Focal Point Trees

My tiny back yard has recently undergone a massive makeover this spring. I’m still finishing up a few details before I share it with all of you. But, I wanted to make a point about Focal Points and Focal Point Trees in particular. A small or large-scale tree placed strategically in the landscape for its shape, texture, color can add an immeasurable amount of artistic flair and drama with very little effort.
This brand new Larix pendula, ‘Weeping Larch’ does just that here at the end of my path as it opens into the main yard. In fall when the needles turn a warm gold and drop, then I will have that incredible weeping structure to look at all winter. WIN WIN!
Frequently, I have customers and clients who are SO bloom focused for the few weeks of a flowering tree or shrubs blooms in the year that they forget the rest of the season. I’m all for flowers, but don’t forget that a focal point plant of any type needs to bring more to the party than a pretty hat. ūüôā

Devotedly Hoarding and Dividing Spring Perennials

It has turned out that I have a great passion for collecting Heuchera, Heucherella and now some Tiarella too.¬† Especially in part due to the eye candy of plants at the Terra Nova website. Dan Heims of Terra Nova Nurseries has built an empire of Heuchera and MANY other tempting delights. I never thought of myself as one of those gardener’s who would have a fixation for assembling great numbers of any one genre of plant, but these seem to be my thing. All right, you got me. That’s not ENTIRELY true I must have Euphorbia too!

My current favorite 'Berry Smoothie'

I did have quite a love affair with Nandina of ALL types for many years, they still have a place in my heart, just not as ardently. I had an extremely prized ‘Threadleaf’ Nandina that made it to an impressive size at one home. I couldn’t bear to dig it up and take it with me as it seemed to complete the spot near the front door where it thrived.

You could add on to my list of devotions, Hellebore’s and Conifer’s now, thanks to my friend Mitch, a serious collector. His influence on me has been profound in a Plant Porn kind of way. I go to his garden for a biennial fix. Mitch is going to give me a division of some of his gorgeous Blue ‘Willow’ Gentians. I am SO excited!

It occurred to me the other day as I was out on spring garden clean up day two of probably ten, that I had not divided the Heuchera’s since I had been at this house. So, I grabbed my camera to show you, if you have never done it. It’s a shame that many people simply let them die and don’t realize that Heuchera can be divided incredibly easily and with a fabulous ratio of success!
When your, let’s call her the “Mama” Heuchera gets to about 4 years old or so, you will begin to see the foliage diminish slightly and she will develop finger length “Pups” that stick up about 3-4″ with a little tuffet of leaves at the top. I know this is terribly technical, but, stick with me! ūüôā

What I like to call a Heuchera "Pup"

In late March, I will either, dig up the whole plant, or if she’s a tough broad, sometimes I will just rip chunks off of her right from the ground. You will usually see anywhere from 5-10 “Pups”. Some that will be large and fat, about 4″ long and an inch around and some that are really small, only a few inches long and 1/3″ around. Yesterday, I got more than 40 divisions out of 5 plants. That’s a pretty great ROI on plants that are not inexpensive!

Simply plant them back in the garden, roots side down. ūüôā Then hurry up and wait! Smaller ones take longer, larger ones just take off. Easy peasy! Try it and save yourself a few bucks to go out and get obsessed about a new plant to spend your money on.


Hmmmmmm…. Terra Nova has these new Kniphofia I have been eying.

Garden Designer’s Roundtable – Shining In The Shade

Customers at the nursery where I work, as well as my own private clients, frequently lament to me about the challenges of frustrating¬†boredom¬†or lack of success they have with their shade conditions. This “woe is me” line of thinking does not linger long around me. I enthusiastically explain how they have bountiful, dazzling design¬†options and plant choices to play with that others with no shade don’t have. Dry shade? No problem! Damp shade, even better! Bring it on, let’s get your garden where you want it to be together.

