Happy Independence Day. You remember, July 4 is the anniversary of when we sent the Brits home packing and set this nation up as a republic, just 243 years ago. Thursday will be a time for watermelon cuttings, picnics, fishing, swimming and other hot weather activities. Don’t forget the firecrackers.
Me, I plan on spending a good part of the day staring at our summer phloxes, a fine and pleasant pastime for old coots.
Our mixed borders are carried this time of year with summer phloxes, Phlox paniculata, not to be confused with myriad other phloxes that perform mostly in spring.
They are the backbone of our border color in high summer and one of the finest perennials going. Our climate is suited to them, and few problems beset them.
Colors are mostly pastel, though a few claim to be red. We will look at phlox culture anon, but a few varieties that have succeeded with me for 40 years or more might be of interest.
‘David’ is a popular and good selling pure white. I have never been able to satisfy it, however, but a hand-me-down white with pink eye has stood the test of time.
The effect at a distance is white. I have divided it numerous times and now have several stands of it.
The straight species that grows wild here and there is a pinkish purple and a nice color if not overdone.
I started my plantation of it some 20 years ago with a small clump dug from a vacant lot that was shortly thereafter bulldozed into oblivion.
It is now the location of a thriving real estate business.
There are true pink commercial varieties, but, again, inherited pinks have outdone them for me.
Pink can be a tricky color to blend with others. Nearby yellows are the worst offenders so I try to avoid yellow in their vicinity.
There are some summer phloxes that border on orange and the aforementioned red, but I seem to have trouble with them.
One somewhat substantial problem with summer phloxes is unwanted seedlings that nearly always revert to the wild form.
Their vigor might exceed that of their parents, and sometimes overcome them to the extent a whole planting has gradually turned purple without much warning.
That very thing occurred in our garden when one of my best phloxes, a vibrant pink, slowly disappeared.
I had it from a fellow gardener many years ago, and the change happened so slowly it was total before I realized it and thus I had lost my favorite phlox, which I modestly had called “Willie’s Wonder.” It is gone.
Summer phloxes appreciate the finer things of life, rich food and copious water. A somewhat heavy soil is best, but not sorry red clay.
Water-retaining sphagnum peat is just about the best soil supplement, and natural manures are the best growth enhancers (food) of gourmet phloxes.
Most summer phloxes grow to some 4 feet or so, or even more in rich soil. Most of the time they need no staking, but if the site is too shady they may flop a little when the heavy heads of bloom appear. There are some dwarf varieties that get to only 18 inches or so and they are great for the front of a bed or border.
Summer phloxes are the better for a division about every three or four years. A large clump should be dug and divided and healthy smaller shoots from the outside of the clump should be reset in improved soil. Otherwise, the plants will tend to grow weaker and produce smaller flower heads.
Here is a tip that few folks seem to know about: If there is a nice sized clump of phlox, when the stems get, say, 18 inches tall, cut the front half of them down to half that.
Leave the back alone. The back half will flower before the stems you cut back, and as soon as their flowers start to fade, the front half will then be about to flower. Then cut the back half down by half and enjoy the blooming of the front. In a long, wet summer, it is possible to get four flushes of flower by alternating the cutting back.
JIMMY WILLIAMS is the garden writer for The Post-Intelligencer, where he can be contacted on Monday mornings at 642-1162.