Planning for the Red, White, and Blue: Part 1

Part 1. Displaying the Colors Year-Round

By Mary Free, Certified Extension Master Gardener

As winter slowly winds down, you may find yourself yearning for those summer days that melt the cold and brighten the dreary. Perhaps you are dreaming of your summer gardens and feeling a bit patriotic this Presidents’ Day, wondering how they would look abloom in red, white, and blue for the Fourth of July. Or, perhaps you are feeling even more ambitious and would like to pursue a patriotic theme for various groupings or gardens year-round.

Bon Air Memorial Rose Garden in Arlington, Virginia flies the Red, <span style=

Bon Air Memorial Rose Garden in Arlington, Virginia flies the Red, White, and Blue every day, but when the roses are not abloom (inset July 4, 2018), then the drupes of Ilex verticillata color the Garden’s border red. Photo © 2019 Mary Free

If so, we can help you on both counts. First, we want to introduce you to five Virginia Cooperative Extension (VCE) “Patriotic Gardens” publications to aid you in planting and planning for red, white, and blue color in all four seasons. Additionally, in the second part of this series, “Displaying the Colors on Independence Day” (to be posted February 27, 2019), we will identify the red, white, and blue perennial plants that we have found blooming in Northern Virginia on or around July 4 over the past several years.

In spring, you can plant late-flowering, winter hardy bulbs like the pictured Lycoris radiata (spider lily) and Rhodophiala bifida (oxblood lily). They will add drama to the garden around Labor Day. Crocosmia ‘Lucifer’ (montbretia)–not pictured–is a spring-planted corm with red blooms around Independence Day.  Photo © 2019 Christa Watters

In spring, you can plant late-flowering, winter hardy bulbs like the pictured Lycoris radiata (spider lily) and Rhodophiala bifida (oxblood lily). They will add drama to the garden around Labor Day. Crocosmia ‘Lucifer’ (montbretia)–not pictured–is a spring-planted corm with red blooms around Independence Day.  Photo © 2019 Christa Watters

The first VCE publication (426-210), “Patriotic Gardens: How to Plant a Red, White and Blue Garden,” illustrates two garden designs for full sun: a 30-inch wide container garden using annuals and an 8-foot-by-10-foot garden bed using a small tree, shrubs, perennials and annuals. Besides suggesting plant selections, it provides tips on soil preparation, planting, watering and mulching.

A second publication (426-211), “Patriotic Gardens: Developing A Statewide Corridor and Entrance Enhancement Program,” focuses on public corridor and entrance gardens. Although the three designs offered may be too large for some private residences, they suggest groupings of easy-to-maintain annuals, perennials, shrubs, and small trees, which could be used as starting points.

Red, white, and blue flowers are among the miniature bulbs in the demonstration Quarry Shade Garden in Bon Air Park, Arlington, Virginia. Photos © 2012–2019 Mary Free

Red, white, and blue flowers are among the miniature bulbs in the demonstration Quarry Shade Garden in Bon Air Park, Arlington, Virginia. Photos © 2012–2019 Mary Free

The third publication (426-220), “Patriotic Gardens: Bulbs for a Red, White, and Blue Spring Garden,” provides suggestions on garden design, soil preparation and planting (including raised berms for heavy clay soil), and maintenance for bulbs. Of course, spring flowering bulbs are planted in fall—October through early December—when nurseries display a wide assortment of alliums, anemones, crocuses, daffodils, hyacinths, reticulated irises, snowdrops, squills, and tulips. Gardening companies usually deluge mailboxes with catalogues at that time, although most have websites for those who wish to peruse and order online.

