form and foliage

Year round garden interest with minimal care


The Hit Parade: The Best Foliage Plants, Part I

succulents, foliage plants

Yucca gloriosa var. recurva ‘Walbristar’ (bright star Yucca)

We’ve long intended to provide plant lists for readers, with criteria such as ‘most durable’, ‘best winter interest’, ‘prettiest, etc. However as we begin, after a long hiatus, to to assemble the lists, we find that the easiest one to create is the list of plants that we simply can’t imagine being without. These aren’t the hardiest or the prettiest or the most drought-tolerant, they’re the go-to plants that both do the job and look like they are doing it effortlessly. This list is from the perspective of a long-time San Francisco Bay Area gardener, so may not apply to your situation. However, others’ lists are simply excuses to create your own, so if you don’t have a ‘must have’ list already, this is your chance to begin! We will note up front that all of these selections are more expensive than many other plants of similar look and size. However, they are worth it! Plants that behave well, that do not readily outgrow their spaces, are not susceptible to pathogens or predators and have long lives should cost more. How many cartloads of perennials do you really need every season? Forego one of them and buy a special plant instead.

bright star yucca

‘Walbristar’ glows in the landscape

1. First on our list is Yucca gloriosa var. recurva ‘Walbristar’ (Zone 7-10), quite a mouthful so easier, perhaps, to simply think bright star Yucca. We used to use Phormiums extensively, and gradually got tired of reversions (when those glorious colored or striped leaves return to dull green), growth rates far beyond the promises on the tags and difficult upkeep. One of our favorites had been ‘Golden Ray’, which features yellow and green striped leaves and thrives in full sun. Once we discovered ‘Walbristar’, however, we turned our back on Phormiums and have never looked back! ‘Walbristar’ has both a more refined look and more refined colors, the leaves do not shred and brown and it develops a distinctly rosy tint in the winter:

Yucca 'Walbristar' turns rosy in cold temperatures

Yucca ‘Walbristar’ turns rosy in cold temperatures

It’s drought tolerant, thrives in most soils and needs little to no upkeep. So far all we’ve had to do is to cut off a few spent flower stalks. It’s smaller ‘cousins’ Yucca filamentosa ‘Color Guard’ and Yucca gloriosa ‘Tiny Star’ have many of the same attributes with a smaller profile (and ‘Color Guard’ is clump-forming).

conifers, foliage plants, colored foliage

Ginkgo biloba ‘Todd’s Dwarf’

2. Next is our favorite dwarf Ginkgo biloba, ‘Todd’s Dwarf’ (Zone 3-10). Ginkgo are ancient trees that have barely changed over the millennia. Where they have changed, man has been the manipulator, cultivating naturally occurring mutations and interesting chance seedlings and producing numerous garden-sized small trees. The species Ginkgo, albeit slow-growing, attains heights of 70-80 feet, while these petite versions are often under 4′ at 10 years. They have interesting branching and leaf variations although all retain a semblance of the iconic ‘butterfly’ leaf shape. Our favorite is ‘Todd’s Dwarf, due to its full habit ruffled leaves, but there are many others, such as ‘Mariken’, ‘Troll’, ‘Munchkin’, ‘Jade Butterfly’ and ‘Chase Manhattan’. They all turn butter-yellow in autumn and generally drop their leaves all at once, making a glowing carpet. Four of these tough trees survived the atomic blast at Hiroshima, and they can withstand heat, cold, drought and pollution. They are some of the easiest care, low maintenance garden plants.

conifers, evergreen foliage

Cedrus deodara ‘Cream Puff’

3. The lovely deodar cedar ‘Cream Puff’ (Zone 7-11) is one of the best medium-large evergreen shrubs for Bay Area gardens. The soft, green needles are a classic deodara feature, in this cultivar augmented by creamy white new growth that glows in the landscape, especially during the colder months. Deodara come from the middle East, and deal well with our Mediterranean climate. Once established they are drought-tolerant and can take full sun without any burning or scorching.

conifers, cedars

The needles of Cedrus deodara ‘Cream Puff’ are beautiful up close as well

Up close, the needles look like they have been flocked or frosted. ‘Cream Puff’ is slow-growing and can be kept to shrub form, as the one above, by snipping out any leaders that may form.

