Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Fresh Inspiration for the New Year.

Design by Copper Creek Landscaping, Mead WA
Photo credit;

Do you get stuck for ideas? Struggle for a vision? It happens to us all and is one of the reasons I am often called to give a landscape consultation, often also referred to as garden coaching. It’s that situation where you know you’re not happy with a particular aspect of the garden but can’t quite pinpoint what it is or how to fix it.

Designers have a wealth of experience, references and other resources to pull from while homeowners will often be limited to gardening magazines and books for inspiration. However, I recently came across another online resource which makes such research easier and faster – and it’s free! is not new and in fact rather to my embarrassment features beautiful work by several of my colleagues! It just hadn’t come across my radar until recently but as soon as I saw it I recognized its value to you so thought I’d share it.

Design by Landscape Development Inc., Valencia CA
Photo courtesy;
The first thing I ask clients is how they want to use their space. That helps determine whether the patio needs to be designed for 2 or 20, if a play space for young children needs to be part of the plan and if the chef of the family would like a dedicated patch for fresh herbs and salad leaves. This website offers ideas and photographs for everything from patio styles and fire pits to full scale plans. Email an image of the outdoor fireplace you love to your designer to make it easier to communicate your thoughts for example. Or watch the video clip on how to lay a bluestone patio if you’re a DIY-er.

A fire-safe design by Grace Design Associates,
Santa Barbara, CA
Photo courtesy;
What about style? The next part of my consultation is usually to try and get a sense of the ‘look’ a client prefers. Again this can be hard to explain in words so I ask clients to do a little homework before we meet and show me photographs they have highlighted from magazines and books. I can then determine whether they are drawn to a romantic, billowing cottage garden, a bold Mediterranean theme or a monochromatic and tranquil courtyard for example. makes this even easier with their Landscape Design Sheets. Each of the 19 ‘story boards’ provides ideas for the home, décor, materials and plants to help you create a cohesive design that truly flows from the inside to the outside. For example the Asian Landscape Design provides color samples, an example of a garden created in that style plus photographs of the materials and plants you might use including bamboo and artistically shaped pine trees. This sheet can then be printed, ready for you to take to your design professional.

Design by Hamilton-Steele Outdoor Accents, Houston, TX
Photo courtesy;
With constantly updated images of plants, container gardens and water features as well as helpful articles and videos on everything from common landscaping problems to current trends, you will glean more in ten minutes from this website than you would in a weekend flipping through all your gardening magazines.

Many of my clients just need the vision – they can handle the rest themselves. Others prefer me to draw up a plan, select the plants and oversee the installation of their new dream garden. Either way this website can be an easy way to identify what you are drawn to and articulate those preferences to your designer.

It is important to realize, however, that no design will be successful without knowledge of local soil conditions, climate, sun and shade patterns and suitable plants. That is where a qualified professional can save you thousands of dollars and disappointment. Unless you are comfortable in these areas, consider this website an inspirational springboard and a way to better communicate your ideas.

Adam's residence, WA
My design

Make 2012 the year you create the garden sanctuary you have always dreamed of.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

THE 12 DAYS OF CHRISTMAS – from the Grinch

On the first day of Christmas the garden gave to me
A wasp’s nest in an oak tree.

On the second day of Christmas the garden gave to me
Two snails a-sliming and a wasp’s nest in an oak tree

On the third day of Christmas the garden gave to me
Three deer a-chewing,  two snails a-sliming and a wasp’s nest in an oak tree

On the fourth day of Christmas the garden gave to me
Four voles a-chomping , three deer a-chewing,  two snails a-sliming and a wasp’s nest in an oak tree

On the fifth day of Christmas the garden gave  to me
Four chomping voles, three pesky deer, two slimy snails and a wasp’s nest in an oak tree

On the sixth day of Christmas the garden gave to me
Six rabbits munching, 
Four chomping voles, three pesky deer, two slimy snails and a wasp’s nest in an oak tree

