Category Archives: garden design

Landscaping Tips for Great Gardens

By this time of the year, you probably have planted some new perennials for color in your garden. But if you look around and still feel something is missing the answer may be that your landscape needs more than color. As a landscape designer I am often called upon for ideas to create richer landscapes that provide four seasons of interest. Here are some tips I pass along.

A more sophisticated appeal and enduring quality in your landscape can be achieved if foliage color is used to complement, or contrast with, other plants within the design. This technique unifies the overall look while offering appeal throughout the season. One plant that would make this happen is Rose Glow Japanese barberry. Their graceful habit with slender, arching branches makes a statement by itself but it’s the vivid marbled red and pinkish foliage that steals the show until they deepen to rose and bronze with age. In the fall, the foliage turns yellow-orange before dropping and bead-like bright red berries stud the branches fall through winter.

Abelia Confetti is another small shrub that can be used to unify your landscape. Growing only 2-3 ft high and 4-5 ft wide with leaves variegated white, their foliage turning maroon in cold weather. Abelias are adaptable plants, useful in shrub borders, near the house or as as groundcover on banks. White, bell-shaped flowers are plentiful and showy during summer and early fall.

Texture in foliage is very important in good garden design. Varying the size and shape of leaves creates diversity and variety among neighboring plants. Striking visual interest can even be achieved when working with two different plants with similar shades of green.

An example of this would be combining Gold Star pittosporum tenuifolium with grevillea noellii. The first has dark green oval foliage on 10-15 for dense plants while the latter is densely clad with narrow inch long glossy green leaves. Clusters of pink and white flowers bloom in early to late spring and are  a favorite of hummingbirds.

Using the same plant shape throughout a landscape can create and tie the entire design together. Forms and shapes of plants and trees can be columnar, conical, oval, round, pyramidal, weeping, spreading and arching. A loropetalum with its spreading tiers of arching branches could be repeated throughout your garden to create visual interest and balance. A dogwood tree could also repeat this same form as their branches grow horizontally.

Consider also layering plants to create a beautiful garden. From groundcovers all the way up to the tallest tree, natural looking designs mimic nature.

Don’t forget about focal points. This could be a Japanese maple cloaked by a wall of dark evergreens or a statue or pottery at the end of a long, narrow pathway. Focal points draw attention and even distract the eye from an unsightly view.

There are many solutions to make your garden complete. Consider using some of the above design elements to make your landscape beautiful. 

New Plants for the Garden

Every season new varieties of colorful flowering annuals and perennials are introduced by hybridizers. These new plants are field tested and bred for better performance, disease and insect resistance, flower size, color and heat tolerance.  Where does this happen?  What goes into that gorgeous vivid red geranium you see on the bench at the nursery?

Over 30 breeders of flower seeds and perennial starts each spring showcase their new varieties in trials held throughout the state.  Professional growers visit the trials to choose which new varieties they will grow this year and offer to local nurseries and garden centers.  Goldsmith Seeds in Gilroy is one of the locations that hosts the colorful spectacle.

Fragrant, wisteria-covered arbors shade paths that wind throughout the landscaped grounds . The grounds are open to the public to enjoy throughout the summer.  Also on site are the greenhouses where breeders work on creating new and better flower varieties.  It was interesting to see several acres planted with fava beans as a cover crop. Soon the fields of this flowering legume will be cut down and tilled into the soil to add nitrogen. Legumes attract soil dwelling bacteria that attach to the plant’s roots and pull atmospheric nitrogen out of the air and soil, storing it on the roots as nodules.  When the plant is cut down and chopped up to decompose that nitrogen remains in the soil to feed new plants. After a few weeks of decomposition the energized soil will be ready for planting test flowers that Goldsmith seeds will further evaluate.

All of the seeds are actually grown in greenhouses in Holland and Guatemala. Cool season flowers like primroses, cyclamen, violas and pansies are produced mainly in Holland while warm season flowers like dahlias, geraniums, gazanias, and verbenas are grown at different elevations in Guatemala. I learned Goldsmith Seeds has been developing and growing seed in Guatemala for 40 years.

