Sunday, November 28, 2010

Top 5 (or 6) favorite conifers for small gardens

Not everyone has room for a towering deodar cedar or Scots pine, both of which can reach 100’. However there are some beautiful conifers of a more restrained nature which fit beautifully into smaller landscapes, rockeries or containers. Not only are (most of them) evergreen, but they offer structure for the winter garden with their varied shapes and foliage types. Here are some of my favorites.

Chamaecyparis 'Wissel's saguaro'
Chamaecyparis l. ‘Wissel’s saguaro’ (Wissel’s saguaro false cypress); perfect for the narrowest garden or container this has become my signature tree in small garden design. The foliage is a rich blue-green and it is positively huggable with its saguaro-like arms. It grows about 4” per year and will eventually reach 8’ but stays less than 2’ wide.

Picea abies ‘Little Gem’ (‘Little gem’ Norway spruce); a nice little dumpling of a conifer making a tidy, flattened mound about 18” tall x 2’ wide. Very slow growing.

'Rheingold ' arborvitae

Thuja o. ‘Rheingold’ (‘Rheingold’ arborvitae); there are plenty of golden conifers but I like the coppery tones of this mounding arborvitae which become even deeper in the winter. Mature size is 3’-4’ tall and wide. Lovely near a coral bark maple tree in winter where the red maple branches will relate to the rich conifer foliage.

Cedrus d. ‘Feelin’ blue’ (‘Feelin’ blue’ deodar cedar); a prostrate variety of one of my favorite cedars. There is a wonderful blue cast to the prickly foliage of this weeping conifer. It is slow growing to 2’ tall and may eventually reach 4’ wide but can easily be kept smaller. Can be used as a groundcover but also associates beautifully with large boulders and red leaved maples. You may also find it available as a weeping standard tree.

Amazing cones on Hortsmann's Silberlocke fir
Abies koreana ‘Hortsmann’s Silberlocke’ (Hortsmann’s Silberlocke fir). One of the most striking features of this specimen are its upward curving needles with silvery undersides, making the whole tree look as though it is dusted with snow. It is slow growing, eventually reaching 5’ wide x 15’ tall. The purple cones stand upright on the branches and form when the tree is still quite young. A lovely accent tree for the garden or container.

Pinus strobus 'Blue shag' shows off its soft draping form 
beautifully in this container.
There are so many others it was hard to narrow it down to just five! Well I couldn’t; I have to add this last one Pinus strobus 'Blue shag' ('Blue shag' eastern white pine). My friend JoAnn has this growing in a container and as you can see the gently mounding pine perfectly compliments the elegant shape of the bowl. I keep telling her that if she comes home one day and finds it has disappeared it will have found a new home with me! This is so tactile you absolutely cannot walk past it without stopping to stroke the soft blue-green needles. It’s as soft as a teddy bear. Stunning.

If you’d like to explore other possibilities check out Gardening with Conifers by British author and conifer expert Adrian Bloom. Great photography, good ideas for combining conifers with other plants and accurate cultural information.

See you at the nurseries!

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Garden clippings

Created with love
This is the time of year when I had hoped to share with you creative table decorating ideas for Thanksgiving  in true Martha Stewart style. You know the sort of thing; perfectly dried and pressed maple leaves scattered artfully across the starched white linen tablecloth (mine are all brown mush – the leaves not the tablecloth), miniature pumpkins and gourds freshly picked from the organic vegetable patch (Blue Jays really liked the squash…) and vases filled with berried stems, interesting leaves and the last few fall flowers (hmmm between the deer, the rabbits and the recent rainstorms the pickings are pretty darned slim out there).

Well Martha I’m a failure. I’ll never be able to assemble a towering display of fruit and flowers without them all crashing down like a fruit salad puree, nor carve a pumpkin to look like a turkey (nor carve a turkey to look like a turkey for that matter), nor able to cook and serve a sumptuous gourmet Thanksgiving feast for 20, with make up perfectly intact, not a single bead of sweat on my brow, no lumps in the gravy and Brussels sprouts cooked so perfectly that even my son will eat them (well ok that’s going a bit far. Not even Martha could swing that one). BUT I can at least bring a little something in from the garden to decorate the table in a very non-Martha-style. Oh yes, that’s right…….the rabbits.

