Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Evolution, Renovation and Rejuvenation

Sometimes it only takes a few simple changes to transform an outdoor space.

Gardens evolve; trees grow, shade patterns shift, personal tastes change and before you know it what once was beautiful looks tired and untidy.

Before -the two old arbors were beyond help. 
This garden surrounds a beautiful home in Bellevue, WA. The original landscaping was done 10 years ago and has been tweaked a few times since then. However the main garden border at the back of the home was in need of help. The arbors were sagging and the overgrown Armand’s clematis (Clematis armandii) which smothered them made the space feel dark and dated. Climbing hydrangeas (Hydrangea anomalis) had been added to fill in the back of these arbors but never bloomed so did nothing for the space. 

Two Hinoki cypresses had seen better days as they struggled with the reduced sunlight and of course there had been the endless ‘hole plugging’ that we are all partial to. In fact I am probably to blame for at least some of that. Whenever I removed something from the container gardens for this client I always asked if she would like it for the garden… So there was a hellebore here and a clump of mondo grass there resulting in a mish mash of plants.

Yet all this took was a little editing and the replacement of two arbors with something more modern to achieve an artistic, cohesive design. The new look better reflects both the homes traditional architecture and the homeowners desire for something “professional, clean and organized”.

Having designed container gardens at this home for several years I had a good sense of plant preferences, color palette and style. I was therefore asked to draw up a planting plan for a low maintenance design that would be mostly evergreen yet offer lots of color.

This is the 'Before' photo for the one
at the beginning of the post.
What a difference a little clean up can make.
When renovating a mature garden such as this one, it isn’t always necessary to draw a scaled plan. I simply took a series of photographs to work from and made notes on the health of plants, soil quality, key problem areas etc. By adding text to the images I was able to communicate my vision for a new planting plan effectively with the clients as well as Berg’s Landscaping who were going to be doing the installation and building the new arbors.

I started by removing all the little ‘bits’ which had been added over the years such as Japanese anemones (Anemone hupehensis var. japonica) and Kenilworth ivy (Cymbalaria muralis) together with the monster evergreen clematis, two sad looking Hinoki cypress and a few other underperforming shrubs and perennials.

I decided to keep the Aucuba, even though they look a bit spindly right now, as they are tough shrubs that pack a lot of color into a shady garden. I will prune them in spring to encourage more branching. Likewise the magnolia has seen better days but I am going to give it some TLC and see if it can’t be revived and returned to its former glory.

'Yuletide' camellia fulfills the request for color (with red
being the favorite), evergreen and easy care.

The plants which remained suggested a color scheme of yellow and green – a good start but not vibrant enough. With the Hinoki removed I needed to add two new substantial shrubs.  This was tricky. The Aucuba, Magnolia and ‘Charity’ Oregon grape (Mahonia x media) were all broadleaf evergreens so in theory I needed a new leaf shape and texture. The needled foliage of plum yew (Cephalotaxus) and yew (Taxus) would work in this setting but didn’t meet the request for color. I knew the homeowner’s favorite color was red so I decided on two ‘Yuletide’ camellias (Camellia sasanqua) with their striking red winter blooms, highlighted by a large central boss of yellow stamens.


The other major addition was the deciduous tree ‘Ruby vase’ Persian ironwood (Parrotia persica). This columnar variety is not well known yet it is an outstanding tree for narrow spaces. With rich fall color that lasts for many weeks, beautiful bark, red winter flowers and burgundy new growth in spring it was the perfect tree to replace an old Madrone, adding height as well as four season interest.

The new trellises completely change the whole look and feel of the back garden. Using cedar and recycled metal panels they have created unique focal points. Whereas the old arbors seemed dark and heavy these are light and airy. The addition of the rusted metal panels lends a modern touch without appearing too contemporary.