On the seventh day of Christmas the garden gave to me
Seven moles a-digging, six rabbits munching, 
Four chomping voles, three pesky deer, two slimy snails and a wasps nest in an oak tree

On the eighth day of Christmas the garden gave to me
Eight flies a-buzzing, seven moles a-digging, six rabbits munching, 
Four chomping voles, three pesky deer, two slimy snails and a wasp’s nest in an oak tree

On the ninth day of Christmas the garden gave to me
Nine nettles stinging, eight flies a-buzzing, seven moles a-digging, six rabbits munching,
Four chomping voles, three pesky deer, two slimy snails and a wasp’s nest in an oak tree

On the tenth day of Christmas the garden gave to me
Ten thorns a-pricking, nine nettles stinging, eight flies a-buzzing, seven moles a-digging, six rabbits munching,
Four chomping voles, three pesky deer, two slimy snails and a wasp’s nest in an oak tree

On the eleventh day of Christmas the garden gave to me
Eleven weeds a-growing, ten thorns a-pricking, nine nettles stinging, eight flies a-buzzing, seven moles a-digging, six rabbits munching,
Four chomping voles, three pesky deer, two slimy snails and a wasp’s nest in an oak tree

On the twelfth day of Christmas the garden gave to me
Twelve stink bugs stinking , eleven weeds a-growing, ten thorns a-pricking, nine nettles stinging, eight flies a-buzzing, seven moles a-digging, six rabbits munching,
Four chomping voles, three pesky deer, two slimy snails and a wasp’s nest in an oak tree

Encouragement and Christmas cheer to those with less-than-perfect gardens.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Be Careful What You Wish For

The tinsel may be tarnished and the wings slightly bent but this little
angel holds a special place in my heart. My daughter made it over 20 years
ago - and groans every time I dust it off for another Christmas!

Live ones, dead ones, silver tinsel ones and snowy flocked ones – I think we have had every type of Christmas tree over the years.

Ready to celebrate my first Christmas in my own house I was determined to have a real tree. Just one small problem. I didn’t have a car and there was nowhere to buy a tree within 5 miles of where I lived. So I elbowed my way onto a bus, jostling shoppers and children with my less than perfectly bound Noble fir. I finally wrangled it into the house and released the corset of string. As it sprung outwards in relief a fair portion of needles scattered across the floor, embedding themselves nicely into the deep pile carpet. I had a glimpse of understanding at my parents’ insistence upon an artificial tree….

Determined to persevere I set about decorating it. New house, new job, first tree – no ornaments (and little cash). In lieu of glass baubles I bought a bag of toffees in jewel toned wrappers and strung those onto the tree. For tinsel I made paper chains and paper lanterns. I was proud that I had listened so well in kindergarten! Colorful if not sophisticated.

As the years progressed, so did my Christmas decorating. The trees got bigger (and thankfully could be transported by car) and the ornaments included some ‘special’ ones purchased at craft fairs, supplemented by fluffy tinsel in assorted gaudy colors.

Each special gift has been handmade with  love

Then the children were born. Sophistication went out of the window as reindeers made from light bulbs appeared as well as numerous other unidentifiable but lovingly made decorations held together with copious amounts of Elmer’s glue. To augment these I took it upon myself to start painting a special wooden ornament for the children and my husband each year, to be presented on Christmas Eve. The theme would vary from year to year, being a rustic Santa one year or something more sparkly the next. Even my husband got in on the act, turning the most exquisite wooden snowmen, bells and ornaments on his lathe.

Note how Father Christmas has his
pudding with him!

Before we knew it the children had grown up. Our oldest – Katie (23), now has a place of her own so I sadly boxed up all her special treasures made over the years and passed them over to use on her first tree. (Well almost all of them; I've hung onto a little angel made in Sunday School when she was three and the Father Christmas that you see here!) Paul is 19 so comes home from University for the holidays. It was obviously time to set his ornaments aside also – they are stored safely until he wants them for his own home in a few years.

