Dahlia, you look fabulous!


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I bought several flats of mondo grass in the spring to plant amid a path of hefty steppingstones. I found that from one 4-inch pot I could tease apart the clump into about a dozen plugs. I put each about 3 inches from its neighbor. Thus, economically, I have begun to cover a lot of territory, knowing that the grasses will knit together after a year or two.

But it might take me an hour to put in 70 or so, and although I need to plant about 10 times that, I can take only so much stabbing the ground with a trowel and manipulating the stringy roots. The mondo project is one of (too) many at the moment. Throw in a late, cold spring, the stalking weeds and just a lot of planting, and I have found myself in a sort of a plate-spinning act where the crockery is getting awfully wobbly.

May and June are the months when you set things in place for a bountiful summer and early fall, and, yes, I know June is about to follow May into the irretrievable past. During this period, the gardener likes to plant dahlias -- a tropical daisy that grows from a tuber, like a sweet potato, but produces endless blooms from July until the fall. And what blooms they are: large, strikingly formed and richly colored. It is difficult to think of another flower whose colors are so saturated and bright.

Some dahlias are simply over the top, attaining 10 inches or more in diameter, but the smaller, lower-growing ones are easier to incorporate into the garden, perfect for filling gaps made by retreating spring bulbs, poppies and sweet peas. If you scramble, you can probably still find some dahlias, preferably already started in pots and outpacing the slugs.

The choice is limited at this point, but I love the dark-leafed and stemmed varieties with single, semi-double or collarette flower forms. More varieties have been introduced in recent years. If not for this season but next, it's worth browsing for varieties in the Mystic series: 'Mystic Desire' is a smoky scarlet; 'Mystic Spirit' an apricot-orange; and 'Mystic Illusion' a yellow on the green side. There are other Mystics out there.

The Happy Single series includes 'Party' (yellow), 'Flame' (coral) and 'Juliet' (magenta).

During my June distractions, a friend gave me some dahlia tubers, which went in late, but they include some of chic purple-black-leafed types: 'Groovy' (rose-red with orange) and 'Sayonara' (fuchsia pink)

If you can't get dahlias, you still have time to plant or even sow seed of another daisy clan member, the zinnia. Zinnias grow rapidly in the July heat, given a prepared planting bed and frequent watering. They bloom right into October -- They are cheerful and willing and draw butterflies galore. A few of my gardening friends dislike zinnias for the powdery mildew that visits them, but I have found varieties that seem lightly affected by the fungus, and then only late in the season. Avoid shady beds and places that aren't breezy, and thin seedlings to avoid crowding.

This year, I am growing an old, improved mix called Benary's Giant; the flowers are all strong reds, pinks, purples, even yellows, and some flowers are more frilly than others. You don't know what you have until they flower, which adds to the informal gaiety. If you want more control over the look, California seedswoman Renee Shepherd sells collections that she has assembled. Her website is www.reneesgarden.com. I have grown Apricot Blush and Hot Crayon Colors.

A gardening friend who disdains zinnias offers cosmos instead. Once the larkspur is done, around this time, she sows seeds of the bright orange 'Sulfur' Cosmos. To my eyes, it looks frighteningly like a marigold.

The season's first sunflowers -- another daisy -- are flowering already, but don't let that discourage you. I sow seeds in June for a flower show in August and well beyond. The small, branching and multi-flowered varieties are much easier to place than lanky monsters like 'American Giant,' 'Kong' or 'Mammoth.' Show your restraint with such varieties as 'Italian White,' 'Vanilla Ice,' 'Buttercream' and 'Valentine.'

By summer's end, your garden will look as a fresh as a daisy, as if you had planned it all along.

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