Fatsia Japonica

Why not take full advantage of this location and all it has to offer? Try new things, break out of your shell. You are not limited to Impatiens or dry barren areas. Now more than ever in the history of gardening, you have the ability to make a wide range of plant choices beyond the every day standard OR the¬†defeatist¬†attitude of ¬†“Nothing will ever grow well there.” I will simply have none of it.

Hosta and Paris in the garden of David Fishman

In my own garden, just like most people, I have several little micro-pocket zones of varying shade conditions. I have had a ball experimenting with different perennials, shrubs, grasses and groundcover. I like to think of myself as a test driver for plants. Then I know what to expect from them and I can speak with authority about the dodgy ones versus the top performers.

Dwarf Hydrangea and Japanese Forest Grass

My fascination with the unending variants that create shade conditions is a deep and wide river of exploration. For me, trial and error is truly the only way to learn what does and does not work. I’ve had my greatest success with some of the craziest combinations. If I had played by “the rules” on the tags or in the books, then I would have not been able to achieve some of my most creative pairings. If we all knew exactly what plants have a tolerance for what circumstance¬†in every spot in the garden, designing and gardening would get very dull, very quickly!

Thalictrum and Actea

Sometimes I want certain sections of the garden to tell a story about how I would like them to be perceived by the person experiencing it. Maybe a bright and playful area of color in bright shade are followed up by a moody, quiet and contemplative space in full, deep shade. I want it all!

Double Flowering Hellebore

Cypress, Heucherella and Begonia

In my line of work as The Personal¬†Garden¬†Coach I’m usually in the clients garden with them to see each condition that they face. At my nursery job I have to learn to ask exactly the right questions to deduce what the customer actually means by “I have this shady spot, where nothing will grow.” I have to be like a detective to discern what they mean by “nothing”, how they define “shady” and what plants they have tried that don’t seem to be working.

“What’s shading the area?”

“Is it damp there, or dry there?”

“How do you water?”

“What plants have you tried so far?”

“Is it AM shade, PM shade, or shaded all day?”

Ultimately, I surmise a draft in my imagination of what the area is that they’re describing and advise some great plant suggestions. I can draw from my own experiences with shade conditions in many gardens that I’ve worked and create an action plan for design success, while tweaking it for their personal tastes or style.

Hosta, Heuchera, Heucherella, Coleus, Yarrow

Without the experience of failures and success in my own shade garden, I don’t think I would be as quick to assess difficult garden situations and turn the challenge around into opportunity for a gardener to create their vision.

Winterhazel, Sambucus, Fern, Molinia, Hosta

I also adore stretching the plants limits with the various fickle conditions that shade can deliver. From the most dark and cool shadowy corner under trees to bright shade where the garden gets glowing light but no direct sun. Both can offer a sense of experience that you can’t get with a full-on sunny location especially¬†if you are an adventurous gardener!

Hydrangea Paniculata, Coleus, Pennisetum, Sage, Euphorbia

I could go on and on about the technical definitions of shade, design ideas and lists of plant selections that would be great for you to try. But, the ultimate bottom line is that you have to honor your vast set of options and try new things. Some may work and others may not. You have a boundless set of resources from plants to books and websites that few before our generation had access to, use them! A great nursery person, experienced friend or blogger can be just the inspiration you need to dive into the shade and conquer it.

Nandina 'Firepower'

Explore more Shade plant blogs of The Garden Designer’s Roundtable by reading more from this month’s guest writer Margaret Roach¬†on her blog “A Way to Garden” and all of the other fabulous writers below.

