Summertime and the Garden Is Growing . . . and Growing


Just the other day I made a surprising find while shopping at an Orchard Supply Hardware for lightbulbs, a filter for the shop vac and some drill bits.

There among the coral pink impatiens were gallon cans of chocolate cosmos, C. atrosanguineus, for just $1.99!

Just a few years ago, I was paying around $15--if I could even find one--for this choice perennial with the burgundy flowers that smell surprisingly like a Hershey bar.

Although it dies completely to the ground in winter (you'd better mark the spot so you don't dig it up by accident), it's supposed to return each summer. Only once did it do so in my garden--and I've tried more than a few times--but for $1.99, who cares if it doesn't come back.

Unfortunately, there's no place in my garden to put the two plants I bought. I forgot--it's summer and space is at a premium.

In summer, gardens can get overgrown, even seedy. Plants look fat and lazy, branches sprawled every which way. Corpulent comes to mind when thinking about the summer garden, especially if you have planted too much in too small a space. There's no bare dirt in which to plant a bargain pair of chocolate cosmos.

Things have been growing steadily for a couple of months. The tomatoes are spilling over the top of their 6-foot-tall wire cages, like something boiling over on the stove. The matilija poppy blooming next to my neighbors' driveway has grown so big that they can barely open their car door.

Now I know that matilija poppies have no business being in a smallish garden like mine, but they are so pretty--those big, fried-egg flowers on top of silvery stems.

These are the quintessential Southern California native, so I keep planting them, only to dig the poor poppies up a year later because not only do they grow tall (above the eaves), but they spread underground almost as badly as do the blackberries.

Golden coreopsis are sprawling wider and wider in the warm sun and threaten to cover a path in the frontyard, and the bright purple Verbena rigida, which grows in the cracks between stepping stones in back, trip any who dare walk that way.

"Hand me the pruning shears, honey," is heard a lot in our garden at this time of the year.

Some of that overgrown summer look can be attributed to things that add themselves to the garden, things that "volunteer" or "self-sow."

Noticeable examples in our garden include the tall Verbena bonariensis and the short V. rigida, several true geraniums (including G. incanum), Santa Barbara daisies by the dozens, a tall yellow verbascum (my favorite, although I don't know its name), the fantastic Rudbeckia triloba, lamb's ears and a white-flowered lychnis. All by themselves, these self-sown volunteers would make a nice garden. As it is, they pop up in the most unexpected places, such as between cracks in paving, which gives the garden the oddly romantic look of a ruin.

I don't even remember when some of these got started in my garden--the rudbeckia is the only one I remember collecting seed for in a friend's garden--but they come back year after year and guarantee that there is no bare soil anywhere. (You can get the rudbeckia seed from Prairie Nursery, P.O. Box 306, Westfield, WI 53964, [608] 296-3679.)

Amid this summer chaos and splendor, several new perennials--now in their second or third summer--are real standouts and major contributors to that summertime look.

Plum Pudding is a new coral bell with rich purple leaves and pleasant little white flowers. It has proved much tougher and more elegant than the popular Palace Purple but has the same dramatic effect, although its leaves have a slightly metallic sheen.

From a bunch of perennials that Mary Lou Heard at Heards Country Gardens in Westminster gave me to try, a catmint with a regal name--Nepeta Souvenir de Andre Chavdon--is very pretty with blooms more like a salvia though sprawling in catmint fashion. The showy, loose spikes, however, stand quite upright, unlike other catmints, which tend to flop.

Tanacetum niveum is a gray-foliaged tansy that grows about a foot tall by 2 or 3 feet wide and covers itself with tiny white daisies. My wife is not a fan of daisies, but this is her favorite plant this summer.

Mine is Artemisia lactiflora 'Guizho,' a most unusual artemisia. This group is normally grown for its striking gray foliage, but not 'Guizho,' which makes a low, almost unnoticeable, clump of green leaves, then sends up plumes of tiny white flowers.

Streaking out of the back of the border (the plumes are 4 to 5 feet tall), it really adds an explosive element to a summer garden.

Although the sunlight--high, bright and hot--has a lot to do with the look of a summer garden, it's the maturity of the plants that really define the space. Just about everything has grown as much as it plans to. Now the plants are just waiting for the seed to ripen.

Fortunately, this can take all summer, especially if you frustrate the plant's efforts by constantly removing the old, spent flowers before they turn into seed. That way you can have a nearly endless summer in the garden.

In the Garden is published Thursdays. Write to Robert Smaus, SoCal Living, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053; fax to (213) 237-4712; or e-mail

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