Garden Notes: Your garden can aspire to rise

Many lettuces may be cut above the base, and still grow more leaves.


As we enter summer, Ron Rappaport’s death tears a large hole in the fabric of Island life. He and his partners in Edgartown maintained beautiful trees and plantings at the Cooke Street headquarters, a handsome civic contribution. Ron was affable, with a usually sunny disposition, despite exposure to the foibles of the human condition, known to any long-practicing attorney. Ron aspired to be a civic asset and, sui generis, constituted a large chunk of the Island’s institutional memory. 

Spires and mounds

Ralph Waldo Emerson and the New England Transcendentalists admired plants that “aspired,” reached for the heavens. They were right. These plants lend vertical dimension, punctuation, and style to garden and landscape. 

Especially in early summer gardens, there is an abundance of these vertical accents. Foxgloves, of course! The owner of the garden voted RHS Partner Garden of the Year 2024 (RHS The Garden, May 2024) quipped, “The best way to grow a foxglove is to disturb the soil.” She was referring to the seed banks that natural gardens produce. (Many gardeners leave all self-sown plants, knowing that they put themselves in the best places to grow. Kind of like Ron Rappaport.)

Digitalis purpurea is biennial, meaning that plants bloom this season, then die after setting seed. Entering the trade are increasing numbers of purportedly perennial digitalis, however. Look for them in seed catalogs and garden centers.

Probably viewed best as short-lived perennials, seeds or plants of Digitalis purpurea, D. ferruginea, D. grandiflora, D. x fulva syn. D. mertonensis, D. obscura, D. parviflora, and D. thapsi expand the foxglove experience. Deadhead main flowering stems to produce side shoots of all foxgloves. Under good culture they may continue to produce flowers throughout the summer.

Next aspiring plant of early summer is lupine. Also generally deer-resistant, these often bi-colored focal points come in a rainbow of colors, from hot coral to cool blue and white. Lupines species are both native to North America and introduced, with beautiful strains having been selected for, such as the Russell lupines. Leguminous, lupines improve soil where they flourish, such as the stands seen in Maine. In good circumstances, lupines self-sow and, sometimes, individual rootstocks over-winter. 

Delphiniums, with their dazzling blues, are the desired vertical spires for many gardeners — they really are incomparable. Perennial in their native origins, delphiniums in our local conditions are best considered as an annual: to be replaced every year, an extravagance or necessity depending on your point of view. Allow ripening, and saving seed from stems you like; clean, and store in the refrigerator.

Astilbes are features of gardens from June into July, especially those with shade. With a few exceptions, their spires are done by August. The palette is generally on the soft side, although red cultivars, such as ‘Red Sentinel,’ ‘Visions in Red,’ and ‘Fanal,’ can spark otherwise quiet schemes. The late season exception is the mauve groundcover A. chinensis ‘Pumila,’ which extends astilbes’ season into late summer. The spires of tall, pink ‘Ostrich Plume’ are a personal favorite.

Penstemons are less well-known than delphiniums, but deserve greater use in gardens. It is an extended family, largely native to North America, from aspiring to creeping, and from fiery reds and electric blues to softer lavenders, pinks, and whites. ‘Onyx and Pearls’ and ‘Husker’s Red’ are tall forms likely to be found at garden centers. They persist and self-sow, the offspring often losing the dark pigmentation. ‘Husker’s Red’ and other tall forms seldom need staking if grown in good light.

The Liatris family is another family endemic to North America, stretching from Martha’s Vineyard to the wide prairie. Many American growers seemingly ignored the possibilities of the white, lavender, and purple spikes, until the Dutch cut-flower trade discovered their value. L. spicata (cultivars ‘Floristan White’; ‘Floristan Violet’; shorter ‘Kobold’) is the principal species, but look for L. pycnostachya as well, to plant in sunny gardens on the dry side. 

An indispensable perennial in Island gardens are the salvias, or meadow sages. Mostly deer-resistant, amenable to full sun or dry situations once established. Where would garden design, and our insect friends, be without the mounds of S. nemorosa, S. pratensis, and S. x sylvestris, and other hybrids, topped by white to pink or blue, to deepest purple spires?

Enumerating all these spires makes me think of many more. Hollyhocks and malvas, mostly biennial; tall agastaches; the native vervain, Verbena hastata; verbascums (including the naturalized mullein, V. thapsis); and getting into the weeds, rhubarb and the docks! There are many more.

To make a contrast with them, mounding plants at the bed front have a role in adding visual interest and shifting the rhythm. Santolina, nepeta, lavender, heuchera, and dianthus are groups of perennials that perform this visual service, while annuals, such as nasturtium and petunia, do too. Grooming or pruning to shape is part of their culture, the neat mound contrasting well with other textures, such as those of hostas or daylilies.


The tried and true cultivars typically available in garden centers constitute a mere fraction of what is available. For gardeners entranced by the peony performance this spring, there is much to enjoy in this amazing plant family, although you must search the Internet for more variety. Jane Fearnley-Whittingstall’s beautiful 1999 “Peonies” may need updating, but is practically an art book. It is nonetheless an inspiring source book for these briefly extravagant flowers. 

Prune out spent peony flowers, unless saving seed; clean up and weed around stems of peonies once flowering is finished.

In the garden

Once blooming begins, so does deadheading and cleanup, especially after rains such as Saturday’s half-inch. Enjoy, but weed; crabgrass is germinating. The day-old chicks have moved in with the adult flock, and so far are doing well with their goose babysitters. Bird populations in gardens promote invasives seeding beneath trees and shrubbery; cultivate out. After an abundant strawberry season, plants are throwing runners for next year’s plants. Select and reset the chosen ones, and compost the rest. Many lettuces may be cut above the base, and still grow more leaves. Peas and peapods: Pick to prolong harvest before summer heat kicks in.