Will I ever be able to create something
this stunning? Probably not! The designer
Beverley Boyce, is a retired florist whose
artistic talents are evident.
Photo credit; Alyson Ross-Markley
“At last” I said, “we can have a grown-up tree!” I had visions of a color coordinated Martha-style extravaganza. I could have red and gold – or maybe teal and copper. What about monochromatic silver and white? Or purple and chartreuse? And I could just have ‘select’ decorations – silk poinsettias and gold tulle, or oversized mirrored balls with red velvet ribbons perhaps? I was so excited! (I had been secretly envious of my friend’s ‘designer tree’ for years).

Last year was my first grown up tree. Katie decorated it for me (she is more artistic than I am) and it was lovely. She showed an elegant restraint in her selection; just what I had asked for. Yet it wasn’t quite right. As Katie stepped away, her job complete, I hunted through the boxes. Out came the little Father Christmas made from tiny plant pots that was one of my first painting attempts, and the ‘tool Santa’ that I had surprised my  ultra-handy husband with,  although I did draw the line at the popsicle stick creations – at my son’s pleading!

Our days are now busier than ever and my paints and other craft supplies are still ‘somewhere’ in the barn, waiting to be unpacked. So this year’s gifts will be purchased rather than handmade but still selected with great care and much love. And added to the tree.

I suppose it all depends upon your definition of ‘grown up’.

Growing old is mandatory; growing up is optional.  
~Chili Davis

PS.I realize that this post is a diversion from my usual 'garden design' features but it was a little story which begged to be told. I'll get back on track next time!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Shimmer and Shine

Celebrate the season - and keep the party going

‘Tis the season for glitz; a little sparkle here and a little glitter there. Give some thought as to how your garden can join in the party atmosphere this holiday season and beyond.

By day this mirror reflects the trees. At night the three
pillar candles will light the path.
Design; Avon Gardens, IA

Place votive candles in front of mirrors hung on a fence or wall to double the shine. Watching the reflection of flickering flames is always mesmerizing. It can throw light into an otherwise dull part of the garden, add ambiance to an outdoor setting or be used to mark the pathway to a special gathering place.

Design; Bellamy garden, Dallas, TX

Whether caught in sunbeams or landscape lights, glass is always fascinating. Cut glass and crystals throw prisms of light in a rainbow of colors, while sand-weathered shards beg to be held in the hand and stroked.  Wrap pieces of beach glass with copper wire and hang from a tree to create a charming mobile. Hunt thrift stores for old chandeliers; maybe you can find one with hanging crystals or simply add a strand or two of inexpensive glass beads. Adapt the chandelier for candles or make use of electricity if it is available. Create the perfect romantic setting by hanging the chandelier from a tree, pergola or gazebo.

Glass yucca designed and created by
Jesse Kelly.

Talented artists produce all manner of sculptural pieces for the garden which can be used as small accents or larger focal points. Seattle glass artist Jesse Kelly designed and made a glass Yucca for us as part of a water feature. It is beautiful during the day but even more breathtaking at night as discreet landscape lights illuminate the translucent blades. The lights also catch the subtle movement of the fountain as the running water disappears beneath a bed of smooth stones.

This iridescent teal gazing ball adds
contrast - and attention to this shady
Design by Alyson Ross-Markley

Gazing balls have been popular for some time and come in an assortment of sizes, colors and finishes. Highly polished spheres, especially those in silver, are wonderful additions to the shade garden. Here they can be nestled among foliage to reflect a particularly attractive plant combination or draw the eye to a specimen plant. These reflective balls also give the impression of adding light to an otherwise dark area in the same way that a mirror would. Perhaps one of the best features about these globes is that they can easily be moved to a new location as seasonal garden highlights dictate.

At this time of year many of us are decorating our Christmas tree. Save a few of the shiny glass balls and add them to a container garden on your porch. As well as adding a little holiday spirit to welcome visitors, these can be used to establish a color theme. I used silver balls in our blue, white and silver planting combination to set the scene for our interior holiday colors this year (see the first photo).

