Sunday, January 29, 2012

Dianthus - the sweetest perennial of all

Perfect to edge a walkway these maiden pinks (Dianthus deltoides)
will fill the air with their spicy scent.
Photo credit; Van Meuwen

There are times when you need a little ‘something’ to fill a particular spot in the garden. Such was my dilemma last fall as I began to plant a small border around a new patio. I wanted something easy care, evergreen, low growing, drought tolerant, deer resistant and fragrant. As if they weren’t enough criteria my color palette for that garden is blue, white and silver with pink accents. Quite a tall order!
Usually I am spoilt for choice when plant hunting and quickly come up with the name of several contenders but this one took me a while! Lavender was the obvious choice, especially low growing varieties such as ‘Hidcote’ or ‘Munstead’ – but I already have lavender nearby. I eventually settled on the wonderful old fashioned group of perennials called ‘pinks’, or Dianthus.
This is one of those unfortunate situations where the genus Dianthus consists of over 300 species (including the well-known carnation and biennial ‘Sweet William’), several hundred named cultivars and innumerable hybrids, so perhaps our easiest classification here is to talk about those collectively referred to as the rockery pinks.

'Firewitch' may be an old favorite but it is still deservedly
Photo credit; Missouri Botanical Garden
All of these little treasures, regardless of their botanical lineage fulfill every item on my wish list and are available in shades of pink, white and burgundy as well as several attractive bi-colors. A seemingly impossibly large number of flowers are borne in quick succession giving several months of both color and clove-like scent .

The one I selected for the front of my border is probably my favorite; the bright pink flowering ‘Firewitch’ (Dianthus gratianopolitanus ‘Firewitch) which was awarded perennial of the year in 2006. This species is called ‘cheddar pinks’ after its discovery in the Somerset region of England. The spiky fragrance fills the air in springtime as 1” wide flowers cover the hummocky foliage like colorful pins in a pincushion. The foliage itself is finely textured in an attractive silvery – blue. This beauty not only blooms in summer but also in fall with sporadic flowers even  continuing until snowfall in our garden this year!

'Starlette' is quite distinctive with its tight flower form.
Photo credit; Skagit Gardens

‘Starlette' is one of the ‘star series’ of Dianthus hybrids bred in England. This pretty perennial has a double vibrant magenta flower with a red center. Other hybrids in the star series include 'Fire star' with  fiery red blossoms and magenta eye and the popular 'Neon star' with its almost fluorescent pink flowers over silvery foliage. This series has been bred for better disease resistance and vigor over earlier varieties.

Dianthus Coconut Punch
'Coconut punch'
Photo credit; Great Garden Plants

‘Coconut punch’ is one of five cultivars in the fruit punch series. Boasting hundreds of frilly burgundy and white flowers, each up to 2'' in diameter, it screams for attention! An intense spicy scent only adds to the excitement.'Coconut punch' was selected for its exceptional performance in heat and humidity.

How could anything so dainty exude such a powerful
fragrance? 'Little maiden' looks outstanding when
planted en masse
Photo credit; Jouko Lehmuskallio

For something altogether more delicate try one of the 'sand pinks' (Dianthus arenarius). 'Little maiden' (D. arenarius f. nanus) resembles clusters of tiny pure white feathers, so finely dissected are the petals. These typically bloom July-September.

Exposure -   Dianthus do best in full sun although they will also bloom in partial shade.
Soil -  well drained soil with a neutral to slightly alkaline pH
Water - Although drought tolerant when established they should be watered regularly for the first two years
Division - These pinks spread slowly to become a low growing carpet. If they start to look a bit ragged in parts the plants can easily be pulled or cut into sections, discarding the bare sections and replanting the remainder in clumps 4” in diameter or larger.
Hardiness - Zones 4-9
Problems – and how to avoid them!
Overwatering and heavy clay soils are the kiss of death, quickly killing the plants from stem rot. The foliage will take on a sickly yellow shade and you may notice black mushy growth at the base. They definitely do NOT like soggy bottoms! Keep mulch away from the plants and situate so that they are in well-drained soil, however, and they will reward you.
Planting ideas
All these pinks look at home at the front of the border or tucked amongst boulders in a rock garden. They also make an attractive addition to container gardens.

