Sunday, October 16, 2011

Garden magic – now you see it, now you don’t

Hidden in plain view!! I guess when you own rather than rent your propane
 tank you have more options.
Photo credit;

Sometimes you need to be a master of disguise, using a sleight of hand to create illusions to fool visitors. There are things to see and things to hide. Pleasant views, exciting combinations, elegant courtyards and sculptural topiary are all elements we want to share and draw attention to. But what about that ugly (but necessary) garden shed, the chain link fence which can’t be replaced, a rock retaining wall which threatens to turn your patio into a cave or the rented propane tank  which you have been told “can be painted any color, so long as it’s white”…..!

Construction of fences and trellises or planting extensive hedges is not always possible or desirable, so what other options are there?

Ground level
This 'Eichholz' cotoneaster will cover a large area
Photo credit; Monrovia

As a general rule I am not a fan of groundcovers since my priority is always to improve the soil and if it’s covered with plants I can’t add compost! However there are always exceptions and I recently found myself facing one of them. We have two pipes draining into a seasonal stream bed which in itself has fairly steep banks in places. So I had two problems – hiding the pipes themselves but also being aware of the risk of erosion. I didn’t feel the bank was stable enough to plant actually into the slope so opted instead to plant something at the top which would drape down. It had to be evergreen, deer resistant, cope with moist soil and be fuss-free. I chose ‘Eichholz’ cotoneaster (Cotoneaster dammeri ‘Eichholz’). This fast growing evergreen shrub only grows 10-12” tall but can spread 8-10’ yet is easy to chop indiscriminately when you feel it has gone far enough. Growing from a woody stem this will not become invasive – a common concern with groundcovers. Large, bright green leaves turn shades of gold and orange in fall while white summer flowers followed by bright red berries giving this excellent four season interest.

An alternative which I considered was one of the box honeysuckle (Lonicera nitida) of which there are several ornamental varieties including ‘Lemon beauty’, 'Baggesen’s gold' and ‘Red tips’. The relative privet honeysuckle (Lonicera pileata) would also work. All of these get taller than the Cotoneaster so may be helpful where short vertical screening as well as horizontal spread is be required.

Blue flowering bugleweed carpets the
ground - it is actually disguising an old
well head!
Plants for soggy areas are relatively plentiful. I find bugleweed (Ajuga reptans varieties) a good choice since they do not self-seed but rather throw out new plants with shallow roots, making it easy to thin them out.

Going UP!

Certainly there are sheds of the palatial kind (see Debra Prinzing’s book Stylish Sheds and Elegant Hideaways for inspiration) but there is also the eyesore variety. Or perhaps you have an old detached garage in the back garden – too small for today’s vehicles yet too useful to discard? Growing self-clinging vines up these can quickly turn them into an attractive, colorful backdrop but caution should be heeded. These can engulf the shed, the dog, and any passing children if it is not kept under control – you have been warned. 

Russian vine used to camouflage a shed

Even so the fast growing Russian vine (Fallopia baldschuanica syn. Polygonum aubertii, Polygonum baldschuanica), also called mile-a-minute vine for obvious reasons, can disguise ugly structures with abundant white flowers and luxurious, albeit deciduous foliage. 
This ugly duckling of a fence is transformed by the
addition of Boston ivy.

Likewise Boston ivy (Parthenocissus tricuspidata) and Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) can cling or twine – a great way to change a mundane chain link fence into a fiery fall display. In England these are popular growing up brick or stone buildings but care must be taken to keep them out of gutters and they can also compromise the integrity of the mortar.

For those in warmer climates the beautiful bougainvillea offers stunning summer blooms in magenta, yellow or orange.

Dry shade – where "nothing grows"

In the PNW we are blessed with an abundance of towering conifers – Douglas fir, Western red cedar and hemlocks to name a few. As majestic as these are, little will grow under their dense canopy and many homeowners dislike the bare ground.

The outstanding color of red bishop's hat in April.
I have been experimenting with a few solutions, bearing in mind that any selections I use also have to be deer and rabbit resistant, as well as relatively unscathed by slugs! A tall order to be sure, yet I have had the greatest success with bishop’s hat (Epimedium sp.) with red bishop’s hat (Epimedium x rubrum) faring the best. My hellebores are also doing nicely although strangely enough the new variety ‘Pink frost’ (Helleborus x ballardiae Gold Collection® Pink Frost) seems to be doing better than the more common oriental hellebore (Helleborus orientalis). 