The base was filled with hazelnut shells
(borrowed from our path!)
When all else fails we can cheat. Buy a little something, add a little something and keep it simple.

This time last year we had just moved into our new home and were in the throes of a total remodel. We had unpacked very little apart from camping-level necessities while the builders ripped walls and ceilings to the studs, re-wired, re-plumbed and re-built everything you can think of. Our kitchen was a disaster with counters consisting of plywood sheets wrapped in freezer paper and everything was covered with thick layers of dust and grit. Not exactly conducive to gourmet cooking let alone inspiring for grand floral design!

However my wonderful daughter took charge and brought home a lovely bunch of sunflowers. Then she found a pair of scissors (no small feat) and went off to see what she could find outside. All it took were a few fern fronds, clippings from the cedar trees, lichen-encrusted branches which had fallen to the ground plus a few curly willow branches and we had our centerpiece. Since our vases were still in boxes ‘somewhere’ Katie improvised with a Mason jar. It was perfect and reflected what the holiday is about; the love of family and appreciation for the harvest we have enjoyed.

Other ideas? Fill a hurricane vase with nuts add a few tiny leaves or fern fronds and nestle a fat candle into the midst. Or make napkin rings by wrapping vines such as honeysuckle or Wisteria around a rolling pin and twisting the ends together. (It's easier if you soak it for half an hour first then allow it to dry on the rolling pin). Insert the napkin and add a small piece of greenery for color. You can also insert a single flower into a water filled florists tube. Then hide the tube within the fold of the napkin as you insert it into the napkin ring so that just the flower shows. Small flowered chrysanthemums are perfect for this.

So there you have it. Thanksgiving from the garden for the ‘garden challenged’.

Now you have time to start on that ice sculpture of the pilgrims to greet your guests as they arrive……..

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

When is a meadow not a meadow?

Head height reed canary grass
Photo courtesy of One Thousand Words Photography
On a sunny August day last year my husband and I smiled at each other as we watched the swallows dip and dive over the meadow which swayed gently in the breeze. Perfection. I had even put ‘meadow’ on our wish list when we started hunting for the perfect property but had never even dared to hope that we would find one. Yet we had found everything; 5 flat acres, a big barn, an organic vegetable garden, a modest house and……….a meadow. What else could we possibly want?

Probably a copy of Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast which would have told me that the ‘grass’ was actually the thug ‘reed canary grass’, growing well over 6’ tall and with the constitution of bamboo; the really BIG sort of bamboo that pandas eat. What’s the matter with tall grass you wonder? Well have you ever tried to mow bamboo? Or tried to machete your way through a jungle? That’s how bad it is. I may need to attach a GPS to our dog so we can track him!

Photo courtesy of
One Thousand Words Photography
Before my romantic vision was shattered I had devoured Christopher Lloyd’s book Meadows and started making notes on the hundreds of blue Camassia bulbs I would plant and how we would manage the meadow in such a way as to enable the native wildflowers to grow again. I was so excited!

Then it rained…….. and rained ………..and rained. Actually even for Seattle this was rain in monsoon proportions. Our water woes are the subject for another day, but I began to realize that the wettest areas had the thickest stands of reed canary grass. And I’m talking standing water here, not just a little damp. So now my rosy tinted meadow was an impenetrable wet jungle. Great.

I’ve had a year to think this through and I think I’ve come up with a plan that is realistic. Our wet meadow will remain just that. I have asked my husband to bushwhack a small trail through it just so that I can explore, but otherwise it will be home for the pacific tree frogs and salamanders. At times it also becomes a ‘wildlife freeway’ with deer, coyotes, a cougar and a resident bear strolling through. The trade off is that I will fight that grass to the death in a relatively small area close to the house which I want to make into a showcase mixed border. It will take a considerable amount of work to tackle drainage, remove the grass roots and amend the soil but I think it will be worth it.