Agave x 'Blue Glow'

Agave x ‘Blue Glow’

4. We love our succulents, and rather than relegate them to their own beds, we prefer to choose larger varieties and interplant them into the rest of the garden. Agave x ‘Blue Glow’ (Zone 8-11) is our very favorite. In the world of Agave, this counts as a small plant, but as you can see, it holds its own amongst many reasonably large shrubs. ‘Blue Glow’ provides both stunning structure and color and the maroon margins are complemented with maroon-leaved plants such as Berberis, Cotinus or certain succulents. Its water needs are lower than the nearby shrubs, which we take care of by mixing a goodly dose of lava rock into the soil around it and planting it up about 2-3″. It’s on the same irrigation as the rest of the garden. This Agave will ‘pup’, or produce smaller plants around its base. The leaf spines are extremely sharp; if you have young children or dogs it is advisable to snip them off with a scissors. It’s hard to imagine a plant that provides this much oomph with virtually no maintenance.  looks great up close, too:

Agave 'Blue Glow' up close

Agave ‘Blue Glow’ up close

5. Trees never get enough attention on top plant lists, and there are several that we wouldn’t be without. Arbutus ‘Marina’ (Zone 7-9) tops the list for us because it provides all-year interest, incredible bark, glossy evergreen leaves and decorative flowers and fruit. Give it good drainage and a sunny spot and it will flourish. Judicious pruning can result in fabulous shapes and branching.

strawberry tree, interesting bark

The peeling, cinnamon-chartreuse bark of Arbutus ‘Marina’

The ancestry of ‘Marina’ is unknown; it was first observed at a nursery in San Francisco’s Marina District and it is likely a hybrid between two species of Arbutus. ‘Marina’ flowers year-round, with peak bloom in spring and fall, and the fruit persist from yellow immature to red mature fruit, for a very decorative effect. The leaves flush bronze, later maturing to deep green. There is not one part of this tree that is not showy! ‘Marina’ grows slowly but will eventually become a full-sized tree, so site it accordingly.

Arbutus 'Marina'

Evergreen glossy foliage adds texture and interest all year

6. Osmanthus heterophyllus ‘Goshiki’ is our favorite variegated evergreen shrub.

holly, variegated shrubs, evergreen shrubs

Osmanthus heterophyllus ‘Goshiki’

At a quick glance Osmanthus resembles holly and is commonly called ‘false holly’. There are many lovely green Osmanthus, and we use them extensively, but ‘Goshiki’ (Zones 6-9) is a special cultivar with its leaves flecked with yellow and cream. The new foliage has distinctly rosy-bronzy tones and the entire effect is light, bright and sparkling. We like to use ‘Goshiki’ against dark green conifers, where we get contrast of both color and texture. ‘Goshiki’ grows slowly and while it eventually will attain some size, it can be snipped back easily. Slow growth means that it is much harder for a plant to get out of hand! In this area it benefits from some afternoon shade, but it can be grown from almost full shade to full sun. It is a wonderful way to brighten a dark spot in the garden.


Thuja plicata ‘Whipcord’ works beautifully in a large container

7. If you like the look of ornamental grasses but hate the mess and upkeep, Thuja plicata ‘Whipcord’ (Zones 6-9) is your plant. With the fountain-like habit of a large ornamental grass and the no-nonsense low-care attributes of a conifer (which it is!), it is the perfect marriage of style and simplicity. The dark green foliage bronzes in winter, complementing the rusty brown stems. Its mounding, weeping habit is graceful and soft and its pendulous branches move in the breeze. We often purchase special, highly desirable plants and find ourselves walking around the garden, trying this spot or that, never finding quite the right one. We can always find a spot for ‘Whipcord’! It seems to fit in anywhere. ‘Whipcord’ is slow growing but over time will form a 4-5′ shrub that is almost as wide. Easy pruning keeps it much smaller, much longer.