We may not all have waterfront property, but even a
birdbath can be placed to catch the light.
Water features can be as simple as a bird bath or as elaborate as a Niagara Falls. Regardless of size, when light hits the water something magical happens; a thousand diamonds dance on the surface like mythical water sprites. Remember that either sunlight or moonlight can create this dramatic effect. If your water feature is in a shady location consider adding a reflective floating ball or two to give the illusion of light induced sparkle.

Shiny 'Tequila sunrise'  mirror plant partners
with sedum 'Angelina' and Japanese
blood grass.
My design

Finally, what about the plants themselves? Several shrubs and perennials have wonderful shiny leaves which can be used to our advantage. In sunny spots the aptly named mirror plant (Coprosma repens) appears to have been polished and contrasts beautifully with matte foliage such as the blades of Japanese blood grass (Imperata cylindrica ‘Rubra’). Silverbush ( Convolvulus cneorum) shines like a 100 watt light bulb with its small silver leaves that cover this drought tolerant shrub. The white flowers are a bonus – I use it in landscape and container garden designs for its foliage alone. Need ideas for shade? The holly fern (Cyrtomium falcatum) has a rich luster to its evergreen fronds making this an easy care choice. The larger Alaskan fern (Polystichum setiferum) is a deeper shade of green but equally shiny.

The ‘shimmer factor’ therefore can be used to add interest to the garden at any time of year.  It can reflect light (especially useful in shady locations), highlight a special feature, establish a color theme, indicate a pathway or announce that the “party is here”!

How does your garden shine?

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Shadows and Sunlight

Surrounded by towering Western red cedar trees, our barn basks in
the light as winter shadows frame the scene.

This may seem a strange time of year to be writing about shadows. Shadows need sunshine – and I live in Seattle. Not exactly the sunshine capitol of the world in December. However, I recently wrote a post called ‘Winter silhouettes’ and received some wonderful insightful comments from my colleagues on LinkedIn. One in particular reminded me that those plants which offer striking winter silhouettes in the garden also cast beautiful shadows. Shadows and the patterns they create need some careful planning which is quite different from silhouettes, however.

As attractive as this archway may be, the shadows are
distorted. Roses overhead and cobbles underfoot, not
to mention the small table all vie for visual dominance
and result in a confusion of shadows.

Design by Avon Gardens, IA
A shadow is an area of relative darkness that is being blocked in some way from direct sunlight. In a garden shadows may be cast upon the ground or upon a vertical surface depending upon how such objects are situated. In either case the key is to have an uncluttered screen upon which they may be displayed. Projectors show off images when focused on a plain white background. Likewise for the patterns of shadows to be appreciated in the garden they need to be seen against a clear plane – snow, grass, bare earth, smooth stone or a wall are all possibilities.

Our emotions are triggered by the degrees of shade we experience. The dappled light of a woodland glade seems inviting, drawing us in as sunlight pierces the canopy here and there. Long dark shadows create deep shade that may give a sense of foreboding yet in areas of intense sunshine these same dark shadows can offer respite on a hot day and therefore feel welcoming.

It has taken centuries for the wind to carve these
gravity-defying arches, yet just a moment of sun to
create the dramatic shadows which enhance it.
Shadows can add depth and drama to the mass which is casting it. Consider this image taken at the Arches National Park, Utah for example. Intense August sun sent deep shadows across the rock face transforming this geological wonder into breathtaking architectural sculpture. 

This large pergola casts fascinating shadows on the
ground but also against each of the large wooden beams
overhead. A wonderful balance of scale and light.

Leppard and Bloom residence, IA

In our gardens features such as pergolas, arbors and archways can be used to create interesting effects. The overhead design of crossing timbers will dictate specific shadow patterns with parallel members creating striations or lattice work a crisscross design for example.  Such patterns make a space feel cool and inviting – a perfect location to sit on a warm day. If the structure is being designed primarily to provide shade, the dimensions and spacing of each member is important, but their direction in relation to the sun is also key. For maximum shade at midday the timbers should be placed with an east-west orientation i.e. perpendicular to the sun.

