The Mountain Gardener’s Favorite Plant Combinations

combination_loropetalum-pieris-dianellaI love my smart phone. I can’t imagine a day without it. A friend of mine told me that I would discover uses that I could only have imagined when I first got it. One of the simple things I use it for is taking pictures. Since I always have it in my back pocket I can whip it out in gardens, nurseries, in the wild or in any landscape that catches my attention.

It wasn’t until I started photographing gardens that I realized the importance of combining plants. So now when I design a grouping of plants that look good together I’m thinking of strong foliage plants, colorful flower spikes alongside soft mounds of foliage and delicate flowers alongside bolder blooms.

With the first day of fall next week I’m thinking of ways that will have any garden bursting with interest for the next few months. These are strategies for combining plants that are adaptable to all types of garden conditions whether you live in the sun or the shade and will also look good in other seasons of the year.

A vignette is a small group of plants that make a pleasing scene because of theirplant_combo2-phormium_CreamDelight-blueFescue-sempervivum complementary and contrasting features. I have several lists of good plant combinations that I regularly refer to when designing a garden. I usually start with a strong foliage plant then add other plants that have interesting texture, form or color.

When you look at a garden that you admire it’s usually the dramatic form of one of the plants that draws you in. When you use a plant with a bold, architectural form it makes a statement. The spiky foliage of Cream Delight phormium alongside a Burgundy loropetalum would make a good combination. Or how about creating a vignette of Festival Burgundy cordyline with Annabelle hydrangea and Cream de Mint pittosporum?

During the next few months plants begin to show soft, fall colors. Combine the fading foliage of these plants with plants that complement each other. The reddish fall color or Oakleaf hydrangea along with the pinkish-tan color of their fading flowers looks wonderful when combined with Japanese Forest Grass as it turns pink before winter. Another complementary fall combination is Royal Purple Smoke Tree surrounded by a bed of Autumn Joy sedum.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAStrong colors sometimes contrast instead of blend when plants change colors in the fall. I like to tone down a combination with silver foliage. An example of this would be a plant grouping of Evening Glow phormium, sedum Autumn Joy and Glacier Blue or Tasmanian Tiger euphorbia.

Another way to create a great plant combination is by blending textures. Coral Bark Japanese maple and Plum Passion nandina work well together. Cistus Sunset with Spanish lavender and rosemary is another good combination. I also like a large mass of Blue Oat Grass and Salmon salvia greggii planted together. Santa Barbara daisy goes well with Red Fountain Grass.

My list of potential plant combinations is pretty long as I’ve made notes over the years. Each garden has its own personality and growing conditions. A hot, dry garden might depend on a ground cover ceanothus along with lavender while a shadier garden might use natives like heuchera maxima, iris douglasiana, yerba buena and salvia spathacea. Whatever plants you choose, let them work together to make exciting vignettes in your garden.

Treats & Tips for the September Garden

salvia_m_Hot-LipsYou can feel the weather changing as summer winds down. It’s more than just the passing of the Labor Day holiday and the school year starting. The nights are longer and cooler. The days are not quite so hot and the flowers in the garden seem brighter and more colorful. I look past the soft blue and lavender blossoms and am drawn to the warm shades of gold, rust, orange, hot pink and red. They shout autumn is on the way.

There’s nothing quite like adding a few new perennials to brighten up the garden. There are many that don’t require a lot of water after they become established. I recently visited a garden where the irrigation was reduced to the point that that most of the plants were barely hanging on. But there among the crispy plants were two Hot Lips salvia blooming as big as you please. This plant is popular for a reason. Hummingbirds, butterflies and bees love it and it blooms for a long time. It stays compact and is a great carefree shrub for water wise gardens.

Daisy flowers always bring a smile to my face. As members of the composite family they have echinacea_Wild_Berrya flat landing surface for butterflies to land on. Coneflowers are one of my favorites. When they start blooming in the early summer I enjoy them both in the garden and as cut flowers inside. Some have a slight fragrance. Hybridizers have introduced beautiful shades of gold, yellow, orange, burgundy and coral in addition to the traditional purple and pure white. Because they are dormant in the winter they are good candidates for the garden that has summer sun but winter shade. They are not attractive to deer and are good additions to the low water garden.

gaillardiaAnother perennial that blooms throughout summer and fall is gaillardia also known as blanket flower. I’ve seen this tough plant grow in neglected gardens that the owner swears does nothing to keep it going. They are covered with dozens of large reddish-orange flowers with yellow edging and bloom over a long period. This plant also attracts butterflies. You can start perennials from seed at this time of year for next year’s bloom.

Don’t overlook the color of other foliage plants like Orange Libertia, Abelia ‘Kaleidescope’, New Zealand flax, red fountain grass and Japanese bloodgrass in the garden.

Now through October, divide summer blooming perennials like agapanthus, coreopsis, daylily and penstemon that are overgrown and not flowering well. You can also divide spring blooming perennials like candytuft, columbine, astilbe, bergenia and bleeding heart but sometimes they don’t bloom the first spring afterwards due to the energy they use re-establishing themselves.

Another thing to do while out in the garden this month is to cut back berries vines that have produced fruit. Canes of the current season should be trained in their place.

Spider mites are especially prolific during hot, dry weather. Sometimes you don’t even know how bad the infestation is until all your leaves are pale with stippling. Periodically rinse dust and dirt off leaves with water. Spray the undersides of infected leaves with organics like insecticidal soap switching to neem oil if they build up a resistance to one of the pesticides.

Soon it will be time to start cool season veggies or plant cover crops in the garden. It’s never too soon to start planning for erosion control in those areas that caused you problems during last spring’s storms. But for now add some early fall color and have fun in the garden.

