Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Add Late Season Color with Hardy Hibiscus

'Red heart' hibiscus may look tropical but its delicious blooms are hardy
to zone 5.
Photo credit; Green Express

I’m cold. My hands are cold, my toes are cold and my nose is cold. Having been toasting nicely in Indianapolis for a few days where the temperatures stayed in the mid 80s, the current Seattle high of 70’ has me huddled indoors in warm clothes. I realize its all relative, but I have to acknowledge that our summer days are numbered. The garden is in its final hurrah with coneflowers (Echinacea), black eyed Susan’s (Rudbeckia) and ornamental grasses dominating the plant palette and the container gardens are pushing out their last reserves with a blast of color from begonia ‘Bonfire’, trailing geraniums (Black magic has been a favorite this year) and jewel toned million bells (Calibrachoa). However, a good friend recently reminded me of another late season star which is under utilized – the hardy hibiscus (Hibiscus syriacus).
Pristine white flowers adorn this
variety - Diana.
Photo credit; Bill Johnson

In the USA this deciduous shrub is typically called Rose of Sharon. Beware of common names, however, as in the UK and Australia ‘Rose of Sharon’ refers to an entirely different plant; Hypericum calycinum, which in turn is known as St. John’s Wort here in the USA. Confused yet? Stick to ‘hardy Hibiscus’ and you’ll do alright!

Typically these old fashioned shrubs grow 6-8’ tall and 4-6’ wide and bloom best in full sun. They are undemanding, tolerate wet soil, are usually ignored by deer and attract hummingbirds. Hardy in zones 5-8 they give a restrained tropical look to temperate gardens.
'Bluebird' - everyone's favorite.
Photo credit; Richard Bloom

The heirloom variety ‘Bluebird’ offers intense blue-purple single flowers with a darker velvety eye. Monrovia now sells these as grafted plants which are more vigorous than those grown on their own rootstock.

For a romantic combination surround ‘Bluebird’ with whirling butterflies (Gaura lindheimeri), letting the delicate white and pink flowers dance around the base of the shrub in the breeze.

A real magnet for hummingbirds with its ruby red throat is the larger ‘Red heart’ variety. This 8-12’ tall shrub can get to 8’ wide so give it some room to stretch. A mass of purple fountain grass (Pennisetum setaceum ‘Rubrum’) at its feet would echo the throat color of this otherwise all-white bloom.

There are several double flowered varieties including the soft pink ‘Blushing bride’ and the lilac ‘Blue Chiffon’. These have a more open blowsy look to the petals rather than the typical tubular flowers.

Hardy hibiscus are best placed at the back of a border where they can take over the flowering display from earlier blooming shrubs such as lilac or be used to form colorful combinations with tall, late season perennials such as ‘Gateway’ Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium purpureum). When spaced 6’ apart they can also be used as a seasonal screen or hedge.
'Blushing bride' shows off her ruffles
Photo credit; Monrovia

So if your late season borders need some new life consider adding height and color with this old fashioned, trouble free shrub. Hibiscus can form a backdrop to mid-sized perennials, completing a power packed vignette to end the season.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Patio Design Ideas

This Yin-Yang design has it all; a flagstone patio with seating for friends,
a firepit for toasting mashmallows and and adjacent garden border
filled with a tapestry of textures including fragrant thyme.
Fisher residence, Woodinville, WA. Design by Artegos Designs.
Sitting in the garden is one of my favorite pastimes, although admittedly one that I rarely seem to manage with all the landscape renovations in progress. Yet it is these contemplative, restful moments with friends or alone that enable me to appreciate the surrounding sights and sounds of the garden.

Decks, balconies or even a grassy nook can serve in this way yet patios may offer the greatest flexibility in terms of materials, size, shape and style. As I have had the opportunity to visit and photograph many gardens I have been inspired by the creativity of others and thought I would share some of these ideas with you.