What about using shadows to highlight other areas? The photograph at the beginning of this post shows our barn. It is surrounded by mature conifers which cast long shadows. Rather than making this part of the garden feel dark, their shadows frame the barn in such a way as to showcase it. Without the shadows the barn would not be in the light. 

The abstract shadows cast by the trees
turns this pathway into a magical
journey. Notice what a different 'feel'
the same path has once it enters the shade.

Design by LA Michael Van Valkenberg
As sun filters through a canopy of deciduous trees a delightful dappled light is cast upon the ground. When a breeze whispers these shadows dance, playing tricks of light especially if rays alight upon a reflective surface. This contemporary, diamond plate pathway sparkles like a sheet of silver where the sunbeams are caught. 

As much as I love the sunshine, there are times when I need to sit in the shade. My good friend Alyson has a lovely deck overlooking the forest. By planting a Japanese maple in a nearby container, shadows have been cast onto the fabric of the large sun umbrella. The result is that one still feels a connection to nature even while harbored under the manmade canopy. 

Connecting earth to sky, this maple tree
lends a shadow pattern even though
it is too young to provide shade.

Design by Alyson Ross-Markley

Ever the artist, it was also Alyson who placed this attractive mirror on an easel in a quiet part of her garden. It was placed in such a way as to reflect the nearby plantings yet it did far more than just that. By inviting the visitor to pause and admire the mirrors’ perspective there is also an opportunity to appreciate the intricate pattern of maple leaves shadowed on the house wall. Nature will outshine even the most gifted artist.

What do you have in your garden that throws interesting shadows?

The mirror may reflect the garden, but
look at the wall behind  it.

Design by Alyson Ross-Markley

'Shadows are in reality, when the sun is shining, the most conspicuous thing in a landscape, next to the highest lights'. 
- John Ruskin

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Holly - more than just a decoration

Perfect for the holidays, especially against a red door.
Photo credit;

At the bottom of our lane is the old 'English Holly Farm' where decades ago branches would be harvested and shipped to the east  coast. The processing shed and wax dipping tank remain but the business has long closed, leaving behind over 100 mature holly bushes for birds and humans alike to enjoy. At this time of year the bushes are studded with clusters of red berries like so many jewels, especially magical when dusted with snow.

Holly plays a role in folklore from pagan times as well as being a symbol of the Christmas season when the berried stems are used in wreaths and flower arrangements.

There are hundreds of holly (Ilex) species so you can always find something to suit your needs whether you are looking for a dwarf foundation plant or an evergreen tree. Besides the typical dark green foliage there are blue and variegated varieties and shapes can vary from columnar to weeping forms making it possible to select a specimen feature, or something for screening. There are even thornless forms of these versatile shrubs and all are easy to grow – no wonder they are popular! Another bonus for many of us is that the deer leave them alone.

In this post I’m going to focus on the English hollies (Ilex aquifolium) so traditional at this time of year and what many of us think of as a ‘true’ holly. These are hardy in zones 6-9.
Silver hedgehog holly is fabulous
in containers and holds its color
well in shade.
Photo credit;


Hollies are dioecious plants, which means there are male flowers and female flowers located on separate plants, with the female plants producing berries. For this to happen there needs to be a male plant within 2 miles to allow for pollination although closer spacing will give better results. Even when you have fruiting plants, you will occasionally have a large crop, followed by a year with few to no berries.
If you have a plant that does not produce berries there may be several reasons: a late freeze may have damaged the flowers, hot, dry summer weather caused the berries to fall, or you pruned your shrub hard  removing the flower buds.


Most cultivars require well-drained soil and prefer full sun, although they will tolerate partial shade. They do best in a slightly acidic soil, but will thrive in soil that has been amended with organic matter and are remarkably drought tolerant once established. Be sure to prune away green shoots from variegated forms.

