Sunday, March 6, 2011

Singin' the Blues

Breathe new life into a purple and gold color scheme
by adding a touch of blue
Shelley garden.

I know chartreuse foliage is all the rage – and has been for about ten years now, but I find myself increasingly drawn to the blues. They nicely break up swathes of green yet don’t startle one quite so much as a sudden blast of lime green.

Blue tones are adaptable to both softer color palettes such as lavender, white and pink or can be used to add contrast to oranges and reds to make them zing.

Of course as with chocolate, you can definitely have too much of a good thing and at a distance blues can appear very grey. Yet when used as an accent or perhaps to link one color scheme to another, glaucous foliage can offer a welcome change from the more predictable purple or chartreuse options. They also provide a more natural color partner for transition zones between the cultivated areas of a garden to a forested backdrop, particularly useful in larger landscapes.

Big, bold and blue

Blue hued hostas combine with blue fescue grass. The delicate
 white flowers are from Sichuan deutzia (Deutzia setchuenensis var. corymbiflora)
 which add confetti-like charm to the combination.
Shelley garden
This makes me immediately think of the larger blue hostas such as ‘Love Pat’ with its heavily quilted, cup shaped foliage, ‘Krossa Regal’ which stands tall enough to be underplanted and the smoky blue H. sieboldiana ‘Elegans’, the Big Daddy of the blue hostas reaching up to 6’ in diameter. All thrive in shade and the blue varieties are typically less prone to slug damage.

Look at the way the purple vein in
this ornamental cabbage repeats
the color of the verbena flower.
The rich barberry foliage adds depth.
Shelley garden
For sunny areas and containers look to the honey bush (Melianthus major) whose deeply toothed leaves smell like peanut butter when crushed – really! I love combining this with bright red ‘Lucifer’ crocosmia or darker leaved cannas such as ‘King Roy’ for a tropical look.

Cabbages are smelly and unlike most Seattleites I do not understand the desire to place one by the front door as a fall decoration. However I was impressed by the way Peggy and Al Shelley of Woodinville, WA incorporated ornamental varieties into their sweeping borders, using them as accents but also pairing them with purple barberry (Berberis species) where they appeared like giant blue roses blooming amongst the shrubs.

Blue spikes

 'Lovesick blues' has a much
softer texture than other rushes.
Photo credit; Walla Walla nursery.

It’s easy to add spiky texture with blue plants as there are several lovely blue toned grasses readily available. One of my favorites is the mounding blue oat grass (Helictotrichon sempervirens) which takes sun or part shade and is more reliable here in the Seattle area than the more commonly used blue fescue (Festuca glauca). The latter often struggles with wet winters and excessive cold, needing to be replaced every three years or so. The blue oat grass on the other hand has stronger blades, is a brighter steel blue and just keeps getting bigger and better.

For wet areas you can’t go wrong with the rushes (Juncus species). The varieties ‘Lovesick blues' and ‘Occidental Blue’ are a blue-grey while ‘Blue Medusa’ creates a bad hair day look with its tangle of curly blue stems.

Perhaps one of my favorite blue grasses is ‘Dallas Blues’ switch grass (Panicum virgatum) which grows 6-7’ tall with bright powder blue foliage and pink plumes. I love clumps of these breaking up groups of the golden black eyed Susan daisies (Rudbeckia ‘Goldsturm’) as a late summer combo.

This conifer 'Blue surpise' false cypress reinforces the blue,
lilac and white color scheme
My design
 Finer textures

I think my love affair with blue began with my discovery of blue conifers. Sadly the Colorado blue spruce (Picea pungens) is not a good choice for those of us in Western Washington as the winters are not cold enough to kill off the notorious spruce aphids. These little insects can wreak havoc causing significant needle drop which leaves the interior brown and bare. It is possible to spray the tree with a horticultural oil to kill off the insects but since this also strips the waxy blue coating off the needles it is somewhat self defeating. So if it’s blue conifers you fancy consider ‘Feeling blue’ cedar (Cedrus deodara) with its spreading groundcover  habit, or the more compact ‘Blue star’ juniper (Juniperus squamata) which I find associates well with burgundy leaved weeping Japanese maples. ‘Blue Surprise’ false cypress (Chamaecyparis lawsoniana) has become a favorite conifer of mine for tight narrow spaces both in the ground and containers. Its striking feathery blue foliage takes on a plum cast in winter. If you have more space look to one of the blue toned pines such as ‘Vanderwolf’s Pyramid’ limber pine (Pinus flexilis) with its silvery blue teddy-bear needles. This slow growing tree eventually reaches 30-50’. Gorgeous.

Other favorites

I’m trying to limit myself to hardy plants but I just have to mention two of my favorite tender blue succulents. Those of you who manage to keep houseplants alive can overwinter these easily. Personally I have to accept that my green thumb ends abruptly at the front door. 

The succulent Senecio 'Blue chalk fingers' adds color and texture
My design
Echeveria ‘Metallica’ has striking silvery blue rosettes blushed with pink while senecio ‘Blue chalk fingers’ (Senecio vitalis) pokes powdery blue succulent fingers out from its base. I love these with hot pink geraniums and lilac/white verbena in a summer container where they add an unexpected textural quality to an otherwise flower dominated group.

So if you need to mix it up a bit, add some blue foliage to the garden. It will bring out the softer tones of purple companions, harmonize well with pinks and cool down chartreuse. Consider it a shopportunity.

For a great book on foliage including blue tones you won't do better than  Foliage by Nancy Ondra. 


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