I love this perennial combination of Dianthus  with the
spires of veronica (Veronica spicata)and the spherical 
Photo credit
 Try a romantic color scheme of silver, white and pink, pairing ‘Firewitch’ with white pansies and the soft felted foliage of ‘silver dust’ (Cineraria syn. Senecio) for a container which will look delightful from September through May. Underplanting the pansies with white or pink hyacinths will add additional fragrance and a new look in early spring. Combining these in an elegant white or silver container would be the prefect finishing touch.

At the front of a border the bold foliage of Heuchera ‘Berry smoothie’ would add great depth and contrast to any white flowering rockery pinks. With its raspberry toned leaves looking delicious in either full sun or partial shade, this Heuchera is a versatile companion.
Or for a different look a low growing sedum such as ‘Dragon’s blood’ could weave its fleshy rosettes of burgundy foliage around ‘Coconut punch’, echoing the burgundy tones while the white splashes of the Dianthus would brighten the otherwise monochromatic pairing. Since  both are sun loving and drought tolerant they would be perfect partners.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Cherish Each Moment

I love to meet new people. Everyone we meet offers us the opportunity to share and receive a little nugget of wisdom, a simple kindness, a thoughtful word.

 I’d like to introduce you to two friends I have met in different ways and who regularly make my day a little brighter with their thought provoking words and skillful photography. As you savor their eloquent, descriptive narrative you will breathe a little deeper, your shoulders will relax and like a square of silky smooth chocolate you will want to savor each post slowly, allowing it to nourish your soul.

Photo credit; Michelle Potter
Michelle Potter reflects on the beauty and wisdom of Nature in her blog ‘Sage Butterfly’.  Her recent post ‘Stillness’ talks about a gardener’s winter hibernation after three seasons of activity. In days gone by, like many of us who live in colder climates, Michelle found herself on the brink of depression each winter as short grey days merged into long dark nights with little to break the monotony. The earth seemed stripped bare of color and life and once the holidays were over, there was nothing to look forward to until bright yellow daffodils brought the promise of a new season. Yet Michelle has decided that ‘stillness’ will be one of her guiding words and principles to live by in 2012. “I have eventually found the magic in settling in stillness”. Have you?

Photo credit; David Perry
I first met David Perry in Dallas – which is pretty amusing since we both live in Seattle. It was a screamingly hot day in 2010 and we were sitting together at a veritable feast hosted by the Dallas Arboretum as part of the Garden Writer’s Association symposium. Looking back I am nothing short of mortified that I casually asked what he did, later discovering that he is a renowned photographer with an impressive list of world class publications to his name.  Rather like asking Prince William if he was single…. Yet that introduction gave me a glimpse into David’s humility as he told me a little bit about his work – never once bragging or giving any indication as to who he ‘really’ was. Instead of laughing at my modest Canon G10 camera (let’s face it most photographers lug around a   suitcase of lenses, spare cameras, memory cards and an unwieldy tripod or two) he began to tell me how to make the most of it, even reassuring me that it was one of the best cameras of its type on the market at that time. Since then David has generously shared his knowledge and ideas with me via email and in a local workshop yet perhaps his greatest gift has been his blog ‘A photographer’s garden blog’. Every post is a poem. Every picture a story. No more words on my part could possibly do it – or its author justice. You’ll have to read it yourself.

Take time to just ‘be’. Share a moment with others.  

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Ancient Design Revisited - Water Rills

A stainless steel chalice and gentle fountain flank
this contemporary rill.
Chalice design; David Harber
Photo credit; Gil German
Water features have become an inherent part of modern garden design. Whether it is a large cascading waterfall and inter-connecting pools or bubbling water emerging from a granite boulder we enjoy the sight, sounds and life that water brings to the garden.

