Pacific Northwest | August 31, 2003Pacific Northwest MagazineAugust 31, home
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Hard Workers
Praise, now, the summer's steady performers
Even though the Chilean potato vine (Solanum crispum 'Glasnevin' ) is a reliable perennial, it earns its hard-worker status by performing like an annual with a cascade of purple flowers all summer long. Here it's growing over the yellow foliage of Lonicera nitida 'Baggesen's Gold.'
AFTER OUR PLANTS suffered through one of the hottest, driest summers in decades, it seems only right to celebrate Labor Day by honoring the hardest workers among them. Day after amazing day of cloudless skies and dry-as-dust soil weeded out the do-gooders from the slackers. While water-skiers and sunbathers reveled, gardeners watered, mulched and worried. And watered some more.

But while some plants faltered, passing their prime by the end of July, others soldiered on through the dog days unfazed. These plucky few can be relied on to carry the garden through the seasons despite neglect or the vicissitudes of our increasingly disquieting weather patterns.

Maybe it is a good idea to pause in our crazed-gardener pursuit of the new and the fussy to celebrate those plants that bring structure, greenery and color to the garden with little intervention from us. Without cool new plants, we'd find gardening tedious. And if our plots consisted purely of do-gooders, I'm afraid we'd end up with gardens that look too institutional, too municipal, too — well, dull. So just be sure to mix in enough of these perpetual performers so the garden works for you instead of against you.

Here are a few of the plants at the top of my hard-workers list (with apologies to the lilies, the heliotrope that perfumes the patio, and all those now-forgotten spring bloomers):

Starting at ground level, I don't have a single plant that looks better longer than the little sedum S. makinoi 'Ogon.' Its tiny golden leaves hug the ground, forming a mat of year-round brightness. And what about old-fashioned nasturtiums? They grow easily from seed, bloom in colors from cream through tangerine to mahogany, and even their leaves, in tones from blue to splashed-with-white, are pretty. No plant gives more payback for the space than phormiums. Remember when we used to think of them as tender? Maybe these plants are the barometer for global warming, because for the past few years they've flourished. From the familiar bronze New Zealand flax to the pink-striped P. 'Sundowner' to the new dwarf cultivars, phormiums lend year-round architectural boldness to the garden.

The darkly-purple leaves and hazy blooms of smoke trees (Cotinus coggygria 'Royal Purple' or 'Velvet Cloak') only look better as summer wears on. Oak-leaf hydrangeas (H. quercifolia) can take a bit more sun and heat than other hydrangeas, plus they have especially handsome leaves, peeling bark, and vivid autumn color.

Most perennials need lots of attention during drought conditions, but lavender loved the heat, flowering for many weeks, keeping the bees busy and happy. The daisy-like flowers of sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale), in shades from yellow to crimson, have bloomed vigorously since mid-July, with no splaying or need for staking. (I wish I could say the same for the yarrow.)

Rosa glauca, that pewter-colored fountain of a species rose, looks as fresh as the day its beautiful leaves appeared months ago. And because of the heat, its red berries have colored up early, delighting both the birds and me.

Then there's the sturdy, handsome Indian hawthorn (Rhaphiolepsis indica), the perpetually blooming wallflower cultivars (Erysimum) that come in so many great new colors and foliage combinations, and the many purple and golden berberis, all unfazed by what summer has wrought.

If any of you would like to send me a short list of plants you'd nominate for your own hard-workers list, I'll include them in a future column, before the summer of '03 and its water bills have faded from our memories.

Valerie Easton is a Seattle free-lance writer and contributing editor for Horticulture magazine. Her e-mail address is

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