One of the best things about summer for me is having the time to travel and see new gardens at their peak summer performance. July, August, and September are the best times to see and really evaluate annual plants for their heat and drought tolerance. It’s also a great time to invite friends over and just sit back and enjoy our gardens.
On a recent trip to the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden, I enjoyed the lush tropical annual displays so much that I barely noticed the animals. It was interesting to see that some of my favorites were the ones with no flowers at all.
There are many plants we use today as annual flowers that really don’t have showy flowers. Some have flowers (or an adapted form of a flower) that stay below the foliage so they are hard to see, such as with caladiums. Some have flowers, but they are small or lack a showy color, such as with coleus. In those cases, we typically remove or deadhead the unwanted flowers to keep the foliar color performance at its peak.
Purple Persian shield
Persian shield is one of my favorite plants that I use just for its foliage. It is often thought to be a coleus, but is not. The wonderful purple leaves with silvery undersides make an impressive show in the ground or in a container, and combine well with many other plants to make a fascinating and colorful planter.
In the ground, I have seen Persian shield grow 3 to 4 feet tall in one season, so give it some room. I have it combined with a lantana, also called Honey Love, in my garden this year. The lantana has a soft yellow color that is wonderful against the purple leaves of the Persian shield. Part shade is best, but a sunny location works as long as it is moist, or you can water frequently so the Persian shield won’t wilt in the heat of the day.
Persian shield also makes a great houseplant in a bright sunny window, so it is possible to over-winter it indoors if you have it in a container. If you have planted it in the ground, you can take stem cuttings in the fall before frost. They are very easy to root in water in your window. Once rooted, put them into small pots, grow them in your windows for the winter, and you will have great plants to start off your spring annual planting. Persian shield is also easy to find in the garden centers in the spring.
Coleus is my next favorite annual just for its foliage, and there are quite a few to choose from. I saw at least a dozen varieties this year that I had never seen before. You can definitely show off your personality and style when planting coleus. They are extremely easy to grow and the colors and color combinations available are amazing.
Years ago, coleus was thought to be just for the shade, but indeed it can take the full sun. In fact, I find it much more colorful in the sunnier spots than in the shade. No matter what the conditions are in your garden, you can probably grow coleus. The most popular coleus in 2005 and again this year is Sedona. Its pink to orange coloring is bright and cheerful and combines well with many other annuals or perennials. I have it in the ground behind a yellow rose and in a black container with African blue basil and apricot Agastache.
How tall coleus grows is as variable as the possible color combinations, but most do get 3 or more feet tall in a season. Fortunately, they respond well to pruning, and in my containers I am constantly cutting on them to keep them in shape so they don’t overgrow the container. In the ground, just let them go and you will have an incredibly colorful display for late summer.
Popular sweet potato vines
Another plant that is beautiful without flowers, which has been popular for years and I don’t see the trend easing up, are the sweet potato vines. Blackie, Black Heart, Marguerite, and Lemon Lime are the most popular. Most often used in a combination planter with other flowers, they can also be planted in the ground where they will surround whatever else you have planted. Like coleus, they also respond well to pruning and can be kept in bounds where necessary. Sun or shade doesn’t seem to matter to them, they perform equally well in either.
Blackie and Black Heart are perfect for their large, textured leaves and dark purple color. Marguerite and Lemon Lime have bright chartreuse-green leaves that can really bring out the color in other flowers. Both are quite interesting even if planted on their own.
Plants really don’t have to flower to be beautiful and can still add huge color to the garden. Texture and color in some cases can be more dramatic, especially when you plant one variety in large quantity. Planting in mass also lowers your maintenance and increases the show, making your garden unique and allowing your style to show through. Remember, when it’s hot and humid outside and seems miserable to you, Persian shield, coleus, and sweet potato vines love it and will grow and look more beautiful all summer.