Gravel is undoubtedly the cheapest option with crunchy pea gravel, decomposed granite or compacted rockdust all being options. Where a landscape project needs to be completed in phases the latter can serve not just as an interim patio but also as base for stone to be installed later.
Concrete pavers are available in many colors, finishes, sizes and shapes from small cobblestones to large squares. Several companies offer kits for interlocking cobblestone pavers making more elaborate patio designs within easy reach of the DIY homeowner. Hydrapressed concrete pavers are an option which offers exceptional durability and strength. 
36" x 18" bluestone set with 3" of decorative stone
My design
Poured concrete slab is functional if perhaps not always the most attractive choice but with the options now for custom coloring and stamping it is possible to achieve the look of stone pavers and flagstone at a fraction of the cost.
Flagstones are irregularly shaped natural stones, often split using the natural clefts so the surface is somewhat even. These give an informal look with the joints being filled with sand, groundcover or mortared. There is also a polymer available for this purpose which looks like sand but when misted with water sets up hard, making an effective weed barrier.
Dimensional stone is natural stone which has been cut to specific sizes by machine such as 12” x 12” or 36” x 18”. With many sizes available you have the ability to design intricate patterns or to keep it simple. Many stone yards have free design sheets to help you select a pattern and calculate how many of each size you need.
Brick needs to be frost proof to be a suitable choice for a patio in colder areas so check your source carefully. They blend well with traditional architecture yet seem equally at home in a more informal setting. Shady courtyards immediately come to mind, graced with clipped boxwood edging symmetrical borders, brick pathways and stone benches, perhaps with black wrought iron railings and a central fountain.  There a timeless elegance about such a composition.
Love it! This spiral design acts as a focal point for the
entire back garden as well as a stage for annual music
Fisher residence, Woodinville. WA.
Design by Artegos Designs.

Checkerboards, herringbone, fans, circles, squares and rectangles are just a few of the possibilities. The individual units can be set close together or spaced with more significant joints. Sand, mortar, decorative stones, groundcovers (e.g. moss, thyme, blue star creeper, grass) can all be used to separate the blocks, adding both texture and interest.

Finishing touches
A simple raised border around this concrete paver patio
creates a welcoming space for this community center.

Patios are set at ground level rather than raised like a balcony or deck but that doesn’t mean it has to be completely exposed to the rest of the garden. Partially surrounding the patio with a raised border provides a sense of enclosure – important in a large garden but equally inviting in smaller spaces. I think of these as ‘arms’ which wrap around the sitting area. Planting these with lavender or other fragrant plants adds an additional element to the experience. One alternative might be to surround the patio with a grove of trees which act as pillars and give a sense of place.
Pergolas and gazebos can be added overhead to add vertical dimension, provide shade, create interesting shadows or simply make more of a statement. These may be over the entire patio or just one section, suggesting different rooms within the single space, each with a unique function such as dining and lounging.
Containers – bring the garden onto the patio with colorful container gardens. Match the color scheme to that of your soft furnishings.
Who needs to go on vacation? This tropical enclave 
offers a pool, raised planters filled with lush foliage
and a stone patio with a pergola overhead for shade.
Wolford residence, Dallas, TX
Fire pits, hot tubs, pools, outdoor kitchens and built in seating can take a simple patio to the next level, transforming the space into a four season destination.

Look at your existing patio and see if there is a way you can enhance it to make it more inviting and extend its usefulness. If you are about to embark on such a project (as we are) spend some time brainstorming different ideas to ultimately create something not just functional but is an expression of who you are.

Design resources

The Art & Craft of Stonescaping by David Reed (book) 

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Feed your soil, not your plants

A simple detergent test enabled me to determine
what the composition of my proposed topsoil was.

If you’ve been gardening for any length of time at all you will know that your plants are only as good as your soil. Yet what does that mean? What is ‘good’ soil?

Soil is made up of three basic components; sand, silt and clay plus organic matter. Not all plants want the same amount of each; for example drought tolerant Russian sage (Perovskia sp.) needs sandier soil while Japanese maples need a well balanced mix plus plenty of well rotted organic matter to thrive. Understanding what you have can drive your plant choices, help you diagnose problems or enable you to amend the soil in such a way as to promote healthier growth.

The aim of this post is not to present a definitive essay on soil biology. Rather I want to show you how thumbs of all colors can do two simple soil tests to gain a better understanding of their soil type.

Preparing the soil sample.

Scrape away the top 1-2” soil, dig down 6” and remove approx 1 cup of soil. Do this in at least three different spots in the area you are testing, mix them together and use this as your sample. Remove any stones or twigs – sift if necessary.

If your soil sample looks like a piece of
potters clay - it probably is!
Photo credit; The Nature of Framingham
The Squeeze Test.

Squeeze together a handful of soil for a few seconds. If it makes a solid shape which does not easily fall apart when prodded this indicates your soil is easily compacted and will have poor aeration; typically this suggests a clay soil but could also have a high proportion of silt. If the soil does not hold a form at all, it is mostly sand which will drain very freely but has little moisture retentive properties. Finally if the soil holds a form which crumbles when prodded then you have a good mix – commonly called loam.

