In the Garden:
Add more summer-blooming shrubs to your garden, such as 'Little Lime' hydrangea.
Revel in the Beauty of Summer Shrubs
Sure, spring blazes with the colors of forsythias, spireas, azaleas, and other shrubs, and we are so ready for them after the duller colors of winter, but they seem to pass so quickly. Although I certainly have spring-flowering shrubs in my garden, it is the shrubs that bloom in summer, in addition to roses, that I have come to savor even more. They tend to produce flowers over a longer period, allowing me the time to enjoy them in a more leisurely manner.
As you spend time in the garden this summer, relaxing in the shade or grilling, or even looking out the window from your, hopefully, air-conditioned home, think about how your yard can benefit from these easy-to-grow, long-blooming, heat- and humidity-tolerant plants.
Hydrangeas have long been a beautiful staple of the summer garden. Witness the old-fashioned Pee Gee, the blue- or pink-flowered big leaf ones, or the old reliable Annabelle. But the last decade has seen an explosion of possibilities for hydrangeas with a wealth of new introductions.
Instead of just the Pee Gee, we now have a range of panicle hydrangeas (H. panciulata) with blossoms in varying shades of pink, green, and fuchsia as well as white and plants ranging in size from 2.5 to 7 feet tall. In recent plant evaluations at the Chicago Botanic Garden, 'Big Ben' and 'Limelight' took top honors. Newer varieties that were not in the trials but show promise include 'Vanilla Strawberry', 'White Diamonds', 'Pinky Winky', 'Little Lime', and 'Great Star'.
Antique nursery catalogs listed a great many cultivars of rose-of-Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus), but most of these have disappeared from cultivation. Because it tends to produce a great many seedlings, rose-of-Sharon was often considered a garden pest. Newer varieties are sterile and produce flowers over a longer period. Some of the best of the newer varieties include dark pink 'Aphrodite', pure white 'Diana', white with a maroon eye 'Helene'', and lavender-pink 'Minerva'. These tend to grow 8 to 12 feet tall and 6 to 10 feet wide. 'Lil' Kim' grows to about 6 feet tall, with a narrow, columnar growth habit; the flowers are white with a prominent red eye. 'Sugar Tip' has white-edged leaves and double pink flowers; it grows 8 to 12 feet tall and 3 to 4 feet wide.
For a big, bold accent in the garden, nothing tops the hardy hibiscus (H. moscheutos), with its 6- to 8-inch flowers in shades of red, pink, or white. Originally native to much of the eastern and southern portions of the United States, a number of cultivars have been developed, with the Southern Belle group being the most widely available. Although hardy hibiscus naturally grows in moist soils, it readily adapts to average soils. Be aware that the plant dies back to the ground in the winter -- it's not a woody shrub, rather an herbaceous perennial of shrub-like proportions -- and is slow to emerge in the spring, so mark the spot where it grows. Once new growth begins, it quickly produces a 4- to 6-foot tall plants with those magnificent flowers from July through September. If your garden gets a lot of wind, consider implementing plant supports.
A southern garden staple with its bright pink, fuchsia, red, or white flowers borne for several months, there is an ever-growing number of crape myrtle (Lagerstroemia) hybrids that readily tolerate winter temperatures to -10 degrees F. In an exceptionally hard winter, crape myrtles may die back to the ground, but they usually send up new growth that will bloom the following year. Crape myrtles are upright, multi-stemmed shrubs usually growing at least to 10 feet or taller in our region, unless you've chosen one of the new dwarf forms, such as 'Chickasaw' or 'Pocomoke'. In choosing crape myrtles for your garden, first consider some of the ones developed by the U.S. National Arboretum, which have all been given Native American tribal names.
Butterfly bush (Buddleia species and cultivars) is another old-fashioned garden favorite that has fallen into disfavor because it can become invasive due to re-seeding. With plant hybridization, sterile cultivars are now being offered, bringing these showy shrubs back to the summer garden. Some of these include members of the Flutterby series, especially Grande Blueberry Cobbler Nectar, Pink Nectar, Petite Snow White Nectar, Grande Peach Cobbler Nectar, Grande Tangerine Dream Nectar, Grande Sweet Marmalade Nectar, and Grande Vanilla Nectar. Butterfly bushes rapidly grow 6 to 10 feet tall and bear flowers in shades of lavender, purple, fuchsia, and white. For smaller garden areas, consider Low and Behold Blue Chip, another non-invasive cultivar. Deadheading the blooms will keep the plants in bloom longer. Plants bloom on new growth and are usually cut back to the ground in late winter or early spring.
Forming a multi-stemmed shrub to 10 feet or more, chaste tree (Vitex agnus-castus) bears 12-inch spikes of small lavender flowers for several months in summer. Although hardy to -10 degrees F, chaste tree will occasionally die back in the winter, but it readily sends up new growth. Another species, V. negundo, is slightly hardier but not as showy.
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