Between the Rows: Summer blues
There are different types of summer blues, from the blues that hit on hot, muggy days when the thought of weeding is not to be borne, or those that follow drenching rains that have turned the raspberries to mold. Then there are the blue flowers that are much more rare than the sunny golds that predominate in the mid to late summer garden.
True blue, the color of forget-me-nots, is not a common color in the summer garden, but blue is always a favorite. On the Greenfield Garden Club Tour last weekend, I was amazed by the beautiful Blue Billow hydrangeas in Jenny Hall’s garden. The flowers of these very blue hydrangeas are the large, flat, lace-cap type. The plants themselves are low, no more than 4 feet, but with a wide, generous spread.
Hydrangeas are not difficult to grow. They are thirsty plants, so they have really enjoyed this year’s rainy June. However, they do not like standing water. Some shade for part of the day is also welcome.
Familiar blue flowers in the garden include bachelor’s button and nigella, also called love-in-a-mist. Bachelor’s button is an annual centaurea, easy to start from seed in the early spring.
Nigella damascena gets its name from the ferny foliage that surrounds the blossom. It, too, is easy to start from seed. Besides providing clear blue color in the summer garden, the nigella seeds, encased in a fat seed pod, can be harvested and used in the kitchen. Little black nigella seeds are sometimes called black onions or black cumin, although they are not related to either of these plants. They are a fairly common seasoning in Indian and Middle Eastern cuisines.
Chicory is a charming blue flower. Although it is common along the roadsides and rarely survives in the garden, I have to mention it because it is such an appealing plant. I have picked it for summer bouquets and some people, in hard times or because of preference, harvest the root, roast it and grind it up to substitute for coffee or as an addition to their coffee.
The balloon flower, Platycodon grandiflorus Mariesii, is a rich blue. Its flowers first swell like a balloon, but then burst into a bell shaped blossom. This is a long-lived and easy-to-grow perennial that will bloom into late summer. It is very hardy and likes full sun.
In my own garden, I have an Echinops, or globe thistle, that was given to me many years ago. In the corner of my Sunken Garden, where they grow untended and undisturbed, they grow about 6 feet tall. These are not thistles at all and are not prickery. The name globe thistle is a fairly accurate description of the thistle-like foliage and the round, steel-blue blossom. My plant is rangy and not an ideal cultivar for the border, but Echinops Ritro is a smaller variety, reaching a height of only 4 feet, and the flowers are a more definite shade of blue. Like hydrangeas, the flowers work well in dried arrangements.
This spring, I added an Eryngium Sapphire Blue, or sea holly to my garden. The spiky blue flowers are prickery and they are attracting all kinds of insects, from a big waspy creature to tiny bees and bumblebees. Where is Bill Danielson when you need him to ID creatures? The center of the flower looks like a little pine cone, but it is made of very tiny blossoms full of nectar. I am happy to have it attract butterflies and other pollinators and not attract the deer who just ate my lily buds. The color continues to grow more intense and is spreading down into the stems. This is a great plant for flower arrangements, fresh or dried.
A very dramatic blue flower for the garden is the delphinium. I only grow the Connecticut Yankee delphinium, which is a clear pale blue, does not grow very tall and does not need staking. Another small (12-18 inches) delphinium, sometimes called a perennial larkspur, is Blue Butterfly, which is a deep blue with an open habit, unlike the closely packed blossoms on the tall Pacific Giants.
Delphiniums come in a range of colors, from white to all shades of blue and purple, sometimes with a white or dark “bee” in the center. Some flowers are very double and some are very tall. Because of the dangers to tall plants — blow down in the wind and the difficulties of artful staking — there are many more classifications now that are shorter and sturdier, including Magic Fountains, with spires of about 3 feet, and New Millenniums, which are between 4 and 5 feet tall. All delphiniums need a compost-rich soil.
I can hardly talk about summer blues without mentioning the Heavenly Blue morning glory, which will keep producing a generous tangle of clear blue until the first serious frost.
Finally, asters make up a group of flowers that begin blooming in late summer and continue through the fall. Bluebird with its deep blue flowers reaches a height of about 4 feet. It likes the sun, but doesn’t mind damp soil. October Skies is shorter and bushier. Both of these asters are rabbit-resistant, and make good cut flowers. They should be divided every two or three years.
Does your garden contain any summer blues?
Readers can leave comments at Pat Leuchtman’s Web site: www.commonweeder.com. Leuchtman has been writing and gardening in Heath at End of the Road Farm since 1980.