Sophisticated gardeners treasure foliage, and I agree that leaves are important, since they're more permanent. But the excitement of plants bursting into bloom is what keeps us most closely connected to our gardens.
Richie Steffen of Seattle's Elisabeth Carey Miller Botanical Garden put it perfectly in a recent lecture: 'Spectacular plants, even with a short window, give your garden a sense of time. You have to get out in the garden to see it. That moment in the garden when they're blooming is the moment!'
Early summer is when color in my garden comes to a crescendo. One cool June morning, when the skies were overcast - a distant memory now in summer's heat - I noticed how purple Japanese irises and pink 'Mozart' roses sparkled in the gray light.
Now, without cloud cover, the garden heats up quickly, and watering becomes the most urgent task. Yet even on toasty days, bright colors hold their own, a good match for stronger light.
Warm colors radiate energy. I love vibrant coral and peach roses - 'Westerland,' with big double flowers blending pink and orange, and 'Rosenstadt Zweibrucken,' with wide open flowers of neon pink, and a touch of white in the throat. White in the heart of a flower radiates light and draws the eye from a distance. Many favorite roses have this quality - 'Mozart,' vivid 'Red Ballerina' and iridescent 'Coral Floral Carpet,' with the added benefit of glossy leaves gleaming with health.
This summer, an accidental cacophony of saturated colors thrills me. I'd planted 'Rosenstadt Zweibrucken' near coral-pink 'Winchester Fanfare' cape fuchsia, when an interloper sneaked into the bed: A dozen moss campion seedlings with round magenta flowers exploded into bloom, adding a touch of gaudy sparkle to the picture. Thank you, Mother Nature!
Beyond this hot composition, a stretch of lawn provides some green relief before the next surge of color. Heating up an oval island bed, 'Scarlet Meidiland' roses and red 'David' fuchsias bloom. Their companions are immense yellow and red day lilies, unfurling flamboyantly.
Everywhere vibrant leaves also are unfurling. The leaves of 'Grace' smoke tree catch the light and warm up to a reddish purple. As the heat increases, I especially appreciate dramatic New Zealand flax. The broad, long, smooth blades are saturated with brown, purple, orange, pink and green tints. I grow two in an island bed full of wildly undulating mallows and speedwells, where they form architectural focal points. 'Sundowner' has bronzy green leaves with pink and red tints, while 'Pink Edge' is a subtle blend of gray, green and purple with distinctive pink edges to the leaves.
Because New Zealand flax plants are marginally hardy for me, I haul them to the greenhouse in winter. To make the job easier on my back, I grow them in big plastic pots, then slide those inside larger terra-cotta containers for aesthetic purposes. The heavy clay pots stand empty in the beds in winter. I plant sedums at the perimeter of the plastic pots to hide the gap between the plastic pots and the lip of the terra cotta - golden 'Angelina' sedum trails over 'Pink Edge,' while gray-green 'Vera Jameson' drapes over 'Sundowner.'
For brilliant summer color, I must have dahlias. I grow double red 'Bednall Beauty' and single red 'Bishop of Llandaff' - both with burgundy leaves - in containers that I can slide back in the greenhouse for winter. But last year I learned how to overwinter dahlias from Shirley Bankston of the Portland Dahlia Society.
In late fall, cut dahlias to the ground, cover them with black plastic and top with two inches of mulch. Remove all this in spring. This year, for the first time, two-year-old dahlias bloom exuberantly in the border beside my driveway, offering a dazzling display of red flowers.