Under the white flowers of Amalenchier arborea and the fuchsia flowers of Cercis canadensis, Mertensia virginica commands center stage in the April Quarry Shade Garden. The Virginia bluebells are surrounded by white starflowers, snowdrops, and hellebores and blue lungworts and grape hyacinths.  Photo © 2019 Mary Free

Under the white flowers of Amalenchier arborea and the fuchsia flowers of Cercis canadensis, Mertensia virginica commands center stage in the April Quarry Shade Garden. The Virginia bluebells are surrounded by white starflowers, snowdrops, and hellebores and blue lungworts and grape hyacinths.  Photo © 2019 Mary Free

Although bulbs dot the demonstration Quarry Shade Garden in spring, some Master Gardeners, who have tended the plants there, are partial to blue native perennials like Iris cristata (dwarf iris), Mertensia virginica (Virginia bluebell), Polemonium reptans (Jacob’s Ladder), and Phlox divaricata (woodland phlox) and non-natives Omphalodes verna (blue-eyed Mary) and Pulmonaria species (lungwort). Shade-loving, white, spring-flowering, native perennials include Sedum ternatum (wild stonecrop) and Tiarella cordifolia (foamflower) as well as non-native hellebores. For red spring accents, try native perennial Aquilegia canadensis (wild columbine), which attracts hummingbirds, or the non-native perennial Epimedium x rubrum (red barrenwort), whose crimson flowers are complemented by red-tinged green, young leaves.

In April, blue Phlox divaricata colors the background for the flowering Fothergilla gardenii at Glencarlyn Library Community Garden in Arlington, Virginia. Photo © 2019 Mary Free

In April, blue Phlox divaricata colors the background for the flowering Fothergilla gardenii at Glencarlyn Library Community Garden in Arlington, Virginia.  Photo © 2019 Mary Free

Early May in Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia finds dianthus and bearded irises among the flowers combined to create a red, white, and blue garden. Photo © 2019 Mary Free

Early May in Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia finds dianthus and bearded irises among the flowers combined to create a red, white, and blue garden.  Photo © 2019 Mary Free

Nothing shouts spring, though, like flowering ornamental trees and shrubs. For white-flowering trees consider natives Amelanchier arborea (downy serviceberry), Chionanthus virginicus (fringetree), and Cornus species, all of which can be seen in the Quarry Shade or Sunny Gardens in Bon Air Park, and Magnolia virginiana (sweetbay magnolia), which can be viewed at Simpson Gardens in Alexandria, Virginia. White-flowering native shrubs include Fothergilla gardenii (dwarf fothergilla) on display at the Glencarlyn Library Community Garden in Arlington, Virginia, and Itea virginica (Virginia sweetspire) located at the Quarry Shade Garden. As an added bonus, both of these shrubs produce brilliant red leaves in fall. The branch-hugging, fuchsia (reddish) flower clusters of Cercis canadensis (eastern redbud) are stunning in early to mid-spring at the Quarry Shade Garden.

In mid-May, blue and purple bearded irises encircle red and soon-to-bloom white peonies in the U.S. Botanic Garden’s demonstration garden in Bartholdi Park, Washington, D.C. Photo © 2019 Mary Free

In mid-May, blue and purple bearded irises encircle red and soon-to-bloom white peonies in the U.S. Botanic Garden’s demonstration garden in Bartholdi Park, Washington, D.C.
Photo © 2019 Mary Free

If you wish to celebrate Memorial Day with a patriotic garden, then towering spires of huge whitish and red-violet Alcea rosea (hollyhock) flowers provide a bold contrast to the shorter spikes of densely packed, blue Delphinium (larkspur) florets, blooming in the Waterwise Garden at Simpson Gardens four days after Memorial Day 2013. In addition to these perennials try the light blue to deep violet native Iris virginica and Iris versicolor (southern and northern blue flag)–not pictured. Photos © 2019 Christa Watters

If you wish to celebrate Memorial Day with a patriotic garden, then towering spires of huge whitish and red-violet Alcea rosea (hollyhock) flowers provide a bold contrast to the shorter spikes of densely packed, blue Delphinium (larkspur) florets, blooming in the Waterwise Garden at Simpson Gardens four days after Memorial Day 2013. In addition to these perennials try the light blue to deep violet native Iris virginica and Iris versicolor (southern and northern blue flag)–not pictured.
Photos © 2019 Christa Watters

A fourth Virginia Cooperative Extension publication (426-223), “Patriotic Gardens: Red, White, and Blue Native Plants,” includes a chart with 41 native plants with red, white, or blue flowers, and briefly touches on the importance of native plants, planning, design, soil preparation, and maintenance.