Creating Atmosphere in the Garden

Pride_of_MadeiraSummer may be winding down but we still have lots of great outdoor weather to enjoy for several more months. This means more time to spend outdoors in the garden relaxing, entertaining and cooking on the grill. I like the relaxing part most of all so it’s important to me that what I see and feel when I’m out in the garden have an atmosphere that appeals to me. Here are a few ideas that I’ve used in my own and other people’s gardens I’ve helped to create.

Outdoor spaces are just more inviting if they feel like a real room with a ceiling, walls and attractive flooring. An arbor or pergola is a good way to provide a lid on your outdoor space. If you have natural trees in your garden they can shield you from the sky in some areas and open up other areas to passing clouds and sun. You can achieve a similar effect with groups of potted trees that shade your sitting area. Japanese maples, ornamental plums,cherries or crabapple are just a few of the trees that do well in pots. If you like to grow edibles plant a fig in a pot to provide some shade.

The sounds you hear while in the garden are part of the experience, too. The atmosphere just wouldn’t be the same without the sound of rustling grasses, wind chimes or birds splashing about in the bird bath or fountain. Auditory elements can come from the sound of gravel crunching underfoot as you walk or the wind in the trees.

Create the atmosphere you like by using the colors and textFlowering_Mapleures you most admire in your garden. I use to live in a lot of shade so white, silver and gold foliage and flowers were really important to bring life to the garden. I still love these shades but cool blue, baby pink and soft yellow also appeal to me.

Texture in the garden refers to the overall visual texture of the plants. Large and bold foliage like Flowering Maple, Pride of Madeira, rhododendron, viburnum, oakleaf hydrangea or hosta make a large garden appear smaller. Soft, fine foliage will make the garden appear larger by giving it the allusion of more space. Examples of finely textured plants include ornamental grasses, Breath of Heaven, ferns and asters. You might use different textured plants in different parts of your garden to get the affect you like.

Blur the garden’s boundaries to make it more interesting. You won’t be able to see the whole Breath_of_Heavengarden at one glance if you curve the path behind some shrubs, tall plants or sheer, see-through perennials. Leave some wild areas for the birds and bees to join you. Garden organically and mix in native plants wherever you can to keep the garden healthy.

Creating atmosphere in the garden is the art of combining space and time, light and weather to make a garden that we feel reflects who we are. It’s different for every gardener. One person might like straight rows of vegetables while another scatters poppies and nasturtiums randomly. Whatever appeals to you it should be close to your heart and that’s the atmosphere in your garden that’s right for you.

Traveling with the Mountain Gardener

Truckee_RiverSo far this year my travels have taken me up the coast of California and parts north. Then I headed a bit east to explore the Sierra Nevada. Statistics show that the drought is affecting all parts of the state. I’d heard that the Tahoe Queen had to modify it’s path around the rim of Lake Tahoe to avoid rocks. I had to check it out for myself. Just how low could that big blue body of water be? And what affect is the water situation having on the gardeners up there?

From the first glimpse of the Truckee river that is the sole outlet for Lake Tahoe I could see that the water was lower than usual. Still looked like enough water to negotiate a tube or small raft but the rafting companies have already closed for the season with the flow from the lake at only half of what it is normally in August. Hiking on the Tahoe Rim Trail next to the river was beautiful. The native plants and trees can exist even without the normal snowfall. They might not put on a lot of growth during dry years but they still looked healthy.

There is a chart at the dam where the Truckee river originates on the north side of Lake Tahoe. The graph shows that this is not the only drought event to have hit the Tahoe Basin. I was told the lake has been lower than this many times. Back in the 1930’s, 1962, 1976 and especially during the early 90’s the lake level dipped even lower. 2004 and 2010 were also low years. The lake level is just above the natural rim right now. The average daily evaporation rate of the lake is 397 million gallons.

In Tahoe City there is a destination nursery that I always visit when I’m in the area. In addition perennial_borderto several acres of trees and plants, the Tahoe Tree Company’s grounds are beautifully landscaped. A small lawn in surrounded by perennial beds loaded with flowers and a gazebo bordered with Autumn Joy sedum was just starting to bloom. Stands of quaking aspen towered over the shade beds of hosta, begonia, astilbe and New Guinea impatiens.

I asked one of the employees about how the drought has affected their customers. I noticed that many of the local residents had bright green lawns surrounded by dahlias, rudbeckia and ornamental grasses. She told me that many water companies serve the communities around the lake. They get some water from the lake itself but the rest is from springs which are drying up. The Tahoe City Public Utility District recommendation is to reduce water consumption by 20% with watering on even or odd days depending on your address.

Changes this season at the nursery range from reduced sale of seeds because seeds need regular watering to get started. Also customers are requesting more native plants but I was told that some of those requested are high water usage plants like dogwoods and willows. Customers are mulching more and learning which plants are drought tolerant. Popular natives include Sierra currant, Bitter and West Sand cherry, Mountain spiraea and elderberry.

Sun_King_AraliaStrolling the grounds of the nursery a brilliant gold plant caught my eye. Morning sun shone on a group of Sun King aralia and I had to find out more about this beautiful plant. In mid-spring this fast growing, 6 foot plant emerges with bright gold leaves. In sun the foliage remains gold through out the summer. In full shade, the foliage will be chartreuse to lime green in color. Spikes of tiny white flowers emerge in summer followed by ornamental black fruit. This plant is deer resistant. It’s needs some moisture so combine it with other average water users in the same bed.

We are all hoping this winter will bring us some relief from the drought, even those who live next to that big blue lake.