Summer Gardens, Bold Colors

summercolor018Spring may herald the pastels of traditional English gardens but summer is all-American: neon yellow daisies, sherbet orange lilies, satiny magenta hollyhocks, and robust sunflowers. Summer is a time of bold and hot colors.

Garden books often describe sunflowers and daisies as coarse–with stringy stems and overblown blossoms. Pay no attention. You will be rewarded with exuberant cheerfulness: black-eyed Susans, cosmos, coreopsis, gaillardia, tithonia and marigolds. Artichokes, too, nestle among the sunflowers as close cousins. Both are members of the sunflower family, where thistles are related to chicory.

There’s nothing shy or shrinking about mid-summer cottage gardens. Within a month, flowerbeds change their clothes from demure to dramatic, serene to whimsical. Many require water, but they will take heat. A few, like sunflowers, North American originals, will sink roots deeply into their native soil and flourish.

North America doesn’t have the distinction of South America when it comes to originating major food crops. Our soils did not produce tomatoes or potatoes, but we can brag about a few remarkable foods. Pecans, blueberries, wild rice (which is a seed rather than a grain), Concord grapes, cranberries, sunchokes (also known as Jerusalem artichokes) and sunflowers originated on this continent and were ferried across the Atlantic a hundred or more years ago. Since then, many have transplanted. Sunflowers, as the showiest, are beloved everywhere.

In Europe, sunflowers made a splash, with their dramatically large seed heads and vibrant yellow petals. Vincent Van Gogh painted sunflowers in his most identifiable icons. These magical flowers follow the sun in a response called heliotropism. Such a striking botanical property drew the attention of ancient Aztecs in Mexico, where the flower appeared to mimic a sun worshipper and was considered an omen of faith.

In contemporary gardens, common sunflowers have made way for new decorative varieties—some dwarf, others multi-branching, mid-sized, with red, orange or ivory petals. But whatever color or size, sunflower cultivation is the same. Most are easy to grow and will find their way into the annual, perennial or herb garden.

Drought-resistant sunflowers yield a particularly good crop on the Great Plains. Farmers now must contend with a drop in the water table, which makes irrigation less available. Some sunflowers will sink roots six feet into the earth. So farmers water their soil, allow the seeds to emerge, and then water only once again. The rest of the water is saved for corn or wheat.

It’s also a low-maintenance crop. Sunflower seeds are sown on top of the wheat stubble. There’s little need for fertilizer and sunflowers won’t require the intense pollination by bees that other crops, like apples or almonds, demand.

Along with millet, sunflowers are a typical rotation crop for wheat and corn. On the world market, they add to the birdseed, snack food and sunflower oil production each year. Thousands of acres in North Dakota, South Dakota, Colorado and Kansas are devoted to this beautiful crop.

Although sunflowers are grown as food, they don’t appreciate the high nitrogen levels often found in vegetable gardens. Plant them in a sunny location among annuals, perennials or herbs but give them room.

Most will sprout directly seeded into the garden. If you have saved sunflower seeds and question how viable they may be, here is a test for germination. Place them in a dampened but not wet paper towel. Put the towel in a plastic bag and wait a day or two for germination. The seeds that germinate first will be the strongest. Should you have a fistful of leftover or questionable annual flower seeds, you’ll know which should be planted in your garden. Sow directly in the ground after any danger of frost.

Plant the germinated seeds one to two inches deep in the garden, but no deeper than three inches. Most like regular watering about 20 days before they bloom, but won’t need a lot of water otherwise. They should receive at least six hours of full sun a day. Sunflowers need some space, about 12 inches apart, even for the dwarf varieties. Very large sunflowers should be sprinkled throughout the garden.

All sunflowers are annuals, propagating by seed only. Trial plantings in Nebraska suggest that many pest cycles can be broken if seeds are planted after June 5. The bugs simply have moved on. But you may not have any pest problems at all. Although the Midwestern prairie is home to most of the 50 species of native North American sunflowers, only a few insects, like the sunflower head moth, attack them.

Various diseases like rust can be avoided by choosing rust resistant strains. The seed package will tell if the strain you’ve chosen is resistant. As always, the best way to avoid diseases is to rotate plants each year, both vegetables and annual flowers, so that diseases don’t become entrenched in the soil.

On farms, sunflower seeds with over 40 percent oil are set aside for oil production. Seeds with a lower percentage of oil are saved for snacks and birdseed. Your sunflower patch provides an excellent wildlife habitat for birds and squirrels. But if you’d like to harvest the seed heads, cover the flower with cheesecloth or a sheer plastic netting as the seeds are forming. Cut the flower with about a foot of stalk in September or October and store it in a dry, dark room. You can place a paper bag over the seed head to catch the seeds as they fall.