We tend to think of ponds or fountains as being our only options yet there is another type of water feature which has been in use since Egyptian times – a rill. In landscape design terms a rill is a narrow channel of water which moves in a straight line through the garden. Typically very shallow they are ideal for homes with small children where safety is a prime consideration and can be incorporated into even small gardens or courtyards by building them directly into the patio itself.


Rills can be constructed above ground rather like a narrow raised border or set at floor level thus offering great versatility. Although primarily constructed for decorative purposes, rills can also bring additional functionality to a garden.  

This raised rill could easily tuck into the corner of a small
patio. It allows for planting behind (although I would
have selected something with a stronger vertical line
such as horsetail reeds) and seating in front. There's even
a spot for candles.
Design and photo credit; Charlotte Rowe
I am currently working on a patio design which calls for a raised border to wrap around three sides, providing a sense of enclosure yet still allowing an open view of the garden. I have planned these borders to be 17” high and edged with wide stone slabs to provide additional seating as needed. The same principle can be applied to a raised rill. In a small garden this water channel need only be 6” wide and perhaps just offer a 12” deep seat on one side. Yet this small feature will provide sound, movement and seating – truly multi-functional.

For a unique garden experience what about adding custom seating which bridges the rill itself? Benches or chairs could be set over raised rills, perhaps backing up to a wall or hedge in such a way that water flows under the seats. Fun!

Defining areas of the garden for distinct purposes such as eating and dining can be achieved by the placement of furniture or containers, a change in elevation or by  the addition of an ‘entrance’ such as an archway. A rill can serve the same purpose. If raised the distinction between outdoor rooms  is more obvious, if set at ground level the moving water is less intrusive on the landscape yet still delineates the space in the same way that an area rug clearly defines the seating area within a living room. 

This rill passes through patios and lawn successfully
connecting distinct areas of the garden
while focusing attention on the French doors of the home.

When designing gardens we employ various ‘tricks’ to move the eye around the space – color and plant repetition or strategically placed focal points for example. The strong architectural line of a rill is a very effective way to draw the eye down a long axis to a distant feature such as a sculpture.  

Materials and style

These two elements are interconnected. The strong geometric profile and crisp lines of a rill lend themselves to minimalistic, contemporary design especially when constructed with materials such as stainless steel or black dyed concrete. More traditional, formal styling would suggest the use of tile, brick or stone.  Restraint is key to successful rill design regardless of style.

Having selected materials the next consideration will be of the design itself. How will water enter and leave the rill? Will there be features such as small pools or sculpture placed along its course? Is there a slope which needs to be accommodated?

Floating stepping stones provide safe passage across
this elegant rill as well as an interesting design feature.
Plants have been selected to have a strong architectural
form while creating s softer look to this courtyard.
Design and Photo credit; Sue Townsend
By design rills are intended to be tranquil with a barely perceptible movement of water. Hidden reservoirs often allow for gentle re-circulation of the water and several examples can be seen in these photographs. However, many designers feel that a rill looks it’s best when the water ‘disappears’ into a small shallow pool, in which case I would recommend its shape be square to maintain the geometric lines. One could even place a series of small square pools along the course of a long rill to create an interesting rhythm without compromising the design intent.

Wide chutes have  been carved into the stone
walls of this rill to accommodate a slope.
Design and photo credit; Charlotte  Rowe
A series of rills, set at angles or in one continuous run can be stair-stepped down a modest slope, each length separated by short drops. These look wonderful when each step is of equal depth.


A garden becomes a magical place at night when water features are illuminated. Always consider lighting at the same time as planning any landscape renovation as it is much easier to run cables while construction is in progress than after hardscape has been installed. Under water lights are effective if you can keep the water clean (murky water rather ruins the effect!), while perimeter lighting set flush into the surround will highlight the feature without interfering visually.

