Achieve a vibrant color year-round with these simple solutions.
Photos: Jim Wieland, RP Photo
Welcome to Dorothy Danforth's blockbuster of a backyard in Brown Deer, Wisconsin. A master at setting the stage for a spectacular four-season show, Dorothy is one of the most passionate—and successful—gardeners you'll ever meet. But her secret is surprisingly simple: "Know what blooms and when." That's because, for Dorothy, a garden is like a play. Each plant has a role, and timing is everything. Use her tips to bring out your garden's good side!
Each spring, Dorothy's garden awakens as a cast of spring bulbs and perennials, such as bellflower and phlox, take the stage. These early-season stunners aren't happy accidents, however. Dorothy plans their entrance—dividing and planting them months before.
But after the bulbs fade, Dorothy really has to work her magic. That's because, without her help, color wouldn't grace her garden until early July, when her perennials hit their peak bloom time. To achieve continuous color in the lean months, Dorothy relies on annuals with dramatic blooms and foliage like Icicle pansy and fire-engine-red salvia.
These supporting players in the garden make for a strong finish late into the season, too. "Perennials come and go, but most annuals stay until a killing frost," says Dorothy. And while past efforts have included classic favorites like marigold, zinnia and geranium, she's found newer varieties of petunia, vinca, ageratum, coleus and salvia that typically last longer and come in a wider range of colors.
Dorothy is also diligent in noting how any new additions perform in her landscape. She carefully tracks each plant's bloom time and watches to see which are high-maintenance (e.g., sensitive to moisture, susceptible to fungus). These observations help her in future decision making and guarantee healthy beds and borders that shine in all seasons.
While it's her plants that draw the accolades, Dorothy knows that a well-planned set showcases her strongest performers. Garden structures like a gazebo help to frame the garden and offer a focal point. Winding pathways connect the beds, suggest depth and beckon visitors to wander the one-third acre property. Pretty accents like birdbaths, gazing balls and benches lend year-round interest to the garden and tie everything together.
Dorothy likes to experiment with plant combos that make the most of the seasons. One of her favorites is purple aster and yellow goldenrod. "When it comes to color, I don't follow a plan," says Dorothy. "I feel that all colors and textures can be combined in some way. I just look at my flower beds and visualize what plants would look good together."
But finding and knowing how to use long-blooming, colorful plants that flourish in fall takes time to master. Dorothy likes to use repeat-blooming daylilies, fall-blooming allium and black-eyed Susans for their endurance. She even found a yellow Sundaze strawflower that blooms up until the hard frost. Other autumn bloomers, like snake root, aster and 'Autumn Fire' sedum, also help to extend the life of her garden. Dorothy purposely plants these late-season performers next to early-spring bloomers in hopes they disguise any dying foliage as they take the stage.
While most gardeners put their gardens to rest in fall, Dorothy is still busy watering, planting and cutting back spent foliage (which usually produces a flush of green late in the season). It's this dedication that lasts until the snow flies that brings out her garden's best in fall, an epic of color and interest unmatched in other Zone 5 yards.
Achieving season-long color takes time and diligence but, as Dorothy says, "A garden is a work of art you can change every season...and it nurtures one in proportion to the gardener's effort to nurture it." In other words, give your garden a little of your time and be rewarded with a captivating show of color that'll have you asking for an encore.