Margaret Roach : A Way To Garden : Hudson Valley, NY

Andrew Keys : Garden Smackdown : Boston, MA

Debbie Roberts : A Garden of Possibilities : Stamford, CT

Douglas Owens-Pike : Energyscapes : Minneapolis, MN

Genevieve Schmidt : North Coast Gardening : Arcata, CA

Lesley Hegarty & Robert Webber : Hegarty Webber Partnership : Bristol, UK

Pam Penick : Digging : Austin, TX

Susan Cohan : Miss Rumphius’ Rules : Chatham, NJ

Early Flowering Perennial Performers For Impact

When the garden centers start to receive the first shipments of perennials for the spring season there are consistently a few star perennials that get overlooked by gardeners. I think that the sea of intensely colored Primroses, Pansies and Violas that await you immediately on the front tables makes the lust for spring color too hard to pass up!

The hardiness of the Primroses and occasional reseeding of the¬†Pansies¬†and Violas are a fantastic bonus too. But, if you do choose to take those extra couple of steps and venture out into the Perennials section of the nursery, you WILL be very well rewarded indeed with plants that you may COMBINE with your inexpensive “color” and have the benefit of a fantastic seasonal bonus as well. Let’s take a look at some early season perennials that you might not have considered before.

First up is the elegant Hellebore. The endless options for these alone could have me going on here FOREVER. An absolute must for any garden, period. If¬†you¬†would like to see more of these on my favorite post on Hellebore’s, click here.

You may remember the Columbine or Aquilegia from your Grandmother’s garden, it’s been around forever. But, in the last few years a breeding¬†resurgence¬†has brought so many new varieties to the market and you can’t ignore the impact they can have in your spring garden any longer. Even the foliage that once played second fiddle on the plant is now becoming¬†more¬†and more attractive and long-lasting into the warm season, before going dormant.

These are an example of some of the new small flowering¬†varieties from the Clementine series, ‘Dark Purple’ and ‘Salmon Rose’.

Another under used early perennial that I adore is Mossy Saxifraga. This vibrant and abundant flowering rock garden or ground cover plant is so easy to grow in part shade and the little matte of foliage that’s left after blooming is so charming for ¬†the rest of the growing season. The Saxifraga is partnered in this photo with Spreading Phlox. This one is called ‘Candy Stripe’. It also has the mossy matte of foliage leftover after the initial bloom. This plant will frequently re-bloom if cut back after the first flush, if it’s not in too hot of a location during the early months of summer.

Armeria or commonly called Sea Thrift or Sea Pink, is a tufted little grassy plant that is captivating. The little flower heads stand up so erect and happy as if to be the first to greet me in spring! There is one in particular that I WILL be buying this year called ‘Rubrifolia’. I get so swept up in the madness of spring that I keep forgetting that I really want this bronze, grassy texture for year round interest. NOT this year!

When you pair Armeria with ANY variety of Erysimum or Wallflower, you have a DYN-O-MITE combination of fresh spring flowers and foliage! Add some Sedum ‘Angelina’ for vibrant splashes of foliage color too!

Two more perennials that garner tons of attention in spring for the electric colors they sport are Lewisia and Lithodora. Both are excellent for the hot sunny Rock Garden or edge of the border where they can be seen up close. The Lewisia is seen in this picture paired with the foliage of Sedum ‘Autumn Glory’.

Veronica ‘Georgia Blue’ is one of THE most versatile. long blooming and hardy perennials I have ever owned. The foliage turns a bronze in winter. It flowers for months on end and makes wonderful ground cover. I like to use it under early flowering shrubs like Azaleas.

The ‘Labrador Violet’ is a happy sower so if you love it, you will be happy with it all over. It doesn’t seem¬†to¬†me to be overly¬†aggressive¬†at all. In fact, I have loved it where ever it has decided to seed itself. A lovely colony of this sweet little violet has made its home under a Japanese Maple in my garden combined with Alchemilla Mollis or Lady’s Mantle. The winter burnished russet foliage color leftover from winter is striking with the intense apple green of the Lady’s Mantle.

The Pasque Flower or Anemone pulsatilla is a flowering plant that is very close to our hearts here in the Northwest as it’s a native plant that grows in the meadows of our mountains. In the spring near Mt. Rainier, hikers will make their way up while there is still snow in the fields to get pictures of these star attractions of the meadows in bloom.

