June to September. As co-owner of The Cutting Garden in Sequim, Washington, with her husband, Tom, she tends several acres of gardens that serve as a lush backdrop for weddings and other outdoor events and provide blooms for the bouquets and flower arrangements she creates. So she's discovered plants and strategies that deliver a brilliant show even in late summer. Here are some of her tricks that any homeowner can try:
Make it easy. Mix grows a wide array of plants, including long-blooming annuals like asters, cosmos, zinnias, sunflowers, lisianthus, and celosia. After planting, she mulches once with a 3-inch layer of rich compost to deter weed seeds, conserve soil moisture, and add nourishment. She also grows a number of flowers that self-seed in her beds. "If you don't weed too hard in spring, these come back every year," she says.
Shown: A brick walkway surrounded by vibrant blooms wends its way through an arch in this Spokane, Washington, garden. The plantings showcase some of grower Catherine Mix's favorites for late-season color: towering multicolored dahlias, as well as snapdragons (shown in white) that she keeps in bloom with constant deadheading.
As soon as early-blooming delphiniums (shown) pass their peak, Mix cuts them back nearly to the ground and coaxes them into producing a second flush of flowers. She constantly deadheads other summer bloomers, such as scabiosa, snapdragon, and catmint, so that they're always flowering.
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Some of the best plants for late-summer-to-early-fall color, such as chrysanthemums, asters, and 'Autumn Joy' sedum (shown), tend to flop over just when they're about to bloom. Mix's solution? Cut back the stems by a third when the plants are about half their expected height. "They bloom later," Mix says. "But they stay lower to the ground, so they don't splay as much." Similarly, she selectively cuts back several lavender plants in each cluster when they're 1 to 2 inches tall. "Doing this can move back their bloom time by two to four weeks for a second wave of color."
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Zone Your Garden
Lavender (shown), sage, and other plants that flourish in Mediterranean regions are good choices for late-summer color. But Mix has found that even in Sequim's arid climate-it gets just 13 inches of rain a year-what works for other perennials doesn't work for these drought-tolerant species. "We were killing them with too much water and nutrition," she says. So now she dedicates a couple of "dry" beds, with no irrigation, to their needs. Rather than mulch with compost, she lays water-permeable ground cloth, cuts X's through it to add plants, then spreads bark nuggets to keep the soil free of debris. Ongoing care is easy, since these plants do better when watered only rarely.
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Make Shade an Ally
Hydrangeas grow in sun or shade in the Northwest, but Mix has discovered that the ones she plants in sun bloom for about two weeks, while those in shade stay in bloom for two months. In addition to blue mopheads, she especially loves Hydrangea paniculata 'Limelight' (shown), whose cone-shaped flower clusters are green when they first appear and then mature to white.
Wish you could put Mix's advice to work right now? You can. Shop for potted perennials in their full glory, dig holes where you want them, drop them in (pot and all), and enjoy. If you decide to change their locations, moving them is easy. Since perennials generally do best if planted in early spring or late fall, wait for them to begin to die back, then plant them properly. They'll be flush with color again this time next summer.
SEE ALL: Summer Color Plant List
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