A clean lined minimalist design
Design and photo credit; David  Anderson Garden Design

Rills are not usually planted since the calming qualities of the water will be disrupted and the shallow channels limit plant selection anyhow. If planting is important to your design it would be better to add planting adjacent to the rill. This decision will have an impact on the overall style, however. Left unadorned the still water can reflect the sky giving a sense of openness. Adjacent grasses, shrubs and perennials will help anchor the feature into the garden and create a cozier feel but the design may lose its contemporary edge.

So think beyond what the nurseries and garden centers have to offer and consider designing something truly unique. Dare to be different!


Wednesday, January 11, 2012

From Here to There

Every step, every turn reveals a new chapter in the story of this garden
A wooden bridge, painted red, suggests an opportunity to pause.
Design by Jim Guthrie

I am naturally drawn to bridges. They invite exploration and the promise of a fresh perspective. Why are they there? What do they span?  A trickling stream? A waterfall? A dry gulley? What is on the other side?

Remember the story of Winnie-the-Pooh and how he invented the game of Poohsticks? Crossing the bridge, Winnie-the-Pooh stopped to lie on his tummy and watch the river slipping slowly away beneath him, the lazy current taking his fir cones and sticks on a mesmerizing journey. This conjures up such a peaceful, dreamy picture that I almost wish for a warm sunny day to do the same!

Designing adventures into your garden makes it more interesting. When a garden is experienced rather than observed it becomes memorable, something which lingers in the mind long after the visit is over.

In an earlier four part post on garden design I suggested ideas for entrances, pathways, ‘garden moments’ and finally destinations. A bridge could be incorporated in any of the first three elements and provide us with the opportunity to add something unique.

Bridges are structures which are intended to span an obstacle, allowing passage from one side to the other. The very first bridges were created by Nature as logs fell across a stream or large stones tumbled into the water conveniently providing dry passage. A related feature is the boardwalk, commonly used in sensitive areas to traverse a wetland or coastal dunes. There are several ways to incorporate either of these structures into even a small garden.

Dappled sunlight, majestic Japanese maples and mossy paths all 
combine to create a perfect woodland glade.Yet it is this blue 
bridge which transforms the scene from delightful to truly memorable.
Design and photo credits; Deborah Elliott
Perhaps the most popular style of garden bridge is a gentle arched structure. Traditionally made of cedar these are now also built using composite materials. Often associated with Asian design, these may be painted red in Chinese gardens or left to weather naturally. However this style can also be adapted beautifully to a woodland setting. I love the image of Deborah Elliott’s blue bridge in her delightful woodland garden. The unexpected color catches our attention, inviting us to explore further. Deborah has a true artist’s eye and has repeated blue hues in other garden accents such as a weathered birdhouse and a secluded bench. This ‘places’ the bridge in the garden while still being its focal point.

A word on safety – I have seen several arched bridges with a very steep incline. Personally I prefer to stroll rather than hike and I don’t see the purpose of such a gradient unless a yacht has to sail underneath! A gentler slope is more relaxing and still serves the purpose. Wet leaves and winter moss can leave these surfaces slippery, however, so be sure to clean them off regularly or add non-slip treads. Handrails may also be necessary – check your local ordinances for regulations and recommendation.

Understated, yet this simple bridge is  still an important element
in this woodland garden design.
My design
In one of our previous gardens we added a simple rustic bridge over a small stream. The span was short enough one could have simply stepped across the stream, yet assumed a greater importance by adding a simple, level, planked structure. By changing the material underfoot from the hazelnut shell pathway to cedar boards the journey became more interesting and suggested it was worth stopping to watch the water as it tumbled over mossy rocks and around lush ferns as it made its way to the pond below.

A raised boardwalk meanders through the jungle-like
 foliage of a wetland.
Bloedel Reserve, WA

Bridges don’t need to be straight and this is perhaps where boardwalks really come into their own. Zigzag paths slow us down as we need to watch where we are walking! In Zen philosophy and teachings, they are used to focus the walker's attention to the mindfulness of the current place and time moment - "being here, now".

