Color revival: Late-summer gardens get a boost

Renee Tomell

If heat and humidity have wilted your garden’s vibrancy and left it hungry for an infusion of color and zip, now’s the perfect time to examine some curative options.

Liz Omura, curator of the Idea Garden at Cantigny Park, the former Wheaton, Ill., estate of the late Col. Robert R. McCormick, shares her tricks for reinvigorating a late summer garden and subtly transitioning into fall.

Q: What’s a simple fix to garden woes?

A: Do some grooming. Get rid of some things not worth hanging onto. If there’s one puny flower, get rid of it. I would try adding two or three new types of (complementary-colored) plants ... maybe a nice mum, some kale or pansies. In mid-August, things start pooping out. I have one bed I didn’t like that will be the first to go, whether the plants are failing or not. I don’t find it pleasing.

Q: What makes the biggest impact?

A: Concentrate the color. People don’t have an unlimited pocketbook. If there’s a bad spot in front of the door, I’d focus there. Or near your patio. A container would be a great way to go. It gives you some nice seasonal color. If (the trouble spot) is farther back in the landscape, maybe just clean it up a bit. Your patio or deck is where ... it’s going to be a bigger show and worth your dollars spent.

Q: How do you select colors?

A: I like high contrast. You can do a light-colored mum, white, if that’s what you like, and bounce it off something dark like a really deep kale and fountain grass. Or pick a pale pink mum. I also like (combining) yellow and orange and red.

(I look for) a nice complementary color mix. I’ll stick with oranges and bronzes and greens and keep repeating those over and over again. Maybe have an aster, mum, grass, the pretty sages: purple and gold sage, which has gold and green to it. If you’re using yellow mum, fountain grass might be nice.

Q: Do colorful coleus plants do well in heat?

A: Yes. They don’t like the cold. The tips are blackened (by the first frost). Then we go into warm spell. Pinch off the tips and get a couple more weeks out of them. I love coleus in containers if you have fallish looking colors.

Q: Can you still capitalize on late-summer sales at nursery centers?

A: Sometimes you find bargains in the perennials section, like the pretty purple, coppery or gold heuchera. It does like a little bit more shade, but in the fall we have less light and they could tolerate full sun. Next spring, you could move them to a more shady area.

Q: How late in the season can you still establish a perennial?

A: We’ve been having pretty long falls, and haven’t had hard freezes until late in October. (Start them no later) than early to mid-September. The thing you want to accomplish is to get a good root system going.

Grasses really have a hard time late in the year. If it’s a steal, perhaps give it a try.

Make sure things are watered well. People give up on gardens at the end of the season. They don’t need as much water, but if you want perennials to overwinter, they still need a drink. The sun is still pretty hot in September.

Q: What are some easy-to-grow options?

A: I really like the new Tiger Eye Gold Rudbeckia (black-eyed Susan family). It’s doing really good in the garden right now, coming into the high humidity. The variety is a little shorter, with lots of yellowy gold. It’s blooming all summer long and it will carry you through.

A deep purple grass is Pennisetum Rubrum. It starts off slow in the spring, but it will look great through a very hard frost. You get a lot of color and it does fill a big area. In the breeze, it has a nice flow to it.

Gold sage is another good transition plant into the fall. It will last through a hard frost.

For the container in summer and fall, there’s a wispy little Stipa — pony tail grass. It looks like a young girl’s pony tail.

In addition to bronzy grasses, I would recommend some herbs. Thyme is nice in a container; it falls over the edge. A bonus is it has a nice smell and you can cook with it.

Wheaton Leader