So I still have my meadow, and so will the assorted wildlife. But I’ll have my garden dreams too.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Through A Child's Eyes

Simple pleasures
Whenever I design a garden I aim to create an ‘experience’ not just something to be observed. To me that typically means including meandering paths with a few surprises tucked around corners, the sound of water, fragrance, birdsong (including dive bombing hummingbirds!) and a seating nook or two in the shade to quietly sit and soak in the atmosphere.

I want ladybug wellies too!
I was given a lesson recently by an adorable three year old little girl, who showed me what a garden was really all about. Lilly is the daughter of my good friend and award winning photographer Ashley DeLatour of 'One Thousand Words Photography' and all these wonderful pictures are examples of her artistry.

Checking for frogs...

Standing water in a garden is a source of concern to me as I consider how to address drainage problems. I immediately adjust my potential plant list to exclude those that insist on sandy soil and seek instead moisture loving varieties. Not Lilly. To her this is a chance to go puddle jumping! Just put on the cute wellies and jump as high and as hard as you can. After all when else do you get such a good excuse to get soaking wet while fully clothed? Nice deep puddles might have frogs however (I explained to her how tiny our pacific tree frogs were) so she was very careful to check carefully before she jumped….

What could be more glorious than swinging on a big tire under the canopy of a towering Douglas fir tree? It offers a whole new perspective and who cares about all the needles and cones that clog up gutters?

When ‘grown up’s come to visit our garden-in-the-making I am immediately apologetic about the weeds, straggly grass and significant lack of nice plants as we tackle our huge landscaping projects. Lilly didn’t notice any of that. Her pleasure was taken from much simpler things. She didn’t need to be wowed by a stunning plant combination, nor have a trampoline or sand box to play with. She just needed the freedom to explore.

Our tire swing is available to all ages…….

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Garden Invaders & How To Evict Them.

Sign by Stonewall Jackson Elementary School, Dallas TX

Dandelions? Buttercup? Easy-peasy, just get a long knife and pull up the roots. If you want to talk about serious invaders hell bent on taking over the earth then meet my nemeses; Bishops weed, mint and St. Johns wort. Oh yes, I have all three in great abundance in my new garden. What to do? I can either post a disclaimer at the gate which reads ‘Wildscape’ or go to war. I have chosen the latter.

Bishops weed


St. John's wort

Here’s my plan of attack.

  1. Dig up and throw out any perennial, tree or shrub that is so congested with the roots of these horrors that there is just no way to separate them. Brutal but realistic. Choose your battles.
  2. Any plants which look as though they can be saved will be shaken or washed down to bare roots then placed in a temporary quarantine (in my case a corner of the vegetable plot) until I am sure they are clean. That will probably mean until late next summer.
  3. Nuke the heck out of the soil. CRIMINAL! OUTRAGEOUS! I hear you say, and I would agree with you. However my other option is to spend the rest of my days digging up every tiny piece of root and frankly my chiropractor earns enough. I also intend to stay here for the rest of my life so I don’t plan to be out there with my walking frame aged 90 still fighting them. So I will buy Round Up (wearing a suitable disguise in case anyone recognizes me), which is the least nasty of the non-selective herbicides and spray as many times as necessary until no more offspring are evident. That could easily take a full 12 months and 3-4 treatments.
  4. At that point I’ll amend the soil and re-plant those things which proved themselves worthy.

In answer to your question “why don’t you add cardboard and cover with 6-8” mulch to smother the weeds?” my answer is simple. For some weeds it works, for these it’s not enough. Trust me.

A good friend calls this the ‘safe and sane approach’. You use organics whenever you can and the least toxic option when you can’t. Maintain your gardening sanity.

Is anyone else on the warpath?

PS. Enjoying this blog? Use the links below to email this article to a friend or share on Facebook or Twitter. I bet they have weeds too!

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Winter Garden; Bark and Berries

Designing a garden with year round interest encourages us to get outside no matter what the weather. The texture and color of bark and stems and the colors and shapes of berries and hips can inspire new ideas for the winter garden, adding an additional layer of interest to the backbone of conifers and evergreen shrubs. Here are a few of my favorites.

River birches look particularly stunning near water

River birch (Betula nigra), often a multi stemmed shrub, has the most incredible bark which peels off in papery curls, revealing inner layers of cinnamon and salmon. Although it does not need wet soil it copes well with it, making it a good choice for my garden!

