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Late summer stars in the garden

The Iowa Gardener

Black-eyed Susan, or Rudbeckia is a pollinator favorite.
The Iowa Gardener Black-eyed Susan, or Rudbeckia is a pollinator favorite.

The August garden can be a tired-looking place. Even if you’ve been able to keep up with the weeds, that fresh, lush, blush of spring color is gone and periodic drought, most years, takes its toll.

It can be difficult to find perennials that are in their glory during this tough month, but there are a handful that are so beautiful they’ll boost your entire landscape.

All are perennials and all need full sun unless otherwise specified. Heights vary depending on moisture as well as soil nutrients. Nearly all are favorites of pollinators, including bees and butterflies. Those with an asterisk (*) are native plants.

Balloon flower

(Platycodon grandiflorus) The pink, blue, or white flowers of this 2- to 3-foot high perennial appear at first to be like balloons but then open up into pretty starlike flowers. Nice for cutting.

Bee balm*

Bee Balm (Monarda didyma) is a native plant that in the wild blooms a pale lavender. Cultivars from the garden center, however, range from bright pinks to deep reds. It grows about 3 feet high and will tolerate a little shade but that also makes it more prone to mildew.

Black-eyed Susan*

Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia), is available as an annual, the perennial type of this native prairie plant bursts into golden glory just as everything else in the garden starts to fade. It grows about 2 feet high. A wonderful cut flower and a pollinator favorite.


Coneflower (Echinacea). The large, daisylike flowers of this prairie native can be bright golden yellow, orange, glowing deep pink or white with striking dark button eyes. Butterflies love them and if you let the flower heads go to seed, you’ll find Iowa’s state bird, the goldfinch, feeding on the slender seeds.


Also called tickseed, Coreopsis is another tough prairie native that pollinators love and goldfinches enjoy once the flower heads ripen into seeds. It covers itself in sunny yellow flowers and will often bloom (or rebloom) if you are diligent in trimming off spent flower heads. Many different types are available, including those with delicate ferny foliage, like Zagreb and Moonbeam.

Daylilies, later-blooming types

These hardworking beauties are easy to grow and thrive in light shade to full sun, under a variety of conditions. Available in gorgeous combinations of reds, yellows, oranges, creams, burgundy, and peaches. Some start blooming as early as June but look for those described as mid- to late-season for cultivars that hit their peak in late July and August.


This family of shrubs produces beautiful balls of flowers in a variety of white, pinks and blues. Annabelle (Hydrangea arborescens) does beautifully in Iowa, with big, gorgeous white flowers and will often spread to the point of being a problem. The so called-big leaf hydrangeas (Hydrangea macrophylla), which boast the much sought-after pink to blue flower heads, do less well in Iowa. Our late frosts zap the developing flower buds. Don’t buy Nikko Blue, which has stunning blue flowers in other climates, but not ours. Even Twist and Shout and Endless Summer, which are heavily marketed as good for Iowa will produce just a few smallish flowers. The plants themselves will be perfectly healthy — they just won’t flower much or at all, though when you buy them they may have lots of blooms because they’ve been grown in a different climate.

Doing far better in Iowa are the more woody types, the panicle hydrangeas. Try Limelight or Pinky Winky.

The acidity of the soil and how much sulfur you work into it has nothing to do with how many or how large hydrangea flowers are. With certain types of hydrangeas, it will control the color — how pink or blue the flowers are.

Joe Pye Weed*

Joe Pye Wee (Eutrochium purpureum) is a big boy, growing up to 7 feet tall and spreading 5 or more feet, unless you stake. Depending on the cultivar, it will produce handsome wine-tinged foliage and stems with whitish-purple flowers as big as a child’s head. Great for large-scale arrangements. Butterflies and bees love the flowers’ nectar. Will tolerate a little shade.

Later-blooming true lilies

(Lilium) True lilies — as opposed to daylilies — all bloom in summer. But the Asiatic types bloom in July. It’s the fragrant Oriental (including the fabulously scented Stargazer) and martagon (often called Turk’s cap) lilies. These include the orange tiger lilies, that often spread in light shade to full sun. Grows 2 to 4 feet in height.


Tall phlox (Phlox paniculata), sometimes called simply garden phlox, grow 3 or 4 feet tall and produce lightly fragrant clusters of flowers in pinks, lavenders, reds and whites. Soft pink is the most common and spreads readily in most gardens to the point of almost being invasive. The hybridized cultivars, however, are better behaved. They start blooming in July with some types blooming into September.

Tropical annuals

Impatiens, begonias, coleus, caladiums and elephant’s ears — all are lush natives of tropical climates that thrive in our hot, humid Iowa summers. Yes, it can feel like a jungle out there, and that’s what makes these plants feel right at home. Plant from bulbs or established small plants in spring in mid-May. They’ll really take off about this time of year, as long as they have ample water and fertilizer.


The pink types of yarrows (Achillea millefolium) are closely related to the native yarrows and practically grow wild. Many yarrows are deep pink and dusty rose colored or a rosy cream. Others are deep reds or russet or wonderful rich gold. All do well in drier conditions and are an excellent cut flower. They’re also good for drying.

• Veronica Lorson Fowler is co-publisher of the Iowa Gardener website at www.theiowagardener.com.

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