Gardening with Galligan: Mainstays of summer

CAROL GALLIGAN PHOTO |This is phlox, ‘Bright Eyes,’ a light pink with a darker eye. It blooms in midsummer and will tolerate some shade.
CAROL GALLIGAN PHOTO |This is phlox, ‘Bright Eyes,’ a light pink with a darker eye. It blooms in midsummer and will tolerate some shade.

When I had a garden that was in full sun, I always gave a party on the third weekend in July, because that was when everything was in full bloom. I was a weekender in those days and so I could enjoy roses and peonies, but only to bring back to the city. When school was over, that was a different matter. Most of my space was indeed given to those flowers that bloom in July.

One of the mainstays of any summer garden is, of course, phlox paniculata, which now is available in so many different cultivars that choosing among them is a difficult task. This is the tall phlox — it is not phlox divaricata, which is low, creeping and requires some shade and blooms in the spring, nor is it phlox drummondi, which is an annual.

This phlox requires full sun and consistent watering and is characterized by an eye, or center, of a different color or shade. The best use is in the back of the border where those bright colors will liven things up. I have always used them with a liberal sprinkling of lilies rising above them.

Although phlox are billed as “easy care/low maintenance,” if you believe that, I have a bridge you’re going to love. It’s true that it’s hard to kill them, if that’s what is meant by easy care. However, if keeping a plant in good health, to say nothing of looking decent, then phlox are anything but easy. I will confess I think they’re worth having. Their problem is their susceptibility to powdery mildew, a fungus that enjoys what?

Yes, high humidity. Unless you spray the phlox with an antifungal religiously, your phlox will get it. They won’t die from it but they will look dreadful. And plants that look dreadful are never cheery.

Among the more disease-resistant (but this is, of course, relative) varieties is David, pure white, growing close to 4 feet and fragrant, especially nice with 5-foot pink lilies rising above. Another nice one is Franz Schubert, lilac pink, growing to 3 feet. Laura is also about 3 feet and is billed as mildew-resistant. It’s purple with a white eye and one of the later blooming varieties. It does indeed attract hummingbirds. And the old standby, the ever popular Miss Lingard, strongly fragrant, offers pure white flowers in early summer. (I have made a conscientious effort to discover who Miss Lingard actually was, to no avail. If anyone knows the answer, be in touch.)

After bloom, you need to allow the foliage to ripen; for many years I begged the horticulturalist at White Flower Farm to admit that the leaves turning tan was good enough, with no luck. I would end up closing the garden sometime in November in the freezing cold. I have since learned through a series of events, unplanned as they were, that although undoubtedly she had her reasons for being such a stickler, you can cut them back in mid-October, whether they are green, tan or brown, and they will be fine. Phlox are also easy to divide and there’s nothing quite as wonderful as free plants. Just cut them in half and replant, using the best possible soil.

We’ll continue next week with garden mainstays, turning to the black-eyed Susan, otherwise known as rudbeckia.