Invasive tendencies

In the Pacific Northwest the English holly has been given a bad rap as an invasive species which is taking over the countryside (Paul Revere must have made it to Seattle….). King County has written articles on this which you can read here. Certainly I would have to agree that the basic species (i.e. not a named variety) seems to spread easily since we have seedlings appearing in parts of our garden even though the holly farm is some distance away. They seem to find their way into the most awkward of places too, typically within the roots of Douglas fir trees which make them difficult to remove. However the Northwest Holly Society disagrees with this evaluation; read their article here.

If the standard English holly is not a problem in your area then they make a beautiful large specimen tree which can take hard pruning, making them especially suitable for topiary.
In my experience the more decorative varieties typically found in nurseries do not cause a problem and I use them frequently in both landscape and container garden design.

Popular ornamental varieties

'Gold coast' may not have  berries
but it's bright variegation is one
of the brightest.
Photo credit;
One of my favorites is ‘Gold coast’ English holly with its bright green and yellow variegated foliage. Reaching 6’ tall and wide this holly makes a colorful screen or accent but also works well in larger containers as it can easily be pruned to the required shape and size.

The commonly called variegated English holly (‘Argentea marginata’) has creamy yellow margins and produces an abundance of red berries when pollinated. If pruning is needed this would have to be done in late winter so as not to sacrifice the berries however. This is a larger plant than ‘Gold coast’ reaching 20’ tall and 12’ wide over time.
'Santa's delight' has creamy
white margins.
Photo credit;

Santa’s delight’ offers blue-green foliage edged with creamy white which changes to pink  in winter making this a highly ornamental variety, especially when studded with red winter berries. 12’ high x 8’ wide.

‘Silver hedgehog’ (‘Ferox argentea’) is spinier than most and produces a dense thicket which maintains its creamy white variegation well in shade. Great color and texture.

Want a change from red and green? 

'Amber' - for the non-traditionalist
Photo credit;
‘Amber’ produces apricot toned berries which show off nicely against the bright yet thornless green foliage, forming a small pyramidal tree.

'Golden van Tol' is the golden-leaved form of an excellent, almost spineless holly that produces red berries whether or not there are other hollies nearby. It has dark green, glossy leaves most of which have a thickish golden margin; some leaves are almost completely golden. It makes an upright tree, eventually 10ft tall. 'Golden van Tol' is a sport of 'J.C. van Tol', which is the choice of those who don’t like the combination of yellow and red. Both have purple shoots.

The unusual 'Golden van tol' is worth
searching for.
Photo credit;

For narrow spaces the columnar ‘Siberia’ may be the answer growing just 6’ wide but 15’ tall; perhaps an excellent change from the overused Arborvitae! This has the more traditional glossy dark green foliage and an abundance of red berries.

Design ideas

Anything is fair game when I am deigning container gardens. I’m not afraid of using varieties which will ultimately grow larger than I need since I can either prune them or transplant them into the garden. Life is too short to deny myself the pleasure of a great plant!

In shade containers (or the smaller landscape) I team yellow variegated forms with autumnal shades of autumn fern (Dryopteris erythrosa) and autumn sedge (Carex dispacea). Chartreuse golden spike moss (Selaginella kraussiana ‘Aurea’) adds a soft, bright cushion and dark colored coral bells (Heuchera) such as the black ‘Obsidian’ or the warmer toned ‘Bressingham bronze’ provides depth in this entirely evergreen composition.In a larger garden, a mid-sized Rhododendron would be striking, especially if felted cinnamon colored indumentum was visible e.g. ‘Teddy bear’

Sunny spots offer the opportunity for companions such as the dark leaved Weigela ‘Midnight wine’ and the golden spiraea ‘Goldmound’ for a color echo. Within the landscape this framework could be built on by using a purple smoke bush (e.g. Cotinus coggygria ‘Grace’) as a back drop.