The exquisite perfume from the 'Cathedral
gem' sausage vine will add a new
dimension to the winter garden.
Photo courtesy of Riz Reyes

Such structures deserved a special vine yet there aren’t a lot of options for evergreen vines which bloom in the shade. I was excited therefore to hear about ‘Cathedral Gem’ sausage vine (Holboellia coriacea) introduced as part of the Dan Hinkley collection this year by Monrovia. This beauty has fragrant white flowers in late winter and early spring, thrives in the shade and is hardy to zone 6. Of course as luck would have it, none were available locally and I needed four! Monrovia went out of their way to help me and the owner of Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville, WA generously agreed to let me tag these onto his order so I could have them in time. Great team work – thank you!

Heuchera 'Tiramisu' adds a light note to the shady border

To add sparkle and color under each of these I selected the golden leaved Heuchera ‘Tiramisu’ to partner with ‘Pink frost’ hellebores and the transplanted black mondo grass (Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’) for a totally evergreen, modern combination. ‘Tiramisu’ is one of my top 10 ‘bullet proof’ plants, excelling in less than favorable conditions and with care takers who occasionally forget to care!

'Sweet tea' Heucherella offers a
distinctive coppery foliage,
adding interest to the
evergreen color scheme.
Being mindful of the request for color I also added clusters of the richly colored ‘Sweet tea’ Heucherella under the camellias. These large, bushy, evergreen perennials contrast well with the glossy camellia foliage while their deep red veins will form a subtle color echo with the Camellia blooms. 'Sweet tea' also blooms for months creating a delicate frothy appearance as their tiny white flowers dance on slender stems.

The finishing touch was to simply add more of the Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’) to complete a sense of rhythm along the entire border length.

The container gardens were designed using the same color palette
as the backdrop, blending the two areas seamlessly. The 'Ruby vase'
Persian ironwood can be seen in fall color to the right of the photo.

The end result was fresh, colorful and interesting. Although new plants were added the look wasn’t fussy or overplanted but rather clean lined and tidy. It made sense.

Don’t be afraid of tackling the renovation of a mature garden border. Work with  a designer to create a master plan and bring new life to an outdated space.


  1. Very beautiful border! I really like the transformation...makes such a difference.

  2. Thanks Sage Butterfly. This area is only about 4' wide which I think makes it all the more surprising.

  3. I really like the arbor idea in front of the fence. It's a great way to camouflage an ugly view and add height to the garden, to boot!

  4. You're so right Maxine. In this instance the main function was to add focal points, giving greater depth to an otherwise shallow garden. There is often a concern that doing something like this can make a small space seem even smaller, but with the right design the opposite can be true.

  5. Lovely design and great plant choices. Many make me envious because they don't grow here!

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  7. Carolyn, after reading your article on fall blooming camellias I can see Yuletide wouldn't be hardy for you. Maybe in your colder climate I would have chosen a shrub with vibrant red berries instead.

    We always want what other people have - even in gardens!!

  8. A lovely post as usual. The new trellis is the exact one I want for MY garden! :-)

  9. Well, personalgardencoach, you can bribe me to tell you where to buy the metal panels...

    1. What kind of a bride are you looking for to find out where u got the metal panels? Haha

  10. Karen, beautiful work. The design of the trellis is beautiful -- and your process was interesting, especially for a hobby gardener like myself (although I have dreams of somehow earning a living in the garden). Love Aucuba and Heuchera for its colorful foliage -- it's not always about the flowers.

  11. Thanks nittygrittyman - so glad you found this interesting and liked the design.

    I'm frequently inspired by 'hobby gardeners' and most of us start out that way, so don't put yourself down! It's all about sharing ideas.

    Combining foliage in interesting ways is something I am especially passionate about and you will see lots of posts discuss just that. You'd probably enjoy my recent post on Monochromatic Foliage Combinations.

    Have fun!

  12. wonderful. I like the Before and After images. Really makes the design decisions spark... Can't wait to see that Cathedral Gem growing :) Monrovia is so great in terms of customer service. Nice to hear...

  13. Garden Duchess - thanks for your comment and I'm glad you enjoyed the post. I can't wait to see those Yuletide camellias in full bloom!

  14. Where can I buy a quality garden trellis like the one in this garden? I love it. I have a wide wall at the end of my patio that needs climbing plants and a really nice, study trellis. I want something special and different

  15. Peter, this was a custom piece using panels found at a metal salvage yard.


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