Floating stepping stones are the highlight of this design as they 
bridge the two patios, fording a small pool midway.

A contemporary twist on this theme which I especially like is the use of floating stepping stones. These are less intrusive than a raised bridge or boardwalk and are suitable to span still or very gently moving water which is less than a foot deep. Stones are set with mortar onto large piers of brick or concrete which in turn are set upon a concrete base for stability. These piers will be completely hidden beneath the stepping stones.

What would work best in your garden? First consider the function; do you need to cross a seasonal stream or to provide firm footing over a dry river bed for example. Then determine the style that would work best – rustic, formal, Asian or contemporary. What would blend with the surrounding landscape and homes architecture? The final design will be determined by taking these factors into account as well as structural considerations such as the physical distance the bridge has to span.

Finally stand back and watch visitors young and old being drawn irresistibly towards your bridge. Poohsticks anyone?

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Try Something New In Your Garden This Year

Nasturtium 'Cup of sun' is a new variety from Renee's Garden for 2012.

A sure sign of the New Year is the arrival of the seed catalogs in the mail each day. How do they know where I live?! I have my list of what I need to order but somehow I’m always enticed by the larger than life glossy images of ripe, juicy tomatoes and sweet peas so perfect I can almost smell them. Nurseries, box stores and many hardware stores also carry seeds at this time of year which for many is more convenient than mail order but I find that catalogs give you the opportunity to easily compare varieties and prices.

One thing I found out the hard way is that all seeds are not equal. Thinking to save a few dollars last year I bought the cheapest packet of Cosmos seeds I could find rather than my usual brand. After all they are ridiculously easy to grow, what could go wrong? Certainly they germinated without any problem but the plants branched at almost 90’ meaning that as each one grew they simply broke away from the main stem. I ended up with the most straggly looking plants I have ever grown.

I grow marigolds as companion plants to my
tomatoes as they are said to prevent nematodes.
I'm not sure if they do or not but these 'Signet
starfire' are worth growing just for their color.
To avoid this, choose seeds from reputable companies that have years of experience and take the time to select only the best cultivars and varieties. Renee Shepherd does just that with her outstanding Renee’s Garden seeds. With 25 years of seed sourcing experience Renee only sells those with proven performance while edibles have been tested for flavor (tough life!) and she has even developed recipes, provided on the packets to help you make the most of your bounty. In fact the packets are quite unique in that they include the most detailed information on growing, harvesting and cooking information in the business. You can also view these online – useful for those of us who threw away the packet by mistake!

Back all this up with Renee’s blog, website and online community forum and you’re getting far more than just a packet of seeds.

New to gardening? Renee has you covered with her special ’Easy to Grow’ vegetable and herb collections. Each contains five individual packets of seeds such as Italian parsley, ‘Romeo round’ baby carrots (seriously cute!!) and ‘Farmers market mix’ lettuce leaves. Just sprinkle the seeds, water and stand back!

New for 2012 - 'Stardom' landscape lettuce could
easily be incorporated into the garden border.
Only have a patio? I enjoyed the most delicious lunch last summer with friends who had prepared a salad using Renee’s Garden mixed salad leaves. Two minutes from patio to plate. Try getting that from the store! This year Renee has expended her patio collection to include a new compact zucchini called ‘Astia’, a French bush variety which won’t swallow the garden yet still provide those gorgeous yellow flowers and glossy green fruit.

One of the hottest trends in recent years is ‘Vertical Gardening’ and Renee has a great assortment of carefree climbing vines for both edible and ornamental use. I love the look of their exclusive "Queen of Hearts" sweet pea; a striking combination of heat-tolerant antique varieties that blossom in scented bouquets of crimson-red, burgundy, magenta-rose and cream. Mmmm.

