Not every garden in the Willamette Valley has super river-bottom silty loam. If your soil sets up like concrete when it’s dry it probably holds lots of moisture in the winter. Some wonderful summer blooming perennials have a problem with that. I’m thinking in particular of the many ravishing cultivars of agastache (ag-ah-STAK-ee) and salvia that have hit the market in recent decades. Lots of them need really good drainage to over-winter reliably in our region.
If, like me, you can’t provide ideal conditions in the ground, try some in pots. Since it’s winter wet rather than cold that most often does them in, they have a better chance of coming back next year if you grow them in containers.
Lately there’s been quite an explosion of new hybrids and varieties of agastache. There are two basic types, both with spires of numerous small, tubular flowers. Agastache foeniculum (anise hyssop) is a sturdy, green-leafed perennial with lavender blue flowers. “Blue Fountain” is a superior variety. “Purple Haze” and “Rose Mint” seem to be variations on the same theme, while “Golden Jubilee” has chartreuse leaves. The excellent “Blue Fortune” is a hybrid of Agastache foeniculum x Agastache rugosa. These are hardy and pretty reliable in a variety of decent garden soils.
Real color drama comes from the group of agastache broadly known as hummingbird mint. Most are hybrids and varieties derived from species that are native to places like Texas, Arizona and New Mexico. They are called hummingbird mints for good reason, but butterflies and bees love them, too. They enjoy plenty of heat and sun and hate winter wet, and they bloom in sunny colors like apricot, red and orange. Hummingbird mints bloom for a long time if you give them plenty of sun, keep them fed and watered and cut off faded flowering spikes. It’s best to let them dry out briefly between waterings, and I’m guessing they probably prefer porous, terra cotta pots.
Hummingbird mints have a more xeric look than anise hyssop and kin: Leaves are often grayish green and tend to be small and less abundant, on thinner stems. Some newer hybrids really mix it up, however, and blur the boundary. I particularly like “Summer Fiesta,” a leafy variety with flowers in a warm, peachy red. Would it be winter-hardy in the ground? I have no idea.
The tribe of sages (genus, Salvia) is vast, with huge variation in provenance, plant size and foliage. All have more or less tubular, lipped and hooded flowers similar to agastache but with more pronounced lips and hoods. The range of flower color in salvias is large, and includes true red and true blue. Many, many types of salvia are perfectly reliable garden perennials, but wet PNW winters present a challenge to salvias that originate in drier climates, and that includes some of the most lust-inducing species. Once again, containers come to our aid.
The best salvia varieties for pots are long blooming and relatively compact, like Salvia greggii, S. microphylla and their hybrids. Sometimes known collectively as autumn sage, these are thin-stemmed, small-leafed shrubby plants that bloom through summer and fall without a break. The leaves can be intensely aromatic, and the flowers come in shades of red, purple, pink and white.
Standing out are “Hotlips” which has red flowers, white flowers and bicolored red-and-white flowers all on the same plant; and “Nuevo Leon” in gorgeous violet blue. Autumn sages grow to 3 feet or more in mild climates, but here they usually top out around 2 feet.
Some salvias grow quite tall and are suitable only for large containers. I’d choose those that are robustly upright (given ample sun) and self-supporting. “Indigo Spires” is a good one, with abundant gray-green foliage. Pineapple sage is especially sturdy and bushy, with healthy green leaves and an endless supply of scarlet flowers. It reaches 3 or 4 feet with ease.
Like agastaches, salvias are generally lovers of sun and heat, but a few salvias perform as well or better with a bit of shade. I never come across plants of Salvia patens, revered in Britain for its big, true-blue flowers, but seeds are available. Salvia coccinea is treated as an annual and is easy to find as cultivars with white, coral pink or red flowers — as pure a red as any salvia. They are nice bushy plants with slightly hairy, fresh green leaves. My favorite is “Lady in Red.” “Forest Flame” is similar but not quite so generous with its flowers.