Come August, a garden can start looking a little tired. Months of heat and bugs will take a toll on summer blooms. That said, it’s also a time when many late-summer flowers are just coming into their own. All it takes is a little advance planning and some selective pruning, and you can extend the blooming season all the way until fall.
I know what I’m talking about, not only as a designer, but also as chair of a demo garden in Maryland that must be in peak flower in August for the County Fair. The garden is funded by the Master Gardener program and plays a key role in educating the public. The Fair falls at a time of year, though, that can be tough on flowers. Not only is it late in the season, but there are also wide swings in weather.
A view of our demo garden with the cow ‘show barn’ in the back
As a result, in late July, I often lay awake at night worrying about how to keep the plants blooming. And this year, our garden faced more challenges than usual. These included wild swings in temperature, a prolonged period of drought, and a 10-day deluge of rain. It was a perfect storm of horticultural disasters.
It was a miracle then, that when we opened yesterday, our garden looked better than ever.
Blanket Flower (Gaillardia)
How did we do this? Upon reflection, I think our success hinged on four key elements:
CHOOSING LATE-SUMMER FLOWERS
If you want blooms in late summer, it helps to choose the right species. Following are the perennials that are in full flower today in our August garden, many of which started blooming in early July.
Other late-summer flowers like Japanese anemones, goldenrod, Joe Pye weed, physostegia (Obedient Plant), dahlias, zinnias and many plants in the aster family waited until mid month to begin blossoming.
Still, flowers alone are often not enough to perk up a late-summer garden. We supplemented our perennials with dependable, late-flowering shrubs like abelias, ‘Annabelle’ and ‘Limelight’ hydrangeas as well as a bunch of dark pink Knock-Out roses.
Hydrangea arborescens ‘Annabelle’
If you plant late-summer flowers in the right places (sun or shade, back or front of the border), you set the August/September garden up for success right from the start. It pays to educate yourself on what species bloom when and then design your garden around the seasons in which you most like to enjoy it.
PRUNING TO INCREASE OR DELAY BLOOMS
I’ve written a lot about the importance of deadheading and why it encourages a plant to produce more flowers. But there’s another secret to pruning. Early removal of blooms can not only cause a plant to bush out, but it can also delay flowering. Depending on what time of the season you make your cuts and by how much, you can coax your plants to flower later than they are naturally programmed to do.
My go-to reference for pruning is The Well-Tended Perennial Garden by Tracy DiSabato-Aust. I’ve used DiSabato’s techniques for years in my own gardens to stimulate plants to bloom later and longer. This in turn has helped our Master Gardener team create unique color combinations in our garden. And it’s helped ensure our plants are in peak flower in August.
Climbing rose ‘New Dawn’
Accordingly, starting in mid June, we hard prune many of our flowers, sometimes removing as much as a third of the plant. This encourages the plant to branch out instead of becoming leggy. And, if we get our timing right, the flowers are delayed until the beginning of August, or just in time for the Fair.
Here are two examples:
In addition to snapping off spent flowers, we make sure to remove any seed heads that have started to develop. In the plant world, once the seed pods appear, the plant thinks it’s done for the season and stops flowering.
Removing spent blooms will prolong daylily flowering
However, by diligently removing the dead flowers and pods (as well as cutting all spent stalks down to the ground), the plant instead gets the message to keep on blooming. Using this technique, we’ve kept most of our daylilies blooming for a week or two longer than they usually do.
For a more detailed, step-by-step guide to best practices for deadheading daylilies, check out Daylily Care: How To Extend the Blooming Season.
These sturdy flowers start blooming in our garden in July but get leggy by August without some prudent intervention. To keep them flowering, we continuously remove spent blooms, making our cuts down along the stem where we see the newest flower just starting to develop.
Echinacea, sneezeweed and salvia ‘Victory Blue’
By continuous pruning, we encourage our coneflowers to thicken up and continue blooming pretty much until the end of the summer.
PROPER IRRIGATION BOOSTS LATE-SUMMER FLOWERS
At the demo garden, we use a drip system of irrigation. It works relatively well until someone at the fairgrounds decides to turn off the main water source. This year we installed a timer and spoke with the staff to coordinate. Still, there were many times, especially with new plantings, that we called upon our team to hand water.
Purple physostegia and Artemisia ‘Powis Castle’
Although it seems obvious, I cannot emphasize enough the need to water. Drip irrigation alone is rarely sufficient in hot climates to get new plants to establish properly. We always supplement our drip system with hand watering during dry spells, making sure to water long and deep. Deep root watering is always better than a short surface spritz, which only teases the roots before quickly evaporating.
ANNUALS AND BULBS MAKE GREAT LATE-SUMMER FLOWERS
Finally, nothing beats zinnias and dahlias for dependable, late-summer flowers. Zinnias come into their own by mid-August and dahlias will usually flower well into October. It’s a boost to see all these happy, bright flowers appear suddenly at the end of the season.
Zinnia mix in the late summer garden
We plant our (potted) zinnias in the garden in July and prune them down as they grow. This encourages them to thicken up before blooming. The dahlias go in the ground in early June. Both continue to brighten our demo garden until long after the Fair.
Looking for late-season annuals you can grow from seed? Check out ButterBee Farm’s top recommendations for the Cutting Garden.
For photos of my latest garden designs check out my Instagram. I post seasonally from spring through fall.