The Detergent Test.

Add 1 cup of soil to a straight sided jar such as a Mason jar. Add 1 tspn of dishwashing detergent and fill the jar with water. Shake thoroughly for 3 minutes then leave undisturbed for at least 24 hours. The detergent acts as a surfactant, keeping the particles separated to allow sedimentation.

The largest sand particles will drop first followed by silt, then clay with organic matter floating at the top of the water. There are some interesting calculations you can do using a soil texture triangle (see references) to determine exactly what soil type you have, but for general purposes it is enough to simply know the ratios of each component. If the sand and silt are each approx. 40% with 20% clay and a decent amount of organic matter you have great soil! As this ratio shifts you may want to consider amending your soil.
What we'd all like; dark, crumbly loam.

Easy solutions

If you have predominantly sandy soil, add 2” of compost or other organic matter onto the soil surface each year. As the earthworms mix it into the native soil, the compost will improve the moisture and nutrient retention properties of the soil. You will slowly see your soil change from a light brown to a richer color as the worms work their magic over the course of a few years.

If your soil is either clay or predominantly silt it will not drain easily and be poorly aerated. Clay particles are very small so pack tightly together forming an impervious barrier in winter and cracking like a hard, dry river bed in summer. By adding organic matter these clay particles are pushed apart and the water can percolate. Some gardeners like to add coarse sand to clay soil to improve drainage but be careful; clay + sand = CEMENT! Always add plenty of compost. This is often all that is necessary but you can add some coarse sand in addition to compost.

So if your plants are ailing do some investigating rather than throw fertilizers at them or spray ‘just in case’ there is an infection or hidden bugs. If several plants in one area are doing poorly this could be a strong indicator that the soil is the problem. Perhaps plants are drowning in winter  but suffering from summer drought? If possible check the roots at this point to see if they are healthy and white or brown and mushy from rotting which would confirm the suspicion that saturated soil is the culprit.
An example of root damage caused
by voles.
Photo credit

Looking at the roots may also reveal a different problem; I have lost four hyssop (Agastache sp.) recently to voles chomping away! They must like the herbal smell. (Voles will often use mole tunnels to find plant roots or vegetables to eat, whereas moles are hunting primarily for grubs. It seems we have an abundance of both!) At least the voles will have fresh breath...

There is another use for these tests. I need to bring in a LOT of topsoil for our new garden borders but have to be very careful not to tip the balance of our already poorly draining land. I therefore ran these tests on topsoil samples to see if I needed to add more or less of any component. I have elected to go with a mix that has a well balanced sand:silt:clay ratio  and just a small percentage of moisture retentive compost. I’m going to amend the planting holes with additional compost as I go rather than adding an excessive amount to the topsoil itself. Understanding what my soil needs and what the new topsoil offers enables me to make considered choices and provide optimum growing conditions for my new plants.

Just to be clear, I always advocate the ‘right plant, right place’ approach and wouldn’t amend a large bed of solid clay soil just so I could grow lavender for example. However, when previously healthy plants steadily decline or new plants never seem to get going, knowing how to analyze your soil could save you a lot of frustration and money.

Additional references and resources;

'How is your soil texture?' by Wayne Cahilly; a great article which includes the soil texture triangle.

'Improving clay soils' by Keith Baldwin; another first rate article from Fine Gardening. Well written and with accurate scientific information in everyday language.

pH test kits - widely available at nurseries if you want to determine how acidic/alkaline your soil is. If the pH is too low or too high the minerals in the soil are not readily available to the plants which causes its own set of problems.

Professional soil testing - to get accurate information on the levels of minerals, trace elements, pH and more. For WA State residents this is provided by the Washington State University Cooperative Extension Service, as well as private laboratories. Each State has its own cooperative extension service, usually found in the government section of the white pages. Test results take 1-3 weeks.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Reducing maintenance (and back ache) in the garden

Many shrubs offer just as much color as flowers - but with less work

Do you have young children at home? Are you a busy professional? Have you realized that you’re not as young as you used to be? Then this post is for you.

Life gets busy and we get older – two indisputable facts. For those of us who want to have a nice garden both these facts can cause extreme frustration perhaps even more so when we actually love to work in the garden.

