I’ve done it! I have taken the big leap and arrived at our new home in Dixon MT, a small town in easy reach of Missoula on the Clark Fork River, one of “America’s 10 Best River Towns” in western Montana. Getting here was an adventure, not being used to driving on snowy roads; carrying and pushing my piano and our belongings through the snow into the new home was another challenge.
The snow has melted away, and out of my window I see the barren trees along the Flathead River. I’m enjoying the play of sun and shadows on the hills across the water and the snow-capped peaks of the Mission Mountains in the distance. I hope that the mild weather will hold as long as possible and I can begin getting a feel for our new property and the lay of our hilly terrain.
What brought me here is my family, but also the beauty of Montana’s open plains, valleys, and the emerald green waters of the Clark Fork River that merges with the Flathead River a few miles away. There are so many creeks, rivers, and lakes here that it would take me another lifetime to see them all. Add to this the excitement over discovering a new plant palette and the desire to master the challenges of gardening in the Rockies.
I look forward to designing gardens that survive the winters here and the many other challenges of deer/pocket gophers/squirrels, extreme heat, difficult soils and limited rainfall. One question in particular is on my mind when I look at gardens: What are the design secrets to designing a garden that holds its visual interest even under several inches of snow?
In Missoula, I’ve noticed a distinct appreciation for durable, naturalistic plantings in private gardens and public and commercial landscapes. The design at my local grocery store, in particular, caught my eye by its use of boulders, comfortable stepping stones, long-flowering hardy perennials, shrubs, small trees and ornamental grasses. The whole has a very relaxed and naturalistic feeling, and from Lori Parr, its designer, I learned that her goal was a sustainable plant composition that uses beautiful, low maintenance xeriscape plants of the Mountain West that give the whole a distinct Rocky Mountain feel. (Lori goes by the name of “Lavender Lori” because she now grows hardy Lavenders and makes various products with its oils.)
As I’m looking around to see what other local designers are doing, I talked to Will Grant of Grant Landscape & Design of Missoula. His use, too, of indigenous plants, his stated preference of water-conserving plants and his way of incorporating local stone and rocks in pleasing ways impressed me. Both Lori’s and Will’s supportive and easy sharing of their experiences enforced what I learned in Southern California: Gardeners everywhere love their work so much that they are willing to share secrets and experience and always support those who want to know…
Gardening and Sustainable Design
So I invite you to follow my next blog posts. I’ll share what I have learned about gardening and sustainable design in Western Montana. I’m really excited to see which tricks are employed to keep a landscape interesting even under several inches of snow! I will share with you what I learn here.
For my new gardening friends in Montana although working now in a different environment, my “eyeball” is still good and I bring my design passion and experience that brought me awards in Southern California. I look forward to working with you and to helping you articulate your ideas, to interpreting and transforming them into reality. And to make you feel what this client of mine wrote: “Every day I am thrilled to open the front gate and walk through the first garden you designed. Sometimes it is late afternoon and the light is glorious in the garden.”
Thank you so much for your continued reading of my posts From Montana. I appreciate this support and hope you’ll follow me on this new adventure.
I wish you the very best for the new year and a festive holiday season.
Authors: Christiane Holmquist & Gordon J.
Photography: Emma Almendarez
A recent project amazed me in its rapid flourishing and the joy it brought me and the homeowner. Planting started in early January of this year, and by May the garden was awash in butterflies, birds, and bloom, surprising and delighting us all. The homeowner was so excited that he volunteered to give me his view of our collaboration, and I gladly reprint here his words, with my picture comments:
A Story of a Bench
“As a homeowner, I always thought that the best project outcomes occurred when there was a strong collaboration between the design professional and the homeowner. To illustrate, here’s the tale of a bench and how it came to be.
Me– an elderly gentleman, AKA “the client.”
Christiane Holmquist–AKA Christiane Holmquist Landscape Design
My wife and I bought our home in 1980, which was 3 years old, but totally lacked landscaping. Using design professionals, we landscaped our property–pool, spa, patios, trees, gardens, etc. We planted a wide variety of trees, including a gingko, macadamia nut, bronze loquats, citrus, Chinese fringe trees, paper barks, magnolias, cassias, etc.
As the decades rolled by, the trees became lovely and mature and, correspondingly, we became mature (80+ and counting) (but lovely would be a real stretch). Therefore, with age, we focused on landscape seniorization–how to enjoy and work in the gardens while also minimizing the risk of falls.
One small seniorization action was to install large stone steps between a concrete walkway and a dry streambed. It gave access to the area and with the solid steps, the risk of tripping or falling was minimized.
Enter Christiane. She observed that the garden had “good bones,” meaning that the mature trees and shrubs anchored the new more modern usage of low water plants and native plant material. However, when it came to the stone steps she said, “You can’t have a walkway without a destination! It needs a bench to sit on across from the streambed.” I noted that the spot she was talking about was just beyond a major branch of the macadamia nut tree that I was likely to bump my head on and the bench would be in deep shade. I nixed the idea.
Christiane and I moved onto other elements of the design project — plant species, availability, etc.
Weeks later, Christiane came back to the idea of a bench. She suggested that it be placed in front of the streambed, but still under the canopy of the macadamia nut tree. This time I was able to picture it–a big stone slab resting on two stone pillars that fit two people comfortably. By now I have lots of confidence in Christiane’s judgment and design strength. Also, the masonry people had done a great job building a new wall. So, let’s do it!! In goes the bench. It made the nearby birdbath look out-of-place. So, in goes a large stone birdbath in harmony with the bench.