colored foliage

Acer pseudoplatanus (sycamore maple) ‘Esk Sunset’ gets our vote for loveliest tree

8. Acer pseduoplatanus ‘Esk Sunset’ (Zones 5-9) is such a lovely tree that we just can’t imagine being without it. Sure, there are hundreds–maybe thousands–of beautiful Japanese maples, and we love them all, but to some extent they begin to blur into each other after a while. ‘Esk Sunset’ is unique. Even the other pseudoplatanus cultivars don’t match its incredible flair. The leaves are mottled pale salmon and green, and the coloration varies from leaf to leaf.

sycamore maple

The undersides of the leaves of ‘Esk Sunset’ are purple!

And as if that weren’t enough, the undersides of the leaves are purple! When we catch sight of it backlit, we have to stop what we’re doing and just goggle at it. ‘Esk Sunset’ comes from the Esk Valley in New Zealand but some energetic nursery worker decided at some point that ‘Esk’ was short for ‘Eskimo’. Thus, you will usually see this tagged that way. ‘Esk Sunset’ is a slow-growing tree that appreciates some afternoon shade. The largest tree we’ve ever seen was at Buchholz & Buchholz Nursery in Oregon, an in-ground specimen that was about 25′ tall. You really don’t want to be without this one if you can grow it in your Zone.

conifers, California native plants

Pinus jeffreyi ‘Joppi’ – a California native at home in the garden

9. In California, planting natives is all the rage, and what we don’t understand is why that never seems to include the conifers? California has over 50 native conifers and many have garden-worthy cultivars.  Pinus jeffreyi ‘Joppi’ gets our vote for one of the best. It has a short, squat habit with long (up to 8″), deep green bristly needles and resembles some kind of troll-like creature. We half expect it to talk to us when we come near. The specimen in the photo above has not been pruned, but we’re considering borrowing a technique from bonsai and opening up the structure a bit so that we can see the trunk. This will grow slowly to about six feet tall in 10 years, but it can be kept squat by cutting out the central leader. Don’t you want to pet it?


Robinia pseudoacacia 'Frisia' (golden locust)

Robinia pseudoacacia ‘Frisia’ (golden locust)

10. We end this entry with a controversial choice: Robinia pseudoacacia ‘Frisia’. ‘Frisia’ is a large, fast-growing tree that not all gardens can accommodate. Some say it self-sows almost to the point of invasiveness; we have never found it so here, with our drip irrigation and sumptuous mulching. Others complain about the brittle branches–again, they have never presented a problem for us. We do some pruning to tidy it up but other than that we leave it alone. The key to making this tree work in your garden is having enough space for a large tree, and preferably siting it against a backdrop of darker foliage, such as the redwoods in the photo. Some do regularly prune it hard and use it as a large shrub, but we prefer the graceful canopy and the dappled shade that it creates. The light underneath is golden and bright. ‘Frisia’ only gets more beautiful in autumn, when its chartreuse foliage softens to a creamy golden yellow. It rivals the Ginkgos for its beacon-like effect as the days shorten at year end.


Jan and Sara took a brief hiatus from Form and Foliage in the first half of 2014 as Jan took photography classes and Sara became the website editor for the American Conifer Society. We hope to be back on a more regular schedule in the second half of the year.




Take My Hand, I’m a Stranger in Photographer Paradise


Jan goes native; trades pines for palms…at least for a week!

Jan just returned from Molokai where she attended the “See the Light” seminar run by Dewitt Jones, Rikki Cooke  and Jonathan Kingston, three fabulous photographers whose professional lives all have passed through National Geographic at some point and whose breadth of experience and approach to photography are rich and inspiring.  It would take pages to describe this course, but suffice it to say that she learned a lot, not only from this dynamic trio but also from their equally talented wives and the other course attendees.

