Down to earth — the mid-summer blues

(Originally published July 9, 2014 in East Bay/South Coast Life.)

As soon as summer’s heat hits, I spend more time critiquing my garden than tending it. If only I were better about making notes, I might have remembered that every year right around now, I become bothered by what’s missing, particularly from the backyard border I can see from my desk.

College level color theory didn’t adequately prepare me to choose from the smorgasbord available at every nursery and offered by friends. I want it all and can’t imagine excluding any one color from my garden. I might be able to live without pink but crave the scent of cerise-pink beach roses (Rosa rugosa), the gaudiness of rose campion (Lychnis coronaria) and the whimsy of pink peony poppies. I think a little red goes a long way but want to honor the hummingbirds’ addiction to plants like Lonicera sempervirens ‘Major Wheeler’ and Monarda didyma ‘Jacob Cline’. Yellow was never once, even in my fickle youth, a favorite but I’m willing to tolerate black and brown-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia spp.) because goldfinch (whenever I spot one I change my mind about yellow) love their seedheads. But rather than wince at the clash I try to include a couple of colors that, to my eye, help sew the garden’s crazy quilt together.

The 1970s almost ruined orange forever but for the past few years it has ranked high on my list of must haves in the garden (and out of it). The ultimate clasher bounces so cheerfully off of every other color it actually manages to enhance otherwise wonky combinations. I think everyone needs a few clumps of bright-orange butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) to feed monarch butterfly caterpillars (though, truth be told, they prefer swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), which has either creamy-white or baby-pink flowers). If you have to work up to orange, the hummingbird magnet, Agastache ‘Acapulco Orange’ is a more of a soft apricot.

Agastache 'Golden Jubilee'
Agastache ‘Golden Jubilee’

To really work its magic, orange needs its opposite: blue. I’ll take anything from cerulean sky, indigo, French-purplish, and cobalt, to midnight. In fact, I believe there’s no such thing as too much blue no matter where it falls on the spectrum. Not only does it calm the crazy, cool the hot, and recede to add depth to small spaces (I remember a few things from color theory class) blue flowers also tend to be especially nectar-rich and attractive to bees.

Surprising then that blue is woefully underrepresented in my garden right now. You’re probably missing it too if your hydrangeas look anything like mine — winter nipped and nearly bloom-free. By the time you read this though, sea holly (Eryngium planum) stems and thimble flowers should be suffused in cobalt and buzzed by every pollinator in the neighborhood. I need more. And just as the catmint (Nepeta spp.) fades, lavender should take over the show. Both are more purple than blue but do the trick anyway. I’m sure I should have countless spires of anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum) because it self-sows generously, but then so does the cultivar ‘Golden Jubilee’ that I bought instead for its chartreuse foliage.

Atlantic poppy and its color complement
Atlantic poppy and its color complement

When the forget-me-nots and woodland phlox go by, my partially-shady backyard border becomes a blue-free zone all the way until August or September when plumbago (Ceratostigma plumbaginiodes) finally blooms. I planted a few Geranium ‘Rozanne’ some years ago to help fill the void but they have all but disappeared.

I thought I was done planting but the more I stare at the backyard clash the more determined I become to try the geranium again or look for some last minute flats of blue lobelia and browallia, each of which can take some shade. And maybe, as a stopgap and reminder for next year in case I forget to read this note, I’ll spray paint the birdbath blue too.

Confession: I didn’t paint the birdbath blue. I painted my awesome wire bucket chairs instead. 

Do your eyes need to see orange and blue in the garden too?

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