The light of summer is very different from the light we are experiencing now. On cloudy, overcast days, pink and lavender and other soft colors look vibrant and spring-like, but as the overcast burns off for the summer, the light becomes strong and bright, and soft colors melt into their surroundings.
Strong colors are called for, colors as strong as the light of summer, at least for those sunny parts of the garden. This is why marigolds and gloriosa daisies and zinnias are such popular summer flowers. Their yellows and golds, oranges and reds, rival the sun itself.
And now is perhaps the best time to plant them.
We can usually count on a month or more of overcast weather still to come, which gives the plants time to take hold before the weather turns consistently hot and the spring flowers are pretty much finished, so space is available in the garden.
But before you head for the nursery, or turn a spadeful of soil, work out a color scheme for these summer flowers. Because they are so bright they do not always harmonize with each other and can end up looking like so much splattered paint without a little planning.
Here are some simple tricks that can make a summer garden bright and colorful, yet peaceful:
Let some color dominate.
The easiest is yellow because so many summer flowers are yellow or gold. Marigolds and gloriosa daisies are two of the best. Both are annuals and both like hot weather. Coreopsis is a perennial that will flower all summer in yellow, and there are several yarrows that bloom yellow, including one barely 2 inches tall and some that tower at 3 to 4 feet.
And, for the foreground, there is the dainty but sturdy golden fleece, another golden yellow.
Next, add some subtle variations on this one-color theme.
Gaillardia is a summer-flowering perennial that is mostly yellow but with touches of maroon that add a little variety. There are also marigolds with maroon in them and gloriosa daisies.
Variety of height is an important ingredient in this developing scheme.
Growing flowers that are all the same height quickly makes a garden look like the landscaping at an industrial park. Using gloriosa daisies and the tall yarrows, and perhaps day lilies or even sunflowers with the marigolds and coreopsis will guarantee a great variety of heights.
Avoid Bleachers Look
Here you might try another trick--do not arrange all the flowers by height, like the were sitting on bleachers at the ballgame.
For certain, you want most of the tall flowers toward the back of the bed and most of the short flowers in front, but here and there, break this regimen and let some flowers stand out from the crowd. You might think of it this way: Most of the flowers are sitting on bleachers, but here and there are a few that are standing up and cheering wildly, perhaps for your brilliant stroke of composition.
These might be another, perhaps contrasting, color for emphasis and those flowers that are called "blue," but are actually some shade of violet or purple, are a good bet.
The perennial, June-flowering agapanthus would work, especially the dwarfs. The blue bedding salvia is even a better bet since it flowers most of summer and fall, and is just tall enough to stand above the marigolds. This one is usually labeled "blue bedder" at nurseries or Salvia farinacea . Lobelia is a popular blue for the front row of the garden.
Now that you have your basic color with some subtle variations and some contrast in height and color, you can confidently add more colors, perhaps the pinks and reds of petunias and zinnias or the low-growing, wildly colored portulaca.
White to Neutralize
Rather than scattering these through the bed, concentrate them in little colonies of several plants so they become bays of color--in this example--in a sea of golden yellow.
Should you begin to worry that the colors might clash, use the best trick of all--plant white flowers between the potential offenders.
White has been called the "peacemaker" because it quickly cools down color conflicts. White flowered varieties of nicotiana are a favorite for summer gardens, and the white feverfew also works well.
Other useful white flowers include good old alyssum and candytuft, low enough for the front row, and the white forms of petunias, lobelia, verbena, zinnia and even marigolds, which now come in a passable creamy white.
How do you get the right colors when so many flowers, especially annuals, are sold as mixes of colors? This is perhaps the toughest trick of all.
Not Too Late to Sow
More and more nurseries are beginning to sell flowers in packs of what are called "separate colors," all pinks for instance, but it is still not a common practice. You could grow some from seed yourself and it is certainly not to late to sow--directly in the ground where they are to grow--the seed of marigolds and zinnias, but most flowers need a longer head start on summer.
You can look for plants that have at least one flower in bloom but they are going to be a little more expensive and a little less successful at becoming established in the garden because it is always best to start with the smallest plants possible.
Most likely, you will have to buy some plants in flower and in individual pots, and some that are young and in packs of several.
If we make a garden out of the plants just mentioned, we could let marigolds be the mainstay because they are easy to find in separate colors. So are gloriosa daisies, which can add some height behind, and blue salvia, our accent. Golden fleece and lobelia also come as separate colors and can go in the front row, from inexpensive packs.
Pick Your Colors
For some color contrast, let's plant a few zinnias. But these are almost always sold as mixes of colors, so buy those with some color showing, preferably in bud, perhaps selecting only tall, red ones. Up front in the bed, do the same when buying a few petunias; pick through the nursery shelves looking only for the color you want.
Finally, look for a few white flowers to cool down this scheme, again searching out those that have buds or a few flowers so you know they are white since they are seldom labeled as such.
And there you have it--a colorful, sunny composition for summer with a enough variety to make it interesting and a good balance of young, eager-to-grow plants and those that are regrettably a little older but of which you can be sure of the color.
Lay them out on the bed, still in their containers, and move them around until they look right and then plant. Be sure to keep them thoroughly watered the first few weeks, and if all goes well and you have managed to make a harmonious composition, you will be able to enjoy a summery garden without the need of sunglasses--a garden bright enough to bring cheer to the smoggiest of days, yet peaceful enough to doze off in.