Fast Forward a Few Months
The stone bench and birdbath are the feature attractions of the center of the gardens. The bench is my favorite spot. One can watch the butterflies–monarchs, swallowtails, sulphurs–fluttering in the sunlight and the birds– sometimes chirping away, sometimes silent, sometimes bathing–enjoying the yard. The bench is a great place for conversations with others. It’s a great place for visitors to enjoy the gardens. A great place for memories.
Thank you, Christiane, for your insight and your persistence.
Sincerely, Gordon.” (End of quote).
Heartfelt thanks to you, Gordon; I much enjoyed working with you!
Gordon’s comments reinforce my love of helping homeowners see the strengths and weaknesses of their existing gardens, and of developing landscape design plans for their improvement, while keeping the client preferences in mind. With Gordon’s detailed involvement we found exceptional plants that bring life to “good bones” and produce enjoyment year round while keeping the upkeep to a minimum. A project like this teaches me a lot about gardens and how to make them better; it fuels my work and propels me on … to the next garden.
Hooray – the sun is back again! And perhaps the drought cycle is broken now! Pictures on the news were showing the effects of the recent deluges, and some of them were quite dramatic. Stepping into a puddle outside the front door is annoying but nothing compared to the destruction that water can wreak when not channeled properly. Some of the damage that a deluge can create in our landscapes is beyond our control, such as rising rivers or breaking dams. But rain water washing out driveways, entering patios or – heaven forbid – eroding your slopes can be guarded against.
Here are some vital strategies:
Most homes are constructed with drainage in mind, but you should make sure that the landscaping slopes away from your home so that excess water can flow away from it (research the guidelines that may differ depending on surface material). Drainage intakes, grates, swales, trenches, and ditches should be clear and free of any obstructions; so should gutters and downspouts, making sure they channel water down, out and away from your property. You’d be surprised at how much water damage could be averted by simply having fully functional gutters.
Raised Beds, Berms, Trenches, Soil Amendments
When your soil is clayish, it will hold onto water longer, and each additional rain shower will take time to drain away. “Soil prep” (amending your soil with organic matter or sand) to possibly as 6-12 inches deep will increase the clay’s absorption rate and prevent from water clogging the soil pores, thus providing air to the plant roots.
If soil amendments are not possible everywhere and occasional flooding can’t be avoided, you can move plants onto higher ground, either by putting them in containers, raised beds or berms. “Berming up”, i.e. creating artificial mounds will aid in keeping your plants on the dryer side. Incidentally, creating an undulating landscape with raised areas will make your landscape more visually interesting.
Additionally, creating trenches for the surplus water might be needed to direct the water away from the garden.
Re-direct Stormwater Runoff
Swales, French Drains, Catch Basins, Channel Drains
Filtering the stormwater runoff before it moves downhill is advantageous to neighbor properties and the health of rivers and streams. To do this, create broad, shallow swales. If water is moving at a faster speed and erosion is a problem, install a French drain below the surface.
Consider installing channel drains in patios and driveways to properly handle any water buildup that may occur. Channel drains are installed within the concrete itself, with access vents to catch the water before it presents a threat.
Reduce Impermeable Surfaces
A good deal of the water in our gardens can be traced to impermeable surfaces. “The next time it rains.. trace the water flowing along ditches and gutters back to the points where it leaves your yard. Chances are, it’s cascading off of a solid surface, like a roof or driveway, which prevents rain from soaking into the ground. [These] “impermeable surfaces” are a major cause of storm water runoff, particularly in urban areas.
One way to curb runoff is to reduce the number of impermeable surfaces in your landscape. That allows water to stand long enough for the ground to absorb it. Start by taking stock of the surfaces in your landscape. Which ones are impermeable, and which of those can be replaced with a more permeable alternative? (Source: gardenclub.homedepot.com)
Protecting Newly Prepped Planter Beds
At one of my projects, the crew had just finished removing the old plants and prepping the beds with amendments. When the work needed to be stopped because of the approaching storm, here are the precautions that the contractor took to protect his work from storm damage.
Natural fibers, biodegradable fibers in erosion control
He fastened Coconut fiber coir to the edges of the newly prepped planter bed to protect it from run-off and erosion. These coirs or wattles are derived from the husks of coconuts; jute netting (not “poly jute” which is synthetic) and sisal fibers are also used to make semi-permanent netting, mats, blocks, and wattles, all with various usages in bank stabilization and erosion control. They are the strongest and most robust erosion control options available. (Note that natural-fiber netting might be environmentally preferable).
He also protected the drains with pebbles so that the soil, not yet protected by mulch and plants, would not get clogged up.
Slopes can cause the greatest anxiety because if unstable they can cause major damage to your home and landscape. The appropriate plants, proper mulching, and the right irrigation system have the greatest chances of success. Unless the nature of the slope is such to requires also cross-drains, terracing and/or retaining walls. A qualified, licensed landscape contractor can help you assess the best approach to stabilizing your hillside, and in more serious cases I’d call upon the expertise of a geotechnical engineer and/or hydraulics engineer.
