Summer is a tough time for me. As someone that likes to be out doors, the oppressive summer heat makes it a whole lot less enjoyable for me to be outside. While the heat is a bit of a problem for me, I can adjust. I can always get up earlier or wait until the evening to do my gardening chores. My plants, on the other hand, are stuck wherever they are and they have to either adjust to the heat or die. Since our extreme climate makes it impossible for many of the beautiful flowering plants that we love to grow in the spring die by July, it can be a bit of a challenge for we Texas Gardeners to keep our beds and borders looking alive, vibrant and inviting.
A few years ago I was talking about my search for no fail summer color with my buddy Morgan McBride of Tree Town USA. Before he started selling trees, Morgan worked as a landscape maintenance supervisor for over 20 years in the Dallas/Ft. Worth area. According to Morgan, the businesses he serviced wanted attractive landscapes at the lowest cost possible. To fill these requirements, he relied on three very common plants to ensure colorful commercial landscapes throughout the hottest parts of summer –sweet potato vine, purple fountain grass and lantana.
After my visit with Morgan I realized I was looking for color in all the wrong place. Instead of trying to brighten my beds with colorful annual flowers I should get my summer color from the many of the perennials that do well for us despite our oppressive summer heat. Thanks to his advice I have finally come up with my short list of Texas tough plants that will reliably provide tons of low maintenance and low water color in your summer landscape.
Purple Fountain Grass (Pennisetum setaceum ‘Rubrum’) – Purple Fountain Grass is one of many grasses that do well in our climate. However, it is the only one that will add a lovely burgundy color to your landscape. Combine that striking color with the lovely and graceful flower spikes and you have a very showy and useful plant that can be used in mass, as a specimen and even in pots.
Sweet Potato Vine (Ipomoae batatas) – With its rapid growth rate and varieties that come in colors that range from almost black to the brightest chartreuse, there is no better way to bring a lot of color to your summer landscape than with this cousin of the edible sweet potato. Sweet Potato Vine is incredibly easy to propagate and it tells you when it needs water. If you want more vines simply snip off a piece and root it in water and if you see your vines wilting, give them a little drink. Sweet potato vine is great as a ground cover, spilling over a wall or tumbling out of a pot. If you live where winters are cold and wet, you can dig up the tubers and store in saw dust for next year. Otherwise you can leave them in the ground for years of beautiful foliage.
Coleus (various species) – I love coleus and grow several varieties every year. Coleus are one of the few plants that you actually have to work very hard to kill. Coleus can take a lot of drying. If you forget to water your coleus they will wilt down pretty quickly. However, you can take some very wilted coleus, trim them up a bit, water them and watch them miraculously bounce right back. Coleus work as well in the ground as they do in pots. Group them together for a very colorful display.
Artemisia (var Powis Castle)- Artemisia is a woody perennial plant that is known for its gray, feathery foliage and its distinctive smell. There are many artemisias out there but the variety Powis Castle is the best one for most of Texas. Powis Castle loves full sun, high heat and well-draining soil. A single plant will create a silver mound that is three feet tall and five feet wide in a single season. With its lovely silver-gray color, Powis Castle is the perfect companion for plants in a variety of colors. It is lovely when paired with pink Knock Out roses or pink antique roses like “Old Blush
Setcreasea purpurea ‘Purple Heart’ – In my mind, Purple Heart is one of the most versatile, yet underutilized plants in the Texas landscape. Talk about color! This plant is all purple! While it does get lovely, small, pink flowers in the spring, Purple Heart is used for its lovely purple foliage. I love this plant and I grow it in mass as a ground cover. While it can get aphids and spider mites it is a mostly carefree plant that loves full sun and crowed conditions. Purple Heart will spread rapidly by sending out runners up to 3’ long. Plus, it is so easy to propagate. If you want more purple heart just break a piece off, stick it in moist soil and it will root. Truly an awesome plant for bringing lots of color to your landscape!
Lantana – There is really nothing bad to say about lantana. This mounding perennial starts blooming in the spring and blooms and blooms and blooms well into winter. Right now I grow a yellow variety called New Gold. However, I have grown many others through the years. One of my favorites is a red and yellow variety called “Dallas”. Lantana is the ultimate hands off plant. While I water, most varieties will survive on annual rainfall. If you water it occasionally, it will reward you with flowers for six to eight months of the year. Then, when the freeze does finally get it, just cut it back to about six inches and wait for spring.
Salvia greggii-There are many salvias that thrive in our climate. One of the more colorful and more reliable is Salvia greggii. Salvia greggii is a woody, bushy perennial that gets about three feet tall. Its upright braches are covered in little muted green leaves. However, the little flowers of this hardy plant are what make it a standout in the summer garden. Salvia greggii comes in many colors including red white and pink. However there are other variants available. A red variety called Cherry Chief is one of my favorites. However, I am also found of a variety called Hot Lips. Salvi greggii is a mannerly bush that stays where it is planted. Besides its almost year round flowering, the best thing about Salvia greggii is the fact that hummingbirds absolutely love it.
Gomphrena (Bachelor’s Buttons)– Talk about a showy plant! Gomphrena grows into three foot mounds of foliage that are covered with round, button like flowers. You can find gomphrena in most colors. I have a lot of yellow flowering plants in my yard so I use two shades of purple. Gomphrena is a self-seeding annual. That means if you leave it alone the seeds from those hundreds of flowers will fall to the ground and remain dormant until spring. I like this plant because it does not really start blooming until most of my other flowers have faded. Look for blooms in June and enjoy them until the first good freeze.
Celosia (Cock’s Comb) – When you are a gardener you just kind of assume that everyone knows as much about plants as you do. Each year, my celosia reminds me that this is not true. I guarantee that each time I use celosia in an arrangement someone is going to ask me what it is. Celosia comes in two types – the big velvety brain like varieties and the plume type. I love them both. I grow several colors and several varieties. These unusual flowers are also self-seeding and, like gomphrena, the start to bloom in June and then go all the way up to the first freeze.
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