On Gardening: Colorful bush sage will enhance the palette for Monet celebration

September 28, 2015

When the shorter days of September occur the Santa Barbara salvia erupts into blooms. Here it is partnered with golden thryallis.

Santa Barbara, the terrific dwarf Mexican bush sage, is playing a vital role in Savannah, Ga., as the city is beautifying to Make Way for Monet. This award winning Salvia leucantha is of one of approximately a dozen or so plants designated as part of the Spirit of Monet Collection of Flowers being used to enhance city landscapes.

The impetus for this beautification is that for the first time Claude Monet paintings will be on exhibition in Savannah at the Telfair Museumís Jepson Center Oct. 16-Jan. 24. Thousands of visitors will be coming to town for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see not only Monet paintings but many of the best American Impressionists.

Monet said, "I must have flowers, always, and always," and what better way to celebrate than by planting flowers in Savannahís historic parks and squares. The same will be happening at the Savannah Hilton/Head International Airport, the Telfair Museums and, of course, the Coastal Georgia Botanical Gardens, where I am the director.

This is where Santa Barbara fits in. This salvia has become one for the gardening ages with its compact stature of 2 to 3 feet and slightly larger spread. When the days get shorter in September, it explodes into bloom, not only giving you a display worthy of a Monet painting but attracting hummingbirds and butterflies to the purple/lavender blooms and to the delight of all who watch.

Monet treasured flowers like salvias, daisies, goldenrods, marigolds and sunflowers, and, of course, many were the subjects in his paintings. These are the flowers of fall that allow all of us to be the Monet of our gardens. I believe he would have loved Santa Barbara, and I know you will love it in your garden, too.

You may even want to take some tips from Monet as you choose your companions for Santa Barbara. He loved gold and sapphire color partnerships, as well as blue and purple. Santa Barbara would look stunning with Tuscan Sun heliopsis or perennial sunflower, or Fireworks goldenrod and the ever-popular Miss Sunshine sunflower. But consider adding some blue as well with Mystic Spires Blue salvia or Sky Blue asters.

The ideal site is full sun, though a little afternoon shade is tolerated. The soil should be very well drained, so plant on raised beds or amend heavy soils with the addition of compost or humus. Santa Barbara is considered a zone 8 perennial, but well-drained soil may be the crucial factor encouraging next yearís spring return farther north than expected. It is also a worthy annual, and because of its size will work in mixed containers.

While preparing the soil, incorporate 2 pounds of a slow-release fertilizer like a 12- per 100 square feet of bed space. Space the plants 18 to 24 inches apart, planting at the same depth they are growing in the container. Do not plant under streetlights or floodlights; remember, these bloom in response to the number of dark hours.

Since Santa Barbara is a prolific bloomer, take advantage of the opportunity to cut flowers for the vase. Try also harvesting several stems to tie with sprigs of rosemary and hang in the country kitchen.

Santa Barbara and other varieties of Mexican bush sage have one other magical trait: They create excitement and interest in the landscape as their spiky flowers create such a strong contrast to the typical round blossoms. This time of the year the Mexican bush sage is without equal in the landscape; I hope you will give it a try.



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