My Mum, now 82, refers to herself not as old but as a ‘recycled teenager’! She has always had a beautiful garden but is finding the weeding, digging and planting much harder than it used to be. I may not have reached that age but I can agree that I take far more Ibuprofen now after moving rocks than I did 20 years ago. Determined not to give up, but to find a way to continue to enjoy gardening I was pleased to discover the book ‘Gardening for a Lifetime’ by Sydney Eddison.

Now on her own, with her health and strength not what it was, Sydney needed to re-think her garden design and maintenance. Her ideas and gleanings are some we can all learn from, no matter where we are in life or what our circumstances may be. Here are a few of the ways she is simplifying her gardening.

An English garden can be a lot of work,
or plant choices can be modified to
use easier perennials and more shrubs.
Reduce perennials and replace with colorful shrubs. Sydney had extensive perennial borders in true English fashion, but had to admit that they took up far too much of her time with dead-heading, dividing and cutting down in fall. She took a ruthless approach and removed a great many, replacing them with shrubs such as variegated dogwoods which gave colorful foliage and winter interest. 

If the lawn looks green, call it good. A golf course may look attractive but the time, money and chemicals needed to achieve and then maintain it just aren’t worth it. Stop being such a perfectionist! Maybe you don't need a lawn at all? 

Get help when you need it. Establish a budget; decide how many hours help you can afford per week then find the right person to do the heavy duty jobs. Leave yourself the creative, fun things but let someone else climb the ladders to prune the roses (or better still replace the roses with something that doesn’t need tying in, deadheading, pruning and spraying).
Roses are beautiful - but are you willing 
(or able) to coddle them?

Make lists. A Master list of what you would like to accomplish during the next year will help keep you focused. A more immediate ‘to do’ list will enable you to do quick simple tasks when you have a few minutes available, and then get the satisfaction of checking that off the list. (I have been known to write something on my list just so I can cross it off!) These lists will also help you communicate effectively with garden help and make the most of their time.  

Pick your battles – managing mature plants. Plants grow. They also do not read the labels which say ‘mature height 10’. Mature by whose standards? After how many years? When something gets too big for its allotted space and begins to become a maintenance nightmare it’s probably time to cut it down or take it out. Larger varieties of groundcover junipers are a case in point. When they start to swallow  small passing children – get rid of them. (The junipers, not the children).

    I am in the fortunate position of designing our garden from scratch. The few existing trees and shrubs for the most part will be fine although a few Leyland cypress will be a challenge. I am therefore taking to heart Sydney’s advice and indeed have already come to many of the same conclusions. I have ripped out mountains of daylilies to be replaced with colorful grasses and low conifers. 
    'Rozanne' geranium makes the list, thanks to
    its long bloom time and non-promiscuous

    Phlox and self seeding varieties of hardy geraniums weren’t worth battling with so will give way to better behaved geraniums such as ‘Rozanne’ and variegated weigela. The moles make sure we never consider ‘lawn’ a possibility – we think more in terms of varying degrees of pasture and meadow. And I’m trying hard to choose the ‘right plant for the right place’; deer and rabbit resistant, drought tolerant (our well water is a precious commodity) and appropriate size.

    When I reach recycled teenager status I’ll let you know how I’ve got on. For now I’m determined to plan wisely and enjoy my garden; being its Master, not its slave.

    Wednesday, August 17, 2011

    The REALLY Big & Bold

    Prehistoric looking Gunnera is perfectly placed by a pond.
    Bloedel Reserve, WA

    I find myself drawn to big leaves. (Maybe it’s because my eyesight isn’t as good as it used to be and these are hard to miss!)

    With our new garden being so much larger than I am used to (5 acres), many of the plantings are viewed from a distance. I therefore have to make sure that any plants, combinations or vignettes I add are large enough either in scale or mass to be seen and appreciated from 100’ away or more. Whereas in our previous gardens a simple combination of 1 fern, 1 Heuchera and 1 grass could make an attractive group, these would just disappear into a general ‘mush’ now. However, even increasing the quantities of each won’t make a statement necessarily if none of the leaves individually have a presence. That is where larger foliage plays a part.