Dark green varieties need something bright to show them off. Red or yellow twig dogwoods grouped in front would provide a wonderful winter vignette in sun or part shade while golden elderberries (e.g. Sambucus racemosa ‘Sutherland gold’) would offer a three season bright note for part shade, substituting this with golden ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius ‘Dart’s gold’) or golden smoke bush (Cotinus coggygria ‘Golden spirit’)in sun.

'Bowle's golden' Carex, 'Green spice'
Heuchera,'Woodstock' hyacinths and
 cut stemsfrom my 'Midwinter fire' dogwood
take this holly container into spring
 and beyond.

Holly therefore provides interest well beyond  Christmas. This would be a great time to purchase a potted specimen for the holidays but transplant it into your garden in January for year round enjoyment. 

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Winter silhouettes

So often our design inspiration comes from Nature itself

I had the opportunity to visit the home of an award winning local architect recently. Light filled every room from large banks of windows, attention to detail was obvious at every turn with space being maximized in such a way as only an experienced designer knows how and the selection of finishes was of the highest quality. The overall effect was contemporary without being contrived and luxurious without being ostentatious.

Of course I immediately looked through the windows to the garden! It would be fair to say that the homeowner is only just now turning his attention to the landscape and that its potential is waiting to be realized. What struck me was the solid bank of evergreens along the perimeter backed by the towering Douglas fir trees, ubiquitous in the Pacific Northwest. Certainly there was a variety of textures and shapes, the more columnar arborvitae standing in contrast to large, mounding Rhododendrons, but the overall effect was of a long wall of mid green. It cried out for something to be showcased in front and my first thought was to suggest a stand of red or yellow twig shrub dogwoods (Cornus sp.) since their bright winter stems would glow in the winter sunshine and be shown off to advantage against the homogenous background.

The captivating seed heads of papyrus
(Cyperus papyrifera)
That observation led me to think about silhouettes and how we could use them to add another dimension to our gardens. Subconsciously I must have been drawn to them for some time as I have taken many photographs of grasses and foliage backlit in such a way as to throw them into stark relief. I also love an image I captured at dusk with the moon rising, throwing a silvery light onto our lifeless big leaf maple (Acer macrophyllum). When seen this way the focus is on the structure; an important feature of the winter garden and one which is often forgotten as we set about selecting conifers and broadleaved evergreens to provide interest.

One day our 'Niobe' weeping willow will look this good!

The branching structure of deciduous trees only becomes apparent when the leaves have fallen, revealing the intricate lacework previously hidden from view. To see this to advantage the backdrop needs to be clean and uncluttered, such as against a clear sky. This is especially important for weeping trees where the form is as important an element as the branching pattern itself. Weeping silver leaf pear (Pyrus salicifolia ‘pendula’), cherry (Prunus sp.), and European birch (Betula pendula) are a just a few of the possibilities offering four season focal points in the garden. They lend a grace to the landscape that few other plants can. Weeping willows (Salix babylonica and hybrids) can be seen swaying gently in the breeze and the form ‘Niobe’ (Salix alba ‘Tristis’) is especially eye catching with its bright yellow bark and branches. Ours marks the entrance to a meadow and although still young (and frequently nibbled by deer) gives us a glimpse of the mature silhouette to come.

Likewise tightly columnar trees showcase their sentry-like form when viewed against a solid green backdrop or an unobstructed view. Rows of Lombardy poplar trees (Populus nigra ‘Italica’) have been used for centuries as windbreaks on farms and other exposed areas. In winter their skeletonized beauty is striking in the open landscape. For the smaller garden, columnar forms of liquidambar (Liquidambar styraciflua) and Persian ironwood (Parrotia persica) are examples of trees whose silhouette becomes a valuable winter design feature, also offering the advantage of interesting bark.

The tiered structure of the wedding 
cake tree will be shown to great 
effect in winter
Photo credit; Heronswood
There are several deciduous trees which exhibit a tiered branching pattern including several Japanese maples e.g. Inaba Shidare cutleaf Japanese Maple (Acer palmatum 'Inaba Shidare') and the wedding cake tree (Cornus controversa). Stunning in spring and summer these bring new life to the winter garden with their strong horizontal planes.

