Playing in the Dirt: Six Simple-to-Grow, Heat-Loving Summer Flowers

97.9 The Hill and have partnered with the Orange County Master Gardeners for “Playing in the Dirt,” a monthly column exploring the fertile ground of home gardening in our community and intended to provide the information and inspiration gardeners of all skills levels need to flourish! Check back on Chapelboro every month for a new subject – from our gardens to yours!

By Melissa Blackmon Kohout, Orange County Master Gardeners

There’s just something special about simple summertime pleasures in North Carolina. Who doesn’t love a clear Carolina blue sky or the joy of pretty flowers with butterflies coming and going? Why not add growing your own summer flowers to your list of simple pleasures? You could plant a few flowers in a pot for your deck, plant a small bed by your mailbox or add plants to an existing bed. The possibilities are endless!

The sun-loving flowers discussed in this article do well in our hot, humid (sometimes drought) conditions in the Piedmont. As long as you pamper your seeds or potted transplants a little the first few weeks after planting, things should go well.

If you plant from seed, read the packets carefully for directions (save them, too, so you know when the seeds are supposed to come up) and water the soil well just after planting. Remember to water the seeds every few days until the seedlings emerge. The same rules apply for plants bought from a nursery or garden center: water weIl right after planting, then every few days for about two weeks. After that, your established seedlings or plants need about 1 inch of water per week either from rain or by watering.

If you use a container for your flowers, choose at least a 10-by-10-inch pot with plenty of drainage holes and fill it with potting soil designed for containers (not garden soil). Do not put gravel at the bottom of the pot — gravel will not help drainage and may cause water to pool at the bottom, resulting in root rot.

All the selections below love sun and well-drained soil; plant them in a weed-free area that gets at least 6 hours of full sun a day where water does not pool after a rain. None of these plants like soggy roots. With our Piedmont clay soil, it is a good idea to mix 3 to 4 inches of compost into the planting area. Don’t forget to add 2 to 3 inches of mulch on top of the garden; mulch will help your plants moderate temperature and retain moisture, as well as help control weeds. There are various organic mulches you can buy, but I like to use shredded chemical-free leaves saved from my yard.

For information on soil testing, basic planting, mulches and flower bloom times, visit the Orange County Extension Master Gardener website, The Orange Gardener. The website includes links to 2 inspiring demonstration gardens in Hillsborough: the Courthouse Garden, a stormwater demonstration garden full of flowers (with an interactive map on the webpage to identify the plants), and the Gold Park Pollinator Demonstration Garden. Visit both gardens for great ideas!

Other area gardens showcasing pollinator-friendly flowers that do well in the Piedmont include the Pollinator Paradise demonstration garden at Chatham Mills in Pittsboro in Durham and the JC Raulston Arboretum in Raleigh.

Fast-growing annuals loved by pollinators

Zinnias at Carrboro Family Garden. Photo by Melissa Blackmon Kohout.

There are many varieties and cultivars of Zinnia (Zinnia) with huge ranges of colors and heights from 8 inches to 4 feet. Zinnia is best grown from seed, which germinates quickly, but it can also be grown from transplants. Resistant to deer, rabbits, heat, humidity and drought, Zinnia is susceptible to powdery mildew so leave space between plants for air circulation. Hummingbirds will drink the nectar; and songbirds will enjoy seeds from dead flowers left on the stems after blooming. Good varieties for containers include 2 disease-resistant dwarf hybrids, “Profusion Fire” and “Profusion Coral Pink.”

Common Sunflower at Carrboro Family Garden. Photo by Christine Glass-Steel

Full-sized Common Sunflower (Helianthus annuus) should be grown from seed and not in a pot — the height ranges from 18 inches to 10 feet tall! “Lemon Queen” is an easy-to-grow pollinator favorite. A dwarf cultivar, such as “Elves Blend” (16 to 24 inches tall), is a better option for a container. Common Sunflower is resistant to deer, drought and poor soil. If left on the stems, mature seeds are edible for humans, livestock and songbirds. The petals are edible too!

Mexican sunflower at Carrboro Family Garden. Photo by Melissa Blackmon Kohout

Mexican Sunflower (Tithonia rotundifolia) is also best grown from seed, which germinates quickly. The bright orange flowers are up to 3 inches in diameter and attract hummingbirds and songbirds. This plant, resistant to deer, drought, heat, neglect and dry soil, grows from 3 to 6 feet tall.

North Carolina native perennials that attract pollinators and come back year after year

Black-eyed Susans. Photo by Margaret Alford Cloud

Black-Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia fulgida) might not flower the first season if grown from seed — so be patient. Varieties such as “Goldsturm” can be bought as seeds or transplants. The plants grow 2 to 3 feet tall with yellow flowers all summer. Self-seeding Black-Eyed Susan is resistant to deer, pollution, dry soil and drought. Leave some dead flowers on stems for your songbirds.

Purple coneflower at the Pollinator Paradise Garden, Pittsboro. Photo by Melissa Blackmon Kohout

Grown from seed, Eastern Purple Coneflower (scientific name: Echinacea purpurea) germinates in 10 to 12 days and blooms in around 60 to 90 days. This plant grows 3 to 4 feet tall with up to 3-inch pinkish / purple flowers and prefers well-drained, moist loam soil (adaptable to other soil types). Eastern Purple Coneflower is a host to butterfly larvae and is resistant to deer, drought, dry soil, heat, humidity, poor soil — even salt. It is long lasting as a cut flower and it self seeds.

Butterfly weed. Photo by Melissa Blackmon Kohout

Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa) is a species of milkweed that grows 18 to 30 inches tall with bright orange flowers. It is best planted from seed, which germinates in 20 to 30 days, although it may take a year to bloom. While Butterfly Weed is a great plant for many garden spots (containers on patios, small spaces, walkways, meadows and flower beds), it doesn’t like to be moved once planted. Watch for beautiful yellow, white and black-banded monarch caterpillars on your Butterfly Weed — it’s a larvae host for butterflies, including monarchs. Caution: Be careful where you plant it; it’s slightly toxic to humans, cats, dogs and horses.

Hope you have many simple pleasures this summer! All experienced gardeners were once new gardeners so why not try growing your own flowers?

For more information on growing summer flowers, visit these resources:

We’d love to see how your summer flowers and herbs (May 6, 2021 Playing in the Dirt) are growing! Please share your photos on our Facebook page. does not charge subscription fees. You can support local journalism and our mission to serve the community. Contribute today – every single dollar matters.

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