Look at that color! 'Mandarin Cross' tomato.
Few gardens are without at least one tomato plant. I’m actually not that fond of tomatoes – or so I thought after years of shop bought, flavorless or somewhat bitter offerings. However, we have grown the cherry variety ‘Sungold’ for the past two years where each mouthful offered an explosion of sweetness from the tiny orange fruit. We also grew the yellow slicing tomato ‘Lemon boy’ last year which I   found as a 4” plant at a local nursery and loved the bright color as well as sweet flavor. For 2012 I’m thinking about ordering the new Japanese slicing tomato ‘Mandarin Cross’ from Renee’s Garden  which promises a creamy texture and a sweet, even finish. Can you imagine a summer salad of gourmet greens studded with these golden-orange jewels? I can feel the sunshine already.

Remember that you don’t need a greenhouse or propagator for most of these seeds. A sunny windowsill is fine, and many are sown directly outside.

So much pleasure for just a couple of dollars. What seeds will you grow this year?

All photos courtesy of Renee's Garden

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Evergreen needn't just mean green

Bright pink sepals glow on this abelia in winter
Photo credit; taken at Wisley Gardens by thehardyperennial,com

I’m often asked to design a low maintenance garden for clients. I consider several criteria when selecting suitable plants which I covered in my post ‘Reducing maintenance (and backache) in the garden’.

Low maintenance shouldn’t mean boring, however! An endless hedge of arborvitae or a border entirely devoted to Rhododendrons may be easy care but won’t win any design awards. Yet evergreen trees and shrubs are an important part of low maintenance design unless you are especially fond of raking up barrow loads of leaves each fall. The trick is to select several evergreen plants that change in some way during the year.

Broadleaved evergreens are those plants which keep their leaves all year such as boxwoods and holly. Many of these do provide year round interest by virtue of their flower and fruit production and so earn their place in the garden. But there are several candidates which also change color, a feature I like to look for when designing landscapes or easy care, eye catching container gardens.

Vibrant winter color on 'Gulf stream' heavenly
bamboo makes it a winner.
Photo credit; Furney's nursery
Heavenly bamboo (Nandina domestica) is perhaps the first to come to mind. These shrubs have it all; soft leaves in shades of green, chartreuse, burgundy and purple deepen to rich red in winter, especially when planted in full sun. Add to this clusters of white spring time flowers followed by bright red berries in fall, drought tolerance when established and fabulous material for cut flower arrangements and you truly have a 5 star plant. Many varieties are available including the mounding ‘Moon Bay’, richly colored and taller ‘Plum passion’ and the bolder leaved but dwarf ‘Blush pink’.

I have valued the ‘Kaleidoscope’ abelia (Abelia x grandiflora) for its bright variegated foliage for many years and it’s a popular addition to my evergreen container combinations. However I was recently given several of the non-variegated ‘Edward Goucher’ and I must say I am enjoying these in my garden even more. This large mounding shrub is deer resistant ( a HUGE plus for me) and its glossy, deep green leaves have turned a rich mahogany shade with bright red highlights .Tubular white flowers have adorned these bushes for many months, finally taking a rest when our temperatures dipped into the mid 20’s. This quiet beauty provides an understated foil for showier winter specimens such as a nearby golden ‘Skylands’ spruce. (Picea orientalis)

Leucothoe 'Scarletta' snuggles up to white violas and
 evergreen parahebe in this simple container design.
Photo credit; Whichford pottery
For bullet proof color in the shade garden I look to leucothoe (Leucothoe fontanesiana), especially ‘Scarletta' and ‘Rainbow’ whose foliage becomes increasingly red as winter progresses. These elliptical leathery leaves make good companions to the more delicate evergreen ferns such as autumn fern (Dryopteris erythrosa), soft mosses and wispy grasses such as the bronze toned leatherleaf sedge ‘Red rooster’ (Carex buchananii ‘Red rooster’). This arching shrub looks perfectly at home in the woodland garden but will cope with sun if the soil is well amended with compost to retain moisture. Leocothoe  is a favorite of mine for fall/winter container gardens and maintenance challenged gardeners! Fragrant bell shaped flowers adorn the plants in spring as a delightful bonus.