When we first moved to this property there was an area of dense cottonwoods and alder (interspersed with beer cans, lumps of concrete and discarded plant pots!) Yet as we cleared the area to make way for a woodland garden we uncovered an overgrown seasonal stream – and a stand of curly willow (Salix matsudana 'Tortuosa') which were thriving in the wet soil. Their twisted branches had been completely obscured by the surrounding trees, their winter value being lost in the thicket. Granted we thinned them out a bit but the remaining shrubs give me plenty of material for flower arranging as well as winter interest in that part of the garden.

Corkscrew hazel, also known as Harry Lauder’s walking stick (Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’)has an even more twisted structure with mature specimens exhibiting fascinating gnarled branches which are especially striking when dusted with snow. Yellow catkins dangle from these bare branches in February giving the effect of an out of season holiday display. The twisted foliage is not particularly attractive to my eyes although many find it pleasing. I use it in designs purely for winter interest.

A magnificent display of 'Arctic fire' dogwood against
a winter sky and conifers. Stunning.
Photo credit;

A silhouette by definition is something lit in such a way as to appear dark, but surrounded by light. Yet in the garden this can be reversed with brighter, lighter colors being set against a dark background, such as my initial suggestion for colorful dogwoods stems against an evergreen hedge. Other varieties include ‘Arctic fire’ (Cornus sericea) and ‘Midwinter fire’ (Cornus sanguinea) which have stems in fiery shades of red, orange and yellow. For something a little larger the vine maple (Acer circinatum) variety ’Pacific fire’  has pinkish red bark making it stand out within a group of other less significant plantings.

The bark of the Himalayan white birch
almost looks too perfect to be real
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Even more striking in this regard is the white Himalayan birch (Betula utilis jacquemontii) , another four season tree providing bright green foliage which whispers in the slightest breeze, yellow fall color and pristine white bark throughout the winter. Where space is available a group of these is especially effective or for smaller gardens a single multi-trunked specimen offers a similar effect. The river birch (Betula nigra) may be a better choice where birch borer infestations have become prevalent. These have peeling, salmon colored bark, with the variety ‘Heritage’ being the most ornamental. Like all birch, these tolerate wet soils and look perfectly at home adjacent to water features.

Landscape lighting can add drama to such a scene when sculptural trees are lit from below. Those with colored bark such as the coral bark maple (Acer palmatum ‘Sango-kaku’) look wonderful when highlighted in this way.

The upright feather reed grass 'Karl Foerster' acts as a
border, perfectly framing our view of the winter landscape.
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On a smaller scale grasses and seed heads, a prominent feature of the fall garden can provide silhouettes. ‘Karl Foerster’ feather reed grass (Calamagrostis acutifolia) is a strongly vertical grass which stands soldier-like throughout the winter, even after a snowfall. When planted along a perimeter or massed in a border these are eye catching winter focal points until trimmed back in early spring.

Seed heads are as numerous as your patience! I have to admit that I prefer not to keep seed heads on sedums, black eyed Susan’s (Rudbeckia sp.) or coneflowers (Echinacea sp.) when planted close to the house. Attractive they may be, and a valuable winter food source for birds, but their attractiveness is on the brown, bedraggled somewhat mushy side for my taste! In amongst shrubs and a little distance away I am happy to leave them alone, since they are not in prime view.  A good compromise for the more fastidious gardener perhaps.

The perfect winter garden; evergreens,
interesting branching forms of
deciduous trees, vertical grasses and red
 twig dogwood shrubs work together
to create a winter wonderland.
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So although winter gardens rely heavily on a combination evergreens, berries and cold hardy flowers consider adding a further layer of interest by adding some of these suggestions. 

Don’t you just love it when I give you an excuse to go shopping? Many of these plants are on sale in winter too!