Of Blooms and Beans
Spring has left the building. That hopeful season, which delights most everyone, has been relegated to memory. A lamented passing. The stems that previously held tulips now wave forlornly, holding nothing. Flowers we had greatly longed to see now exist only in photo albums. That wonderful trip we had planned for so long is over and we just landed back at Bush Field. Does it always have to feel this way? Not so fast my melancholy friend! It is just a new season.
I believe that in a perfect garden we should embrace the character of each season. Spring has its fresh and flowery hopefulness, it wears its charms on its sleeve. But what of the personality of the summer garden? The lengthening days and warmer temperatures surely give us something wonderful to anticipate. Characters who were not in the first act are about to appear and, among these, are pretty girls and floozies, dignified gentlemen and crazy uncles, it really is a most interesting cast.
As I plan my garden for the summer I think about the benefit of such a long, sultry season. There are many plants who don’t think summer in Augusta is so bad, who relish the heat and sun like a Northern European on holiday. Enthusiastic climbers who have no fear of heights, vegetables who dare us to eat all they produce, flowers who refuse to be ignored...these are some of the folks I want to be around. It is the very exuberance and the great aspirations of these plants that are the fascination of the summer garden for me. This is my opportunity to introduce you to some of my friends.
For some reason the” floozy” catches my attention as one of the most appealing of the summer characters. In the spring I most admire the demure loveliness of the fritillary, but she retires so early and is probably not suited to a coarse chap like me. After she has graced me with her fleeting presence and moved on its time for the “fun girls.” (Isn’t that what they called that pair on the Andy Griffith Show?) Yes, there she is, opening a sleepy eye as the jets rumble out of town and menu prices return to normal. This is our friend the hibiscus. Not the tropical hibiscus of plant sale fame, but the hardy varieties that are numerous. They work the late shift so we must expect that they would not be up for the paper boy. These perennials are of such easy culture and iron constitution that anyone with a sunny spot can grow them. Flowers range in size from L to XXXL. In colors spanning a broad spectrum, they are produced freely during the hottest months. With its pinwheel-like shadings, “Turn of the Century” is one of my favorites. Tireless plant breeders are always seeking more and more extraordinary flowers, so keeping up with catalogs is a good idea. There seem to be varieties that grow from three feet to more than eight feet, so they can fit most anywhere. “Raspberry Rose” was a revelation last year, producing more fresh flowers daily as it reached a height of about eight feet. “Fantasia” and “Plum Crazy” were smaller, but with sophisticated colors that were mesmerizing. “Fun in the sun” is hibiscus’s motto, so plant her in plenty of light and feed her well. Plant Delights nursery has a good selection of these sisters, so visit their website to browse. Oh, and hummingbirds love them too!
I have made the acquaintance of another fellow I would like you to meet. A fairly quiet shade of yellow he wears, or pale orange, and he never has a hair out of place. The kind who never “perspires,” let alone sweats. How does he do it?! The hottest of August and not a speck of mildew, not one leaf in distress, just flowers and more flowers. The designated driver at the bar, with others stumbling and falling down while he keeps his dignity. Parqui is his name, Cestrum parqui. One of the Royal Horticultural Society’s top 200 plants of the last 200 years, and deservedly so. Clusters of pale yellow flowers are fragrant in the evening, foliage glossy and mid-green, a shrub to about five feet. It will die back after a hard freeze, but emerges in spring to flower until frozen again. Plant Delights offers two varieties and he needs sun.
An ornamental edible has earned his spot in the border again this year. That divisive vegetable who engenders either passion or disgust, okra. A relative of hibiscus, I think maybe a cousin, this lovable plant produces flowers and edible fruit that is favored by those of refinement and breeding. I obtained seeds of a variety called “Hill Country Red” last year and was delighted by the red stems and flowers, which, I seem to recall, open from peach-colored buds and turn yellow. Growing to about six feet for me, this heat-lover didn’t stop producing until Thanksgiving or thereabouts. The seeds are available from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, who provide a stunning array of fruit and flower and vegetable seeds.
Also from the good folks at Baker Creek are some suited-to-the-South climbers that can turn a trellis into a flowering and foliar phenomenon. Using the largest bamboo or other branches I can find, I am building a pyramid onto which these exuberant kids can climb this year. The pharaohs will forgive this homespun interpretation of their final resting place, I know, because even the most stone-faced person would have to love the family of long beans. These East Asian edibles thrive in heat and humidity while producing beans that are called “yard long beans.” There seem to be some varieties that live up to that name, others being only 18 to 28 inches or so. Flowers of all bean plants are beautiful to me, bringing in the noble honey bee and others to pollinate them. It is a most dissolute sluggard who is not made more productive by the example they set.
So then, my dear friends, let us arise to embrace the season and be energized by the company of some new acquaintances. There are plenty of engaging friends with whom to spend the summer.
Jeff Tilden is an Augusta-based garden designer and sometime writer.