August is a transitional month in valley gardens.
Summer vegetable gardens are reaching the peak of harvest. The flowers you planted in spring may be passing their prime. July heat has taken its toll on parts of the garden. Wholesale growers have their first flats of winter vegetables and cool-season flowers, but it certainly doesn’t feel like fall.
I’m always looking for flowering plants that look particularly good in August and September. There are bulbs, perennials and subtropicals that fill the bill. Here are some suggestions.
* Amaryllis belladonna and, its cousin, crinum moorei
These two flowering bulbs make dramatic statements in the garden. Newcomers to California are often perplexed by the amaryllis belladonna. The common name, “naked lady,” refers to the growth and flowering cycle. Foliage sprouts in the fall, grows vigorously through winter and spring, and then dies down. Then bare flower spikes emerge from the soil and produce bright pink flowers from late July through August.
This plant is not common in the trade, because it is not in production in the major bulb-growing regions of the industry. The time to plant it is immediately after the bloom. The way to get some is to ask your gardening friend who has an abundance to share a few bulbs. Plant with the “neck” of the bulb above soil grade, and be aware that it might not start blooming again for a few years.
Crinum lily is closely related, but differs in two important respects: the plant is much bigger, and the foliage doesn’t die down. The bulb can be as big as a football, the foliage stands 3 feet or more tall, and the blossom spikes up to 5 feet. And the flowers are white.
My plants are truly a family heirloom. Originally from my grandfather to my mother, and then to me, they’ve been in our family more than 60 years. Again, uncommon in the nursery trade. But some interesting hybrids do show up here and there, some with red foliage and darker flowers.
Amaryllis and crinums are very drought-tolerant.
* Dicliptera suberecta
Hummingbird plant, Uruguayan firecracker plant.
Bright orange-red tubular flowers held upright on a plant about a foot and a half tall contrast nicely against the fuzzy green-gray leaves. Profuse ongoing bloom.
I got my plant of this species from an Arboretum sale a couple of decades ago. It has spread to cover an area about 20 feet across, begins to bloom for me in early summer and continues into fall. It looks like an upright California fuchsia (Epilobium), and draws hummingbirds constantly. As shade has increased on that bed I have observed that the best bloom is in full sun, with good bloom still in partial shade. The plants that are now in full shade no longer flower.
This is one of the most carefree perennials I have. I don’t cut it back, I don’t divide it, and I only water it every couple of weeks.
Most of us think of fuchsias as fussy plants requiring coastal conditions. They can grow fine here, and some varieties are hardier and easier than others. Fuchsias start blooming in spring and really come into their own in summer. All fuchsias are very attractive to hummingbirds.
Many years ago I planted a fuchsia magellanica on the shaded side of our house. This hardy species has grown to about 5 feet tall, 6 or more feet across, and has gone through the major freezes of 1990 and 1998 with excellent recovery.
It is a big plant, probably not the scale most gardeners are looking for. So gardeners might be more interested in compact types such as Del Campo Glazion.
Fuchsias like partial shade and ample water. Don’t be surprised if your fuchsia dies back in winter. But don’t give up; there’s a high likelihood it will resprout in spring.
* Geranium rozanne
The British, who know their garden plants, have named geranium rozanne the Plant of the Century! Wow. It was selected by a panel of horticulturists at the Royal Horticultural Society, and voted by the public.
Introduced in about 2000, I well remember when it came on the market. A blue geranium! Oh, the special orders rolled in, but availability was very limited. When they finally arrived, about half the customers were quite startled. They thought they were getting a blue pelargonium. You know, like the “geraniums” grandma grew?
No, geranium, also known as cranesbill, is the botanical name for a group of hardy perennials with flowers in shades of pink, rose, magenta, white and deep violet. This one was deep violet enough to call blue.
Rozanne blooms almost nonstop, trails a bit to make a small-scale ground cover. It tolerates sun or partial shade, tolerates cool conditions and hot sun about equally well, and is completely cold-hardy.
* Hibiscus moscheutos
I don’t know why these gaudy flowers aren’t more widely grown. Everyone knows and wants the Chinese hibiscus, H. rosa-sinensis, that you see in Southern California and Hawaii. But those almost never survive our winter here. H. moscheutos, usually sold as Southern Belle or Dixie Belle (more dwarf) hibiscus, is a great big deciduous perennial with great big flowers. I mean, 10 inches across! Pink, red, white or bicolor, the kind of flower that stops people in their tracks. They are robust plants with lush foliage and blooms from July into September. When freezing weather comes along they die to the ground, and then resprout reliably each spring.
* Plumbago capensis and, its cousin, Ceratostigma plumbaginoides
True, cool blue flowers. Blue is rare in the plant world, and much sought-after by gardeners. Both the plumbagos are blue and bloom from midsummer until frost. Cape plumbago (P. capensis) is a South African native shrub with a sprawling, vine-like habit and light blue flowers. It is subtropical, killed to the stem or ground by frost, but always resprouts. Give it room! It’s 3 to 4 feet tall, spreading, even scrambling up onto nearby shrubs. Full sun or light shade.
Dwarf plumbago (Ceratostigma) is a hardy deciduous perennial with dark blue flowers. It only gets about a foot tall, creeping along by short rhizomes to form a ground cover. Mine have spread quite freely. In the fall the foliage turns a pretty red color, then it dies away and resprouts from the root each spring. More shade-tolerant, but also OK in sun.
* Salvia azurea
This is one of my favorite groups of plants for the color range, drought tolerance and easy care. I even have a board of salvia pictures on Pinterest; look for Redwood Barn. There are dozens of varieties, and every so often a new one comes my way that really catches my eye. Thus with S. azurea, the pitcher sage.
This one is an herbaceous perennial, growing and flowering and then dying back to the stem or root in winter. Each year it gets a little bigger, eventually having stems to 4 to 5 feet and kind of sprawling. So it’s not an orderly plant. But the violet-blue flowers (“pure azure-blue,” says the Sunset Western Garden Book) are elegant even if the plant is unrefined. Full sun or very light shade. Very, very cold-hardy.
* Peach verbena and, its cousin, white verbena
Oh, what the flower breeders have done with the old-fashioned verbena. This is a plant that loves full sun, thriving even in desert areas. The flowers are in vivid, electric colors; most species can tolerate considerable drought once established.
What we never really know with the new hybrids is how cold-tolerant they’re going to be. Older selections and hybrids would die back, then re-sprout in spring. But breeders seem to be crossing in annual types with perennials, broadening the color range and disease resistance, and achieving more compact growth habit, but some are not proving totally reliable as perennials. And the newer hybrids like more water, too.
Are they worth it? Verbenas love hot weather and warm soil. They don’t really get going until June here, but their spectacular summer display starts in late July and continues nearly to frost. Butterflies and hummingbirds love them. Great filler for mixed container plantings, and for the color border. If you want reliable perennials, look for the older types.
Tropical look, tough and reliable plants, loads of bloom. August doesn’t have to be dreary in the garden!
— Don Shor and his family have owned the Redwood Barn Nursery since 1981. He can be reached at [email protected]. Archived articles are available on The Enterprise website, and they are always available (all the way back to 1999) on his business website, www.redwoodbarn.com