Garden Designers Roundtable: Designers Home Landscapes

At the Garden Designer’s Roundtable this month we will show you our own gardens. This is no small thing for us, because most of us designers are busy at YOUR house making it look beautiful. And then we get home and experiment in our own gardens so you don’t have to. Truly, I don’t have a plant hoarding issue. Am I selling that well? 🙂 Actually it is true. I buy plants and trial and error them at home fairly frequently, strictly for testing purposes. Still buyin it?

OK, actually we do try out design ideas and test some plants from Growers and Breeders. We try to figure out the million dollar Bunny and Deer deterrent fixes. We use our gardens for our own blogs to show our successes and sad seasonal distresses, but it’s really just our own place to play just like yours, the good the bad and the really really bad. We just don’t usually bare our collective souls like this to the general public.

So, ready or not here is a snap shot of where my back yard landscape has begun and where it is today thanks to my friends at May Creek Landscape.

We downsized from our giant, custom-built dream home in 2007  just before the crash in 2008 to what I lovingly refer to as our “Barbie Doll House”. We bought our current home in the middle of the block in an almost brand new neighborhood about 30 seconds from our former home so that our teenager would be able to finish school and stay near friends until she went off to college.

As a former Real Estate Agent who worked for one of the 5 builders in this planned community I knew the neighborhood well and the small, contemporary San Fransisco lot styles with the alley in the back were just the right amount of maintenance for me to handle. Our side yard property line is right up to the neighbors foundation.

When we bought the home it had already had two owners, most recently 5 Bachelors with a motorcycle hobby. Yup, they were beloved by ALL the neighbors for sure. Not to mention that yard maintenance was not exactly a priority. So, it was a typical example of a NEW fixer upper these days. But, also a VERY blank canvas from the stand point of the garden.

I failed to get shots in 2007 of the gardens, I was too busy cleaning and planting! This pic shows the back yard in 2008, one year after we moved in. This gravel path and the beds on either side as well as all of the plants you see here did not exist at that time.

Back Yard in June of 2009.

I’m pretty sure I spent the better part of the first year simply adding soil to even make it diggable. Yes, that is the most correct Hort-term I could think of for this awful, hard-pan clay soil. Also, as you can see across the back side, privacy is an issue, so my baby Leyland Cypress trees that I started as 1 Gallons are 3 ft. tall in this picture. I also started creating English Laurel Standards from 1 Gallon babies too- wait until you see those now!

The drainage here is abominable. The lawn is just a bog all winter and most of spring until it dries out in summer and then it’s impossible to keep watered. Even the dog didn’t want to walk out there. Luckily all of those big tree roots have been helping to suck some of it up.

Now skip ahead to early spring of this year before any of the color and fluff came on and this was where we were in 2012. My MASTER Plan is about to unfold before your very eyes!

LAWN be gone!! No more mowing and edging- YUCK!

Construction day one, 7 years in the making…. no, waiting, yes, that’s it!

The Gravel base my patio and edging are down.The guys are getting the forms ready for the 3 concrete pedestals for my containers and building my water feature. The pedestals will be covered with slate tiles. Check out the size of my very pruned Leyland Cypress trees and Laurel Standards now!

Ta da! There are still a few tweaks and of course more plants needed. But, for the most part, it’s exactly as I had envisioned it. My landscape crew thought my idea was totally nuts, but now they see the light!

I adore my new veggie bins!!

A cool respite in the shade on a hot day.

More updates on the new back yard to come this summer as I finish planting and getting it just the way I want it, this is only 2 weeks old now! I’ve now bared my garden soul to all of you. I hope you enjoyed what took me a long time to get here.

Please be sure to take a look at what the other brilliant Lords and Ladies of the Round Table have to share as well!

Susan Morrison : Blue Planet Garden Blog : East Bay, CA

Rebecca Sweet : Gossip In The Garden : Los Altos, CA

Pam Penick : Digging : Austin, TX

Mary Gallagher Gray : Black Walnut Dispatch : Washington, D.C.

Jocelyn Chilvers : The Art Garden : Denver, CO

Deborah Silver : Dirt Simple : Detroit, MI

Debbie Roberts : A Garden of Possibilities : Stamford, CT

Christina Salwitz : Personal Garden Coach : Renton, WA

Andrew Keys : Garden Smackdown : Boston, MA

Rochelle Greayer : Studio G : Boston, MA

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. 🙂

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! 🙂

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. 🙂 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