    'Francee' hosta is an old favorite - which makes it affordable!
    Looking for a ‘space’ I quickly dug a green and white variegated hosta into the middle of a long border shortly after we moved. I just need somewhere for it to go until I could find a more permanent home. There was a rather sad looking variegated andromeda (Pieris japonica)  behind and a clump of white daisies to one side so I thought it might make a nice group in the summer. Well I was partially right! The daisies grew ridiculously tall after two doses of compost and completely engulfed the hosta so the flowers have now been relocated. The hosta really works, however. Even from a distance these larger leaves stand out from the crowd, thanks in part to the white banding. This variety ‘Francee’ is a mid sized hosta , quickly making a 2 ½’ wide clump and takes sun surprisingly well in moist soil, so it can stay there for now at least. There are many more varieties of hosta with far larger leaves and brighter colors which I look forward to adding to my new shade borders this fall.
    A nicely proportioned vignette featuring a Rodgersia and
    Japanese forest grass.

    As this existing border disappeared under two old Douglas fir trees the design (and plants) seemed to fade away. It was as though the previous homeowner had given up at that point, and I can hardly blame her as gardening under such huge trees is not easy. Once again larger leaved perennials have come to my rescue as well as a few other design tricks. The first thing I needed to do was provide something to catch the eye – in this case a pale terracotta urn did the job and will be visible year round. There were already assorted broadleaved evergreens nearby including Rhododendrons and a David viburnum (V. davidii), so I needed to add some light into the mix. A skirt of ‘All gold’ Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra ‘All gold’) worked beautifully adding shimmer, movement and finely textured leaves. The finishing touch came from the palm shaped, crinkly leaves of Rodgersia which fan out over the top of the grass.  I’ll need to move the Rodgersia back and either put the container on a pedestal or replace it with a larger one, but I like the effect.

    Heartleaf oxeye makes you take a second look
    with leaves bigger than dinner plates!

    We are extending the depth of this border by 10-15’ and adding a walking trail through it to invite exploration and discovery. Seeing the garden from a distance is important but I also want to be able to enjoy a few surprises up close. For this reason I planted a group of 3 heartleaf oxeye (Telekia speciosa) behind the pot/Rodgersia planting mentioned above. When viewed from the front one can just see tall yellow daisies peeking in the background. As you embark on the pathway however the sheer size of the leaves is evident. Each heart shaped leaf must be at least 20” long and 10” across. From this large basal rosette there rises 5’ stems bearing golden daisies in July and August. The slugs did some damage early on but the plants quickly outgrew them.  This size of the foliage together with its soft almost felted touch provides interest, especially as this is not a commonly planted shade perennial.
    The large glossy leaves of Darmera appear
    like protective green umbrellas over 
    primroses and other waterside plants.
    Barbara Lycett design, Seattle WA

    Waterside plantings offer an opportunity to take advantage of the reflective quality of the setting. Dinosaur food (Gunnera sp.), butterbur (Petasites sp.), umbrella plant (Darmera sp.) and shield leaf Roger's flower (Astilboides tabularis) are all effective in this environment and calla lilies (Zantedeschia sp.) can be planted actually into shallow water itself, throwing up pristine white flowers in summer. All these plants need constant moisture and so shady, damp settings are a natural fit and their huge leaves balance larger water features beautifully.

    What about sunny areas? The tropical Canna and elephant ears (Colocasia) make wonderful annuals for many of us, but for more permanent plants consider evergreens such as New Zealand flax (Phormium sp.), especially the larger varieties such as the bronze ‘Guardsman’ which can reach 7’ and ‘Apricot queen’ whose apricot and green blades grow to 6’. Similarly shaped but shorter are the Yuccas, with ‘Color Guard’ providing a bold splash  with its yellow variegated leaves. Silver sage (Salvia argentea) needs full sun and exceptionally well drained soil but its large silvery leaves beg to be touched as they are as soft as fur. For a small tree or large shrub consider the golden Indian bean tree (Catalpa bignoides ‘Aurea’) with its large heart shaped leaves in bright lime green. I like this best when coppiced each spring to form a 6’ tall, bushy shrub. It really adds sparkle to the border and makes a good foil for darker foliage.

    Looking like a silvery cabbage, this silver sage
    begs to be stroked rather than eaten.
    Photo credit; Annie's annuals

    There are of course many more possibilities and a trip to your local nursery will help you with your treasure hunt. I find these steroidal giants helpful in designing larger gardens but equally valuable as a heart and feet-stopping focal point in smaller ones. Using larger sizes can seem counter-intuitive in small gardens yet this is an opportunity to create drama and impact. For larger gardens these ultra-bold textures help to add strength to a distant design, and if not provide a key focal point at least act as an anchor to support groups of light reflecting grasses or a mass planting of ferns at its feet, which might not be otherwise appreciated.

