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Northeast: Early-Summer Standouts

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BY SEAN CONWAY/ Tiverton, Rhode Island, Zone 6b

THE MONTHS OF May and June mark the apex of many perennial gardens, especially those in cold-winter regions. More plants are in bloom during these two months than at any other time during the year—a near-euphoric (but sometimes overwhelming) experience for the gardener. From the blooms abounding in my own garden, as well as those I've seen on garden tours and at plant sales, I've found that the best plants in a June border are ones that catch my eye despite fierce competition from stunning neighbors.

Picking a “stand-out” perennial at this time of year is a bit like choosing the best figure skater at the Olympics. There are so many to choose from, each vying for the spotlight. There are always a few, however, that outshine the others, and it's usually because they have more than one attribute that sets them apart.

One of the contenders in this category is Camassia leichtlinii ‘Caerulea’ (pictured). When many of the other bulbs have already finished blooming, the deep-blue spears of this Pacific Northwest native are just hitting their stride. They're not just glanced at the way a patch of crocuses, daffodils, or even tulips are; they draw your attention and they hold it. Camassias grow naturally in moist meadows, and are therefore well suited to growing in heavy, wet soil—a condition with which I am all too familiar. When planted in groups (I usually plant 10 to 15 bulbs together), they provide vibrant color for the spring border. ‘Caerulea’ sends up long, narrow spears to three feet, each holding multitudes of deep indigo-blue, star-shaped flowers with bright yellow anthers. Camassias are not at all fussy, should be planted in full sun to part shade in moist soil, and are hardy in USDA Zones 4 to 9. Also keep an eye out for ‘Caerulea's attractive sister, the double white form C. I. 'Semiplena’.

Another border contender at this time of year is Philadelphus ‘Buckley's Quill’. This mock orange, hardy in Zones 4 to 8, is far less well known than some of its larger cousins. ‘Buckley's Quill’ grows only four to six feet tall with a four-foot spread. It is small enough to be included in a large border, but large enough to be planted as a specimen, and is well worth including in any spring garden. The pure white double or semidouble flowers are produced in small racemes, and contrast nicely with its dark green leaves. The tips of each flower petal form a point, much like the quills of pens once fashioned out of feathers. In addition to their beauty, the flowers of ‘Buckley's Quill’ also smell wonderful—more subtle than the sweet, familiar scent of lilacs.

Selecting an attractive group of plants for the spring garden is not too difficult, since so many are at their peak right now. Putting on an exceptional show, however, requires more thought, and a reliance on those plants that outshine the rest of the crowd. Remember, out of all those figure skaters at the Olympics, only one can take home the gold.

To do in the garden

  • Stake plants now that will need support later in the season. Place cages or bamboo rods before the garden has completely filled in.
  • Raise the blade on the lawn mower to its highest setting. Longer grass blades are better able to shade their roots, which reduces moisture loss and encourages deeper root growth.
  • Plant summer-flowering bulbs such as Galtonia candicans, colo-casias, and cannas.
  • Remove spent yellow foliage from early-spring-blooming bulbs.

Worth growing

Foxtail lily Eremurus robustus

The tallest and perhaps most spectacular of the foxtail lilies, Eremurus robustus boasts flower stalks in shades of yellow to salmon pink that can rise up to nine feet tall. These fleshy-rooted perennials hail from western and central Asia where they grow in dry grassland and semidesert regions. They bloom in June and are happy with hot, dry summers. Plant in full sun in well-drained, fertile, sandy loam. Staking may be necessary, and shelter from wind is recommended. Hardy in USDA Zones 5-7.