Grumpy's Summer Garden Takes Shape

This mix of warm and cool colors will take the hot, dry weather ahead.

Steve Bender's Summer Garden
Photo: Steve Bender

We've had a ton of rain this year in north-central Alabama, but I know dry weather awaits. The average high temp is already in the 90s and won't drop below that for months. Thus, one of my main goals for selecting annuals and perennials for my front border is picking ones that will take the heat without needing a lot of water.

As you can see from the photo above, I'm planting around an established framework of three ornamental grasses and grass-like plants – yellow 'Everillo' carex, powder-blue 'Elijah Blue' fescue, and blue-green Coolvista dianella. The plants I'm adding combine cool colors of purple, blue, and plum and warm colors of orange, gold, yellow, peach, and red. I deliberately avoided pink, because pink clashes with just about everything but white and blue and pink-and-white borders bore me to tears. The plants are still small, but they'll grow quickly.

A Little Back Story

This garden was born years ago when a big patch of lawn died beside a stone path than runs from the front steps through an arbor on the side of the house. Rather than replace the grass, I said the hell with it, I'm planting flowers, because a garden editor at Southern Living has to meet certain standards. Trouble was the soil there was horrible, compacted red clay. With the help of a pick and a garden fork, my boy and I broke it up. Then we tilled in copious organic matter to loosen to coat and loosen the clay particles – composted cow manure, soil conditioner, kitchen compost, pine straw, and ground bark.

Last fall, I took it one step further. After all the tree leaves dropped, I ran over them with my mulching mower with the bagger attached. The finely chopped leaves made a great mulch for the border. It looks natural, stays in place, keeps down weeds, reduces moisture loss, feeds the earthworms, and adds more organic matter as it decomposes. Plus, it's free! Today, the soil is pretty decent.

Garden Highlights

Cheyenne Spirit coneflowers
Steve Bender

Perhaps my favorite source for warm colors are Cheyenne Spirit coneflowers, shown above. Unlike cutting-grown plants that come in single colors, this seed-grown mix offers gold, orange, scarlet, and cream flowers on plants 24 to 30 inches tall. Flowers slowly fade to lighter colors, so you can often enjoy three different colors on one plant. To them, I've added cutting-grown Poco Yellow coneflowers. Deep yellow flowers cover bushy plants 14 to 16 inches tall. Deadhead the old flowers to keep new ones coming.

'Campfire' sun coleus
Steve Bender

One plant that breaks my low-water rule is 'Campfire' sun coleus (above), but I can't help it. I love combining its fiery orange foliage with the yellow 'Everillo' carex behind it. The coleus is small now but will quickly grow into a bushy plant 24 to 30 inches tall. There are no straggly flower stalks to cut off until late in the season. The University of Georgia Plant Trials rated it 4.93 points out of a possible 5.

peachy-orange ornamental purslane
Steve Bender

Undoubtedly, the gaudiest show at the moment comes from this peachy-orange ornamental purslane (above). I have yellow ones too. Perfect for the front of the border, this low, spreading plant smothers its succulent foliage with gorgeous, quarter-size blooms that resemble single roses.

Other Contributors

Steve Bender's Front Garden in Summer
Steve Bender

To complement all the warm colors, I worked in groupings of two tough-as-nails favorites – Archangel Dark Purple angelonia and 'Buddy' dwarf gomphrena. Also called "summer snapdragon" for its erect flower spikes, angelonia blooms continuously until frost. The Archangel Series grows 12 to 14 inches tall. 'Buddy' grows 6 to 8 inches tall and features plum-purple blooms the shape of clover blossoms. I interplanted it with yellow purslane in the front of the border because purple and yellow really pop.

To the side, I'm growing a sensational surprise – a lavender that won't melt in the South! 'Primavera' Spanish lavender (Lavendula stoechas) grows 14 to 16 inches tall with rosy-purple flower spikes and fragrant evergreen foliage. By cutting off the old blooms, I'm rewarded with new ones for months.

Grumpy's Cat Jean Luc
Steve Bender

I hope you enjoyed touring my new little garden. Jean-Luc, our cat certainly did.

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