While some folks were baking endless loaves of sourdough at the beginning of the pandemic, I was gardening. Every morning, as soon as the sun came up, I put in as much work as possible before my life as the mother of a toddler started. It saved my sanity to be outside, in the dirt, thinking about something other than impending doom. Even now, with heat indexes in the high eighties here in Charleston by 7 a.m., I’m still out there, every day. Only now I’m looking around and assessing all the things I’ve planted and tended and I’m contemplating fall plantings for next year—because gardens, like houses, are really never finished. And if a plant looks great in July in the South, you have a keeper.
So which budding beauties stand up to the summer heat? The North Carolina landscape designer Chip Calloway favors plants like Blue Chiffon Rose of Sharon, a type of hibiscus; dwarf Buddleia, otherwise known as a butterfly bush; and Cleome, which is commonly known as spider flower. “Many of these have been out of favor for years,” he says. “But what goes around comes around—especially in the garden.” Rose of Sharon is blousy and old fashioned in the best way and thrives through July and August. The smaller variety of Buddleia is what Calloway calls “a spectacular compact shrub.” And it’s quite the pollinator. “I have seen butterflies light on the potted plants while they are being planted,” he recalls. Another go-to on his vein-of-iron list, Cleome, is “a simple and delightful flower that looks like fireworks in a July border,” he says. “They produce until frost if you deadhead occasionally and return year after year. Some people consider them invasive but not me. I just love to let them go.”
Looking for a hardy winner in the fragrant category? Try Summer Soul Arabian Jasmine. “It features rose-like flowers no matter how hot it gets in every almost Southern growing zone,” says Justin Hancock, Plant Craftsman at Monrovia. For container options that won’t go all wilty by noon or for flowers that look pretty in a cluster, Hancock is also a fan of Baby Pete Agapanthus. “It’s compact, with show-stopping blue blooms that just keep going and going, and the foliage is evergreen,” Hancock says.
Dr. Judson LeCompte, who is tasked with the fascinating job of creating interesting plants for Proven Winners, considers shrubs in unusual colors and textures an ally in summer gardens. “Foliage color allows you to have garden interest even when the heat of summer slows most flowering plants,” he says. Their Winecraft Black smokebush, for instance, features a sophisticated hue with quirky pink seedheads, and thrives even in times of low or no rain and in the constant sun. But he’s also partial to classics like the dwarf Limelight Hydrangea. “They offer heat tolerance, not found in many hydrangea species, and a bit of formal elegance to the garden,” he says.