What new cultivars really impressed me at the trials?  There’s a new geranium that combines the best features of ivy and zonal geraniums. I liked the amazing color of Calliope Dark Red but all the colors were show stoppers. They would be perfect for baskets or beds in full sun or part shade. And you should see all the colors that calibrachoa now comes in-light blue, dark blue, deep yellow, peach, orange, even white with rose veins. These have now been bred to bloom earlier in the season which is why you’re seeing them in nurseries now.  There were many fragrant flowers like . I always looks forward to them when they arrive at the nursery. 

Try something new in your garden this year. There are so many good choices.
 

Plant Communities of the Santa Cruz Mtns

Knowing which type of plant community you live in can make the difference between success and ho-hum results in your garden. Choose the right plant for the right place. 

Plant communities have evolved over time with geologic changes in climate, topography and soils. We have several district areas here- mixed evergreen forest and redwood forest, chaparral and the sandhills.

If you live in a mixed evergreen forest you garden with trees like coast live oak, tan oak, madrone, bay and buckeye. Understory plants include ceanothus, coffeeberry, hazel and poison oak.  Your soil contains serpentine and granite. Many other unthirsty plants like salvias, lavender, santolina, society garlic, needle and giant feather grass and rockrose also do well here. Another plant to try that will also flourish in your garden is a native of New Zealand called Coprosma.  There are many colorful varieties now available like "Evening Glow".  All are valued for their colorful variegated foliage especially in the cooler months when the leaves turn orange red.  Many coprosmas grow to 4-5 ft but Evening Glow is just 14" tall. They need little water and can be happy in full sun or partial shade.

Mixed evergreen forest may also be found along canyon bottoms near streams where bigleaf maple, white alder, cottonwood, and western sycamore trees grow.  Most plant grow lush in this deep soil.  If you are looking to add something new to your garden here consider brunnera which blooms now with tiny clear blue flowers that freely self-sow without being invasive. It has large heart-shaped leaves that are showy, too,

Chaparral areas are the hottest, driest slopes of these mountains. Dense thickets of manzanita, coyote brush, chamise, coffeeberry, ceanothus, monkey flower and sage are native here. These plants are adapted to little water and often have tiny, thick, waxy,  light green or grayish leaves. Soils tend to be rocky, shallow and overlaying rock or a subsoil that is mostly clay. Plants here need to have an extensive root system that reaches widely and deeply for water. If you live here be sure you have the spring blooming western redbud and Julia Phelps or Dark Star ceanothus. The combination of magenta and electric blue flowers is unforgettable.

The sandhills near Quail Hollow and Bonny Doon around Martin Rd. are part of an ancient sandy sea floor that was uplifted, eroded and exposed. These sandy soils lack organic matter and nutrients and their white color magnifies the temperature of the summer sun. Unique, native plants include silverleaf manzanita and Ben Lomond wallflower live here.  When you plant in these soils amend with compost to provide needed nutrients. Lewisia, a pretty little plant native to northern California, thrives in sand and gravel soils with good drainage. This 8" tall hardy perennial blooms from spring to early summer with extremely showy flower clusters in colors ranging from apricot to pink, rose and bright cherry red.  Mulch these beauties with gravel or crushed stone.

Remember right plant-right place.

Planning the Garden

As you plan this year’s garden, whether it’s a new vegetable bed, un-thirsty perennials,  shade trees , or anything in between, think of how they will affect your surroundings. Will they take up less of the earth’s resources and not too much of your own time and energy? Changing weather patterns make it smart to find new, more sustainable ways to garden.  Downsize your garden’s neediness without sacrificing beauty or productivity.

Start with a smart design.

