Summer color to beat the heat

Story and Photos by Troy B. Marden (

By July, many of us have retreated indoors. We tell ourselves it’s just too hot and that nothing is going to survive in this heat and humidity anyway. But let’s be honest. This is more about our own personal comfort and not so much about the garden or the plants therein. For years, people have asked, “When is the best time to see your garden?” and my reply has always been, “Late July and early August.” That response is typically followed by several more questions all rooted in disbelief, but that is the truth.

I have a great affinity for tropical plants and heat-loving annuals. By mid-July, these are the stars of the garden, thriving in our subtropical temperatures and humidity and filling what I now refer to as the “mid-summer bloom gap”; the period of time from mid-July to late August when the perennials of late May, June, and early July have peaked and begun to wane, but autumn’s Aster, the autumn-flowering Salvia, Japanese anemones (A. hupehensis), and others are still waiting for their moment in the spotlight.

July and August are the months when the elephant ears (Colocasia), Canna, bananas (Musa), summer-blooming salvias, angel’s trumpets (Brugmansia), and other tender perennials and tropicals take center stage. Annuals such as Zinnia and Cosmos, their seed sown directly in the garden where you want them to grow, add wave after wave of brilliant color.

I’ve never met an elephant ear I didn’t love, but there are three in particular that my garden just couldn’t be without. The first is Colocasia esculenta ‘Nancy’s Revenge’, a stunner with enormous pea-green leaves with a creamy white starburst radiating all the way down each leaf vein. Another is ‘Elena’, whose golden yellow leaves are especially showy in midsummer. Finally, a more recent introduction with dark foliage, ‘Black Coral’, whose leathery, dark bronze to nearly black, semi-glossy leaves glisten in the summer sun.

Cannas are plants that hardly anyone is on the fence about. You either love them or hate them. I happen to love them. They give me beautiful, broad foliage in shades of green, red, burgundy to near black, and several dazzling variegated forms, including the green and yellow pinstripes of ‘Pretoria’ (which also happens to have spectacular orange blooms), as well as the showstopping green and white variegated ‘Stuttgart’ (somewhat finicky and needing afternoon shade, but worth the effort to site properly and enjoy its show). 

Bananas thrive in our summer heat and humidity, but many are just too big for most landscapes and few of them are hardy enough to make it through the winter in the ground. The hardy Japanese fiber banana (Musa basjoo) will certainly survive our Tennessee winters, but be forewarned, it grows to an enormous size and after five years or so, will need extraction with a small backhoe should you ever decide it has eaten too many of the plants around it. I do love it, but use it wisely. Pink velvet banana (Musa velutina), on the other hand, matures to a manageable 6-7 feet tall. While it was perennial for about five years for me, a colder-than-usual winter killed my original plant, so after acquiring another, I keep a nice chunk in the garden shed (cold, but not freezing) in a pot over the winter and plant it back out in the spring. By doing this, I get spectacular blooms and clusters of small, pink, fuzzy bananas every summer.

Summer-blooming salvias still take a position of pride in my garden. At the top of my list are S. guaranitica  ‘Black and Blue’ for the hummingbirds as much as anything; S. mexicana ‘Limelight’, a stunner with nearly cobalt blue flowers emerging from brilliant lime green bracts; and S. microphylla ‘Hot Lips’, a cheeky thing with white flowers whose upper and lower lips are lined in ruby red “lipstick.”

I would be remiss not to mention the angel’s trumpets (Brugmansia), whose 1-foot-long blooms of pure white, or shades of soft pink, peach, or yellow, dangle seductively under the shade of their broad, tobacco-like leaves. Their heady perfume hangs in the humid summer air and floats on the summer breeze to the screened-in porch during the dinner hour each evening. I can’t imagine life without them!

Finally, there are the direct-seeded annuals, the most common of which – at least for summer– are zinnias, cockscomb (Celosia), marigolds (Tagetes), and cosmos. I’m not talking about the new hybrid zinnias, cockscomb, or marigolds, but the old-fashioned “county fair” types. For cosmos, the same. Choose the heirloom Sea Shells mix or the candy-striped Versailles series, both of which have blooms in shades of pink, lavender, magenta, and white, or the Bright Lights series with flowers in eye-popping shades of scarlet, orange, yellow, and gold. Sow these directly where you want them to grow in the garden or simply scatter the seed throughout and allow them to come up betwixt and between the garden’s more permanent residents. By staggering your seed sowing every two weeks starting at the end of May and continuing through early August, you’ll have fresh flowers in the garden from July through October and plenty of extras to cut and enjoy indoors!

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