    Sunday, August 14, 2011

    1 + 1 = MAGIC

    A humble orange crocosmia seems to be on fire when underplanted with
    'Peach flambe' heuchera since the burnished summer tones of the latter
    add depth. My design

    When putting together plant combinations I usually start off with one key plant and hunt for partners which will emphasize its key attribute. 

     A beautiful but subtle variegation might need enhancing with a solid color in an adjacent leaf for example.

    The larger leaved 'Little honey' hydrangea
    partners beautifully with the gentle variegation of the
    Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra 'Aureola').
    Design by Alyson Ross-Markley

    Or the sheer size of a leaf might be all the more outrageous when partnered with something delicate.

    The dinner plate sized leaves of butterbur
    (Petasites sp.) offer marked contrast to 
    the hardy impatiens (Impatiens omeiana)
    Design by Alyson Ross-Markley
    Looking for a reverse variegation adds zing, especially when the leaf shape and texture are otherwise identical.
    Two strongly variegated hosta form a perfect union
    My design

    Maybe the texture of a plant is what give it star status.

    A great drought tolerant combination for the garden or
    a container, the spiky golden sedum 'Angelina' echoes
    an equally spiky 'Quicksilver' hebe.
    Design by Tory Galloway

    It is this initial duo which I then build upon to create vignettes throughout the landscape or in a container.

    Learning to recognize the star (often referred to as a ‘thriller’ in plant combinations’), and identifying its unique qualities can start you on a fun treasure hunt at the nursery. That treasure hunt can also be overwhelming as you are faced with a myriad of possibilities, however. 

    Whale tongue agave (Agave ovatifolia) is the star here
    for sure, yet made all the more memorable for its
    association with blue lyme grass (Elymus arenarius
    'Blue dune').
    Design by Dallas Arboretum

    So instead of loading your cart with a dozen or more candidates, seek instead just two plants that give you the ‘wow’ factor.

    Remember, sometimes it only takes two.

    Wednesday, August 10, 2011

    The Essence of a Garden

    The garden story unfolds, anticipation on every page

    As I entered the front garden I knew this was going to be something special. Sculpted Japanese black pines (Pinus thunbergia) marked the entrance while oversized weathered boulders and a soft planting palette rather than vibrant colors set the tone. Yet nothing prepared me for the vista which opened up as I stepped into the private back garden.

    With a mature rustling katsura tree (Cercidiphyllum japonicum) on one side and the draping branches of a western hemlock (Tsuga mertensiana) on the other I peered down from the deck to view a tapestry of textures woven together by a master artist. Majestic trees formed the backdrop yet a window between them allowed a glimpse of the distant landscape effectively blurring the boundary. Layered in front were stands of bamboo and assorted evergreen shrubs while the ground plane was skirted with a waterfall of soft yellow Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’) and the mounding forms of Japanese maples in shades of burnished bronze and burgundy. From this vantage point I could also see winding paths disappearing enticingly into the garden and a Japanese tea house discreetly tucked away beckoning further exploration.

    Smooth pebbles tumble into shallow pools

    As I made my way down a series of stone steps I found myself pausing to peer into hidden pools, appreciate the use of simple pebbles tucked between mossy boulders and enjoy the gentle transitions in this garden journey as I passed over bridges and across creek beds. I was surprised to smell lavender as I strolled and stopped to find its source. Unusual in an Asian inspired garden perhaps, yet a perfect addition as fragrance is another way to engage the senses; the very essence of creating a garden memory.

    The end of this pathway was marked by two stately deodar cedars (Cedrus deodara), rescued when the Seattle library was re-built several years ago. They had been pruned into a prostrate form decades ago and the homeowner has continued this art so that they now drape over boulders and a modest pool, their intricate structure perfectly reflected in the watery mirror.

    Although Asian inspired elements are used
    they support the theme rather than dictate it

    Other paths took me to hidden patios and pagodas, past koi ponds and over streams. Time and again I found myself pausing to simply absorb the sense of peace and tranquility. Although the garden has an Asian flair with artwork, lighting and structures reflecting that style, it has been done with such understated ease that it doesn’t become the overriding statement.  Rather this is a garden where all the senses are engaged.