When a plant has the choice of common names ‘Pigsqeak’ or ‘Elephant ears’ you have to wonder if it wouldn’t prefer  to be known by its botanical name Bergenia! I’m not sure where the first name came from (coined in England I believe - I deny all responsibility) but at least ‘Elephant ears’ aptly describes the shape of the fleshy leaves on this easy care perennial. These thrive in partial shade with reasonable moisture and display thick spikes of white or pink flowers in spring. Equally striking however is the color  change the foliage undergoes in the colder months especially the varieties ‘Bressingham ruby’ and the more compact ‘Winter glow’. In both cases the green leaves become deep burgundy in winter. Try planting these in combination with white flowering spring bulbs such as drifts of crocus to create a vivid early season vignette. Alternatively the white variegated foliage of andromeda ‘Flaming silver’ (Pieris japonica) would provide longer term interest.

It is only since moving to the United States that I have gained a better appreciation for conifers in the garden. Long gone are the days when we were limited to choosing between a monster juniper to swallow the garden or a pine tree which towered over the house. Now we are tempted by beauties in shades of green, blue and gold from the petite to the giant. Still not enough choice for you? Well there are many fabulous conifers which even change color during the winter, some of which actually look their best in colder months!

'Winter gold' mugo pine really stands out in the
winter garden.
Photo credit;
The dwarf mugo pine ‘Winter gold’ (Pinus mugo) is on my ‘must find’ list and I may have to resort to e-gardening to find it! Conifer expert Adrian Bloom expounds the beauty of this in his book ‘Gardening with conifers’. The long, dark green summer needles transition to golden hues in late autumn. What a perfect contrast to black mondo grass or another great winter conifer; Siberian cypress (Microbiota  decussata). The prostrate form and lacy texture contrast well with the tufty pine but the winter color combination is exceptionally striking as the Siberian cypress turns purple-bronze just as the pine reaches its golden peak. This tough conifer just asks for full sun and good drainage. Its mature size is 12-18” wide and 10-16’ wide but can be trimmed for size.

'Forever goldie' arborvitae
shows burnt orange foliage at
this time of year.
Photo credit;
Some conifers have a rather muddy winter complexion in my opinion, such as the popular Hinoki cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa). Yet once again these can serve to highlight brighter companions such as ‘Rheingold’ arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis ‘Rheingold’) or the larger ‘Forever goldie’. Both turn a distinctive orange shade in winter, returning to summer chartreuse/ bright green.

Chamaecyparis lawsoniana ‘Blue surprise’ Port Orchard cedar (Chamaecyparis lawsoniana ‘Blue surprise’) is a favorite conifer of mine for both landscape and container design. Its bright steel blue, finely textured foliage is gorgeous enough. The tight columnar form makes it suitable for narrow spaces while its mature height of 10’ earns it a place as a vertical accent in many designs. The new 'Guardian Series' by Monrovia now offers these as grafted trees eliminating the worry of root rot which can be a problem in some areas. However this beauty has yet another attribute – it gains a delicate burgundy cast in winter. Plant this in full sun where you can enjoy it year round and you won’t be disappointed.

Many other examples of chameleon plants abound including wintercreeper (Euonymus varieties) and the Japanese plume cedar (Cryptomeria elegans). Visit your local nursery to see what is on offer or a botanical garden to see examples of successful winter vignettes.

Remember, evergreen doesn’t have to mean always green.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

The Hottest Gardening Trend; e-Gardening.

The foliage of the common horse chestnut
resemble stubby yellow fingers with each leaf measuring
over 12" across

Is there such a word as e-gardening? If not there should be.

Within a 30’ drive I have at least 10 excellent retail and wholesale nurseries and at least as many smaller, specialty treasures. Within 2 hours, at least double that number. Yet for die hard gardeners like me that simply isn’t enough. Thankfully (or not as my husband commented) we now have ‘internet garden’ or e-gardening.

