Put Favorite Plants in Frequented Places

X Fatshedera lizei 'Annemieke'

X Fatshedera lizei ‘Annemieke’

If there’s one bit of advice I can give to somewhat experienced DIY gardeners (in which I mean folks who are already familiar with the Right Plant, Right Place concept and utilizing shrubs for structure), it’s to plant your favorite plants near the areas of your yard that you frequent. For instance, the point at which you park your car every night would be a good spot, or where you enter your home (at the front door, side door, back, wherever). We often don’t think about these highly used points because we’re distracted by the task of coming home from somewhere or leaving to get somewhere. But these are the places you see the most in your yard and therefore, what grows there, or doesn’t, can make you momentarily happy, or depressed.

As a designer, I always make sure these spaces are well covered in terms of plants that make my clients happy. And I’ve tried to live this philosophy as well. I’ve put an Edgeworthia chrysantha in a container by my patio door (so I can see it in winter through the window and smell it when I step out) and putting a Callicarpa bodinieri ‘Profusion’ on either side of my front door. Its purple berries and purple new foliage cheer me up and draw in visitors.

Of course, you need to take into account whether a plant will be happy in the conditions posed by whatever area you’re addressing. Does it have enough shade or sun? Is it in a frosty patch in winter? Will the dog trample it as it’s running around the corner (as is the case with my Arachniodes simplicor ‘Variegata’)? A few years ago, I transplanted one of my most favorite plants from the back of my yard to a shallow border by my side door and driveway. I love X Fatshedera lizei ‘Annemieke’ for its dark green Fatsia-bred leaves that hold bursts of chartreuse and yellow at their centers. It’s a three-colored, variegated plant! And the glossy foliage stays freshly evergreen all-year-round in the Northwest maritime climate. It grows in a floppy vine-like way (hence the Hedera part) but the branches are stiff enough to prop up. It’s also easily shapeable.

I took a chance with this plant because it doesn’t like afternoon sun much and I have some of that in summer. It does get shade after about 3:30pm. It’s just north of a Drymis winteri ‘Pewter’s Pillar,’ which as that grows, will shade the Fatshedera more and more from the hot afternoon. So far, it’s worked out well. The Fatshedera is happy having the fence to lean against and I’m happy to see it when I walk out my side door every day.


Great Plants for Small Gardens

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A cozy Seattle garden

In late June, I created a plantscape for a client with a very small yard, the smallest one I’ve ever worked on. She has a deck and a lovely set of risers dropping down to a tiny flagstone patio. That’s it for the back yard. The yard faces south and west so it’s hot and dry most of the summer. And luckily has nicely draining soil.

Because the borders are at most five feet deep and more often three, I chose trees, shrubs and perennials that I knew would grow either in a tall, narrow manner or in tight mounds. Here are some of the plants I used:

Physocarpus 'Little Devil'

Physocarpus ‘Little Devil’

Physocarpus opulifolius ‘Little Devil’ (also called ‘Donna May’). Most gardeners are familiar with the larger Physocarpus (or Ninebark) cultivars that grow ten to fifteen tall when happy. They’re wonderful shrubs to use because they come in various foliage colors and if you need to screen something fast, Physocarpus will do the job. They’re also super tough plants.

The problem with Physocarpus is they can take over your border. But recently, some smaller cultivars have debuted and they’re very exciting. ‘Amber Jubilee’ has orangey-yellow foliage, ‘Tiny Wine’ is a dwarf bronzy plant. ‘Little Devil’ tops out at about four or five feet and grows almost as wide. It has gorgeous burgundy foliage and light pink to white flowers. In winter, when the leaves drop, it shows off pretty, peeling bark. A great choice when you want a focal point but don’t want to wrestle with a hedge trimmer every year. It’s also hardy down to Zone 2. Full sun.