Molokai plants

Form and foliage, Island-style. Aloes and bromeliads combine for fantastic effect.

She wanted to share a few “form and foliage” images from Molokai. While she didn’t go to Hawaii just to photograph foliage, it’s impossible to ignore that these exotic plants provide plenty of color, texture and interest, even before you notice that a lot of them also produce gorgeous blossoms.

Molokai foliage plants

Cordylines and Crotons join palms in paradise.

The “See the Light” workshop was based at the Hui Ho’olana (, the former hunting lodge for the Cooke family, one of the most influential families in the islands from the mid 1800s.  What started as a general store to supply missions grew to become Castle & Cooke, one of the “Big Five” corporations that dominated the Hawaiian economy for generations, until the  Hawaiian Democratic Revolution of 1954 struck a fatal blow to the sugar cane and pineapple industries as striking labor unions demanded the same wages and benefits as their mainland counterparts.

Lush tropical ferns lend soothing green.

Lush tropical ferns lend soothing green.

Molokai used to be the site of the best pineapples in the world; that is now long gone.  The island remains largely undeveloped, and many, if not most, of the residents wish it to remain so.   The Nature Conservancy and a foundation funded by Rikki Cooke and Dewitt Jones have purchased miles of coastline in an attempt to preserve the natural beauty and the habitats of the island’s native creatures.

The gardens at the Hui are serene and lovely

The gardens at the Hui are serene and lovely. This is Form and Foliage, Hawaiian-style!

The Hui Ho’olana today is a non-profit organization that hosts educational workshops and volunteer residencies to support a self-sustaining facility and Hui’s native Hawaiian reforestation projects.  The Hui has hosted photography workshops since the 1980s.  Rikki Cooke and his wife Bronwyn manage the Hui. The lodge is rustic, but roomy and comfortable, featuring a wrap-around porch with stunning panoramic views of the island.

The kitchen garden at the Hui

The kitchen garden at the Hui Ho’olana, with a spot for a tired gardener to rest.

The kitchen produces delicious meals, with many of the ingredients harvested from their extensive gardens and fruit trees.  Miles of trails snake down the island, and with a little advance planning you can get an expert massage in one of the yurts nestled in the woods on the hillside.  The Hui recently underwent a major upgrade of the landscaping.

The gardens are filled with textures and colors.

The gardens are filled with textures and colors.

While the plants in tropical gardens are vastly different than their temperate cousins (most are not even the same genera), design and color principles are the same, and year-round interest is the norm.

We don't generally think about large shade trees in the tropics, but they can be just as dramatic as in temperate zones.

We don’t generally think about large shade trees in the tropics, but they can be just as architectural as in temperate zones.

And although we wanted to showcase some of the foliage plants that Jan photographed, we couldn’t resist ending with a more classic Hawaiian shot.  Aloha from Form and Foliage!

Molokai coast

No foliage but lots of form.


Buds, Shoots and Leaves: Rhododendron De-flowered

Rhododendron 'Noyo Dream' has rich green glossy leaves, contrasting beautifully with the graceful, weeping Dacrydium cupressinum.

‘Noyo Dream’ has rich green glossy leaves, contrasting beautifully with the graceful, weeping Dacrydium cupressinum.

Say Rhodendron to most people, and they will envision shrubs dripping with large, showy blossoms. Indeed, the name comes from two ancient Greek words meaning ‘rose’ and ‘tree’. We toured the Mendocino Botanical Gardens and the nearby private Gardens at Harmony Woods last week, but we focused on ‘dendron‘, rather than ‘rhodo‘!

Rhododendron macabeanum graces the stone bridge at Harmony Woods.

Large leaved Rhododendron macabeanum graces the stone bridge at Harmony Woods.

November is not the time of year when Rhododendron are thought to take center stage as garden divas, or are even believed to shine as notable members of the chorus.  However, by selecting plants with attributes other than simply the showy trusses, one can have the exuberant floral display in spring, AND have gorgeous  foliage, bark and structure all year round. The Rhododendron macabeanum, pictured above, has enormous leaves of bright, deep green, which are plenty decorative during the months that the plant is not in bloom.