Irrigation Systems and Slopes
Of course, the wrong irrigation system on your slope can make all this work worthless. Rotors that apply water “fast and furiously” will throw water on the slope that will run off before it can soak into the plant roots. Also, a water jet that hits plant foliage rather than the small plants behind the obstacle will also cause run-off. In some cases, i.e. with low-growing plants, you can be successful with spray irrigation. Although drip irrigation is often the best way to apply irrigation water. Be careful not to soak the soil too deeply as this may cause more problems that no water at all.
Looking around at nature, the most successful and attractive slopes seem to be those with substantial plant life on them! This is because plant roots have soil stabilization functions, as well as softening the impact from rain, and various other benefits that plants provide here. There are numerous articles written about slope stabilization. I want to quote from one that is posted on the website of Las Pilitas Nursery, a grower of California native plants.
“Most hillsides can be made relatively stable with plants. A planting can stop nearly all erosion and hillside movement in a landscape. Almost. The only way of stabilizing a slope better than plants is a reinforced retaining wall “. Even if you don’t want to use California natives on your slope, you’ll find ideas here that you can transfer to your own slope”
Around Your House
Keep your gutters clean, and prevent clogging by installing gutter guards. Gutter guards are the device used to protect the clogging of the roof gutter so that the water from the roof may flow easily and accumulation of water does not take place on the roof but away from the house.
Turn off irrigation
Don’t forget to turn off any automatic irrigation systems until your garden has dried out to a depth of 3-4 inches on the surface. Turning it on again might not be needed until March or April. How do you know that the soil has dried out that deep? Use a soil tube! It’s one of my best tools in the gardening kit.
Water is an “un-precise element” (that’s what the engineer explained to me when I asked him about the brow ditch that the crews were building to divert water from the newly cut slope) and its force and actions not entirely predictable. We can only prepare for it as best as we know. Let’s hope for a safe rainy season and more rain – but of the gentle kind.
Creating an appealing plant composition , especially when aiming for a low water needs design, can be tricky in the shade. Dry shade plant design poses more challenges: Plants grown here have different irrigation needs than their colleagues in the sun; the competition for light and nutrients from trees or large shrubs can be strong, and the choice of suitable plants that are not the “tried and proven” Agapanthus, Indian Hawthorn or Clivia is limited.
Pink Gaura Gaura lindheimeri ‘Siskyou Pink’
Adventurous gardeners will have discovered that a surprising number of drought tolerant plants that we might only expect to see in the full sun can tolerate and even welcome a good amount of shade, adapting to the lower light, (although they might respond with reduced flowering and sparser growth), but who can do all that experimenting to find out which ones work and which ones just won’t? It’s therefore great to know that a few growers of tough and beautiful plants for our climate, soils, and limited water supply have done this work for us and that they make their findings freely available. Here are the ones whose plants I use most often in my designs, and whose search tools make the selection of shade-tolerant plants easier!
One of the first to come to mind is San Marcos Growers in Carpenteria, CA. Since 1979 they have been growing “plants appropriate to California’s Mediterranean climate, including many California native plants, as well as vines, trees, shrubs, ferns, perennials, succulents, ornamental grasses and grass-like plants from other areas around the world.”
Their website offers a full plant inventory with photos and descriptions; it includes an “Advanced Search” tool that helps you zero in on their plants that tolerate shade: Check, say, ‘shrub’, and ‘tolerates drought’, and ‘shade’, then click on ‘submit’, et voilà! You’ll get a list of 348 shrubs tolerant of various degrees of shade, with their full descriptions.
This is an impressive number of dry shade tolerant shrubs! Here are a few that I found exciting because of their either unusual foliage or appealing form:
2-3 ft tall and 4-6 ft wide, its amazing foliage in low undulating mounds has an unusual, grass-like appearance, and I appreciate its appealing texture contrast to plants with fleshier foliage such as Honeybush, Aloes or large-leafed Bromeliads, or the rounder, hardy foliage of Coffeeberry or Creeping Barberry. As the grower says, it’s a “great plant for informal mounding along a dry stream bed, rock garden, tumbling down a slope or as a large potted specimen.”
Here are a few more shade-tolerant, water-wise shrubs and perennials:
A “fast-growing, durable groundcover.. 2 to 3 feet tall and spreads 8 to 12 or more feet … glossy, dark green leaves and bright blue flower clusters in winter through early spring. .. will grow inland with no watering once established when sited in partial shade. Especially effective as a large-scale groundcover where salt-laden ocean spray is a factor. Hardy to about 15° F… Judicious pruning is recommended to maintain a dense form and promote vigor. “
Yankee Point can also be used as a formal hedge and tolerates shearing with a hedge trimmer well. (It doesn’t like hacking though, a couple of hard prunings can kill it. Keep the garden hacks away from it.)
Here’s the “backbone” shrub that I described above, and what a versatile shrub it is! Evergreen, adapted to sun and shade, with an upright, slightly arching form, not too tall (5-7 ft), dense small-leaved foliage. It is a welcome backdrop to colorful and more ephemeral perennials planted in the foreground. It could be hedged if that fits your design.
Here’s a large evergreen shrub or small tree, 8 to 10 feet round (could get larger in perfect conditions.) It is useful as background or specimen drawing the eye. Catkins of creamy white flowers with a maroon tinge appear each winter. Full sun or part shade, quite drought tolerant although it can handle summer water. Salt and wind tolerant. Use it as an excellent screen, informal hedge, or espaliered. It’s a Bay Area native.