  • Does your garden utilize permeable paving like gravel or pavers that help manage runoff, giving the soil more time to absorb rainfall and recharge the ground water?
  • Have you considered installing a rain garden or small, planted basin to catch and filter rainwater and keep it onsite?
  • Have you grouped plants in your garden according to their water needs? Do you have some plantings that can survive on rainfall alone after their second season? Have you chosen plants that are locally grown and adapted to our climate?
  • Do you have an irrigation system that is efficient without being wasteful?  Do you water slowly, deeply and infrequently so there is no runoff? Do you water in the early morning or evening to maximize absorption?
  • Do you have deciduous trees to provide cooling shade in the summer and allow sunlight to warm the house in winter? Do you have trees and shrubs to clean the air of nitrogen and sulfur dioxide, ozone and carbon monoxide? Trees also breathe in carbon dioxide ( a major greenhouse gas) , use the carbon to build mass, then exhale oxygen. They retain more carbon than they lose so every tree you plant helps reduce your carbon footprint on the planet.
  • Does your garden feed and shelter birds, butterflies and other wildlife? Do you have perennials such as echinacea, lavender, penstemon or salvia to attract pollinators like bees and hummingbirds? Have you planted flowers that attract beneficial insects to help control harmful insects? Do you use organic pesticides?
  • Do you make your soil a priority by adding compost each year? Do you mulch your soil to keep down weeds and conserve water?  Do you use natural fertilizers like manures or fish emulsion that feed the soil? Do you compost the green and brown waste your garden produces-fallen leaves, weeds without seeds, grass clippings, spent flowers and vegetables?
  • Do you stay ahead of weeds , pulling them before they set seed and spread?

       
Take steps to make your corner of the world contribute to the larger landscape around you.
 

Hardy Winter Plants

    PROMISE YOURSELF  to be so strong that nothing can disturb your peace of mind.
    To talk health, happiness and prosperity to every person you meet. 
    To make all of your friends feel that there is something in them. 
    To look at the sunny side of everything and make your optimism come true.
    To think only of the best, to work only for the best and to expect only the best. 
    To be just as enthusiastic about the success of others as you are about your own. 
    To forget the mistakes of the past and press on to the greater achievements of the future.
    To wear a cheerful countenance at all times and give every living creature you meet a smile.
    To give so much time to the improvement of yourself, that you have no time to criticize others.
    To be too large for worry, too noble for anger, too strong for fear and too happy to permit the presence of        trouble.
                                             Christian D.  Larson

   
 Sure has been cold the past few weeks.  Many of the perennials in my garden have suffered from frost and will need to be cut back later in February or March.  After strolling through Strybing Arboretum in San Francisco recently, I’m newly inspired for the coming season.


At the arboretum you can experience unique gardens created with California natives or drought tolerant plants from Australia.   Other gardens have plants from New Zealand or So. Africa.  Meandering paths bisect each garden.   It is a marvelous place to explore and discover what plants appeal to you as each is clearly labeled.  Be sure to take your camera.  It’s a great way to see what a mature specimen of a plant or tree looks like. Those descriptions on a nursery can don’t compare to seeing a plant in person.

While you’re up in Golden Gate park  don’t miss the new museum of natural history, planetarium, tropical rainforest and aquarium.  Green technology is used and explained throughout, including the green roof.  Last summer I wrote about visiting Rana Creek nursery in Carmel and talking to the grower of the native plants that cover the roof.  The  plants selected, eight drought tolerant California natives, include  prunella, armeria, stonecrop, goldfield, lupine, poppy,  plantain and beach strawberry.  I didn’t see seedlings of the spring wildflowers on the roof when I visited but the stands of prunella and beach strawberry were thriving.  Also beach asters seemed to be doing well although they weren’t listed.  Seeds may have blown in.  If you’re thinking of replacing your traditional lawn in the spring with drought tolerant ground covers, consider these plants.   They are not only survivors but will flourish under adverse conditions. 

As I write this, I’m spending the holiday in the Seattle area near Lake Washington.  Here you can really see plants that know how to survive the elements.  Actually, it’s hard to identify most of them as they are totally covered with snow.  It snows everyday.  Beautiful white powder blankets the trees and landscape. My sister’s  perennial planters will not be joining her this spring.   So pretty to look but not that great when you venture out  to get last minute presents.  Snowplows are scarce up here.

What plants bloom in the winter where we live?  A little color at this time of year is always welcome.   Native mahonia are just coming into full and glorious yellow flower.  The hummingbirds love their flowers as well as hellebores, sasanqua camellias and strawberry trees.

Oregon  grape ( mahonia ) are deer-resistant shrubs with large, prickly leaves.  Long sprays of fragrant, yellow flowers rise above the foliage in January and February.  Blue fruit follows which is also attractive.   Mahonias grow best in partial shade but will take full sun if given occasional, deep watering in the summer.