A hand and arm provide scale; R. macabeanum really has huge leaves!

Many Rhododendron serve year-round as stunning broad-leaved evergreens.  They can have glossy, textured or pubescent (downy) foliage in a wide range of greens, with lovely shapes and interesting branching and bark.

Rhododendron, Mendocino Botanical Gardens

R. ‘The Honorable Jean Marie de Montague’ has chartreuse buds, which are echoed in the surrounding plantings.

Rhododendron provide form and interest to the garden even when most of the other plants have gone dormant for the season. Like Magnolias, they set their buds the year before they flower, so they carry them through the fall, winter and early spring.  Both their leaf and flower buds are structural, and are often contrasting colors of chartreuse, rusty brown or maroon.

Rhododendron, foliage plants, evergreen shrubs

R. yakushimanum x ’Sir Charles Lemon’ is a beautiful shrub with rusty accents.

Many Rhododendron share another feature that requires closer observation, but provides fabulous year-round drama: contrasting leaf undersides.  R. yakushimanum x ‘Sir Charles Lemon’, pictured above, while an attractive shrub from any angle, displays its hidden assets only when viewed from below:

3.Rhododendron yakushimanum x ’Sir Charles Lemon’

The weak autumn sunlight warms up the cinnamon-colored undersides of the leaves of R. yakushimanum x ‘Sir Charles Lemon’

R. neriiflorum var. neriiflorum ‘Rosevallon’ is really coy.  It’s an unassuming plant (which doesn’t even have a particularly showy flower) with narrow, deep green elliptical leaves.  Hidden beneath those leaves, however, are deep claret undersides, which match the tightly furled flower buds.  This is a seldom seen plant–if you encounter it, be sure to turn the leaves over!

Rhododendron neriiflorum var. neriiflorum ‘Rosevallon’

Look at the way the buds and the leaf undersides are color-coordinated!

Other cultivars have extremely decorative leaves, with a range of colors and patterns far beyond what most of us associate with Rhododendron.  This stunner, pictured below, which we saw at The Gardens at Harmony Woods, is not available commercially, and it has been nicknamed ‘The Hybrid’ because it is a result of so many crosses between both species and hybrids.  There are others of similar hue, however.

foliage shrubs, evergreen shrubs, conifers, rhododendron

This Rhodie reads ‘blue’ in the landscape, especially when contrasted with its deep green ruff of Cryptomeria j. ‘Ryukyu Gyoku’.

Up close we can see that the blue cast comes from a fuzzy white coating:

foliage plants, evergreen shrubs

Rhododendron ‘The Hybrid’ with its sugary coating.

R. pacysanthum is another Rhododendron with silvery blue leaves.

species rhododendrons, foliage plants, blue foliage, glaucous foliage

Rhododendron pachysanthum has silvery leaves that are decorative enough to be flower clusters.

There are even variegated cultivars, such as ‘President Roosevelt’, which provides plenty of interest in the autumn and winter garden.  This beauty is part of the collection at the Mendocino Botanical Gardens.

variegated foliage, evergreen shrubs

Rhododendron ‘President Roosevelt’ at the Mendocino Botanical Gardens

Many Rhododendron also have deeply textured leaves, some of which are puckered, which is botanically described as ‘bullate’.

Crinkly green leaves add texture to the autumn garden.

Rhododendron brachysiphon has shiny, bright green crinkly leaves

Then there is Rhododendron edgeworthii, which has not only texture, but cinnamon-flocked stems and leaf undersides.  The Gardens at Harmony Woods has a lovely specimen that we were able to examine in detail:

foliage plants, evergreen shrubs

Rhododendron edgeworthii is worthy of close inspection

There are even Rhododendron that make their statement by the shape of their leaves.  R. orbiculare subsp. orbiculare (that should make it doubly clear to all that the leaves are round!) has crisp green lily-pad leaves with chartreuse buds and veins.  It is one of the most charming plants we encountered, and needs no flowers to assert its individuality or its garden-worthiness.