Spiraea 'Magic Carpet'

Spiraea ‘Magic Carpet’

Another small shrub I use often for clients (whether they have a large or small garden) is Spiraea ‘Magic Carpet.’ I can not praise this shrub enough. Spiraeas generally are workhorses of the garden. They like full sun, require little pruning, rarely get diseases, and bloom in usually pink or white corymbs that attract butterflies. Plus, in Spring, spiraeas are usually the first shrubs to leaf out and in ‘Magic Carpet”s case, leafs out with new orange growth. The more established leaves are yellow at this time, making for a beautiful contrast. I took this photo in early September. Notice how it’s still held this color combination so late in the season. ‘Magic Carpet’ is handy for any place where you want a low shrub that will grow in a tight mound while adding interest to the landscape.

Buddleia 'Blue Chip'

Buddleia ‘Blue Chip’

Buddleia davidii is now listed as a noxious weed along the West Coast so growers have been creating new sterile varieties and one such variety is ‘Blue Chip’ (also known as Lo and Behold). This is a smaller, more compact version of a regular buddleia but it blooms just as profusely with a light purple color. It too attracts butterflies. And I love that it blooms usually until frost. It just goes and goes. Again, no diseases, needs little pruning (one can cut it back to about a foot every few years if so desired), and doesn’t get leggy or oversized. Loves hot sun. Notice how my client played off its pretty purple color by adding that bold blue gazing ball. It really pops now.

Stewartia pseudocamellia

Stewartia pseudocamellia

One tree I like to plant a lot for clients is Stewartia monadelpha or Stewartia pseudocamellia. I think Stewartias are the most underappreciated trees out there. They can get to about twenty feet after several years but as far as small gardens go, they are the best.

What I like most about them is they grow in a flattish, behaved pattern. They don’t grow out on all sides, they just grow in more of a flattish oval or V shape. Therefore, they’re great for along a fence line or for screening. They can take full sun without missing a beat but also do just fine in part-shade. Mine have always been very drought tolerant. Plus, outside of some dead inner twigs on monadelpha, I’ve barely ever pruned a Stewartia. They get fragrant white flowers in June, then show off their either cinnamon or grayish dappled bark in winter. But the real show stopper is Stewartia’s fall color. It’s a brilliant orange that lasts for weeks!


Ceanothus ‘Dark Star’

I’m a fan of all Ceanothus shrubs that are hardy in the Northwest (and even some that aren’t). One of my all-time favorites is ‘Julia Phelps.’ For this client’s yard though I chose Ceanothus ‘Dark Star’ because of its lower height. There’s a window that we didn’t want to block and ‘Dark Star’ will accommodate this situation by growing wider than tall. It gets to about six feet tall and maybe eight feet wide. In May or June, it blooms in tight dark blue flowers that bees absolutely adore. They will cover it and work their magic. It smells wonderful. ‘Dark Star’ is a bit tender, hardy to Zone 8, but in a warm Seattle garden with well-drained soil it will do just fine over the winter. The only pruning Ceanothus require is the occasional cleaning out of lower dead twigs. But it can be shaped if need be. I like it better left as is, with its wild sprays jutting out. Pairs well with smoke bushes, spiraeas, phormiums, etc. Evergreen.

Loropetalum chinense 'Rubra'

Loropetalum chinense ‘Rubra’

I’d be remiss in talking about smaller shrubs if I didn’t mention Loropetalum. There are several cultivars of Loropetalum but I like Loropetalum chinense ‘Rubra.’

It holds its purple foliage throughout summer the best, I’ve found. (Can you tell I like purple plants?) And pair it with a Spanish lavender or Blue Oat Grass or even that ‘Magic Carpet’ Spiraea and you immediately have a stunning contrast. Loropetalums grow in a cascading mound, getting a bit wider and teeny bit taller every year. To about three feet or so. They’re sort of flopsy but their best quality is the spider-like blossoms (they’re a witch hazel relative) that are hot magenta. Gotta love that.

Two last plants I’ll spotlight, which I don’t have portraits of, are Chamaecyparis nootkatensis ‘Green Arrow’ and Carpinus betulus ‘Frans Fontaine.’ You can see a bit of the ‘Green Arrow’ cedar in the picture at the top of this page. It’s an evergreen that grows in a tight spire but has pendulous branches, making for a Dr. Seuss-like effect. Very cool looking. It only gets about three or four feet wide so if you want something tall but not wide, it’s perfect. It’s also virtually maintenance free and highly drought tolerant.

