Plant Now for late summer color

Most Northwest gardens go through cycles; they rest awhile then burst into bloom again. Early spring carpets the ground with bulb flowers under blooming trees. May brings fluffy peonies, tall irises and airy columbines. Summer is awash with bright, beautiful annuals.

But things seem to ebb toward the end of summer, when heat and drought have taken their toll on both blossoms and the energy of the gardener. Planning for late-summer color means tucking small, innocuous-looking plants into the ground in May or June when we are beguiled by everything that’s already in bloom.

By late summer, earlier-blooming perennials are leggy and in need of cleanup, annuals may have suffered from lackadaisical watering and weeds likely have insinuated themselves into planting beds while the gardener was inside escaping the heat.

A burst of color is just what the garden needs now. In the Northwest, where, despite the calendar, “summer” is really July-August-September, the light and weather are perfect for lingering outdoors to enjoy the garden.

So don’t feel that planting season is over in June. You can plant all summer – as long as you water copiously to keep new plants from drying out. Dig generous holes, amend the soil with compost, fill the hole with water so you are planting into squishy mud, and choose a cool morning or evening to do so. Water regularly and enjoy flowers into October.

Visit a nursery now to find late-bloomers such as asters, black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia spp.), Russian sage (Perovskia spp.), hyssop (Agastache spp.) and goldenrod (Solidago spp.)

And consider these for late-season beauty:

Dahlias are the queens and salvias the kings of the late season. Salvias come in a kaleidoscope of colors, provide nectar for hummingbirds and many are hardy perennials that flower year after year, from July to frost. Bog sage (Salvia uliginosa), with clear, sky-blue flowers, is one of the latest to bloom – mine blooms in October. I’ve also had the bright red blooms of annual pineapple sage stick around into December.

Coneflowers (Echinacea spp.) are enjoying huge popularity because of all the new colors and double forms available – hot reds and oranges, gold, white, chartreuse, wine-red and bicolors.

Tall sedums, such as the tried-and-true “Autumn Joy,” are at their peak into fall and have new cultivars with deeply colored foliage. Blooms can be white, pink, salmon, coral or rust-red, against deep wine-colored foliage. Sedums are a cinch to grow here as long as the soil is amended with compost for good drainage.

For really impressive height, plant a giant Rudbeckia, such as the hardy perennial R. laciniata “Herbstonne,” which in my garden reaches 7 feet, or “Goldsturm,” which rises to 6 feet. Or choose Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium spp.), which tops its 7-foot-tall stalks with 1-foot flower clusters in mauve. All add the color and excitement that makes the late-summer garden a great place to be – plus they’re all drought-tolerant once established.

Portland freelance writer Jan Behrs specializes in stories about gardeners, gardens, remodeling and real estate. She moved to Oregon from Wisconsin in 1980, trading tornadoes for volcanoes, and tends 2/3 of an acre in Southwest Portland. A master gardener, her work appears in The Oregonian, Better Homes and Gardens and online.

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