With all the gardening books, magazines, online articles and television shows our gardening world has expanded exponentially as we discover and fall in love with all manner of ‘must  have’ plants. And then there’s just pure sentiment, buying plants because they remind us of special places and people. The two trees I’m showcasing here fall firmly into the latter.

Conkers are the seeds (often
 referred to as nuts) of the
common horse chestnut tree.
Photo credit; Wikipedia 
The things you do for your children….or grandchildren….or great grandchildren.  One of our fall highlights as a young family was to walk in the parks looking for horse chestnuts – or conkers as they are called in my native England. In days gone by these were pickled in vinegar before being threaded onto a stout string to use in a school yard game. For us though it was all about the fun of the hunt, discovering the smooth brown nuts wrapped in cloaks of pale velvet hidden within the spiky seed coat. We’d come home with pocketful’s of these shiny nuts (and discover them later in the washing machine…).

The huge flowers can be seen from a
considerable distance.
Photo credit;
As soon as we moved to this 5 acre property our two ‘children’ – now 23 and 19 insisted that we plant a horse chestnut tree (Aesculus hippocastanum). Fabulous idea I thought – until I tried to find one. Whereas they can be seen in a few parks in Seattle they are not a common sight. These are HUGE trees unsuitable for the typical suburban garden. Yet if you have the room they display magnificent large spires of white flowers in spring, offer summer shade under their monster leaves and have fabulous yellow fall color plus CONKERS! Locally I found the sterile varieties ‘Baumannii' and the ‘Briotii’ red horsechestnut (Aesculus x carnea ‘Briotii’), but what’s the point if they don’t have conkers?  I just wanted the plain old common horsechestnut and it was nowhere to be found until I started my internet search. 

Forestfarm Nursery in southern Oregon came to my rescue and I hastily placed my order. I am now the proud owner of - an 18” twig. Hmmm. Well it was the only size I could find and if that’s what it takes so be it. I’m not sure how old either of us will be before it bears fruit, but we intend to stay in the house for the rest of our lives and I know our children want to be able to keep the property when we are long gone, so this humble horsechestnut tree will be here for our children and grandchildren to make their own memories.

Forestfarm Nursery specializes in the more unusual plants and trees so they were my answer once again as I hunted for an oak tree. Not just any oak tree – an English oak tree (Quercus robur). Now oak trees in general are not that hard to find with several species being popular Seattle street trees, especially the newer more columnar varieties such as ‘Crimson spire’ oak (Quercus robur ‘Crimson spire’) and they are all lovely. They are best known - by children and squirrels alike, for the shiny acorns sitting daintily in knobby cups. The distinctively lobed leaves transition from deep green through a colorful array of rich fall shades before turning brown in fall. These crisp leaves stay on the tree through most of the winter, rustling softly in the winter winds.

Yet again my heart ruled my head, and yet again it is my children’s fault, as in years gone by we also filled our pockets with acorns on those fall walks.

The acorns of the  English oak are more elongated
than some species
Photo credit;
The English oak tree is the majestic, ‘king of the woods’ and a popular choice for English parklands as well harboring the legendary outlaw Robin Hood and his Merry Men in ancient Sherwood Forest.  It is not unusual to find specimens 60’ tall and wide, and several hundred years old. It may be a while before my 5’ stick can be called the king of the woods but at least I have a knave thanks to the internet.

So as seed and plant catalogs begin to arrive in the mail, curl up in your favorite armchair and start dreaming. What have you always wanted to grow but can’t find easily? It doesn’t have to be a huge tree. What annual, now out of favor did you always see in your grandma’s garden? Can you buy the seeds to start on your windowsill? Or do you have memories of a particularly fragrant vine that you’ve never seen at your local garden center? If it is hardy enough for your area why not see if you can buy it online?

January is the time when we often reflect on the past and make plans for the future. To me gardens are all about memories; recapturing precious moments or recalling special friends. And sometimes it is simply about leaving a legacy for our children. Surely that is worth the hunt.