The ‘Frans Fontaine’ or Columnar Hornbeam is an outstanding deciduous tree that grows in a tight column. Carpinus trees usually have an elegantly spaced scaffolding and this cultivar is no exception. I used this tree to screen out my client’s neighbor’s gas meter. It will grow only to about six feet wide and about 20 feet tall while maintaining its narrow football crown. It likes full sun and if given that, will turn a pretty yellow color in fall.

Other great plants to explore for small gardens are: Weigela ‘Midnight Wine,’ Chamaecyparis ‘Blue Surprise,’ Cistus crispus ‘Sunset,’ and Acer palmatum ‘Sango Kaku.’

The Lake Forest Park Garden Tour, Revisited

My sunny mixed island bed.

My sunny mixed island bed.


Rodgersia in bloom in Michelle LeMoine’s garden.

Every June, the Lake Forest Park garden club organizes a tour of six beautiful gardens in our little town. Lake Forest Park is one of Seattle’s oldest suburbs and features a huge, gorgeous canopy of native trees. Many properties are hidden amidst these trees, sometimes even fully hidden as my house is. So it makes sense that the tour’s called “The Secret Gardens of Lake Forest Park.”

This year, I had the honor and work of opening my garden to the public. It was an exhausting but fun experience. I worked most spare hours in the garden for four and a half months and the result though was gratifying. The pressure to show my garden to the public motivated me to finish the projects I’d been putting off these last couple of years. Though my garden is a young garden as we’ve only been in our house for three years, the garden still looked better than ever with all spaces planted, weeded, mulched and decorated. I could have done even more, but I was just too … darn … tired. Instead, I called it good on the eve of the tour and enjoyed the festivities. I even managed to visit a few other gardens.

I’m always inspired when I see other gardens on a tour. The vision that manifests itself in a garden reflects one’s personality and tastes, so when you visit, you’re peeking inside someone’s soul. You discover what they love, how they live, what’s important to them. The garden of Michelle LeMoine was wonderful with its large-leaved plants and unusual conifers. Carolyn Barden, who I think of as the Grand Dame of LFP gardening, sprinkles her forested garden with whimsy via original works of art and the naming of spaces.

Carolyn Barden's honeysuckle passage.

Carolyn Barden’s honeysuckle passage.

Carolyn lives on the property she grew up on and knows well the history of not only her acreage, but of much of our neighborhood — going all the way back to when folks mostly rode on horses to get around. Vicki Scuri’s hillside garden features a rain garden and lovely meandering paths. Mike Munro, son of Jerry Munro of Munro’s Nursery in Kenmore, WA, had a collection of rare plants, many of which I hadn’t seen before. (Unfortunately, I ran out of photo battery that day.) I also ran out of time and ended up missing the Pederson garden, so if anyone out there has photos, I’d love to include them.

Participating in the tour gave me an appreciation of the work that goes into organizing it. On garden tour day, there’s not just a tour but a huge plant sale in our Town Center. At least a dozen specialty nurseries come. Gardening radio personality Ciscoe Morris broadcasts his show from there. It’s a giant horti festival. My friend Angela and I managed to step into the fray for a bit, shopping for plants, chatting up Ciscoe. At the end of the day, I went to sleep feeling like Miss Garden America, overly showered with attention and satisfied with all of the work I’d done.

The Okarikomi hedge in Vicki Scuri's garden.

The Okarikomi hedge in Vicki Scuri’s garden.


Placing Art in the Garden

IMG_2670A few days before the garden tour, I spent some time rearranging the art in my garden and acquiring a few new pieces. This got me thinking about how art can really make a garden, or even corner of a garden, pop with energy. We’ve only owned our property for a few years so the plants are still young. Because of this, I had to spend extra time arranging my pieces for ultimate effect. Here are a few ideas for placing art in the garden.

First, I say go big. While it’s nice to see a lone bird or butterfly hovering above a shrub, it’s mesmerizing to see five of them clustered together. Their colors and shapes merge together to form one larger statement. I’ve seen this approach with those swirling glass shapes on the ends of sticks and the effect can be stunning. Couple blue ones with Blue Oat Grass or Blue Star Junipers or Blue Hostas, then stick in some dark purple lavender or salvia, and you’ve got a hypnotic image with interest on all sides.