This is a tender South African perennial that forms bushy 10-inch tall mats of delicate wiry leaves and pale mauve flowers that appear from spring to fall. Trim plants after bloom flush to prevent seeding. Cut to the ground every other year to tidy up the clumps. A very tough plant in the coastal garden, tolerating drought and neglect. It makes a good groundcover in full sun. It is hardy to about 20 degrees F. A most beautiful weed!
Pink Gaura Gaura lindheimeri ‘Siskyou Pink’
What’s not to like about this airy and delicate native from Mexico/Texas? In the spring it sends up arching sprays of small orchid-like blooms and continues to flower throughout the summer. It loves the sun but is also ideal for planting beneath desert trees. Just remember to give it enough room so you can enjoy it fully (3-4 ft spread).
Mountain States Wholesale Nursery, in their work of over 43 years, they have grown desert-adapted plants that “include hues and forms which far surpass our earlier hopes of adding texture, refinement, brilliance – pizzazz, if you will – to already proven durability…. To assist you in your selection process, Mountain States Wholesale Nursery offers over 450 taxa of desert-adapted trees, shrubs, ornamental grasses, accents, flowering perennials, groundcovers, and vines. We specialize in providing landscape plants that combine beauty and water economy.”
Deer Grass Muhlenbergia rigens
I love ornamental grasses. Nothing else softens boulders, sturdy cacti, and fleshy succulents more naturally and evokes water having just vanished in a seasonal creek… As MSWN describe it at their website: “ Dependable and adaptable, Deer Grass is the backbone of many desert gardens… Native to the Southwest at elevations up to 7000 feet, Deer Grass thrives in varied conditions. It flourishes in full sun, difficult reflected heat exposures and tolerates quite a bit of shade. Deer Grass is extremely drought tolerant, although the foliage browns out if adequate water is not available in the summer. It also handles high rainfall, virtually any soils, and is hardy to -10ºF, USDA Zone 6.
Here’s what Wendy Proud, MSWN’s California Sales Representative wrote in her recent newsletter:
“Changing over from a water loving landscape to one which is less thirsty can be tricky in the shade. Dry shade probably has the least amount of plants available compared to other possible zones in the landscape. Specific irrigation needs are key along with reasonable expectations about the speed of growth, blooming and eventual size of the plants being chosen. Mountain States certainly offers plants that can handle some shade and actually many would say they like it…. if they could speak. 🙂 Attached is a list of those plants who like shade, which can also be found on our website.
There’s a tab labeled “Information Sheets” on the left side of our homepage that will direct you to more groupings of plants for specific issues or areas of interest such as, Salt Tolerant, Rabbit Resistant or Hummingbird Paradise. Really helpful lists when you’re needing suggestions. “
And here the entire MSWN plant list for dry shade.
Although MSWN is a wholesale grower, their plants are either available through local retail nurseries or can be ordered here. And here’s the list of retail nurseries that MSWN delivers to: http://www.mswn.com/links/more
A retail & wholesale nursery that is a delight to visit (with a much shorter drive) is Waterwise Botanicals in Bonsall (WWB). The “acres of beautiful nursery and growing grounds, including demonstration gardens, ponds, and a shade house full of creative treasures to inspire you“ will put any plant lover to the resistance test; the signage on their plants is excellent, as is their online plant catalog with photos and descriptions.
Here I found lots of dry shade tolerant plants, and I was especially surprised to find a shrub here that’s a smaller version of the very popular Tea Tree, growing in the shade!
I like its dainty appearance, its convenient size (only 2 ft tall by 2-3 ft wide) and delicate foliage of tiny burgundy leaves, all attributes that invite to combine it many other colors. Imagine how appealing it would look placed next to a fleshy purple/burgundy succulent such as Aeonium ‘Silk’.
Don’t wait to visit this nursery! Regular events for the garden enthusiast also make this a great place to visit. Most entertaining are their ponds that the manager Tom Jesch built himself without filters, without pumps, beautifully balanced with aquatic plants, fish, and turtles. These ponds draw lots of wildlife and invite to take a seat alongside and observe the goings on.
The WWB blog contains entertaining and useful information. Here’s one that I especially appreciated: Summer maintenance of ornamental grasses!
I hope that putting a satisfying low-water-use plant composition together for the shady parts of your garden is a bit easier for you with the above-listed websites and tools. Even here, I’d suggest to strive for balance of size, texture, form and color. I myself start “from the top”: After making sure that there is an overhead shelter or roof of sorts (the eaves of a house, or the canopy of a tree or large shrub), I start with one or more woody shrubs as background structure (Myrsine f.e. – see above) that sort of glue and hold all together. To me, woody plants also add the sense of longevity and permanence. Then I consider the midground, if there is room, such as a mid-size shrub. Finally, I work on the foreground where I place a shorter perennial or succulent (by nature the more short-lived plant – for ex. Gaura – see above). Lastly, color is often something I find least important in these compositions, as it always seems to fall into place, and insisting on the perfect color simply reduces the number of available plants to nothing.
It feels good to recommend these growers; their dedication to offering a wide range of water-wise plants that are well suited to our soils and environment, be they in the sun or the shade, on the coast or in the desert, helps me contribute a small part to the preservation of our natural resources, without sacrificing the delight in our gardens.
I hope spring has revived your gardening interests to rediscover your connection with nature, and that you have been well. My spring clean-up is not done yet; I’m still finishing bird netting over my strawberries, refreshing mulch, and getting my irrigation in shape.