Rhododendron, foliage plants

The leaves of R. orbiculare subsp. orbiculare look like lily pads

And did we mention the bark? Rhododendron are often big shrubs (remember that ‘dendron’ means ‘tree’) and when the larger varieties or cultivars get some age on them, some display gorgeous, peeling bark, often cinnamon-colored.  This Rhododendron ciliicalyx x formosum is one of the best:

Rhododendron cilicalyx x formosum

This Rhodie, at the Mendocino Botanical Gardens, gives paperbark maple a run for its money

Or take a look at  Rhododendron ciliicalyx, one of the genetic parents of the plant pictured above, planted amongst the ferns at The Gardens at Harmony Woods:

Foliage plants, interesting bark

Rhododendron ciliicalyx

If you must have fall color in your garden, don’t rule out Rhododendron for that, either.  Some, such as the Exbury hybrids (commonly called azaleas) are deciduous and provide as much autumn color as maples and ginkgo.  This one at the Mendocino Botanical Gardens caught our eye and drew us from afar:

azaleas, fall foliage

Rhododendron ‘Exbury Hybrid’ at the Mendocino Botanical Gardens

This little R. ‘Washington State Centennial’ at Harmony Woods was in full fall glory when we visited:

Azalea 'Washington State Centennial', deciduous shrubs, fall color

Hard to believe that this is a Rhododendron!

And if you think that the leaves only get a chance to show their glory in fall and winter, take a look at R. ‘John Paul Evans’ which, in a burst of confused enthusiasm, flushed new growth on one branch just in time for our visit to Harmony Woods:

Rhododendron nuttali form, foliage plants

R. ‘John Paul Evans’ has violet new foliage and large, textured leaves

This nuttallii form was a 2013 American Rhododendron Society pick of the year, and supposedly has huge, fragrant blossoms.  We fell in love with the crinkly violet leaves!

Both the Mendocino Botanical Gardens and The Gardens at Harmony Woods are in USDA zone 9b or Sunset zone 17, meaning that freezes are rare.  However, there are many, many hardy Rhododendron.  If this essay has inspired you to learn more, try the American Rhododendron Society (ARS) for a wealth of information about cultivars and how to grow them.

The Gardens at Harmony Woods are private, but are open by appointment to members of the ARS and the American Conifer Society; members may consult their directories for information.  Non-members: one of the benefits of belonging to these societies is access to wonderful private gardens, which provide enjoyment and inspiration for your own gardening endeavors. Membership is inexpensive and opens up new worlds of plants and people!



Creature Feature

Sequoiadendron giganteum 'Pendulum', conifers, weeping giant sequoia

Sara has a strange encounter with two monsters in The Oregon Garden.

The monsters come out for Halloween, and the garden is no exception. Some plants, like the Sequoiadendron giganteum ‘Pendulum’ above, are downright bizarre, even supernatural.  With our minds on tricks and treats we are seeing creatures everywhere!

Coenosium Gardens, conifers, foliage gardening

This Acer saccharum ‘Newton Sentry’ looks more like a giant, multi-armed alien than a maple tree!

Autumn’s misty days exacerbate the eeriness; we wonder if the alien pictured above at Coenosium Gardens has designs on that tractor, or even the barn…we had barely escaped its clutches when we came upon the next horrible beast:

conifers, Picea abies 'Pendula', Coenosium Gardens

This creature, rearing up on its hind legs, looks particularly ferocious. It’s really a Picea omorika ‘Pendula Bruns’.

Not sure how much more our nerves could stand, we fled from Coenosium and sought sanctuary at Iseli Nursery.  All seemed well, until we saw the horrible multi-headed sea serpent sitting outside the front door, daring anyone to enter:

Chamaecyparis, topiary

A multi-headed creature from the deep guards the entry to Iseli Nursery

At Iseli, it appeared, it was too dangerous to linger. Would Buchholz & Buchholz be any safer?  We were weary of running and hoped to find safety soon.

