Undemanding summer bloomers

Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia, below) typically grows with a slightly arching, upright habit, but that’s when it’s properly sited in full sun, and not jammed beneath a crapemyrtle and crammed under a wide spreading Joe Pye weed. It deserves better, but no matter, it seems happy enough in my garden. It has flowered since the start of summer, though its stems arch heavily towards the ground. The soil in this spot is lean and dry, but Russian sage is undemanding, and perhaps would resent richer soil with more moisture.

There are plants that thrive in the heat of summer, and seem not to mind infrequent rainfall. Russian sage is certainly one of these, and despite inhospitable conditions it displays its small blue flowers through much of the summer. The blue-green foliage is small and doesn’t make much of a show, but the the upright habit and long period of bloom make Russian sage an ideal perennial for a sunny spot between broad leaf shrubs or slow growing perennials.

Years ago I planted a few butterfly bushes (Buddleia) at the back of the garden where the soil alternates between saturated and bone dry in late summer. The common ‘Black Knight’ languished, growing and flowering, but never seeming to be happy. It grew tall and lankly, and eventually I was convinced to chop it out. Though I never saw a seedling, it was about this time that word got around that butterfly bush was invasive, so I hesitated to plant another in a drier part of the garden. But, recent introductions have a considerably more compact habit and are sterile, so I decided to plant a few of the new varieties.

I’ve been quite pleased with ‘Miss Ruby’ (above), which grows compactly to about four feet tall and wide. It has been flowering for a few months now, with no end in sight. And, because there are few areas of mostly full sun remaining in the garden, it’s planted in nearly the same spot where ‘Black Knight’ was a disappointment. I’ve heard reports that the ‘Miss Molly’ grows and flowers in a similar manner.

I had high hopes when I first planted the very compact growing ‘Blue Chip’ butterfly bush (above), but I’ve been slightly disappointed in its performance. There’s no doubt that it is more compact and smaller than others, but it lacks vigor by comparison. ‘Blue Chip’ is in slightly damper soil than ‘Miss Ruby’ so this could possibly explain its mediocre growth, but I’ve not been overly impressed seeing it in other gardens. So, I’ll be trying some other low growing butterfly bushes in the next year to see if their performance is superior.

In the past few years there have been a number new introductions of the old time, summer flowering glossy abelia. The recently introduced cultivars have improved foliage color and more compact growth, but I’ve found that the small flower clusters often don’t stand out as much on the variegated and yellow leafed types (Abelia x grandiflora ‘Canyon Creek’, above). ‘Kaleidoscope’, with yellow and green variegation and a very compact habit, seems to be the best of the lot, and is perhaps more useful as a foliage plant than for its flowers.

Though gardenias have splendid dark green foliage, the scented blooms are clearly their best feature. The problem for mid Atlantic gardeners is that they have been very marginally cold hardy. Despite cultivar names that indicate cold hardiness, until the last few years I’d never seen a plant that had survived a winter. Now, with inordinately warm winters (and new varieties that promise cold hardiness well below zero degrees) I’ve had gardenias survive through two winters. ‘Pinwheel’ (Gardenia augusta ‘Pinwheel’, above) has flowered off and on through the summer, and I’ll be planting a few other cultivars to give them a try. Unfortunately, with my poor sense of smell I’m not able to enjoy their scent, but the hardy gardenias are delightful shrubs even without the fragrant blooms.

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2 thoughts on “Undemanding summer bloomers

  1. Nice to know there are sterile Buddleia. I first heard about them being invasive last year, so was not planning to add any more. (That’s not the same as actually removing the one I have, which I think is ‘Black Knight.’ It was crushed under the top of my neighbor’s pine this summer and so I thought the deed was done for me, but the darn thing has grown back into a very nice shape and is already blooming again.)

    • Butterfly bush can be quite persistent. A few days ago I noticed several large bushes growing out of a large storm drain area of rip rap gravel in a nearby neighborhood. No doubt there was silt between the large stones, but it had to be bone dry for long periods. The butterfly bushes were blooming away.

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