Plants for a hot and bold summer garden: these plants offer red, orange or yellow blooms in the height of summer:


  • Butterfly Weed, (Asclepias tuberosa), a native milkweed, requires good drainage, not too much water, bright orange flowers that does attract butterflies
  • Hollyhocks (Alcea rosea), biennial, cottage garden standby, may not bloom the first year and is a short-lived perennial.
  • Coreopsis (Coreopsis x grandiflora) There are varieties both perennial and annual. A tough member of the sunflower family.
  • Daylily (Hemerocallis fulva is the common orange daylily), tough plant that adapts to partial shade, few problems with pests or disease. The lemon daylily (H. lilioasphodelus) is especially lovely.
  • Bee balm (Monarda), large bushy plant takes some space, but the informal, moppet flowers are beloved by butterflies and hummingbirds
  • Rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus), hardy shrub with long-lasting blooms, can take some drought when establish, prune to shape
  • Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), although purple coneflower is a Midwestern prairie stalwart with high water needs, newer selections include orange and yellow coneflowers. For a more drought-resistant coneflower, try the yellow and burnt orange varieties of prairie coneflower (Ratibida columnifera)
  • Beard Tongue (Penstemon): ‘Firecracker’ (P. eatonii), ‘Scarlet Bugler’ (P. centranthifolius), ‘Prairie Fire’(P. barbatus), all require excellent drainage, will endure drought once established
  • Yarrow (Achillea), hardy perennial with numerous varieties, will endure drought once established
  • Red pincushion flower (Knautia macedonica) short-lived perennial
  • Red-hot poker (Kniphofia uvaria), hummingbird attractant, propagate with root divisions
  • California fuchsia (Zauschneria epilobium), bright red flowers attract hummingbirds


  • Sunflower (Helianthus annuus) is the common sunflower but others are perennial and many come in reds and oranges, dwarf or multibranching.
  • Nasturtiums (Tropaeolum majus) edible flower from the cress family, and have a similar taste to watercress. Easy-to-grow with exquisite wide lily pad like leaves. Both climbing and trailing will cover rocks or trail along a garden path.
  • Gaillardia (Gaillardia x grandiflora) Native to the United States, and found widespread, easy to grow from seed, and will self-seed.
  • Celosia (Celosia cristata) Vivid crimson, orange, gold or pink plumes that require little water once established.
  • Gazania (Gazania), striking markings in yellow and orange, easy to grow from seed in any soil, very tender to cold
  • Tithonia (Titonia rotundifolia), also called the Mexican sunflower. Can be drought-tolerant. Bright red flowers and up to six feet in height.
  • Portulaca or moss rose (Portulaca grandiflora), good for rock gardens, containers and gravel beds, self-seeding.
  • California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) Native to California, best naturalized in a meadow or among other native plants. Sow directly in the soil rather than attempt to transplant. Keep soil moist until the seedlings emerge. Once established, can withstand some drought.
  • Goldenrod (Solidago) a plume of yellow flowers that looks best in a natural garden, naturalizes beautifully with daylilies.
  • Calendula (Calendula officinalis) Edible, very old-fashioned cottage garden substitute for saffron. The color is similar, but not the taste.
  • Black-eyed Susan or gloriosa daisy (Rudbeckia hirta) derived from prairie native plants from prairies.
  • Marigolds (Tagetes) Several varieties from tiny to several feet in height. Easy to grow and pest free.
  • Cosmos (Cosmos bipannatus) a tough self-seeding annual, ‘Chocolate Cosmos’ (C. atrosanguineus) is a tender bulb-like root that must dug up before frost and stored as if it is a dahlia. Bright yellow (C. sulphureus) Most are easy to grow from seed.
  • Zinnia (Zinnia elegans) Predictable annual that loves heat, but does need water. Easy to grow from seed. They will sap energy from a vegetable garden, so keep them on the periphery, or give veggies a wide berth with them. A drought-tolerant perennial version is Zinnia grandiflora. These tiny yellow flowers with bright orange centers will rot in moist soil. They emerge late in spring, so have patience.


  • Thunbergia, (Thunbergia alata),also called the black-eyed Susan vine looks showy in hanging baskets.


  • Dahlia (Dahlia): tender bulbs that must be dug for winter in most places. Dahlias are native to Mexico. Decide if you have time to dig and store the roots properly. Otherwise, treat them as annuals.
  • Lily: (Lilium) So many new lilies in garden centers now allow a wide variety of Asiatic, Oriental and Aurellian hybrids. They’ll look stunning with other bulbs, like alliums, too. They need moisture, cool soil and mulch.
  • Foxtail Lily (Eremurus): The roots of this octopus-like lily bulb will remind you of asparagus roots (also in the lily family). Foxtail lilies need some room, but they are extravagant, tall spires that companion exquisitely with peonies.


  • Jerusalem Artichoke, also known as sunchoke (Helianthus tuberosus), perennial grown for its tubers, which have sustained people during times of famine. Can become invasive and needs a great deal of space. Very showy and dominant. Excellent screen.
  • Amaranth (Amaranthus): As an edible, it’s grown for seeds, which have been harvested by Native Americans as a nutritious food. Now it’s mostly grown for the bright colors of dripping blooms. Dramatic in every way. Should be direct seeded in warm temperatures above 70 degrees.


Sunflower Granola

  • 4 cups old-fashioned uncooked oatmeal
  • 1 cup chopped walnuts or pecans
  • 1 cup hulled sunflower seeds, unsalted
  • ½ cup canola oil
  • ½ cup honey

Combine all ingredients and roast at 350 degrees until you reach the desired golden color. Stir every 10 minutes. It will take about 20 minutes.


  • ½ cup chopped dried figs
  • ½ cup raisins or currants
  • ½ cup dried cranberries

Store in the refrigerator.

Roasted Sunflower Seeds
In two quarts of water, add one-half cup salt. Soak unshelled sunflower seeds overnight, drain and dry completely. Bake the dry seeds for 30 minutes in a 350-degree oven.