Gardening, for most of us, is a double-edged sword.
On the sharp side, there’s the unquenchable quest to grow every single plant native to the planet. We yearn for the most stunning of local natives but also lust for the most ethereal of exotics from lands far away. All it takes is one picture of one of those luminous blue, Tibetan poppies and we lose all sense, common and otherwise.
And on the sharper side, we want everything we plant to live ... and not just live but thrive. Despite knowing full well that those Tibetan poppies hate anything worse than a 75-degree day, we can’t help but whine a bit when they wilt and wither in the heat and drought of a Kentucky summer.
So my self-appointed gardener’s challenge for this dog day season is to walk the gardens at Yew Dell Botanical Gardens, keep my eyes peeled while walking the dog around my neighborhood and pay attention while driving around town, and come up with a small handful of plants that just plain work in the heat and drought of late summer in Kentucky.
Remove all the romance, the mysticism and the mail-order-catalog-inspired misty eyes for the rare and unusual, and come up with a shortlist of plants that require no special care and still look good.
So here’s the list — a shade tree, a shrub, an evergreen, a perennial and an annual/tropical. If you’re looking to plant your first garden, these will give you a good place to start. If you have an existing garden, maybe one of these will make a nice replacement for something you’ve been trying to kill for years.
Kentucky Coffee Tree
In the looks-great-all-summer-no-matter-how-hot-and-dry-it-gets category, the Kentucky Coffee Tree (Gymnocladus dioicus) is hard to beat. Growing to an upright oval of 50-feet-tall or a bit more, it offers a loose, lacey shade cast by blue-green foliage. A relatively deep-rooted species, it is easy to garden in its shade — no wildly aggressive maple roots to deal with on this one. Fall color is a gleaming yellow and the bark is a light gray, scaly affair.
The one drawback of the coffee tree for some people is that as a young tree, it is rather sparsely branched — not just a little sparse but bearing a rather striking resemblance to the coat rack Fred Astaire famously danced with in the 1951 movie "Royal Wedding." But with a little time and patience, you can easily grow a splendid specimen that won’t disappoint in the heat of summer.
While this one won’t win you any oohs and aahs from the horticultural glitterati, season after season and year after year, the many abelia varieties (Abelia xgrandiflora) available just plain perform. Growing as tidy mounds between 3-feet and 6-feet tall (depending on variety), they offer small, glossy green or variously variegated leaves that remain in excellent condition all through the summer. Small, lightly fragrant, pink flowers are produced off and on through much of the summer and attract a delightful parade of pollinators — bees, butterflies, hummingbirds and more. They grow best in full sun but will also work in light shade.
And as a bonus, all the abelias are notoriously tolerant of heavy pruning. If they get a little too big for their britches, you can whack them to the ground in winter and they’ll respond with a nice flush of new growth the following season.
OK, this was a tough one. American holly (Ilex opaca), once established in the landscape, is one of the most indestructible evergreen trees we can grow. Specimens can grow up to 40-feet tall, stay narrow enough to fit nicely in most home landscapes, and as long as there’s a male holly in the neighborhood, female specimens produce those fabulous berries for a super winter display. The berries are favored by many birds and can serve as an important winter food source.
But while American holly can look great all through a hot and dry summer, newly planted specimens do take a few seasons to get established, and then there are those leaves ... If you’ve never gardened beneath a spiny-leafed holly, you’re in for a treat. Those spines have an annoying tendency to find the soft skin of the hands and knees of unsuspecting gardeners during weeding sessions. But really, when was the last time you saw an American holly wilt in the landscape?
Red Hot Poker
When I first learned about this plant back during the Second Empire, red hot pokers (Kniphofia hybrids) bloomed for about the length of a generous lunch break. But recent breeding has turned out amazing new hybrids that have extended lunchtime to about three or four months! Among a very limited group of African species that can grow outside in mid-latitude gardens, the pokers offer striking, architectural foliage with erect spikes of flowers in a range of colors from yellow to orange, red and even some with multiple colors on the same inflorescence.
While the flowers are striking to the eyes, they are Siren’s song to hummingbirds. In the evaluation gardens at Yew Dell Botanical Gardens, where we have about 30 varieties under evaluation, every day the hummingbirds dart and dazzle as they compete for the best flower for a mid-day snack.
Begonia ‘Art Hodes’
While you don’t often see annuals included in drought tolerant plant lists, I just had to include this one. We all have our favorite container plants, and we battle all summer long to keep them from wilting as their roots fill out the pots. But this one just hangs in there all summer long. Deeply veined, leathery leaves are the perfect foil for the clear white flower masses. And if you miss a watering or two, this one doesn’t mind at all. Now, you can’t go on vacation for two weeks of 90-degree weather and expect it to look good when you get home, but compared to the impatiens and other typical container annuals, this one is an absolute winner.
One last comment on the weird name for this begonia. For years it was sold under the cultivar name ‘Ant Hole.' Not willing to accept that as a valid name, we did some research into old catalog records and found that a simple catalog typo years ago almost permanently changed the variety’s name. Not so sure ‘Art Hodes’ is any better than ‘Ant Hole’ as a begonia name, but at least the latter is correct!
So there you have it. A list of never-fail plants to help you round out the late summer garden. Now I think I’ll go compost those blue poppies ...
Paul Cappiello is the executive director at Yew Dell Botanical Gardens, 6220 Old Lagrange Road, yewdellgardens.org.