June was long in coming this year. Now that it’s here, every nursery and garden center across the land draws us in with sheer flower power. Even the beginning gardener with a newly planted garden will be able to have a blooming summer border. For most of us, our gardening obsession begins when the sun returns on a regular basis. If we are lucky, June heralds not only the arrival of summer sunshine, but also a long stay for the sun.
Gardeners revel in the experience of creating plant color combinations. We can be equally pleased with the simple, overwhelming beauty of a single blooming rose. That is why we are so willing to commit ourselves to creating a garden. Anyone who dallies in the field of creativity will tell you right up front to give the process of flower gardening free rein.
However, trying to control the nature of a garden is a full-time job often fraught with frustration. Chaos is a more reliable helpmate to the creative spirit than is control. Just this week I begged my Oriental poppies, Papaver orientale, to hold off blooming until the third weekend of June. “Wait for the summer parties and the big garden events,” I pleaded. “Think of all the accolades as visitors ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ at your vibrant delicacy.” They immediately turned towards the sun and burst into mouth-watering color.
Oriental poppies are reliable, hardy perennials, easy to grow if planted in a sunny location with well-drained soil. If you have heavy soil, add compost and a handful of grit before planting. Think of them growing in their homeland of Armenia, where they emerge from rocky slopes and grow interspersed with wild flowers in dry meadows. Their large taproot ensures a tolerance of drought once established.
Few flowering plants can compete with the strength of Oriental poppy color. My favorite is still the first poppy I ever planted, Papaver orientale “Allegro,” with its bright orange-scarlet flowers and bold, black basal markings. Other cultivars bloom in striking scarlet, vermillion and hot pink with a steady stream of new introductions in purples, plum, salmon and white. For a moment in June, the Oriental poppy appears to be the perfect perennial.
Alas, if I did not comment on the other side of growing poppies I would feel as if I had introduced my sister to Mr. Wonderful without mentioning his bipolar condition. Once those magnificent poppy flowers are spent, the only thing left is a large, rough clump of broadly lance-shaped, hairy foliage. That description makes it sound like a weed. Well, let me confirm by saying that it looks like a weed, too.
Fortunately, the remains of my large planting of poppies is hidden from close inspection at the foot of a 15-year-old Tibetan cherry. This planting area is surrounded by a 2-foot-high ground cover of Cotoneaster horizontalis. Another solution would be to surround them with late-flowering perennials with strong foliage texture, such as daylilies or fall blooming asters. In his books, Christopher Lloyd suggested that Oriental poppies should be cut right down to the ground after flowering, including all foliage, and be interplanted with summer bedding. I fully agree.
For many years now, gardeners in the Northwest have become more focused on perennials in the garden for flower color. We grew tired of the process of planting a foundation of annuals each year for color, which also meant having to live with large, empty spaces in beds and borders until the annuals were ready to plant. Over time, it seems that many of us have finally found a comfortable medium between annual and perennials.
We want the bones of the plant world, the trees, shrubs, ground covers and seasonal perennials to supply the bulk of seasonal interest. The annuals are used to fill what gaps remain, which means we can experiment with color for emphasis, contrast and drama. Annuals also give us the chance to highlight an area of the garden when it needs it most, along an entry walkway leading to the front door or in planters on decks and patios.
If you do rely on annuals, do not skimp. More is better in this case. At some point over the summer, as you visit nurseries and other gardens, you may run across perfect perennials that could do the job in your garden as well as this year’s annuals have done. Buy and plant them now or plan to plant them next year. When we begin to garden seriously, we start looking ahead and even into next year’s growing season for new plant and color ideas.
Robb Rosser is a WSU-certified Master Gardener. Reach him at Write2Robb@aol.com.