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One of the great privileges of being a garden writer is being able to interview some of our country’s most accomplished gardeners. Many years ago, one of those was Elsa Bakalar, author of “A Garden of One’s Own,” who tended a beautiful, extensive flower garden in Connecticut. She was the one who introduced me to rescue flowers.
Rescue flowers are those flowers that, well, come to the rescue in your garden in later summer. They fill in unsightly or bare spots, the spaces where other plants are no longer in their peak or have died out altogether (think tulips, Oriental poppies, or pansies, all of which brown and die back when hot weather hits.) Rescue flowers can be planted in those spaces and are beautiful and colorful for the rest of the growing season, until frost.
Elsa, who died in 2010, liked to call them “understudy” flowers, because they waited in the wings and then filled in when the stars of her flower beds couldn’t carry on any longer.
An easy way to get rescue flowers is to simply purchase them, already started, as seedling. Garden centers are doing a better job every year of carrying a variety of annuals later in the summer, the time when most beds and borders are in need of a little rescue. But too often, there isn’t a good selection of annuals later in the season, or they’re expensive. Also, annuals kept for long periods in garden centers start to get rather sickly looking. Buy only those that are in top condition.
Still, if you can find healthy annuals this time of year and can afford them, go for it. Transplant these annuals (not perennials, which will come back next year and compete with whatever else is in that spot) in where, say, the oxeye daisies long ago faded or the daffodils and bleeding heart are nothing but a memory. Keep them well watered and they should take off nicely.
A variation of this trick is to buy a hanging basket of annuals. Simply trim off the plastic hangers with a hand shears and then plant the large, sprawling annuals wherever you have a problem bare spot. Even easier: Set the hanging basket, pot and all, on top of the soil, tucked in among your other plantings to add a bit of color and fresh greenery when every thing else is looking tired.
My favorite way to have rescue flowers is to grow them myself. I plant these annuals from seed, directly in the ground, in a temporary place like the vegetable garden. I usually do this in late May or early June, well after the danger of frost has passed and the soil has warmed up. I only do warm-season annuals for my rescue flowers, though you could experiment and do cool-season annuals, too, for rescue of your flower beds and plantings in fall.
I thin them as needed and as the seed packet directs. Then, when the seedlings are a few to several inches tall, I transplant them into their permanent home, to grow some more and bloom in a few weeks or even days.
The one characteristic a rescue flower must have is that it doesn’t mind being transplanted. This rules out most poppies, larkspur, nasturtiums, snapdragons, morning glories, and sweet peas.
Some of Elsa’s favorite “understudies,” as well as mine are:
• Cosmos of nearly any sort. Purity white and Dazzler red are particularly easy to work into mid- to late-summer plantings, but you can experiment with others as well.
• Any of the shorter sunflowers, namely those that grow just 4 or 5 feet tall, tops. Elsa was partial to Italian White, and two of my favorites for this purpose are Lemon Gem and Autumn Beauty, which grow about 4 feet tall on sturdy stems that seldom need staking.
• Tobacco flower (Nicotiana)
• Blanket flower (Gaillardia pulchella)
• Annual candytuft (Iberis umbellata)
• Spider flower (Clemoe hasslerana) Mine reseeds itself so much I often just transplant some of the volunteers
• Marigolds of nearly any sort, but I really like the taller types, such as the so-called African or Mexican types (Tagetes erecta) because they fill in larger spaces so nicely, reaching up to 3 feet tall and a couple feed wide. Inca is a favorite cultivar.
• Zinnias, as long as they are the taller types, though the creeping types could be good along paths or the edges of borders.
The one caveat with rescue flowers is to keep them well watered for the first week or two that you transplant them, since this process is usually done during the hotter weather of early to midsummer.
Even this late in the season, it’s not too late to grow rescue flowers. Sunflowers and zinnias will germinate and grow quickly, so give them a try and see if understudy flowers might just end up the star of your late-season garden show.
Veronica Lorson Fowler is co-publisher of The Iowa Gardener website at theiowagardener.com.