In the Garden:
New England
July, 2010
Regional Report

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Bright orange butterfly weed adds adds some sizzle to my "hot" garden.

A Hot Time in the Flower Garden

For years I was pretty much a planter of soft colors and gentle contrasts when it came to designing my flower gardens. Pink and white phlox bloomed with lemon yellow dayliles and blue globe thistle; the chartreuse sprays of lady's mantle flowers contrasted, but never fought, with the smoky lavender of catmint blossoms. Deep red peonies and lilies provided accents, but the reds were always crimsons, never scarlets.

Then one year my then ten-year-old son expressed an interest in planting a flower garden. Since he had never before shown an inclination to garden, I was eager to encourage him. So I made a new bed in sandy soil on the sunny south side of my house and asked him what he wanted to plant. "I want the flowers that Tim grows," was his reply.

Now Tim is our across-the-street neighbor who, every summer, plants a big bed of bold red dahlias in his front yard. I began to understand that this garden would have no pastel color scheme. In addition to red dahlias, my son picked out bright yellow marigolds, safety-orange zinnias and daylilies, and fire-engine red salvias. At my suggestion, we contrasted all this vibrant color with shades of purple and blue. What a show!

Sadly, my son's interest in gardening proved short-lived, and by the following summer he'd moved on to other things. But I was hooked! I realized how much I had been missing by avoiding all those boldly colored flowers. Of course, I still had my flowerbeds full of softer-hued blossoms, but now I had a whole new category of plants to try out in my "hot garden."

As the garden has progressed, I've used reds and yellows more as accent colors and chosen the contrast of orange and purple as my main color theme. The show starts in early spring with bright orange and deep purple tulips. As these flowers fade, the purple Salvia nemerosa 'Caradonna' comes into bloom, along with the bright orange and yellow, daisy-like blossoms of blanket flower (Gaillardia 'Arizona Sun'), a non-stop bloomer that puts many annuals to shame for length of flowering. They are joined by the electric orange flower heads of butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) and the blossoms of 'Tokajer' gaillardia that shade from orange to gold, with scarlet Maltese cross (Lychnis chalcedonica) adding contrast. The purple-blue of the dwarf catmint, Nepeta x faassenii 'Kit Kat' provides a cool foil.

Soon the enlongated, purple-blue flower heads of anise hyssop (Agastache 'Blue Fortune') will play off the the large, orange flowers of 'Sunset' coneflower (Echinacea), though I am thinking of replacing this cultivar with the even more vibrant 'Tiki Torch,' with its almost unbelievably bright orange blossoms. As the season progresses, the large bittersweet orange flowers of the tall 'Rocket City' daylily contrast with lacy purple clouds of Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia) that are still in bloom when the scarlet-red 'Chicago Apache' daylily adds to the mix.

In among all these hot-hued perennials go eye-catching annuals like the towering, orange-flowered Mexican sunflower (Tithonia rotundifolia), the low-growing, easy-care orange 'Profusion' zinnias, velvety, deep-purple Calibrachoa (million bells), cheery orange marigolds and the arching purplish red fountain grass (Pennisetum setaceum 'Rubrum'). And, of course, the red dahlias that started it all!

Space is getting tight, but I still find myself checking out orange and purple flowers in catalogs and at nurseries. I plan to put in bulbs of 'Cleopatra' foxtail lily (Eremurus x isabellinus) this fall, whose dramatic 4-5' burnt-orange flower spikes will rise at the back of the garden in early summer. I'll be pushing the winter hardiness envelope a little with them, but I hope they'll overwinter reliably in my well-drained soil with the help of some mulch. And it's just this sort of experimentation that keeps gardening interesting!


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