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Keep your garden changing with these 'Giants of August'
One of the features I enjoy most about perennials is their ability to alter the complexion of my garden every month. Whether they are coming into bloom or going out, they are always interesting. As the overall shape of each plant changes throughout the season, so does the personality of my garden.
If you are finding yourself bored with your yard it's probably because your garden is remaining static through the summer. Once the shrubs and trees have finished their spring blooming cycle they pretty much stay the same shape and color for the rest of the season. If you've moved beyond rhodies, azaleas and evergreens and planted some deciduous shrubs then at least you will have some summer blooms and fall color. But if you start to incorporate perennials into the garden then look out. You are going to be drawn into a performance that will hold you spellbound through every scene. There will be villains and heroes, damsels in distress, choruses and virtuosos. And when it's all over you will be left thirsting for the next season's performance.
So let's talk about some of these star performers that come into their own in August and September and reach heights of over eight feet tall.
Joe-Pye Weed. Eupatorium maculatum. Grandest of them all in my estimation. Mine is currently a strong eight feet tall and covered with large umbrella-like heads of rosy-purple flowers that attract butterflies and bumble bees. The stems are purple in color, with whorls of bold leaves. Over the years this plant will form a large clump three feet across. It performs best in full sun and consistent soil moisture. "Gateway" is a variety that is a little more compact (5-6 feet tall) with huge flower heads. Cannabinum "Plenum" is a double flowering type with loose heads of mauve-purple flowers. It is used in Europe as a long-lasting commercial cut-flower and grows to 4-5 feet.
False Sunflower. Helianthus. These hardy perennials are related to the annual birdseed and snack food varieties. They are happiest in a moist sunny location where they will form sizable non-invasive clumps. All are great for cutting and attract butterflies. "Flore Pleno" has beautiful dark green leaves with countless 2-3 inch golden yellow double dahlia-like sunflowers. The cut flowers look stunning in a dark blue vase. "Lemon Queen" will grow 6-7 feet tall and the flowers are a wonderful single 2" clear lemon-yellow. If you don't like "hot colored" flowers then this is the variety for you.
Brazilian Verbena. Verbena bonariensis. I like to throw this one in because it's what I call a "gentle giant." While it will reach 4-5 feet tall, it is very wispy in texture and will weave its way through the garden without being obtrusive at all. Stiff, upright branching stems hold clusters of magenta-purple flowers from early summer through late fall. A large grouping makes an unforgettable display, one or two plants are a mere curiosity. While some might like to place this plant on the "noxious weed list," I rather enjoy its propensity to happily reseed through the garden and into my gravel paths. Like all of these late summer bloomers, it attracts butterflies and bees and makes a great cut flower.
Ornamental Grasses. I would be remiss not to mention this group of plants. While they do bloom in late summer, their best quality is in their foliar contribution to the garden. Three giants that I enjoy in my garden are as follows: Porcupine Grass, a 5-6 footer with bright green leaves with golden horizontal banding; Morning Light, which forms a stiff upright column of foliage that has a silvery and shimmering effect and Cabaret, a larger, coarser form with very bold white and green striped leaves. All of the above grasses are varieties of Maiden Grass and grow in average soil and full sun. They do not spread or reseed but eventually form large clumps. Don't be afraid to try them, you will not be disappointed.
Obviously, I have just scratched the surface when it comes to large robust plants. If you take the time to visit your local garden center or some of the wonderful public gardens such as the Everett Arboretum or the Bellevue Botanical Garden you will see first hand the wonderful effect these plants have in a border. Stop being bored with your yard and plant some "Giants of August."
Steve Smith is owner of Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville. You can reach him at 425-334-2002 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.