Late summer is such a luxury—already the days are shortening as the season turns to autumn. This should be the time of blossoms blowing, rampant vines and a fullness to all growing things. The novelist and gardener H. E. Bates recognized its potential: "In late summer, not quite autumn, all the glory is in the flowers, and on hot afternoons, when even the wind is warm, in the drowsy crowds of butterflies that float everywhere like wind-shaken petals of scarlet and white and blue and coffee-brown," leading me to think: Oh, let that happen in my garden!
And why not? Once the last of the daylily buds are fattening to open, the delphiniums nearly finished and the merry pinks of May all but forgotten, there's no need to resign yourself to a mostly green landscape for the last half of the growing season. With good planning, there will be late-blooming flowers on hand for your enjoyment right through to fall. And so I'm resolved to acquire plants that bloom in two sequences, with a bit of overlap to ease the transition—the first group from July to September and the second group from August to October.
Mid-July is a time of brilliant colour in the flower border, with tall, sweetly fragrant garden phlox (Phlox paniculata, 90 cm, Zone 4) just opening its first, full heads of florets. Phlox has the broadest colour spectrum of any perennial, with only true blue and clear yellow missing from the selection. The blossom heads are long-lasting and are followed by a steady output of side shoots, carrying the bloom (with deadheading) into the early days of September. Some modern phlox cultivars are mildew-resistant, none more so than the sparkling white 'David'—the Perennial Plant Association's 2002 plant of the year—a useful addition to summer bouquets and long-lasting in the vase. Good companions for phlox are small globe thistle (Echinops ritro, 1.2 metres, Zone 5), waving wands topped with silvery blue balls of soft spikes, and purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea, 90 cm, Zone 4) which, of course, has never been purple. Coneflower cultivars are available in various shades of subdued pink ('Magnus') to pink touched with carmine ('Crimson Star' and 'Bright Star'), and white ('White Swan' and 'White Lustre'). These will keep sending up new stems and side shoots if their soil remains consistently moist, and there is no greater thrill than seeing them visited by red admiral butterflies. This year, shorter cultivars ('Kim's Knee High' and 'Kim's Mophead') are offered, too.
My first group of late bloomers also includes white gooseneck loosestrife (Lysimachia clethroides, 90 cm, Zone 6), which looks more like its name than any other flower; peach-leaved bellflower (Campanula persicifolia, 60 cm, Zone 4) with nodding blue ('Telham Beauty') or white tipped with blue ('Chettle Charm') bells; and the reliable black-eyed Susan 'Goldsturm' (Rudbeckia fulgida var. sullivantii 'Goldsturm', 60 cm, Zone 4), which blooms until early September. To have flowers with slightly shorter stems, I'll include 'Butterfly Blue' pincushion flower (Scabiosa columbaria 'Butterfly Blue', 40 cm, Zone 4), which puts out dainty, pale blue flowers well into September, and 'Dropmore' catmint (Nepeta faassenii 'Dropmore', 36 cm, Zone 4), whose violet-blue spikes of small flowers reliably mimic lavender all summer and grey-green, aromatic foliage is beloved by cats. A bit of yellow fumitory (Corydalis lutea, 30 cm, Zone 4) never goes amiss. I like its grey-green, ferny foliage and bright yellow flowers, which keep on blooming until hard frost. Corydalis seeds around quite readily, but to my mind is welcome wherever it springs up. A few clumps of cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis, 75 cm, Zone 5), with its tall, slender spikes of bright scarlet, tubular flowers, add a stroke of passion without assuming too much space. Cardinal flower likes a moist soil and is a favoured nectar source for hummingbirds.