Sunday, August 25, 2013


A Limelight hydrangea in our front yard this week.

     These are the "Dog Days" of summer, a term that goes back to the ancient Romans. That was the period during which the world came under the spell of the "dog star," Sirius -- the brightest star in the constellation of Canus Major ("large dog", now known as the Big Dipper). The Romans made sacrifices to Sirius to appease it's rage and lessen the intense heat and humidity of the Roman August.

     The dog days have pursued us down the centuries. As late as the 19th Century someone could write that:

     "the Sea boiled, the Wine turned sour, Dogs grew mad, and all other creatures grew languid; causing to man, among other diseases, burning fevers, hysterics, and phrensies."

     Fortunately, our plants do not have phrensies. But for many gardeners this is a dead time in the year. The problem lies not in our plants, however, but in us.. There are many plants of all sorts that thrive during the "dog days."

Our Black-eyed Susan's today.

     Perennial lovers know this better than the rest of us. Among our native plants we can include cone flowers, black-eyed Susan's, and Shasta daisies. We can add as well Russian sage and Japanese anemone.
Japanese anemone

     Summer loving shrubs are less familiar to some. Rose of Sharon became "old fashioned"about the same time as  ranch houses became popular and deserves to be brought back. There are many hydrangea that thrive in August from the sun-loving paniculata (like "Limelight") to shade loving quercifolia (oakleaf).

     My friend Pauline gave me two butterfly bushes this spring. They are only now getting settled in their new "digs." Nevertheless,they have already brought new butterflies. And we now have hummingbirds in our yard for the first time.Thanks, Pauline.

     More on"Dog Days" at another time. I am growing "languid."


Saturday, August 10, 2013


     There is an entire group of flowering perennials out there that I call "floppers." they are not genetically related and their flowers range from attractive to spectacular. They share only one trait: they do not have what it takes to stand up straight.
The blooms on this Chinese trumpet lily are dazzling.

     There are many cultivars in this unfortunate category, but I will restrict myself to two of the most common: Asiatic lilies and phlox.

     Asiatic, or Oriental, or Chinese, etc., are  true lilies of the species Lilium rather than the day lilies we see so many of. They are summer-flowering bulbs that can provide spectacular color after the spring-bloomers are long gone.

Garden phlox.
     There are 67 species of phlox. We are most familiar with creeping phlox -- used as a ground cover -- and Phlox paniculata, or garden phlox. It is the many varieties of garden phlox that we grew up with and can not part from. Coming in a multitude of colors from pinks to white to blue to lavender, garden phlox can reach to 3-5 feet tall. A patch or two of phlox can really brighten an August garden -- until it flops.

The flop is just beginning.

     There are many suggestions for curing the flops. It has long been my theory that the chaotic overcrowded look of the classic English cottage garden is the result of an effort to so pack together tall perennials that they have no room left to flop.

     There is a whole sub-set of advice based on pruning once to three times, starting in May or starting in June -- all of this aimed at shortening the eventual height of the plant or at least delaying the inevitable. My contribution to this debate was that one should do nothing until a flop occurs, then cut the offending plant down to the ground and pretend it did not happen. This method works quite well until you run out of plants.

These lilies had been tied to the fence, but, as you can see,
 they are now tipping perilously to the left.

     Then there are the tie-er and staker schools. Tieing a sturdy 8 foot stake to each plant at three different points is an almost foolproof method of keeping your floppers upright. Its only disadvantages are that it takes about as much time as building a new deck and in the end you have a bed full of stakes as much as of flowers.

     For those who insist on planting floppers I suggest making use of the garage or fence you already have and building a permanent structure that the plants can grow through. The structure would have to be tailored to your site and the species you want, so you don't want to change your mind the following year. But in my book a lot of work that is good for 10 years or more beats a lot of work every year.

     But the real answer lies in plant selection. If we do not want floppers we should stop planting the spindly 3-6 foot high varieties. There are plenty of lesser known phlox and lily cultivars with equally gorgeous bloom but a height closer to 12-24". Plant a flowering shrub behind that can actually stand up straight at 4-6' and put your beloved beauties in front -- stake-less and proud.

Dwarf Asiatic lily.