In my last two posts, I was considering how hardscape has come to dominate many of our landscapes, and how the beauty, intimacy and romance has gone out of them. Today I want to show how well-selected plants can balance out the hard structures making our gardens softer and more welcoming.
[I’ll be speaking about this topic at the Water Conservation Garden on June 11, from 10-12 a.m. Come and join me and see more in-depth information and examples. I’d love to see you there!]
This design looks like many prized landscapes that boast a lot of flawless architecture; an artful pool, perfect stucco’ed retaining walls, a big deck with BBQ and Palapa dominate this backyard. Naturally we are proud of the beautiful materials used in these designs, but to me these landscapes look overdesigned and lifeless; I feel that they miss the opportunity to provide a true connection to the land, our family, even ourselves.
However, our gardens can be ideal vehicles to give our lives greater depth when we give plants greater importance and let them enchant us, when we let them make our gardens softer and more welcoming. Here is a list of plants that have presence in the garden, have in their combined use strong emotional impact and fulfill many of the functions that we have handed over to the “hardscapes”. Most of these are very drought-conscious or drought tolerant, so not only do they serve our immediate needs, they also help conserve water…
Most gardens, even the smallest ones, need at least one or two trees. Trees shelter a garden space; anchor a home to its site by giving it the right proportions; they can frame a view, impart age and “wisdom” and provide needed shade and well-being. As architectural elements, they provide a “vertical element”; give a sense of place.
The following lists are by no means exhaustive; they only give a glimpse of what’s possible.
Obviously, a good choice unites the site conditions with the tree’s character as well as the likes and dislikes of the person who will live with the tree.
Also, consider that a tree that naturally suckers can be trained into a “multi-trunked” tree that offers the opportunity to enjoy its trunks better, show off its shape and create an open, airy screen. A multi-trunk Crape Myrtle comes to mind…
Medium to large deciduous trees: canopies for shelter and shade
Chinaberry Melia azederach
White Empress Tree Paulownia fortune
Chinese Pistache Pistachia chinensis
Chinese Flame Tree Koelreuteria bipinnata
Mesquite Propopis spp.
Mimosa or Silk Tree Albizia julibrissin
Strawberry Tree Arbutus ‘Marina’
Texas Olive Cordia boissieri
Sweet Bay Laurus nobilis
Phoenix Date Palm Phoenix
Oak (many species) Quercus spp.
Acacia & Wattle (many) Acacia spp.
Primrose Tree Lagunaria patersonii
Small deciduous, attention-grabbing speminen trees
Paperbark Marple Acer griseu
Chinese Fringe Tree Chionanthus retus
Crape Myrtle Lagerstroemia indica & Lagerstroemia hybrids
Palo Verde Parkinsonia aculeata
California Buckeye, Horse Chestnut Aesculus californica
Trees with distinctive foliage and/or attractive fall foliage; or with great winter silhouette
Crape Myrtle Lagerstroemia spp.
‘Forest Pansy’ Redbud Cercis Canadensis ‘Forest Pansy’
Locust Robinia pseudoacacia
Mesquite Prosopis spp.
California Buckeye Aesculus californicus
Cork Oak Quercus suber
ENCLOSURES & SCREENING (TREES & SHRUBS)
Let plants do the screening and enclosing (or at least hide the hard materials). The enclosure responds to an ancient desire for protection, and screening out an unwanted view or our neighbors’ homes and windows creates the best environment in which we can feel completely at ease, relax and connect with ourselves.
Camouflaging the boundaries to our private “universe” creates the sense that we are surrounded by nature which can make our gardens feel larger. Hedges of mixed plantings can provide a good screen or enclosure that requires only minimal pruning and shows off a variety of textures and colors.
Screening Plants (some might need gentle pruning to integrate into the hedge)
Toyon Heteromeles arbutifolia (a California native)
Yew Pine Podocarpus macrophylus and P. macrophyllus maki Shrubby Yew Pine
Oleander Nerium oleander
Bamboo Bambusa spp.
Lemon Bottle Brush Callistemon citrinus
Bay Laurus nobilis
Boxwood Buxus sempervirens (when left unclipped as it is rarely seen, it develops a form that is sensuous and curvaceuous)
Exclamation points & Beacons; “Power Plants”, & columnar/fastigiated plants
These are plants with strong presence that replace gate columns or other devices of directing traffic; they also impart a very personal character to the garden.
Cedar Cedrus spp.
Boxwood Buxus sempervirens
Greenlee’s Blue Rocket Cupressus guadalupensis ‘Greenlee’s Blue Rocket’
Tecate Cypress Cupressus forebesii
Italian Cypress Cupressus sempervirens
Bottlebrush ‘Sim’ Callistemon vimiminalis ‘Slim’
Icee Blue Yellow-Wood Podocarpus ‘Icee Blue’
Kohuhu Pittosporum tenuifolium (various)
Some form of pavement might be welcome for certain activities in the garden, such as dining, lounging or hanging around a pool. However, many plants can be employed to soften the edges of pavement, to connect spaces, and to break up large expanses of pavement.
They can also guide our paces and allow rich encounters in the garden. Their closeness to the visitor demands a variety of textures and colors.