Japanese stewartia

The vivid lightening bolt patterns in shades of grey, orange and red sets the exfoliating bark of Japanese stewartia (Stewartia pseudocamellia) apart. This special tree has many virtues – it is relatively pest and disease free, has exquisite white camellia-like blossoms in mid summer when few other trees are in flower, and greets autumn with shades of red and purple. Gorgeous.

Midwinter Fire dogwood seems to glow in the winter sun

Shown off to advantage in winter a favorite shrub of mine is ‘Midwinter fire’ twig dogwood (Cornus sericea), whose branches burn in shades of deep red to orange and yellow. These look amazing planted en masse against a dark green backdrop of conifers or Camellia ‘Yuletide’ whose red and yellow flowers would repeat the colors of the dogwood stems.

Glossy berries of the Red-leaf rose
The evergreen shrub Parney cotoneaster (Cotoneaster lacteus) is attractive in all seasons with its gentle fountain shape, heavily textured green leaves revealing a silvery underside and clusters of white summer flowers. It tolerates part shade even though it prefers full sun and is covered with hanging clusters of red berries all winter. Or at least it is until the birds find them!

Other berry and hip producing shrubs you might like include ‘Profusion’ beautyberry (Callicarpa bodinieri var. giraldii), firethorn (Pyracantha koidzumii), wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens), prickly heath (Pernettya mucronata), rugosa rose and the red-leaf rose (Rosa glauca).

Additional trees and shrubs with colored stems include maple trees such as paperbark maple (Acer griseum), snake bark maple (Acer capillipes) and coral bark maple (Acer p. ‘Sango Kaku’) and yellow twig dogwood (Cornus species).

So think beyond boxwood and spruce trees; bring some fresh ideas into your winter garden.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Winter containers that shine in the shade.

When asked to replant shady container gardens for fall and winter the most common request is for COLOR! Having enjoyed tropical bromeliads, begonias and sweet potato vines all summer, the options for winter seem very dull in comparison. The solution is to get creative!

Aucuba with autumn fern and branches of bittersweet (berries) just stuck into the soil!

Shady containers are definitely challenging, yet with forethought you can still have colorful flowers, fragrance, hummingbird favorites and even a few spring bulbs. Admittedly in very deep shade things do get a little trickier but here are a few of my favorites for partial shade; typically dappled or filtered light in the morning followed by shade in the afternoon.

Orange hair sedge in shade container

Camellia ‘Yuletide’  is smothered with single red blooms each having a large central boss of yellow stamens. Hummingbirds love to investigate this one! Underplant with the glossy evergreen Leucothoe ‘Rainbow’ to repeat the red, yellow and green with its wonderful color-splashed leaves and maybe the box honeysuckle ‘Baggesens Gold’ (Lonicera nitida) for a finer texture. Mahonia ‘Charity’ is another great shrub for the main feature plant of winter containers. Bright yellow, shuttlecock flowers exude a scent for us to enjoy and nectar that hummingbirds fight over. A low carpet of the coral bells ‘Tiramisu’ (Heuchera) adds a new leaf shape  with its bright leaves decorated with an intricate network of red veins. I have found this to be one of the most bullet proof varieties for clients who tend to forget the ‘small detail’ of watering! Another tough, evergreen shrub that will tolerate forgetfulness and extreme shade is Aucuba. Several green and yellow variegated varieties are available including ‘Gold Dust’, sure to brighten up the darkest spots. I like to add wispy grasses under this such as orange hair sedge (Carex testacea) which adds warmth with its olive green and orange toned foliage. Although it is happier in sunnier spots it will cope for the winter in shade.
Coral bells 'Tiramisu'

Most spring bulbs such as tulips and daffodils need sun but crocus and snowdrops will take some shade. A great way to ‘cheat’ though is to purchase pots of already blooming bulbs such as Hyacinths or Tete a Tete daffodils when they become available in February and nestle them in the foliage of the existing planting. Don’t even bother to take them out of the pot. Then they can easily be replaced when the blooms are finished.

So head to the nurseries and add some sparkle to that shady corner! (Tell then Karen sent you…………)