Sasanqua camellias are valuable for their massive display of large flowers in fall and winter.  If you’re driving along and see a shrub covered with dark pink, white, lilac or red flowers, most likely it will be this plant.  They are often called the roses of winter.  Many are fragrant and can be espaliered on a trellis.  Sasanqua camellias are easy to grow in partial shade and need only moderate water. 

Another wonderful plant for winter color that I saw so many of at the arboretum is winter heath.  Heaths and heathers love acidic soil so combine well in sunny areas near rhododendrons and azaleas.  Ground cover types are smothered with lilac, pink or rose flowers starting in December and last into April. 

Don’t forget Iceland poppies, violas and cyclamen for small color accents.  Happy New Year  from The Mountain Gardener and may your garden flourish this year. 

 

Armchair Gardening

Realizing that no one wants to actually work outside in the garden the week after Christmas, this column is devoted to something you can do from the comfort and warmth of an arm-chair or while looking out your windows.

Make an entry in your garden journal  (If you don’t have one, it’s never too late to start.) 

 Record what did well this year in your garden.  Were the fruit trees loaded with fruit as you’d hoped?  How many times did you fertilize them?  Did they flower well?   How many bees did you see pollinating them?  Should you add more plants to attract them?  Insect or disease problems?   Room for more?  What kinds would extend your harvest season?

Make notes of what other edibles you want to include in the garden next year.  Bare root season starts in January making it easy to plant grapes, blackberries, strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, artichokes and asparagus.
 
How productive were the tomatoes and other veggies?  Did you add enough compost to the beds to really feed the soil and the microorganisms?  Did you rotate your crops to prevent a build up of insect and fungal problems?

Think about how the perennials in your garden fared – the successes and not so great results.  Make a note if there are any higher water usage plants among the drought tolerant ones.  Come March, move them to a spot you’ve allocated a bit more water. 

While you still sitting in that comfy chair,  think about what changes you want to make to your garden.  Here are some tips for successful garden design:

    Take inventory
        How do you want to use your garden?  What activities do you want for outdoor living?  Examples include outdoor dining, a play space for the kids, watching wildlife, or a cutting garden that can be enjoyed form the kitchen window.  Look out your windows and decide if what you see needs  a little enhancement.  Use this list to lay out your design or improvements.

    Know your site
        Just as important as knowing your needs is exploring what your site has to offer.  You can call it site analysis but it’s simply observing your garden over time.  Where does the sun rise and fall as the seasons change?  Which spots are hot and sunny and which are shady and cool?  Put the terrace for morning coffee where you’ll be warmed by the morning sun and that relaxing retreat for reading where you’ll be shaded on a hot summer afternoon.

    Choose a style

        What feeling do you want to express in your garden?  Do you like the look of an Asian garden or maybe a country garden like those in Provence?  Maybe your ready for the clean look of a contemporary garden.  Choosing a theme helps pull the design together.  Think of the difference in feeling between a terra cotta pot overflowing with herbs and a modern water fountain.  Find inspiration in garden books and magazines and turn to them when shopping for materials for a path, furniture for the patio or plants for the beds.

    Add a framework
        Whether it’s the stone patio that gives the garden structure or the curve of a path , the bones of your garden are created by all of the elements in it.  Mark the boundaries of your garden.  Add privacy with screening from fences, arbors or informal hedges.  Create garden rooms- distinct areas using plaints or a change of grade.
    Sometimes a garden can seem larger if you block out what’s beyond it, drawing the eye inward.  On the other hand, know when to borrow scenery like a view of the mountains or a neighbors tree.

    Select the right plants
        Choose plants that support your design and meet your time available for maintenance.  Plants bring life to the garden.  They provide seasonal change, abundant bloom and bring wildlife.  Keep in mind how much time you want to spend taking care of your garden.   All gardens require maintenance.  A combination of shrubs and ground covers requires the least amount of work.  Perennials take more work- deadheading, trimming and dividing.  Native plants need little summer water and minimal care once established.  Whatever the size of your property, consider devoting a portion of it to native plants to create a wildlife area. 

Take stock of your garden from the comfort of your home and be ready for action when spring arrives.