Low-growing, softening perennials
Trailing Buttercups, Sundrops Calylophus drummondii (or Calylophus hartwegii)
Little One Verbena Verbena bonariensis ‘Little One’
Stalked Bulbine Bulbine frutescens
Ground Morning Glory Convolvulus mauritanicus (C. sabatius)
Woodland Strawberry Fragaria vesca F. vesca californica (fruit bearing, excellent groundcover for shady situations)
Pink Spice Cranesbill Pelargonium ionidiflorum
THE MID GROUND
Mid ground shrubs anchor the design, provide longevity and structure; they serve as also fillers; some can do double duty as accents. For these, I like to use shrubs with woody character; they are needed to “ground” the soft and inherently ephemeral perennials. In most designs, I prefer evergreen shrubs; they need not be shrubs with attractive bloom.
In landscapes with more succulents, I like to use shrubby succulents that keep their form and their ‘leafy’ or fleshy foliage (Senecio, Aeonium haworthii).
Dwarf variegated Myrtle Myrtle Myrtus communis ‘Variegata’ compacta
Creeping Barberry Berberis repens
Hummingbird Sage Salvia spathaceae (California native plant)
Rockrose ‘Sunset’ Cistus ‘Sunset’ 2-3 x 6-8 ft; evergreen, magenta flowers
Geraldton Waxflower ‘Purple Gem’ and ‘Purple Pride’ Chamaelaucium uncinatum
Blue Bells Eremophila hygrophana
Grevillea rosmarinifolius ‘Scarlet Sprite’ , foundation shrub, 4-5 ft,
Cacti, succulents, yucca-like plants: Plants with striking foliage and/or form
Century Plant Agave spp.
Candelabra Cactus Cereus peruvianus
Sotol Dasylirion spp.
Dragon Tree Dracaena draco
Barrel Cactus Echinocactus spp.
Beargrass Nolina spp.
Prickly Pear Opuntia
Clumping Bamboo Bambusa spp.
Sago Palm Cycas revoluta
Chamal Dioon spp.
THE LARGE STUFF: Accents & “signature”
Sometimes it’s useful to employ shrubs that draw the eye, perhaps in order to distract from an unwanted sight behind it… These shrubs can be “signature” plants that enhance or underline the character of the garden: Subtropical, or Mediterranean, or California native, or Urban/modern.
Tecoma ‘Solar Flare’
Texas Ranger Leucophyllum frutescens
Baja Fairy Duster Calliandra californica
Brazilian Copper Tree Euphorbia cotinifolia
Arabian Lilac Vitex trifolia ‘Purpurea’
Large backround shrubs
Some shrubs are needed to simply give the illusion of being surrounded by endless nature, as back ground plants.
Griselinia Griselinia littoralis
Sweet Olive Osmanthus fragrans
Toyon Heteromeles arbutifolia
Bay Laurus nobilis
EMOTIONAL IMPACT, NOT ARCHITECTURE
I believe a garden, in order to enhance our connection with nature, to nurture us and to be memorable, needs to appeal to our emotions, whether is has a modern geometric design or is more free-form, naturalistic in character. I’d do this by making the garden look “grown” and casual, not forced, like in this example: When creating a southwest garden and imitating the desert floor, consider a mix of several sizes and textures of that hard material: A desert floor is made up of fine textured sand, coarser gravel, and small and large pebbles interspersed with rocks. A groundcover therefore made of a uniform cover of gravel would look unnatural.
Placement and size of plants: When placing a bold grouping of, say, Barrel Cacti, make sure the placement is asymmetrical, in order to achieve a nature-made effect. Introduce these plants in different sizes, not all the same which would look contrived.
Mix textures: Avoid making a garden with only strong textured plants; in nature, those plants are always surrounded by more ephemeral, fine textured plants.
In other words, study how plants and landscapes grow… disguise the hand that is designing the garden, and aim for the emotional impact that a naturalistic garden can impart, even when it is a geometrically organized, modern design.
Look to my next post for more on how plants can help us create living designs.
Don’t allow the hardscape to dominate the planting
In my last post I endeavored to put plants in the forefront of our gardens in order to make them softer and more welcoming: Under our southern sun pavements, structures and other built structures create glare and very deep shadows. How can we reduce the harshness of this bright white light in residential landscape design?
I think the primordial quality of a well-designed garden is its ability to let our eyes and minds rest. To that effect, I want to employ shade, light-absorbing textures, coolness, perhaps even the sound of water. I try to balance out the hard structures with drought resistant landscaping and let the plants play an equal if not greater role in the organization and feel of the design. Here are a few tricks how to employ plants to that effect:
Plants have many roles: They create the visual pleasure that changes through the seasons because of the seasonal bloom, and they offer a juxtaposition of delicate textures with the outlines of strict architecture or rugged boulders. Plants can repeat the dynamic contrast between horizontal and vertical lines already present in the architecture of a house. Leaning pine branches intersect with vertical grass blades, while vertical flower stems stand at a right angle to a boulder’s edge.
Here, the stone flower beds will start to look less heavy when the vines start to take over the arbor and the perennials and shrubs gain their mature height, cascading over the sides to soften them. While distinctly dividing the side of the house into different areas, each area becomes its own secret garden.
Soon, the three Podocarpus trees along the back wall will be tall enough to screen out the neighbor’s house and all boundaries will be obscured, thus creating total privacy in a natural setting.
This design also creates the illusion of distance, giving the front yard a larger feel. The small deciduous shrub will provide more shade and privacy as it matures, and give an excellent opportunity to use creative landscape lighting to add drama at night by revealing its beautiful branch structure.