With the fuzzy soft and ferny foliage emerging AFTER the 2-3 inch wide flowers in color ranges of red, violet, mauve and pink. It’s a fun, must have for an early season blooming essential.

If you’re a fan of foliage that’s delicate like fine¬†lace-work, then you will be mad for the filigree leaves of Corydalis. A part shade beauty that is also refined, this will bloom in a mound of tube-shaped flowers dangling above the foliage like little chandeliers. This one happens to be one of the blue forms, but there are yellow and white as well. The cooler it’s location, the longer it will bloom! Pair it with Hardy Fuchsia, Bleeding Hearts, Hardy Geraniums or Astilbe for a stunning foliage combination after the lovely blooms have faded.

This overview of early blooming perennials is simply the tip of the¬†iceberg¬†for your plant choices. But, these are some of my favorites and some that I think¬†should¬†get a little more attention during the opening volleys of the spring nursery season. There are MANY MANY more that I can add to this list, and I’m sure I will as the season will soon be upon us. Be ready to go and explore new types of plants to add to your early spring garden beyond the conventional.

Do you have any perennials that you think¬†should¬†get more¬†attention¬†in spring? Drop me a note in¬†the¬†comments and I will be happy to go exploring for them. Who knows maybe we can start a new trend. ūüôā

Garden Designer’s Roundtable: Underused plants, Uncovered!

Over the years I have created my “go-to” list of plants that have a bounty of the personality traits that I require for them to make it on to my special list. As designers, I’ve noticed that many of us tend to repeat using the plants on our “go-to” list over and over, because THEY make US look like we’re genius’!

A plant that makes it on THE list for me has these points going for them:

1) Great foliage– Seemingly obvious I know, but not everyone appreciates this when they are in the throes of passion for flowers at the nursery and garden center in Spring and Summer.

2) Flowers– This one is tricky because I don’t require the flowers to be¬†ostentatious¬†or bold and showy, but if they are – BONUS points!!

3) Plays well with others– If it’s an evergreen, it had better be an awesome tone, hue, shade or texture that I can marry well with others. I can think of a few “overused plants” that fit that category and need to be divorced from one another – think of the children!

4) Fall color– If it’s deciduous, it had better have great flowers AND fall color, those two are simply non-negotiable. Is that really So much to ask?

Now that you have a familiarity with what turns me on in a horticultural way, you will now understand why I have chosen to profile these two fantastic plants!

Hydrangea Quercifolia ‘Oakleaf Hydrangea’

This shrub could have me waxing poetic about it for days. Graceful and hardy with insanely beautiful panicle flowers bigger than my head! Not poetic, but you feel my passion, right?

Hydrangea Quercifolia 'Oakleaf Hydrangea'

The¬†oak leaf¬†shaped foliage lends itself to so many plant combinations that I can’t imagine why every garden with a shady corner does not have one! Every plant space, every school, every mall, every home in america. Except the desert ones of course. They have other beauties that I’m sure to love. But, every mortgage should require one like insurance for a beautiful garden in most of the country!

Watch out for the Hydrangea clause in your next mortgage contract!

Those blooms!! Through every stage of growth and all of the various colors as they morph, oh the bliss of those cool and elegant blossoms! Every time I look at these flowers it reminds me of fluffy white weddings. Or¬†nougat¬†candy, I’m not sure which is better.

Double Flowering Hydrangea 'Snowflake' with Brunnera 'Langtrees'

Single flowers as well as double flowers are equally apt to cast a spell over you once you try this shrub! Then you might be¬†inspired¬†to deeper levels of¬†exhilaration¬†with a ¬†‘Pee-Wee’ dwarf cultivar in a container or ‘Little Honey’ that glows a glorious chartreuse in the shade.