Wintergreen is spreading easily under this pine tree.
Photo credit; Wild ginger farm
Native sword ferns, lady’s ferns and salal (Gaultheria shallon) are easy choices and remind us to look to nature when in need of inspiration. The groundcover relative of salal known as wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens) is thriving in areas which have some moisture but not so well in bone dry soil. Box honeysuckle mentioned above is very happy on the outer edges of these planting beds while snowy wood rush (Luzula sylvatica marginata) is multiplying with abandon in the deepest shade. Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum commutatum) is also doing well in the least hospitable areas. 

In all cases I added compost to the planting pockets as well as a little bone meal to stimulate root production. I then just sat back and let them get on with it; survival of the fittest.

Rock walls; precipice or climbing wall?
Making the most of an imposing basalt retaining wall
Photo credit; David Beaulieu
Rock retaining walls can be an opportunity for a vertical rock garden if a little soil can be squeezed into the crevices. For softening smaller areas succulents and sedums provide interesting textures while aubrieta and basket of gold (Aurinia saxatilis) may be used to brighten the spring garden with shades of purple and yellow. If you can plant the upper section of the wall, tuck in rock rose (Helianthemum nummularia) which will send out additional roots as it scrambles down the rock face. Evergreen foliage in shades of green or grey as well as late spring flower in every color from white, through pastels to shocking pink transform such walls into a tapestry of color.

'Absolutely amethyst' is an outstanding new variety
of  candytuft from Proven Winners
Photo credit; Proven Winners.
Perennial candytuft (Iberis sempervirens) is an old fashioned favorite although benefits from shearing after flowering which may not be possible if the wall is especially tall. Don’t forget the new variety by Proven Winners ‘Absolutely amethyst’ if you prefer lavender over white.

Another favorite of mine is the Serbian bellflower (Campanula poscharskyana) which smothers its soft green leaves in periwinkle blue bells for weeks. This spreads easily wherever it can get a root hold so one inexpensive plant can cover a good sized space in no time.

If you can’t disguise the wall from the top, perhaps you can place something at the base? The self-clinging climbing hydrangea (Hydrangea anomala subsp. petiolaris) has large white summer blooms and even when the leaves have fallen the pealing bark provides interest. Hydrangea seemannii  and Hydrangea integrifolia are similar but evergreen. All of these are slow to get established, often taking 3-4 years until they flower.

A stand of tall, erect grasses such as ‘Karl Foerster’ feather reed grass (Calamagrostis acutiflora) can give three season interest too, their fall plumes lasting well into winter.

Poles, boxes, tanks and more

Dead bushes aren't doing a lot to disguise the various
utility boxes!
Utility boxes, transformers, generators and propane tanks are necessary for many but not exactly  a prime design feature. They offer the additional challenge of having to remain accessible. Robust evergreens growing to 3-4’ help here; 
'Sky pencil' Japanese holly (Ilex crenata) and 'Greenspire' Euonymus (Euonymus japonicus) work well, or for a softer look delavayi osmanthus (Osmanthus delavayi ) can be pruned or allowed to grow into its natural loose mound. Spring fragrance is a bonus.

Those to avoid

The term ‘invasive’ can be misleading since what is on the ‘do not use’ list in one State or country may be perfectly well behaved in another.

Here in the Seattle area I avoid the use of ivy (Hedera helix) and periwinkle (Vinca species) as ground covers since they are a nightmare to get rid of and in the case of ivy can seriously damage our trees. Likewise running bamboo must be contained within a strong barrier to keep it in check.

Plan of attack

First identify your problem and decide if you need year round screening or if the offending view is only an issue when you are sitting outside during the warmer months. Next assess the soil and sun situation. Make your short list of candidates and check your selection against local invasive lists or with knowledgeable staff at your extension agency or garden nursery.

Abracadabra! -  enjoy your new view.

Other posts you may find helpful;


  1. Glad you enjoyed it. I'm still wondering if our propane company would notice if we painted OUR tank as a yellow submarine????

  2. Enjoyed your post. Although I'm not familiar with the specific conditions of your stream bank, I wanted to note that planting is an important method of erosion control on steep slopes. The root systems help to hold the soil in place.

  3. Hi Garden Sense - yes I was aware that using root systems to stabilize slopes is a good way to go but there are other parameters that led me to make this decision here. Further downstream I will be able to plant the stream sides with everything from Corydalis to Japanese primroses and more. Thanks for taking the time to comment!


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