Getting away from hardscapes is a challenge; there are sexy materials that don’t need watering or maintenance, and will last close to forever. Stone, wood, glass, metal, and even fiberglass or plastic are very versatile and lend themselves to a variety of different uses. Be it fencing or furniture, these materials can help us give places to ‘hang’ our plants, much like in a big wardrobe.
Many landscape architects and landscape designers in San Diego (and elsewhere) have been trained to use these materials as the back-bones and foundations to build around – and upon – with plants in secondary filler roles. But plants can also serve this purpose; let yourself fall in love with the texture and structure of a plant, or your favorite tree, or a color, and design around that.
Tell your designer that this is the plant you want to showcase or use. Say you want a great big hedge of something to serve as a fence. Think about using our native Toyon Heteromeles arbutifolia, or a Silverberry Eleagnus pungens. Both are tough shrubs with attractive foliage, colorful berries (Toyon) and fragrant flowers (Silverberry) that are very undemanding in soil, water or light and that can be sheered, pruned or trained into small trees or an evergreen screen. If you prefer beautiful craftsmanship, think about how a simple perfect circle carved from stone, laid in brick, or made of wood can’t help but stand out best when surrounded by the chaos and asymmetry of plants.
Right now is a great time to look for California natives, drought-tolerant succulents and waterwise perennials, shrubs and trees at your local nurseries!
I believe this is a topic that will interest many gardeners, and I’ll talk about it in greater detail and colorful examples in a presentation at the Water Conservation Garden in El Cajon on June 11, at 9:30 a.m., in a class entitled “Balancing hardscapes with plants”. Look for a detailed description in the coming weeks at the Garden’s website. I’d be happy to greet you there!
When leafing through a landscape trade magazine recently, I noticed how much emphasis was placed on the “hard stuff”: Large patios and terraces paved with interlocking pavers and seat-walls around them in either stone or concrete block; sweeping staircases, luxurious zero-edge pools, massive built-in outdoor kitchens with the latest in outdoor cooking technology…
Obviously, the homeowners had invested a small fortune into their landscape and I imagined them rightly proud of their yard improvements.
Yet it struck me how little inviting I found these spaces; the hardscape seemed to overwhelm the warmth of nature, which had been defeated.
Clarification: The layout and organization of a garden into ‘rooms’, or the ‘bones’ of a successful garden, is tantamount, but NOT dependent on hardscaping.
When I ask my clients to describe their home landscape design goals, one of the first things they mention is their dream of beautiful, lush plants that draw them out into the garden; they blame the garden’s unattractiveness on the lack of beautiful plants, and this may be quite true!
But I usually respond by pointing to other facts that make their garden uninviting: It is in most cases the poor organization of their spaces that doesn’t allow for smooth circulation. There may not be sufficient room for a comfortable dining table and a clear, logical way to serve food here…perhaps there’s no shade for the homeowner who wants to spend time outside without being roasted.
Frequently also, there’s not enough privacy for a family that likes to take their breakfast or dinner outside, in their PJs or swim wear (or naked, God forbid!)
So I do pay much attention to the layout of a garden and devise outdoor spaces that can be used in comfort, preferably with the most beautiful materials. However, while hardscaping can be used in all aforementioned circumstances, so can “plantscaping”.
Plants should be used more often to solve these problems. I begin envisioning their garden coming to life with plants, color, textures; I see the wildlife drawn by them and begin feeling the mood of the garden.
And I know that these plants will be substantially more than ‘the icing on the cake,’ but will also serve to organize the garden.
So what makes an outdoor space successful and inviting? What is it that draws us into them?
I can think of several groundbreaking ideas in the last 50 or so years that shook the gardening and design world. They called for a new, sustainable appreciation of plants and their function in our gardens.
They use such words as “enchantment”, “romance”, and “plant personalities”…and they describe the variety of their sculptural, dramatic, and attention-getting forms that we should consider in our designs and substitute for hardscaping.
Also, it is important that we consider plants at the very beginning of the design process, so that their softness and drama can be the leading elements of the design, and let the hardscaping once again provide a supporting role.
Hedges can be clipped into formal green ‘walls’ to delineate areas, provide privacy, or simply act as a backdrop. Trees with interesting shapes can give not only shade but supply the columns where we need strong vertical movement.
Trellises covered with vines can also provide privacy or decoration, and plants of different structures, textures, sizes, and colors can let the eye bounce around, lead it through a garden, and provide interest and momentum.
Hardscaping then is scaled back to its more appropriate role, and plants can once again frame a scene or blur boundaries with nature.
Numerous books and beautiful articles have been written about landscapes that make you dream and want to be in them.
Some advice that I’ve learned is to allow for change and growth in plants as well as in people’s responses, and to avoid creating “landscapes that demand that their plants stay in near suspended animation to fulfill the designer’s vision (and impose an unrealistic burden on their owners for upkeep)”. Let’s remind ourselves instead that, “At its heart a garden is a relationship, an ongoing dialog between people, plants and the place in which they both live and grow.” It is this relation with them that builds a garden.
-(“Plant-Driven Design,” pgs. 18 + 19, by Scott Ogden and Lauren Springer Ogden)
In my next post, I’ll give a few examples of the power of plants and examine how they can be used where we traditionally imagine hardscapes:
- How big a pool deck do you really need?
- How do you create boundaries or privacy with plants if not with walls and fences?
- Will you need a retaining wall, or could plants do a better job?
These are some of the questions I look forward to examining, to help you create balance in your home landscape design.
Integrate your garden into the larger xeriscape that is our San Diego County.