Larix deciduosa 'Pendula', conifers, weeping larch

A strange furry pachyderm scared us away from Buchholz & Buchholz…

Buchholz was clearly not the place to stay!  An enormous creature greeted us in the Flora Wonder Arboretum and we decided that the only safe place was home, so we made our way back to Sonoma County.  At Quarryhill Botanical Garden we realized that we must have just missed a witch’s coven, as one of the witches left her broom in a pine tree:

conifers, pine trees

A witch’s broom in a Pinus densiflora at Quarryhill

So on to Circle Oak Ranch, where we breathed a collective sigh of relief.  No sooner were we settled than we realized that we had been invaded!

Cedrus deodara 'Divinely Blue', cedar, mixed foliage, colored foliage

Is this the Loch Ness Monster?

What had appeared to be a lovely specimen of Cedrus deodara ‘Divinely Blue’ turned into the Loch Ness Monster!  We recoiled and ran right into a series of webs…

Everything just looked eerier and eerier to us...spider webs were everywhere.

Everything just looked eerier and eerier to us…spider webs were everywhere.

Giant blue gardener-eating amoebas flowed along the ground, creeping along at our feet, sending out tentacles to nibble at our toes.

junipers, blue foliage, conifers

Amoeba-like Juniperus horizontalis ‘Blue Chip’ creep along the ground.

Some of the monstrous brutes have fierce teeth, which look like they could make short work of us.  We scurried away.  Where would we be safe?

succulents, foliage plants

The sharp leaves of Agave ‘Blue Glow’ look like so many enormous teeth.

How had we not noticed all of the teeth before?  They were everywhere!

succulents, black foliage

This Dyckia arizona tried to bite us as we passed.

Exhausted, and with darkness falling, we realized that we needed to seek shelter in the house.  We ran down the hill, passing a trio of demons, barely escaping their clutches.

Sequoiadendron giganteum 'Pendulum'

Three hulking monsters tried to grab us as we passed.

At last, safety was ours, warm and snug inside, with the doors locked, a fire lit and the dogs on guard.  We opened a bottle of wine and discussed how many narrow escapes we had had.  What we didn’t realize was that the creatures were waiting for us to leave to really let loose:

Sequoiadendron giganteum 'Pendulum'

Only when the humans leave and the sun goes down do the creatures really come out to party!

A very Happy Halloween to all from the Phantoms and Fiends at Form and Foliage!


South Seattle Community College Arboretum: a Hidden Gem of a Conifer Garden

American Conifer Society, foliage gardening

South Seattle Community College boasts not just an arboretum but also one of the best collections of dwarf conifers in the country.

We’ve written about both large, grand public botanical gardens and small, private, intimate collections. In Southwest Seattle, open to all visitors with no fee, is the newest American Conifer Society Reference Garden: the arboretum at South Seattle Community College, a public space designed and crafted with a personal touch.  This arboretum puts many large-university offerings to shame, particularly its Coenosium Rock Garden, specializing in gorgeous dwarf conifers, such as the Picea abies ‘Gold Drift’ gracing the entry stone.

conifers, evergreen plants, foliage gardening

The Coenosium Rock Garden was dedicated in 2005 and inducted into the Gardens for Peace program in 2010.

The arboretum was established in 1978 at the north end of the campus, after students in the landscape horticultural program petitioned for an outdoor laboratory. The present-day garden is about five acres and has a sweeping view of downtown Seattle. Although the arboretum counts its Helen Sutton Rose Garden as one of its highlights and there are robust examples of perennial borders, rhododendron and ornamental grasses, it is the two conifer gardens that drew our interest for their excellent displays of form and foliage.

American Conifer Society, cryptomeria japonica

The Milton Sutton Conifer Garden opened in the early 80’s and now has some lovely mature specimens.