Two days after Labor Day 2015, native Lobelia cardinalis (cardinal flower) flower spikes provided a splash of brilliant color among the impressive display of native Lobelia siphilitica (great blue lobelia) lining the shore of Lake Lena at Meadowlark Botanical Gardens, in Vienna, Virginia. For late-s ummer white flowers (not pictured), consider natives Boltonia asteroides (false aster), Chelone glabra (white turtlehead), Eupatorium hyssopifolium (hyssop-leaf thoroughwort), and Eurybia divaricata (white wood aster). Photo © 2019 Elaine Mills

Two days after Labor Day 2015, native Lobelia cardinalis (cardinal flower) flower spikes provided a splash of brilliant color among the impressive display of native Lobelia siphilitica (great blue lobelia) lining the shore of Lake Lena at Meadowlark Botanical Gardens, in Vienna, Virginia. For late-summer white flowers (not pictured), consider natives Boltonia asteroides (false aster), Chelone glabra (white turtlehead), Eupatorium hyssopifolium (hyssop-leaf thoroughwort), and Eurybia divaricata (white wood aster).   Photo © 2019 Elaine Mills

The fifth and final publication (426-228), “Patriotic Gardens: Red, White, and Blue in Fall and Winter Gardens,” addresses the challenges of finding plants that will display red, white, or blue colors, especially in late fall and winter. This is where creativity comes into play and we look beyond flowers to foliage, fruits and seedpods, and bark to enhance a garden’s design and impact. This publication provides excellent suggestions on annual, perennial, and woody species that brighten your landscape with leaves, fruits, and bark in patriotic colors during different seasons. It also discusses how to arrange for a progression of color as well as tips to transition your garden from one season to another. Additionally, if you missed these articles when they were first posted on the Master Gardeners of Northern Virginia website, then you might want to read “Seeing in the Winter Garden,” “Native Plants for Winter Interest,” and “The Long ViewMeditations on Gardening (Color and Texture Sustain the Winter Garden),” which recommend plants with winter attraction, including some with red, white, or blue features. This fifth VCE publication as well as the three MGNV blogs  may reveal plants to you in a new light.

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Foliage for summer color

With this in mind, we suggest that to augment the red, white, and blue blooms of Independence Day, listed in Part 2, that you also consider patriotic foliage, bark, and fruit. For patches of blue foliage consider specific varieties of ornamental grasses like native Schizachyrium scoparium (little bluestem), hostas (e.g., Hosta ‘Blue Mammoth,’ Hosta ‘Blue Moon’), or stonecrops (e.g., Sedum ‘Blue Spruce’). For year-round blue foliage, consider an ornamental conifer, like dwarf Colorado blue spruce. By July 4, the blue flowers of native Baptisia australis (blue wild indigo) will have given way to 2.5-inch long, blue-black seed pods that rise above bluish-green leaves—lovely in dried arrangements. For variegated foliage with splashes of red consider annual coleus, Begonia grandis (stunning red veining beneath the leaves), Heuchera cultivars, ground covers like native Persicaria virginiana ‘Painter’s Palette.’ and stonecrops (e.g., Sedum spurium ‘Schorbuser Blut,’ also sold as DRAGON’S BLOOD) , or dwarf deciduous trees like Acer palmatum var. dissectum ‘Crimson Queen.’

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Bark, seed heads, and fruit for summer color

If you have a fondness for bark, then Cornus sericea, aka C. stolonifera, (red-osier dogwood, historically native along the Potomac River in Fairfax County), will not disappoint. Its red bark is striking in a snow-covered landscape. In July, its intermittent small, white flowers give way to clusters of whitish (blue-tinged) drupes (berries), which are particularly attractive to birds once they ripen in late summer into fall. If you are looking for something that you can eat, then the red berries of Rubus fruticosus ‘Chester’ (thornless blackberry) will soon turn black for the picking if birds don’t devour them first. (This tasty blackberry is usually used as a food crop rather than for ornamentation, but if you are interested, then check with your local extension office first to make sure that it is not invasive in your area. Master Gardeners have been pleased with its performance in the Glencarlyn Library Community Garden and have never had any problem with it migrating.)

When choosing plants for your gardens, consider all of their attributes. Be creative! Have fun!


Sources (in order of appearance)

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