(It could spell more fun and savings than you expected.)
With approaching retirement and more time to travel, Jeanie and Jim realized that their traditional garden didn’t seem to allow them much time away; it just didn’t respond well to weeks of absence. When they called me, I found that they begun to add to their traditional home landscape design many new-found loves: Various Aloes and Sticks on Fire Euphorbia, Organ Pipe and Barrel Cactus, ‘Bells of Fire’ Tecoma, Crown of Thorns and other xeriscape plants.
With their list of collected plants I was handed a clear mandate: Remove the old lawn, the worn-out shrubs and even the Queen Palms; create a drought resistant landscape, lively and evoking our local Anza Borrego desert, yet not too spiky and withered looking, that would be easy to maintain and allow them weeks of absence without needing human intervention.
Here’s their testimony about our adventure together:
What was the biggest motivator to transform your garden?
“We have always enjoyed succulents and the desert landscape, so we wanted both our front and backyards to look like the desert that we love. Also, due to our continuing drought situation, it made sense to convert to a low water landscape to save water. Additionally, the biggest motivator was to reduce our work in the yard: mowing would no longer be necessary. As we travel and are gone for extended periods of time, we wanted a landscape that was virtually maintenance-free during our absence.”
So where do I begin a landscape design renovation?
I imagined the entire garden as ‘playground’ for all the exotic drought resistant plants that Jim and Jeanie dreamt of. To display these plants to their fullest, the tilted surface of a mound would be useful; also, the mildly undulating terrain would bring some movement into the “flat” scene.
During our brainstorming the desire for ‘more entertainment’ were mentioned, so for the backyard I designed an extension of their patio, surrounded by seat-walls for casual overflow seating. Behind these walls, the terrain was also be mounded to give the planter bed here greater movement. Many of their desert plants were put here to which I added a few well-tested perennials and grasses: Sundrops Calylophus, Verbena ‘De la Mina’, California Fuchsia Epilobium and Angelita Daisy Hymenoxis. While the textures and forms of the desert plants are more permanent, the perennials and grasses would add a notion of seasonal decline and re-growth.
To these I added various Agaves, Rushes, grasses and Red Yuccas; also fluffier and softer foliage plants, such as Emu Bush Valentine Eremophila, and Texas Ranger Lynn’s Legacy’ Leucophyllum, chosen for its silvery foliage and light purple flowers that would offset well against the yellow and orange flowers of Senna, Tecoma and Palo Verde. I used creeping Elephant’s Food Portulacaria as an attractive groundcover and the grass-like Bulbine because of its flowers that attract bees year-round.
For me, Jim and Jeanie’s project was very satisfying; having clients who so clearly appreciate where they are, love region-appropriate plants and are open to a professional landscape designer’s suggestions makes always my job most pleasurable.
Here’s how Jeanie and Jim think about the experience:
What was your biggest and best-appreciated result?
“With careful plant selection, hardscape, lighting and other elements of the garden, we feel it was a success and we’re proud of having a really great yard. An unexpected bonus is the many compliments received from neighbors.”
To this I would add: With the boulders and the mounds as top dressing Jeanie and Jim have expressed their appreciation for our dry environment, but foremost they linked their garden with the rugged hills of Mission Trails Park across the canyon. The plants they love and the chip seal (a coarse DG) do another to give their garden a strong regional and authentic character.
What is your greatest pleasure now, or the thought or feeling most often felt when walking through your garden?
“We really enjoy the variety of our plant selection with the many colors, textures and shapes. Using DG (decomposed granite) as topdressing mulch allows the plants to really “pop out.” Over the last year we have witnessed the growth and color changes of the plants realizing that the landscape feels more alive and ever-changing than just a static lawn. We also appreciate the hummingbirds and bees that visit regularly.”
Any lesson learned or any other thought that you care to share with the readers?
“We learned: In drought situations, drip irrigation is the best way to conserve water. Landscape lighting is extremely important. Anyone undertaking this type of project should get the best lighting they can afford since it makes the project exceptional as the landscape is not only admired during the day, but it is just as impressive in the evening. (We highly recommend Volt LED lighting (available on the internet.) Also, it cost us twice as much as we originally thought during the early planning stages. Hardscape, lighting and other changes made during construction drove our costs up, but we are so pleased with the results that we would do it again. “
Looking back at this project and considering the short time in which this garden has continued to grow, another idea comes to mind:
In southern California, it is sometimes hard to remember what time of year it is, but it is especially important to do so now: days are getting shorter and cooler: we need to remember how our bodies respond by storing more food, by changing sleep patterns and energy levels, by changing moods. A garden should be a natural environment, one that changes with the seasons and reminds us of our place in the web of life and of its cyclical nature. Those clipped lawns and shrubs surrounding our office buildings may provide us with a glimpse of green, if we are fortunate enough to have a window to the outside, but they leave us with little comfort and warmth when our lives change. If we get married, or divorced, have an accident, grow old, start a new career, buy a house, lose a friend etc., a static landscape may feel even more alien and uninviting if it mocks our changing natures.
What we seek in a garden is a reconnecting with the relish we relive every year, in the first days of spring when plants are just beginning to flower again, or on a warm day in fall, out at the edge of a clearing in the forest, that fills us with peace and amazement at how beautiful even small things can be: it can be a great comfort in times of change. Building a drought tolerant landscape is an opportunity to connect with the beautiful natural environment of San Diego County, and to let the seasons and change back into our lives.