A Symphony of Blooms

  • Difficulty Rating: Beginner
A Symphony of Blooms

Gardens are full of musical notes, those annuals and perennials that build into a concerto by June, and finally crescendo in a late summer symphony.

Some are new bits of music, but others are older classical pieces that still deserve our respect.

Perennial simply means a plant returns year after year. When we speak of perennials, they can also include shrubs and grasses, along with traditional blooming plants. One shrub I love is Black Lace™ elderberry, Sambucus nigra. Unlike some black plants with foliage that turns green in the summer sun, Black Lace™ remains dark and mysterious throughout the growing season. In spring, it is covered in pink blooms that are striking against its dark and lacy leaves. If you decide to grow this elderberry in your garden, make sure your soil is on the lean side. Black Lace™ doesn’t need pampering, but it does branch out so give it plenty of elbow room.


A stunning combination, as blue as the summer sky, is Platycodon grandiflorus, balloon flower, with Tradescantia pallida syn. Setcreasea pallida, purple heart. Balloon flower and purple heart are both easy perennials that want to please. Balloon flower also comes in shades of pink, purple and white so it’s versatile. Purple heart blooms pink, and there’s also a variegated hot pink and purple form.


Bulbs can be perennial too. In fact, that’s what we hope for when we plant a lily or a glad. Asiatic (Division I) lilies like ‘Lionheart’ below are among the easiest to grow in most locations.


As for annuals, there are those you buy, and those you start from seed. Many times, the ones you start from seed, either sown directly outdoors, or started inside, are the most fruitful. This spring, I sowed annual poppies very early in February on top of the snow. Then, after the last frost date—April 20 in my area—I sowed zinnias, Rudbeckia hirta ‘Irish Eyes’, Centaurea cyanus, bachelor’s buttons, sunflowers, cosmos and four o’clocks. These are all flowers that give May, June and July a cottage garden feel, and they are welcomed by the gardener and pollinators alike. Grow some to help honeybees and bumblebees get the nectar and pollen they need to survive.

If you’re feeling adventurous, start some seed indoors in March and April, too. In the South, with its long summers, you may need to replace an annual or two, so having some plants already growing indoors is a great way to replace non-performers. Last year, I started Gomphrena globosa ‘Fireworks’ and Pennisetum glaucum ‘Jester’ ornamental millet indoors. I also started seeds of some zinnias inside because I wanted to plant them in blocks of color. Zahara Double Cherry was a favorite in my garden last summer. You can start all of these seeds except the millet outdoors. Some like the zinnias can also be found as four-inch plants at your local nursery. While there’s nothing wrong with buying plants—it’s a great way to jumpstart your border—be sure to ask whether the plants you want to buy have been sprayed, or treated systemically with neonicotinoids harmful to pollinators. By asking, we can get nursery owners and box store managers thinking about this problem. Then, just maybe, we can stop it. While I would suggest not using any chemicals, gardeners should especially not use those with neonicotinoids as listed in the table at the end of the article linked above.

For sheer drama, you can’t beat the leaves of cannas, bananas and elephant ears. While they aren’t all perennial in different parts of the U.S., they aren’t really annuals either. Annuals are plants that complete their entire life cycle from seed to seed in one season. However, many tropical and sub-tropical plants are grown as annuals in the continental U.S. While most cannas are perennial in Oklahoma and further south, they are still grown by gardeners throughout the states because of their statuesque leaves. Tropicanna cannas are tropical so don’t expect them to return like sub-tropical cannas. One of my favorite cannas that do return in Zone 7 and below is ‘Australia’ with its dark purple/red foliage. It’s a beautiful plant in the perennial border. Gardens should contain a variety of plants for beauty, but also for pollinators and other creatures that visit. The photo below shows mixed beds in my garden with shrubs, daylilies and perennial grasses along with a place to sit and admire the view.


And what summer symphony would be complete without the divas of the garden? Sure, they need their supporting players, but roses are the true queens of May. However, roses don’t grow well everywhere so check with your local nursery or an online rose nursery in your region to find one suited for your soil and climate. Remember, roses need rich and friable soil to perform at their most lovely.


I feed my roses’ soil as I prune. I have so many roses the process takes awhile. Anything I can do to simplify it is a good thing. With sharp pruners and loppers, I can whip those divas into concerto shape in a week or so. Also, I don’t prune climbing roses like ‘Applejack’, shown below, until after they bloom.
With so many great perennials and annuals to choose from, it’s easy to make your garden play beautiful music throughout the growing season. Which musical notes will you play in your garden this year?