    How is that achieved? Many factors play their part but I believe it is allowing Nature to lead the design. Restraint in the color palette and number of different plant varieties is balanced with an emphasis on beautiful combinations focused on textural contrasts. Dwarf stiff-needled pines are planted adjacent to soft grasses. Feathery ferns are tucked into pockets between ancient rocks and the bold leaves of quilted blue hostas echo the color of a weeping deodar cedar yet contrast effectively with the sharp blue-green needles.

    Making a bold statement, this weathered
    bell rises above the carpet of evergreens

    Apart from such a visual feast, one can listen to the sounds of running water from any of the five different water features and the whisper of the breeze as it moves through bamboo groves. Take time to appreciate the distinct aromas of rosemary and lavender, discreetly tucked away yet close enough that when brushed against release their herbal perfumes.

    If “every image should tell a story” then this garden is surely a book. Homeowner, designer, carpenter and visionary, Jim Guthrie is also a professional photographer and every scene has been set to make the most of the light from various angles throughout the year, each vignette is perfectly framed and each composition a pleasing balance of light and dark foliage. This is not a garden to be observed from afar although the views from the deck are breathtaking. Rather it is meant to be experienced. It is a garden with an ethereal quality that defies language. Feel your heart rate slow and a sense of well being envelope you as you sense the harmony between Nature and manmade beauty. Close to the city and yet a world away. 

    My sincere thanks to Jim Guthrie of Woodinville, WA for allowing me to share his garden with you.

    Sunday, August 7, 2011

    Shades of Bronze

    Glowing shades of bronze and copper; 
    Euptelea pleiosperma - now renamed Eric.

    There’s a time to be big, bold and dramatic but there are also occasions when a more subtle approach is needed. With all the gorgeous variegated, silver, chartreuse, rich red and deep black hybrids out there, have we forgotten the art of quiet contrast? One which sings in the garden rather than shouts?

    I realized the value of bronze foliage as I was admiring my new shrub Eric (the botanical name Euptelea pleiosperma is unpronounceable and it doesn’t have a common name, hence Eric). This has wonderful burnished bronze leaves, accented here and there with warm red tones. It breaks up an expanse of green yet doesn’t command attention. It seems more natural and in some landscape designs that can be an important consideration. Where you are fortunate to have your garden back onto forest or a greenbelt for example, using bronze leaves can ease the transition from the highly cultivated and colorful areas to the more muted tones of the landscape beyond. However, I believe bronze can play an important role in all gardens. Instead of constant powerful associations between yellow and blue, chartreuse and purple or black and silver how about something a little more muted? Bronze can add depth, act as a supporting actor to feature plants, offer new color combination possibilities and create a soothing palette. Here are a few ideas to get you started.

    Small trees and shrubs
    The coppery tones of ninebark 
    'Coppertina' are even more
    pronounced in spring and early

    Ninebark ‘Coppertina’ (Physocarpus) is softer in color than the dark chocolate ‘Diablo’. The coppery leaves seem to glow in the garden, especially when backlit . Growing to 6-8’ it can be kept shorter with pruning, has interesting striped bark for winter interest, white spring flowers and red fall color.

    A walk through any Japanese garden will open your eyes to the many colors, textures and shapes of Japanese maple trees. Where burgundy varieties draw the eye, bronze helps lead it, playing an important role in establishing a tranquil atmosphere. Colors blend rather than jostle and so the senses are soothed rather than jolted. One of my favorite varieties is Acer palmatum ‘Beni otake'. The foliage of this variety opens red before turning to bronze and eventually green. I frequently lust over two beautiful specimens in a friends garden!
    Rather than selecting a more typical
    burgundy leaved Japanese maple, 
    this artistic home owner chose the
    more subtle 'Beni otake' for its rich
    bronze foliage.
    Photo credit

    Grasses and perennials

    Leatherleaf sedge (Carex buchananii) looks dead according to some, so maybe that is why deer ignore it! This grass offers a fountain of wispy blades and looks wonderful planted in drifts with black eyed Susan (Rudbeckia f. ‘Goldsturm’) where it plays into the soft warm tones.

    Crocosmia ‘Solfaterre’ stands out from the usual varieties because it has bronze foliage to set off its buttery yellow flowers which adorn the stems in late summer. At 2-3’ tall it doesn’t flop like some of the taller varieties. Try these under the paperbark maple (Acer griseum) where they can draw attention to the trees cinnamon peeling bark while providing gentle contrast.
    Crocosmia 'Solfaterre' offers a gentle 
    color palette in late summer

    There are many more varieties of Heuchera (coral bells) and Heucherella than I wish to meet! Amongst them are numerous purple based offerings but for a true bronze color look at Heuchera ‘Burnished bronze’ and Heucherella ‘Sweet tea’. Like most coral bells, their color intensifies at different times of the year so these evergreen perennials offer extended interest in the garden.

