While we would all ideally have gardens that look their best in every season, the reality is often far from that ideal. Few of us in the world have the time to devote to our gardens, and the hard truth is that the planning and work that goes into gardening means that we often only get one season where we sit down. You can enjoy the fruits of your labor.
As executive editor Danielle Sherry explains, “Winter is for planning. It’s when you really don’t want to be outside and when your time is better spent planning an attack to make your garden the best it can be. Spring is the time for work, when the bulk of your cleaning, planting, and projects are done. Fall is also a work period and is usually when you are Can revisit things you didn’t do in the spring.
After all that preparation and planning, you want to make sure your summer garden is at its peak when it’s finally too warm to work hard. To help ensure your summer garden really shines, area experts share their favorite perennials for this peak season. Find picks for the Northeast below, and be sure to check out more great summer picks in Pick Season Combos.
1. ‘Kansas’ peony
Name: Paeonia ‘Kansas’
Size: 3 feet long and wide
Conditions: full sun; Moist, well-drained soil
Local Range: Europe
This is a plant with a heartbeat that everyone says “Ooh” when they see it. The pink bloom color is perfect—not too dark and not too light. It is completely covered in flowers by mid-June and blooms again in summer. This trait enables you to use it as a cut flower in the garden without sacrificing color, which is a concern for many. My four-year-old plant provides me with more than enough flowers to fill a bouquet for my mother’s June birthday. Staking is not a problem with ‘Kansas’, thanks to its exceptionally strong stems. This old-fashioned cultivar has been around since the 1940s, and although some describe it as a double red, it’s a crimson to my eyes. The leaves are lush and retain their deep green shade throughout the season.
2. ‘Pink Truffles’ Baptisia
Name: Baptisia ‘Pink Truffles’
Size: 4 to 5 feet tall and 3 to 4 feet wide
Conditions: full sun; Well-drained soil
Local Range: North America
There have been a ton of new baptistry introductions over the past few years, but one that I had to take home from my garden center was ‘Pink Truffles’. The soft pink to lavender spires of the flowers remind me of lilacs (Syringa vulgaris, zones 5-7) and appear in late May. They almost always have a show in July as well. It is a large perennial that is sometimes mistaken for a shrub. And it has a serious taproot, so wherever you choose to put it, make sure it’ll last forever. Baptisias are drought tolerant once established and do not suffer from any pest or disease problems. In fall the blue-green pea leaves have glossy black seed pods, which I leave in place to self-sow. Be warned: This is one of the last perennials to emerge in spring, so don’t be discouraged if you don’t see pink-green shoots by late April.
3. ‘July Yellow’ Iris
Name: Iris ‘July Yellow’
Size: 30 inches long and 24 inches wide
Conditions: full sun; Dry thoroughly
Local Range: Eastern Mediterranean
For the most part, irises are known here in New England as late spring bloomers and not as peak season plants. But there are few exceptions. ‘July Yellow’ is a bearded selection that starts flowering in mid-to-late May and blooms again in July—hence its cultivar name. I got mine from a friend who had me cut a piece of rhizome from his plant in mid-summer (not the time to propagate) which took easily with a little help from me. It sports a buttery yellow flower with dark yellow beards and has a mild fragrance. The light green, broadly strapped leaves are attractive, although they can lead to leaf spot, like many other irises. Taller than it is wide, this perennial needs to be placed in the center of the border, where it will stand gracefully upright until late fall.
4. ‘Ghost’ painted fern
Name: Ethereum ‘the ghost’
Size: 2 to 2½ feet tall and 1½ to 2 feet wide
Conditions: partial to full shade; Moist, well-drained soil
Local Range: Hybrid
I admire the unique yellow color of this fern, which makes it look very ghostly indeed. You don’t often find that color in the garden, let alone in the shade. It consistently brightens the darkest areas of my landscape. This perennial grows to an impressive 2 feet tall and wide by early summer. The structure is more upright than other ferns with an arching habit, so it becomes an instant focal point. ‘Ghost’ also doesn’t spread much, so you don’t have to give up much garden space to have this beauty in your beds. This fern is drought tolerant once established and is therefore a good choice for planting under trees.
Kirsten Lee-Smith is co-owner of Maskell Smith’s Acres, a specialty garden center in Niantic, Connecticut.