The next tip I have is to nestle. While it’s lovely to see a large sculpture featured by itself, it’s even more mysterious and inviting to see it softened by plants. This gives the viewer the sense that the angel or birdhouse or abstract shape simply sprung to life out of the garden, from where, we can’t say. Nestling also makes it seem like the sculpture has always been there, adding a feeling of history and stability.

Sometimes less is more. You may have a neighbor who sees every broken pitchfork and rusty gas can as a piece of garden sculpture, but really, a few well-placed, larger pieces have more impact. Otherwise, if the collection grows too dense, the pieces are lost in the huge mix of stuff, rather than being proudly featured.

Trust your instincts. You know if you like a human form made of terra-cotta pots (as my neighbor down the street does). You know if you love gargoyles and dragons. Or a kitschy pink flamingo. One of my clients likes owls and frogs and turtles, but ones that are whimsical or even a touch goofy. And these pieces work. They jive with her natural, shade yard and pond. The art also introduces visitors to my client’s personality, which is just as sweet and whimsical. If you do have a distinct taste though, tread lightly.IMG_2623

Don’t slip into matchy-matchy. This is my problem! The designer in me wants everything to recall everything else to display a comprehensive vision. But this can be boring, dare I say “suburban,” and lessens the impact just as much as clutter does. Surprise yourself, take a risk (I’m talking to myself here), buy something of a different color, material, size, whatever. Then place it and wait. See how you feel about it a week, a month later. If you still can’t live with it, list it on Craigslist!

Overall, art takes gardens to a deeper, more personal level. It magnifies the beauty of the plants, giving their textures and colors a form to play off of, contrast with, or through which to surprise us. As the plants change over the seasons, the art is more revealed or hidden, creating windows of drama throughout the year. Now that I’ve been playing with art in my garden, I’ve realized just how poorly I’ve been addressing this aspect. It’s the ignored, lower-value part. No longer. I want to keep it at the forefront of my planning. Some time, when I’m feeling wealthier than I am now, I’d like to hire an artist to create an original piece that will speak to my garden and show off its living beauty. That would be a gift for years to come.

Where did May go?

IMG_2550The month of May flew by for me. Usually, I’m focused on my daughter’s birthday, Mother’s Day, and gardening work for clients, but this year I was also consumed by one other very meaningful thing: participating in my local garden tour. I was invited back in January and I’ve been working on it, if only for a few hours,  every dry day since. Normally the burden wouldn’t be so intense but in November we had a long, large hedge of laurel removed and a fence installed. This left me with over 100 feet of bare space that’s 6-8 feet deep to fill in/rework with plants. I was sort of freaking out. I had plants and small trees I could transplant but they were big and unwieldy. With the help of my pal Angela, I was able to move some of the more mature shrubs to the fence line and create a new backdrop of my eastern border. By late March things were looking good.

But then the sunny weather came and so did the weeds. Just when I finished one section, another would suddenly be covered in little green dandelion starts. So I’d head over to that new bed, and just when I finished weeding that bed, another bed would suddenly be turning green with baby weeds. It was like a bad, frantic dream. I couldn’t keep up. That’s when I got serious in May and composted behind every newly weeded bed.

Compost not only gives a nutritious boost to plants but it amazingly suppresses weeds (even better than bark mulch). In years past, I’ve conducted inadvertent experiments where I composted 9/10ths of a mixed border and left that final 10th bare because I ran out of compost. Sure enough, a month later, the last 10th would be littered with weeds and the composted area still black and bare. Not to mention the plants would have put on beautiful fresh foliage.

So I’ve been spending the last four weeks weeding borders and composting the day afterward. I’m exhausted. I’ve been working until nearly nine o’clock every evening and have used nearly four yards of compost. But my yard now looks fresh and healthy. And the black color of the compost makes plants’ colors and shapes pop. Like a black canvas against which everything glows.

Now that June’s here, I realize I have less than two weeks before the garden tour. I’m both excited and panicked. If I can keep the pace, I’ll have a series of gorgeous borders. If I can’t, well, there may be a few more weeds than visitors anticipated…. Regardless, I’m trying to be Zen about it all.