Red isn't only for Valentine's Day

By Tom Seymour | Feb 15, 2019
Photo by: Tom Seymour An all-red display is a big attention-getter in the garden.

It’s Valentine’s Day and red roses and red hearts symbolize the holiday. So with red still on our minds, let’s consider that color in a little more detail.

Soon, we’ll be choosing flowers for the upcoming garden season, and the color red is always a good choice. Whether you use red on a limited basis, as in hanging baskets, or on a wider scale, such as a long border, you can’t go wrong with red, or even an all-red theme.

So many plants have red blooms that finding something in red is a snap. Both perennials and annuals come in a wide variety of stunning shades of red. So let’s begin with annuals, since they are easy to deal with and are widely available.

One of the first flowers that I dealt with as a young gardener was zinnia. This was because, first, zinnias have such a catchy appearance, with their thick, pom-pom-like blossoms. And second, zinnias come in a great profusion of colors. And finally, zinnias rank among the easiest annuals to grow, because there is no transplanting involved. Just plant the seeds where you want your flowers and in no time at all, you will have blooming zinnias.

Of course you can buy pre-started zinnia sets, but given that they are so easy to start in situ from seed, I really don’t see the need.

Some zinnias bear more than a little resemblance to chrysanthemums, so if you enjoy zinnias as well as chrysanthemums but don’t have enough garden space for both, just select a larger zinnia type. Some of these reach 36 inches tall, making for not only an eye-catching display in the garden, but also great cut flowers.

And, of course, zinnias come in various shades of red, making them a shoo-in as a red annual.

Early spring

Even before it’s time to plant zinnias, we can enjoy spring-blooming flowers. First, primroses, or primula, come in red. This has a yellow center “eye” that contrasts splendidly with the deep red of the petals.

While many of us think of primulas as tender perennials, some types are hardy down to zone 2. Maine seldom sees conditions below those of zone 5, except that the far north often reaches down to zone 4. And many primulas are rated for zone 4. Here in Midcoast Maine, we are in hardiness zone 5, more than mild enough for any primula.

Primulas are easy to care for and will last for quite some time in the garden, as long as they are given a good mulching for the winter. If our Maine winters were still of the old-fashioned variety, with snow cover lasting from early winter to early spring, we wouldn’t need to mulch our plants, but current conditions as often as not see snow cover disappearing and then reappearing several times during the course of the winter.

Because of hybridization, primulas come in a great variety of shapes and colors. So for our red garden, there are many good varieties to choose from.

Next, tulips are available in various shades of red, including some in the deepest, most robust hues. And while tulips are considered a perennial, spring-flowering bulb, they seldom last more than a few years in our Maine climate, necessitating replanting. But if you enjoy tulips, the bulbs are cheap enough and it’s not much of an inconvenience to replant as needed.

A stand of cherry-red tulips makes an outstanding display. And if you add some red hyacinths, the display will have even more texture. Like tulips, hyacinths come in different shades of red, including ruby red, a very attractive color.

So now you see that it is not only possible but also very easy to design an early-spring garden with an all-red theme.

Hot summer

The summertime garden calls for red accents. Some gardeners opt for a patriotic theme of red, white and blue, but a plain, all-red grouping works as well and may be even more eye-catching.

Sometimes gardeners will select a portion of a flower bed to be set aside as all-red, and that’s a good way to approach things. Depending upon the size of the bed, your all-red section can be expansive or minimal. Either way, red will stand out among all other colors.

One of my all-time favorite red flowers, Maltese cross, Lychnis chalcedonica, bears compact clusters of dazzling scarlet flowers. Growing from 24 to 36 inches tall, this can either stand alone in clumps, or it can easily fit in the middle of any perennial bed. The bright-red flowers contrast nicely with light green leaves and call attention to themselves even from a considerable distance.

Maltese cross works well with red varieties of echinacea, or coneflower. The two stand at a similar height. A workable plan would be to have a spread of Maltese cross on one side of a bed and coneflower on the other.

Another old-time favorite red flower for summer, Monarda, or bee balm, also bergamot, belongs in the mint family. A telltale sign of this is its square stem. Remember, all members of the mint family have square stems. But not all members of this family contain menthol, thus lacking that distinct menthol aroma. But bergamot most certainly has a distinctive aroma. In fact, Earl Gray tea makes use of the pungent scent of bergamot.

This pretty flower was the source of “tea” for colonists during the American Revolution, a time when true India tea was unavailable.

My favorite form of this venerable plant, Monarda didyma, grows to 48 inches tall and boasts bright scarlet, 4-inch-diameter flowers.

Bergamot overwinters well here in Maine. Also, the clumps grow wider with each passing year, but die out in the middle. The answer to this is to dig and separate clumps every few years, transplanting the now-divided sections either to the same place or to new destinations. Make sure to transplant into good, rich soil.

Note that hummingbirds favor M. didyma, making this a good selection for a garden dedicated to attracting them.

Finally, keep bergamot well-watered, since wilting can lead to further damage.

While on the topic of red flowers, we must not neglect the beauty of geraniums, which. come in two different types. First, we have the tender bedding plants, the same kind used as houseplants in winter. These can be set outside come warm weather. And then there are the hardy types, also known as“cranesbill.

Most hardy geraniums can withstand conditions down to zone 4, making them a perfectly fine choice for Maine gardens. Many of the named varieties come in shades of raspberry red, while certain hybrids, notably the rambling geranium/cranesbill, Dilys, has rose-red flowers.

These hardy perennial geraniums do best when situated so as to avoid the hot afternoon sun. Many will accept dry conditions. I once had a plant growing on the edge of the woods that was among the hardiest ever. I never watered or fertilized it, and yet it persevered for many years.

Whatever your choice for a red-themed garden, you’ll surely have an attractive, standout display. With red, you can never go wrong.

Tom’s tips

Don’t have room in the ground for your all-red garden? Then try using potted plants lined up on either side of an entranceway, or even a set of stairs. You’ll have the same standout color show as with an in-ground garden. Top this off with a few hanging baskets featuring red flowers, and the effect will be complete.

Primula brings early-spring color to the garden. (Photo by: Tom Seymour)
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