We have four distinct seasons at this altitude and now that spring bloomers are going off, summer flowering plants wait in the wings to take center stage. However, they don't like our cold nights and don't even like to be planted until the soil is warm. The arrival of warm temps means that summer bloomers are on their way to showing off their many colors.
Unfortunately, novice gardeners overlook these great summer blooming plants because they are not available at garden centers during the spring planting rush. For a balanced landscape that looks great year-round, you should visit your garden center during each of our four seasons.
To help you pick out the right hot weather additions for your gardens, I've put together a list of seven of the best-looking summer shrubs. They are in full bloom at garden centers now, the ground is warm, so let's get after them!
1) Butterfly Bush. Yes, butterflies really are attracted to this showy shrub that some folks call the summer lilac. Some varieties can reach a height of 8 feet, but can be kept pruned down to about 5-feet. If you're not into pruning, there are some shorter versions that might better suit your needs. This season, the most popular colors seem to be the dark purples and blues. They are spectacular up close, but for a show out in the yard I prefer the lighter colored flowers. Pink, white, yellow and lavender blooms really present a stunning show against their rich green foliage.
2) Russian Sage. This is a tough-as-nails addition for any landscape. Its lavender to dark purple flowers make a statement from now through Thanksgiving. About hip high, the flowers appear to float above the main body of silvery blue foliage, the spiky blossoms are so light and airy that they are beautiful when viewed from eye level or from above. Consequently, this plant is perfect if you have a patio that overlooks a slope that needs some color. This sage is hardy enough to survive on a graded bank while providing a beautiful sight when viewed from above.
3) Autumn Sage. Hummingbirds love the little glowing red flowers on this plant that thrives like a native in our soil. Also known as salvia greggii, it does well with very little water. However, put on drip irrigation, its show of color will outperform almost any other summer bloomer. The foliage is so delicate and the flowers so intense that most folks must stop and admire this 3-foot shrub. Using a really good fertilizer will accentuate the contrast of the blossoms' colors against the dark green leaves. Talk about a garden show-stopper. This year our garden center has a purple-blossomed variety that is really spectacular.
4) Rose of Sharon. Truly the queen of summer bloomers. This hibiscus is related to the tropical hibiscus requested by my new customers from Phoenix and California. Rose of Sharon's blossoms are slightly smaller than those of the tropical hibiscus, but it holds its own during our cold winters. Its huge blooms cover the shrub so densely that it's difficult to see the foliage. Many gardeners collect varieties of Rose of Sharon like rose-lovers collect roses. This is a truly stunning plant when in bloom.
5) Desert willow. This tall bush or short tree is graced with orchid-shaped flowers laced with shades of pink to brilliant burgundy. Once established, this plant thrives with little care. It's one of my preferred xeriscape plants for summer color. It's also a big favorite of hummingbirds.
6) Hydrangea. This is the only choice for spectacular summer color in the shade. Whether in a container on a covered patio or protected by the canopy of a tree, the secrets to great-looking hydangeas are protection from the sun and shelter from our prevailing winds. To bring out more flowers in richer colors I use fertilome's Blooming & Rooting, a water soluble plant food that I use on all my garden flowers. It really brings on healthy, beautiful blossoms. The hydrangeas are in full bloom at the garden center now. What a glorious sight.
7) Crape myrtle. This is the one for the really hot spots in any yard. Spectacular clusters of pure white to pink to red flowers are displayed over its extra-long summer bloom period. This deciduous shrub has the most attractive peeling bark that contributes interest to a barren winter landscape.
Let's try to get our summer plants off to a good start yet keep water usage to a minimum. Sprinkle a couple of tablespoons of Soil Moist Granular at the base of each planting hole; then top dress each root ball with a three-inch layer of shredded bark. A word of caution if you use both of these products: If you water more than twice a week your plants will die from over-watering ... Even in our hot summer.
Until next week, I'll see you in the garden center.
Ken Lain, owner of Watters Garden Center in Prescott, is a master gardener and certified nursery professional who has gardened extensively throughout Yavapai County.