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A whole new look

August 01, 2004|by Dorry Baird Norris

Almost overnight, the garden border I see from my office window has magically changed from vibrant reds and blues to silvery blues and to dusty pink and magenta. The scarlet bee balm and electric blue nigella and borage have played their starring roles.

Now, Russian sage, Joe Pye weed and echinacea are entering from the wings to speak with a more muted voice. Not only do these plants add welcome color to the late summer garden, they are nectar plants for butterflies as well.

This has been a spectacular year for Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia). The small silvery-blue flowers are borne along lanky stems of this long-blooming perennial. The catalog from White's Flower Farm, one of the premiere mail-order plant companies, declares, "It's one of the great garden plants of all time." The plant produces an airy cloud of flowers 4 feet high and equally wide in the August garden.

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The plant is extremely hardy. Each of my four specimens grows in different soil and with varying amounts of sunshine. All do well. They enhance whatever plants are planted near them.

Toward the back of the border, Russian sage insinutates itself among the delicate pink blooms of musk mallow (Malva moschuta). A 2-foot-tall golden anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum spp.,) growing at the sage's feet lends snap to the combination.

The Russian sage by the garage receives less sun, but still blooms well. It has a tendency to flop but is still lovely, lolling up among a planting of pale apricot day lilies. A bright pink butterfly bush provides a colorful anchor to the corner.

In the gravelly bed by the front walk, the Russian sage companions nicely with the variegated "Woodcote" and a purple-leafed sage. These latter two are genuine salvias whereas Russian sage, although also in the mint family, is of another genus entirely. I love the way it strews its spent blooms on the walk. The first Queen Elizabeth, in the late 1500s, hired a flower strewer; I have Russian sage.

I am a great fan of the flavor of licorice, and anise hyssop has always been a favorite of mine for tea. The fact that it cheerfully blooms throughout late July and August, adding carefree color to an otherwise barren time for perennials in the garden, is a bonus. Agastache foeniculum produces its blue flowers in clusters atop stiff, 3- to 4-foot stems. Both the flowers and the leaves are edible.

Hyssop cheerfully re-seeds, so, unless you want a whole garden of these lovelies, you would be well-advised to snip off the spent flower stems. In the spring, any unwanted seedlings are easily dispatched with an early hoeing.

At the corner of the house, in what is a somewhat shaded spot, anise hyssop still manages to make its blue-purple presence known in front of the dusty magenta of the giant Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium purpureum.)

Next year I hope the purple-leaved Eupatorium rugosum 'Chocolate,' with its white flowers, will provide additional interest. That's also when I hope the huge anise hyssop in the main bed will be backed by a trellis and a flourishing 'New Dawn' rose.

Finally, finally, finally, after four years and the generous gift this spring of another healthy plant, cone flowers (Echinacea purpurea) are now thriving. The secret of keeping them safe from the predations of the rabbit hordes that infest the neighborhood has been to plant them in the middle of plants, like globe thistle, that rabbits avoid. The bright magenta blooms of echinacea are an asset to any garden.

Butterflies, indifferent to the controversy surrounding the effectiveness of echinacea as a panacea for human immune system ailments, find it enchanting. When the garden is full of nature's flying rainbows, hunker down or pull up a chair. Take a minute to watch them collect nectar from the flowers. The butterfly's soda-straw proboscis flicks out and into the spiky cone in the center of the flower patiently sipping the plant's nectar.

I've finally learned to wait until spring to cut back both Russian sage and echinacea. I trimmed echinacea to the base where new leaves are developing; the Russian sage I cut back to six inches. I used to leave much longer stems in the spring, but the closer cut seems to produce more and sturdier flower stems in August.

It seems appropriate that as the garden season winds down, the perennials present a more muted color palette. August is the season for reaping and for resting. For the farmer there is little rest, but the home gardener can afford to sit back and relax and even watch the butterflies.

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