    Many false spiraea (Astilbe) offer foliage in shades of bronze - most notably ‘Fanal’ , ‘Bronze Elegance’ and ‘Bronze Lamb’. These perennials like some shade and moisture to thrive although I have had good success even in sunny situations where the soil is sufficiently damp. The bronze, lacy foliage makes a good contrast to leathery evergreen leaves of Rhododendron.

    The annual herb bronze fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) is worth growing for its feathery foliage alone, even if you never intend to use it for culinary purposes. Do remember to dead head it quickly though or you’ll have a fennel forest in no time!
    The larger than life blooms are undoubtedly
    the showstopper. but the rich copper-red
    foliage is what appeals more to me

    Photo credit

    I’ve never had much luck with Hibiscus yet ‘Kopper King’ has me willing to try again. It gets its name from the maple like leaves which are copper-red above and more orange below. Add gigantic tropical looking flowers in white with a deep red eye and you’ll understand why I’m tempted! Hardy to zone 4.

    So the next time you visit the nursery, notice what your eye is immediately drawn to – and then look elsewhere! Not everything should be a showstopping specimen in the latest kaleidoscope of colors. Select some bronze tones to add to the mix and you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how much richer the composition will be.

    Wednesday, August 3, 2011

    Fruity New Introductions from Proven Winners

    The delicious new 'Grape punch' Superbells
    I love growing plants and I love to write about growing plants. So when I’m asked if I would like to trial a new introduction with a view to writing about my findings it’s an easy sell.

    This year I have had the honor of testing new varieties of shrubs, perennials and annuals from several growers including one of my favorites – Proven Winners. I’m excited to share a sneak preview with you as well as my own experience with these new annuals, which will be available for sale next year.

    Good enough to eat! 'Cherry star' Superbells

    ‘Cherry Star’ Superbells (Calibrachoa hyb). This was my overall favorite for vibrant color, compact growth and non-stop blooming. Even after being deluged by rain, slithered over by slugs and deprived of sun for weeks it is a real standout in my containers. The vivid yellow star takes it a step above the typical million bells and it made a great partner with Sedum‘Angelina’.

    ‘Grape punch’ Superbells (Calibrachoa hyb.) At first sight this seems to be just another purple million bells. Look more closely and you’ll see delicately veined lilac petals leading to a rich velvety purple throat and yellow eye. As with ‘Cherry Star' it has handled our Seattle ‘summer’ without missing a beat.

    ‘Peachy Keene’ Superbena (Verbena hyb). I’m not really a fan of peach colors in the garden so I was a little unsure of this at first. However it won me over as soon as I realized that at any one time it had many shades from pale peach to rich coral. In one container I combined it with the dappled willow (Salix integra 'Hakuro Nishiki') where the shrubs stems made a perfect color echo with the verbena flower. I also added it to a container with hot pinks and a ‘Kingswood Torch' coleus – an unusual combination to be sure but it really worked!
    'Peachy Keene' - shades of apricot through coral

    'Royale Iced Cherry' Superbena (Verbena hyb). A full blooded pink if ever there was one. Grab your sunglasses! Masses of flowers and a nice tight habit rather than the open, sprawling shape of some varieties. I partnered this with the zonal geranium 'Americana white splash' whose pink eye is a perfect match for this verbena. The only down side of both these varieties of verbena was that the flowers seemed to come in waves even with regular dead heading. However the lull lasted less than a week before it was in full bloom again and their other qualities makes them a ‘must have’ for next year.

    One hot pink Mama! Superbena 'Royal iced cherry'
    Watch for future reports on two new Spiraea, a beautiful dwarf hosta and a petite cone flower. You can be sure they will be great if they’re grown by Proven Winners. And here’s the thing – I am one of the many people who does the ‘proving’. We present our feedback to the growers who take our findings into consideration. That’s what I call a reputable company that takes its product seriously.

    Live in England? No problem.  Kernock Park Plants sells the Proven Winners varieties and can be mail ordered. Here are the full contact details; Address; Kernock Park Plants, Pillaton, Saltash, Cornwall, PL12 6RY Phone: +44 (0)1579 350561, Fax: +44 (0)1579 351151