by Anne Pyburn Craig
There’s such an excitement to the first few blooms of spring, the first crocus poking its tender, beautiful head up through recently frozen ground, the trees bursting forth from bud to blossom and leaf. As gardeners, we are the artistic directors of our own scenic backyard displays, and we must collaborate with Nature so that the show goes on through the w
hole three-act play of spring, summer, and fall. After all, you wouldn’t want everything fading to dull brownish-gray by mid-July, would you?
There are techniques you can use to keep the colors coming on strong as days and months pass, otherwise known as sequential blooming. With a little forethought, your garden can be visually exciting from the first warmth through the depths of the “dog days” and on until the first frost.
You’ll be happy to learn, it’s not rocket science. “Creating stunning displays of color throughout the growing season is easier than you might think,” writes Patt Kasa in “Orchestrating Color Throughout the Season” on the National Garden Association website. “You don’t need acres of land or a professional grounds crew to manage it, because continuous color does not mean that everything in the garden is in bloom all of the time. You just need to make smart choices so that enough plants are flowering at any one time to create an impression of sustained color throughout the garden.”
Local garden pros agree. “It’s a challenge to keep the color going from March till November, but it’s very possible,” says Vickie Coyne of Victoria Gardens in Rosendale. “When I do a garden, I like to think in terms of vignettes–threesomes of plants that will bloom through the season and complement each other.” Coyne suggests peonies, irises, and baptisia as one such possible triad. Baptisia, an herbaceous perennial also known as indigo weed, does well in sunshiny spots and is reasonably drought-tolerant; it can get up to three to four feet high and wide and is hard to move successfully once it’s rooted, producing spires of blue flowers in late spring and early summer.
“It’s sort of like conducting a symphony,” says Cindy Muro, greenhouse manager at Mohonk Mountain House. “You plan ahead and know when nature will be giving the plants their cues, and use that knowledge for co-location. ‘You come in, now you.’ And since you’re working with nature, it’s not necessarily something you can master in one go, establish in one season. It takes a while to build your orchestra.
“The most basic, general thing to know – rule one — about getting interesting gardens all year round is that most perennials, plants that come back every year, have their time when they bloom and that’s it. A week, a couple weeks, a month and they’re done. Annuals, on the other hand, generally bloom all summer long and then they freeze and they’re dead. There are bulbs you can plant in the fall that bloom in the spring and others you can plant in the spring that bloom in the summer. Those are the different pools of plants you can draw from…We have a map and a plan we use, but there have been gardens here for 145 years. There are beds of peonies 125 years old, a lot of history, and that’s an advantage. Still, there are always successes and failures, mostly thanks to variable weather—this winter, for example. Certain things that never died before died, and other unexpected things survived. And from time to time, we look it over and revamp as needed.”
You may not have 125-year-old established beds of peonies and a large fully equipped greenhouse, but you too can have a map and a plan. “I often suggest when the garden is quiet that’s the time to visit the nurseries and buy something currently blooming and perennial,” says Coyne. “Don’t just dash to the big-box with a tacked on garden center and grab whatever, make sure you’re speaking with people who know something–going to nurseries staffed with actual horticulturists who know what they’re talking about.”
And when they talk, listen. “People come in not thinking ahead and go to whatever’s blooming right this minute,” says Muro. “For example, the purple columbine is looking gorgeous right now. One person wanted to buy all of it, just a big huge mass. I tried to tell her, look, this will bloom for two more weeks and look kinda ugly the rest of the summer.
“I try to tell people ‘This one may not look like anything right now, but think about what you want to see happen next month.’ And think about the conditions: are you trying to fill in a sunny place, shady place? Do you need something deer proof? If you don’t know what you’re talking about, you can make mistakes at the store. People see a pretty plant and don’t realize they don’t have the right conditions for it to live. It’s good to have some parameters set before you start.”
Muro says deadheading, or picking off wilted blooms, is key to getting the most out of your annuals; Mohonk’s central “show” gardens are composed largely of annuals and exotics. “There are cool season annuals that will continue blooming if you take off all the heads, but once they go completely to seed, they’ll stop,” she says. “If you want more flowers, make sure you cut the dead ones off. For example, people think of pansies as just a cool season flower, but I’ve had them keep blooming all summer in a really hot spot—it just happened to be a spot where I step out the door for fresh air, so I kept up with it, and they kept blooming.
There’s a good fund of local knowhow available to all in the newly founded Hudson Valley Garden Association, dedicated to inspiring, informing and generally advancing the region’s gardening endeavors large and small. President Laura Wilson agrees that planning is the key to a continuous riot of color.
“One key suggestion is planting spring bulbs,” she says. “Spring may be over, but start thinking about how you want it to look next spring and take action in September and October for next year. Spring bulbs will extend your garden season by eight weeks; you’ll have things blooming in March. By late May, you’re probably not thinking about it, but that’s one of the best tricks there is.”
“Also, people tend to think of perennials first, but also think about flowering trees and shrubs. They may just offer short bursts of show – think of lilacs, azaleas, rhododendrons—but then you can under-plant those shrubs with other interesting things. After your shrub blooms in May, you can plant low growing perennials or ground cover that looks fantastic under silvery-leafed shade plants. You can pair those with later bloomers; the goal is to maximize use of your planting space.
“And don’t forget, flowers aren’t the only things that keep a garden interesting to look at. Pick some things with other distinctive features—foliage, bark, berries. Viburnums have spring blooms and berries in fall. Oakleaf hydangea have beautiful leaves, summer blooms and peeling bark in winter. There are colored-foliage forms of pretty much every tree or shrub you could think of. A punch of color can be had all season long with yellow, burgundy or variegated leaves. There’s no need to have your garden look interesting for only two weeks. It can be six months.”
“Perennials are the backbone of any garden, but most bloom for an average of about three weeks,” writes Kasa. “I supplement them with annuals, biennials, vines, bulbs, and a few flowering shrubs. Such a diverse collection inevitably includes plants of different sizes and shapes which can be tucked in and around each other, allowing you to pack a surprising number of plants into a small area.”
“Don’t just think, ‘That space is for my irises,” and leave it at that,” Wilson urges. “Or, ‘well, that’s where I’ll have anemones’. There are lots of really nice fall things, but you don’t want nothing else going on all summer long while you wait for them to bloom.
All experts agree: plants with diverse bloom times can be layered close together, creating lush profusion.
Some of Wilson’s favorite combinations include peonies under-planted with small spring bulbs (scilla or chionodoxa), followed by summer blooming lilies; bearded irises, followed by black-eyed susans or purple coneflowers; oriental poppies followed by asters, and bleeding hearts followed by fall-blooming anemones.
“Don’t be afraid to fill in with annuals,” reminds Muro. “It saves on your budget, especially since there are many annuals that self-sow. The key is having a mixture. Start with a few things and build every year. Unless you’re a billionaire hiring a gardener, it’s a process. Live with the plants and see what they do — the process is at least as enjoyable as the product.” So go ahead and develop a longterm relationship with your garden.