When you look at a picture of a great garden, your eyes see only the dazzling “look” of the garden. But the garden is made up of many layers. Achieving a perfect balance of different plant types and groups is an art form that you learn, one layer at a time. Layering a garden is a long process that takes several attempts to get right. The gardener must choose what layers they will add.
One of the final layers are plants that will bloom during the hot summer months and into the fall. Several plants fit that description. Dahlias, tall summer blooming lilies, and hydrangeas will round out your flower garden with style. One of the most important lessons is choosing plants that flower well, stagger the cycle of their blooms and hold onto their blooms for a long time.
Dahlias are a group of plants that cost very little and give back a huge amount of flowers. They actually require very little care for a plant that blooms so prolifically from June through November. There are two different kinds of dahlias. The one that is very rewarding is the kind that you plant from tubers (they look like a tiny baked potato). The most common dahlias are the 12-inch plants in pots that you can purchase from garden centers and big box stores. I prefer the tubers that you mail order and plant in May once the ground has warmed up. That small tuber will produce at least 20 blooms per plant that range in size from a small button type to a dinner plate sized bloom. The choice of what type you plant is up to you. My favorite supplier for these dahlia tubers is Swan Island Dahlias in Canby, Oregon. They can be reached at 800-410-6540 or dahlias.com.
Dahlias like full sun or part shade (meaning at least four hours sun per day) and are quite easy to grow. After you select your type of dahlia, order it in January. It comes in the mail, and you can store it in the garage in a cool dark place until the ground warms up in May.
Plant the tubers on their sides in a hole that is 4 to 6 inches deep, selecting a site that is sunny. The tubers will have the name stamped on the tuber. When you plant it, it is advisable to make a name tag to go into the ground at the same time you plant it so you will know what the name is when everyone is blown away by the blooms. Trust me, you will want to know the name. Do not water the tubers when you plant them until the leaves appear above ground. Then water them. Dahlias like a low nitrogen fertilizer like vegetables do, so use a 10-20-20 fertilizer after the first leaves appear and then again four weeks later.
Your plant will need staking if it is a large type and grows above 18 inches. Tomato cages can be used as well as dowels and string. If you use dowels and garden twine, use three dowels put into the ground in a triangle shape. Then use garden twine that wraps around the dowels to create a cage effect.
Dahlias can also be grown in containers that are at least 12 to 15 inches across and deep. For shorter, bushier plants pinch out the center stem above the third set of leaves. Dahlias are among the most rewarding flowering garden plants. Cut your flowers early in the morning and enjoy them.
The third element in our layered garden is the tall summer-blooming lilies. These are the tiger, trumpet, and Asiatic-type lilies. I think these style of lilies add so much to the garden. Most of these are tall lilies topping out at 4 and 5 feet tall. Their bloom period is usually June and July. The construction of the flowers is impressive and complicated. Tiger lily stems have anywhere from 8 to 15 flowers on them.
The beauty of these tall lilies is that one flower opens at a time, while the rest of the buds grow and develop. So the true show in watching a tall lily bloom is observing the ballet of the opening of the bloom. Tiger, trumpet, and Asiatic lilies are purchased in bulb form. They like at least three to six hours of the sun per day. Order these from mail order catalogs online in January or February. Some of the best suppliers are John Scheepers (johnscheepers.com) or Old House Garden Bulbs (oldhousegardens.com). Planting some of these tall lilies in your garden will add some magic to it. They are a terrific summer feature to have bloomed in your garden.
The last layer to add to your garden is the anchor plants. An anchor plant is a large shrub that can stop the eye as it scans the garden. It is usually showy or large in stature. Anchor plants can stand in the back corner of your property and stop the eye. Or they can be a showy hydrangea in the middle of the bed. Other important anchor plants are viburnums, which bloom in the early spring. My favorite viburnums are carlesii and carlcephalum. Viburnum opulus Roseum or the common snowball bush is a dazzling anchor plant.
Hydrangea is a huge family of flowering anchor plants. The great thing about hydrangea is that once they bloom, the plant holds its flowers all season long. To have a continuous cycle of hydrangea bloom, plant the following.
Hydrangea Annabelle blooms in May and June with huge white pom-pom flowers. They start out green, then turn white, and age back to green. Oak leaf hydrangea is a wonderful group of flowering shrubs with their oak leaves that turn red in the fall and their peeling bark in addition to the lovely flowers. Snowflake and snow queen are double oak leaf hydrangea that bloom in June at the edge of the woods or in the shade. Next to bloom is the Nikko Blue hydrangeas blooming in June and July. They are followed by Peegee hydrangeas, the big white pom-pom blooms that are full-sun plants blooming in July. Also blooming in July and August is the best hydrangea of all, Limelight, also a full-sun plant. Finally blooming in September, October, and November is Tardiva hydrangea, also a full sun shrub.
If you follow this plan and think about the layers of your garden and what you want to put in it, then you will have a complete cycle of bloom. Adding these three layers of bloom will complete your garden and have it looking the best it can look.
Linda Cobb is a correspondent for The Spartanburg (S.C.) Herald-Journal.