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Garden survivors withstand rain and rabbits

As the growing season winds to a close, gardeners don’t bother saying hello. They get right down to business: “How did your garden do this year?”

That’s sure to start a conversation, and I’ll tell you how it goes: First we talk about what went wrong, blaming the weather, our own busy schedules or a plague of hungry critters. Then we quickly (but modestly) turn to what went right.

I’ll skip the first part. Everyone knows we had too much rain and too little free time — and the less said about rabbits, the better.

But for what it’s worth, I’ll run down a short list of what grew well — for me, at least — despite the damp, the neglect and the gnawing.

  • Stars of the perennial bed this summer were a pair of persicarias, ‘Painter’s Palette’ and ‘Red Dragon.’

    ‘Painter’s Palette’ looks as though a somewhat sloppy artist daubed its rounded, light-green foliage with cream and pink, then brushed a shadowy “V” on every leaf.

    ‘Red Dragon’ flaunts scarlet stems bearing pointed, burgundy leaves etched with silver markings. As they age, the leaves turn green with wine-red veins.

    I’ve grown both for several years, but this summer the plants took off. Maybe they finally matured; some perennials (like some people) take awhile to reach their peak. Or maybe the persicarias, said to prefer moist soil, finally got enough rain.

    In any case both have grown waist-high, and filled out like photos in a catalog. I expect they’ll look good till the first hard freeze.

    The flowers aren’t much to speak of. ‘Dragon’ has pale blooms that look like baby’s breath, and ‘Painter’ sends up slender stalks strung with wee, red buds.

    I grow persicarias for leaves, not blooms. But when a hummingbird perched on one of those wands and sipped at the blossoms one by one, it took my breath away.

  • The season’s best-performing annual, hands down, was melampodium ‘Showstar,’ whose golden, daisy-like flowers started blooming in May and still haven’t quit.

    With a backyard party coming up fast, I bought bedding plants already in blossom and plunked them into a sunny bed. Frankly, I would have been happy if they’d merely lasted the weekend.

    Instead the little plants spread, forming a neat cushion of knee-high greens literally covered in blooms. The upturned flowers bustle with bees and butterflies, but I haven’t yet plucked a faded blossom or trimmed a ragged leaf.

    Planting guides suggest melampodium for gardens stressed by drought, and I’ve seen them do well in hot, dry summers. Apparently, this tough cookie can take cool, rainy weather as well.

  • Move over, zucchini. This summer, ‘Sunburst’ squash reigned in the vegetable patch. Shiny as patent leather, the bright yellow pattypans were the salad season’s tastiest treats.

    One night the whole family ended up in the kitchen, snacking on fresh summer squash. How often does that happen?

    Two compact plants have kept us in good supply without taking over the vegetable patch. We started eating squash early last month, and we’re still picking the scalloped fruits small — just 2 or 3 inches across — and steaming them lightly in the microwave to bring out their buttery flavor.

    ‘Sunburst’ was an All-America Selections winner in 1985; the seeds are easy to find and even easier to grow. Last year Cornell University rated this “baby” squash among the best market vegetables, noting its compact growth habit, fresh flavor and overall “eye appeal.”

    A touch of powdery mildew has marred its leaves recently, but it hasn’t kept ‘Sunburst’ from producing.

  • The No. 1 conversation-starter in my garden has been ‘Purple Majesty,’ an ornamental millet that’s brought both passers-by and songbirds to a halt.

    Its grassy, plum-colored leaves resemble cornstalks, but its seed spikes look more like corn dogs — foot-long cylinders covered first in creamy blooms, then in a glossy crust of deep purple seeds.

    The millet, a pennisetum, is botanically related to the reddish ornamental grass, Pennisetum rubrum , that has become a favorite of local landscapers. Like the grass, ‘Purple Majesty’ is an annual best used as a dramatic and colorful garden accent.

    This stuff is tough. I started my millet indoors, from seed, then moved the young plants to the edge of the vegetable patch. Rabbits promptly chewed them to the ground.

    I covered the gnawed-off nubs and the little plants recovered — only to become rabbit chow again.

    Sometime in June the bunnies moved on to other treats, and the millet grew back with a vengeance. Now it stands shoulder high, and goldfinches perch on its spikes, picking at the shiny seeds.

    ‘Purple Majesty’ won the 2003 All-America Selections gold medal, the plant-testing group’s highest honor. The judges cited its distinctive looks, but I give it high marks for durability as well.

  • Other plants worthy of mention include the yellow ‘Icicle’ pansies that bloomed all summer long in a cool, semi-shaded bed, eventually matching a fall-blooming rudbeckia flower for flower; ‘Blue Hill’ ornamental salvia, decked out in sapphire blossoms since May and constantly buzzing with bees; a speckled hypoestes, or polka-dot plant, that’s been making a splash in a shady corner with absolutely no help from me; and a potted canna ‘Pretoria,’ whose yellow-and-green striped leaves have decorated the deck all season.

    All these are plants I’ll likely grow again, unless something else catches my eye in the meantime. Still, next September’s back-fence conversation is likely to be different, depending on the weather, my “day job” … and, of course, those darned rabbits.


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