BY C. COLSTON BURRELL / Free Union, Virginia, USDA Zone 7

Summer Touch-Up

Eleven gardening seasons in Minnesota left me with a warped sense of reality. In Minnesota, perennials grow beautifully. They luxuriate in low humidity, seldom get diseases, bloom for an extended period, and coincide riotously in a compressed growing season. My garden was small, and I grew only the creme de la creme. Alas, combinations composed for an idyllic Minnesota summer proved untenable in Virginia. Here, as summer wears on, my gardens brilliance fades and green settles in. A walk-through reveals unfortunate gaps, or worse, gaping holes. Virginias long growing season, high humidity, hot nights, and summer deluges (interspersed with desertlike dryness) require from me new planting strategies, and a new appreciation of some old plants.

When part of a bed looks temporarily dull because of too much green or too much fine texture, I add drama with decorative containers, objets d’art, or tropicals. I constantly try new combinations in an effort to keep the garden lively. Where last year’s dahlia leaves a gap, I add an elephant ear for bold accent. If last year’s elephant ear was overpowering, I might add a night-fragrant angel’s trumpet (Brugmansia sp.) in a decorative container instead. If I have been lucky at a flea market, I might drop in a lightning rod sculpture or other recycled junk. These are easy adjustments.

Serious intervention comes when an entire bed simply isn’t working. This chlorophyllous dysfunction is seldom discernable in the glorious bounty of early summer. But as the color wave washes past and summer heat builds, the garden takes a siesta. Dramatic accents won’t cure these ills. So, I get out the shovel, do a little rearranging, and then add. I have moved one clump of iris four times in as many years. Usually, the iris shifts only a foot or two, but it still makes all the difference.

During these overhauls, it is not rare and choice plants to which I turn, but garden stalwarts that thrive and quickly reach voluminous proportions. Daylilies are one such unlikely helpmate. Not that I dislike daylilies (though I do find too many frills and fat petals revolting in any flower). I have always had a few favorites. But amid drought and deluge, clay and clamminess, I have developed a new appreciation for the durable daylily. Despite flouncing foliage and the need for indefatigable deadheading, daylilies are doers. I patch holes towards the front or middle of the beds with short cultivars, like ‘Bitsy’ and ‘Happy Returns’, surrounded by low groundcover plants. Even the rear of the border boasts tall beauties, like Autumn Minaret’ and ‘Challenger’, which peek up in the bare spots between shrubs.

Hardy tropicals are another late-season savior. Ginger lilies (Hedychium spp.) add vertical lift with their ladders of stiff foliage on upright stalks. They scent the garden with a unique blend of citrus and gardenia. Cannas reach full steam by midseason, and continue unabated until frost. A little extra mulch gets them through winters close to zero degrees.

Despite six years of tweaking, the garden is still not perfect, but it gets better all the time. I don’t need the much touted continuous bloom. I do want continuous drama. With shovel in hand, an extra pot on the terrace, and a few overlooked good doers, the garden is as close to perfect as I have a right to hope for, or the modesty to admit.


Mary Livingston Ripley Garden

Smithsonian Institution 900 Jefferson Drive, Washington, D.C. 202-633-1000 www.gardens. si. edu

This lushly planted urban oasis covers less than an acre on a narrow strip between the Arts and Industries Building and the Hirsh-horn Museum. Stunning color schemes and exhilarating combinations abound in a variety of landscaped settings. The fully accessible garden puts plants and people in direct contact. and interaction is welcome. Authentic antique garden fixtures are another treat.

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