Yet, I am very comfortable with the clean and sophisticated look of these shrubs in a contemporary design setting as well. The ultra elegant fall color on the deep burgundy foliage as winter approaches is downright handsome! The blooms and foliage may both persist with strength and fortitude almost in a macho way, well into early winter here in my zone 7 area if they are sheltered from fall winds.

And now for something you’ll REALLY love: Sarcococca !! I can equally divide my enchantment between the nearly twin common forms of this fantastic little shrub/ground cover. I will love them in a separate but equal maternal way of course!

Sarcococca 'Humilis' or 'Dwarf Sweet Box'

The fabulous ground cover form has long leaves of glossy, deep green that are reminiscent of the way a concert pianist holds their hands while they play a gentle note. OR writers who¬†delicately¬†tap on a computer keyboard blogging for hours at a time. ūüôā

As a shade evergreen shrub this plant has many admirable attributes. However, none rival, surpass or even come close to equaling the fragrance that this tiny powerhouse of a flower can muster! Did I mention that it does this in January? I repeat, this flowering shrub will bloom in winter with a¬†fragrance¬†that is next to impossible to compare. It’s flowers are SO tiny, that if you do not marvel at how much perfume they generate in a small area, your gardening license may be revoked and your neighbors will have rights to come and sniff it ALL up!

Captivating fragrance AND cool, glossy black berries on Sarcococca!

I once took small cuttings for bud vases I made for party tables, trust me it didn’t take much more than a 6 inch piece to make a big impact in a room full of people! Passers by will walk up and down your block like zombies looking for the scent of flowers they can’t see. It’s pretty funny to watch this play out until they are almost rooting around in a garden and pop up wide-eyed to find the sweet smell coming from such a demure and refined source! I like to think of Sarcococca kind of like my Pug- “A lot of plant (dog) in a small space!”

The other common form of Sarcococca is the more upright form that creates a lovely boxwood feeling shrub in a part shade space too. With all the same attributes as it’s smaller cousin, ‘Ruscifolia’ has class and a myriad of fashionable uses. As a container plant in a shady entryway- can you imagine it in January???? Swoon….

Here’s the “Plays well with others” part of the Sarcococca story.

Sarcococca 'Ruscifolia' with Actaea Racemosa 'Black Negligee'

Sarcococca 'Humilis' with 'Tassel' Fern

But wait- there’s more! I managed to get both of my picks for “Underused Plants” in one picture.

If you learned something new about these two wonderful plants, I’m thrilled. If you just voyeuristically enjoyed my pictures and goofy writing that’s all good too. But, if you had a¬†horticultural¬†epiphany¬†about why you haven’t used these two plants more, then I am over the moon with joy!

Be certain to go and read all of this months posts on the topic of “Underused Plants” here at the Garden Designer’s¬†Roundtable page and meet other Garden Designers who are just as passionate about their choices as I am!

Andrew Keys : Garden Smackdown : Boston, MA ¬Ľ
Carolyn Gail Choi : Sweet Home and Garden Chicago : Chicago, IL ¬Ľ
Christina Salwitz : Personal Garden Coach : Renton, WA ¬Ľ
Debbie Roberts : A Garden of Possibilities : Stamford, CT
Douglas Owens-Pike : Energyscapes : Minneapolis, MN ¬Ľ
Genevieve Schmidt : North Coast Gardening : Arcata, CA ¬Ľ
Jocelyn Chilvers : The Art Garden : Denver, CO ¬Ľ
Lesley Hegarty & Robert Webber : Hegarty Webber Partnership : Bristol, UK ¬Ľ
Pam Penick : Digging : Austin, TX ¬Ľ
Rebecca Sweet : Gossip In the Garden : Los Altos, CA ¬Ľ
Scott Hokunson : Blue Heron Landscapes : Granby, CT ¬Ľ
Susan Cohan : Miss Rumphius‚Äô Rules : Chatham, NJ ¬Ľ
Tara Dillard : Vanishing Threshold: Garden Life Home : Atlanta, GA ¬Ľ