The Milton Sutton Conifer Garden, planted soon after the arboretum was begun, has lovely specimens (and the best view of Seattle!) but is of more interest to the conifer-addict than a gardener seeking ideas about plant combinations, as it does not feature the attention to plant placement and design that characterize the newer Coenosium conifer collection.

conifers, American conifer society, blue Atlas cedar

Cryptomeria japonica and Cedrus atlantica ‘Glauca pendula’ have nicely contrasting color and texture.

Amongst the conifers in this part of the arboretum, though, we found plenty of color and textural variety.  The Japanese ‘cedar’ (not a true cedar, but that’s its common name), replete with cones, on the left in the above photo, has distinctly different needles than the blue Atlas cedar on the right. Their colors, too, contrast pleasingly and their shapes are wildly different–the Cryptomeria stands about 40-50′ tall while the Atlas cedar drapes itself horizontally in numerous directions.

evergreens shrubs and trees, foliage gardens, colored foliage

In the Coenosium Rock Garden, conifers dominate, with attention paid to design principles such as repetition and the use of companion plantings.

The Coenosium Rock Garden was the brainchild and donation of Bob and Dianne Fincham of Coenosium Gardens, which we wrote about last year. Intended as a teaching tool and laboratory, it also functions as an attractive display garden, with careful attention paid to combinations of color, texture, shape and size. There are non-cone bearing plants sharing the space, from stately European beeches to humble black-eyed Susans, giving those looking for ideas much to see and inspire them.

Cedrus deodara, Cedrus atlantica 'Glauca Pendula', Fagus sylvatica, evergreen trees, conifers

A busy road runs behind this lovely stand of European beeches, cedars and other conifers.

The Rock Garden was begun in 2000, dedicated in 2005 and inducted into the Gardens for Peace Program in 2010.  The site is problematic; much of the soil is heavy and drains poorly.  The West end of the garden, which was planted as part of Phase I in 2000, required roughly 60 yard of fill before the 60 conifers and European beeches (which today are over 20′ tall) could be planted to make a screen along busy 16th Avenue SW. Most of us don’t use material in such large quantities but the principles are the same: poor soil can be amended and woody plants can be used functionally to create and delineate spaces.

junipers, mixed foliage garden, evergreens

The deep purple leaves of the weeping European beech contrast beautifully with the surrounding conifers.

Most of the non-coniferous plantings are European beeches and Japanese maples; both are long-lived, slow-growing trees with lovely shapes, bark, stature and leaf color and texture.  The glossy leaves of the beeches and the lacy maple foliage provide a pleasing contrast to the conifer needles, although this garden’s designers have taken pains to illustrate that all conifers are not alike.

conifers, evergreens, foliage plants

The lime green Calocedrus foliage and the blueish Picea needles couldn’t be more different.

Cedrus atlantica 'Glauca', Chamaecyparis obtusa, Picea orientalis

Likewise this grouping of a blue Atlas cedar, vibrant green false Hinoki cypress, tweedy loden spruce and rich emerald pine.

We lingered in this garden for a couple of hours, partly because there was much to engage the eye, but also because Bob and Dianne envisioned this spot as more than just a laboratory, but also as a richer sensory experience, like most successful gardens.  The garden includes a magnificent water feature, donated by the Arboretum Support Committee and designed and installed by SSCC students.  The pleasant sound of the water and textural richness of the stone creek bring sound and earthiness into the impressive collection of plantings.

conifers, foliage plants

Rushing water moves through a rock-lined creek bed in the middle of the garden.

And, like all good gardens, there are benches where visitors can sit and take it all in.

conifer garden, South Seattle Community College Arboretum

Plan enough time when you visit to sit and enjoy the garden’s sights and sounds.

Horticulture Instructor Van Bobbitt is the Arboretum Coordinator, and his students, in addition to using it as a living laboratory, maintain it for the pleasure of others.  If you are in Seattle, don’t miss this lovely spot: South Seattle Community College Arboretum.    Follow the Arboretum on Facebook.


Private Spaces: The Jordan Garden

foliage garden, evergreen shrubs, conifers

Ken and Elena Jordan’s garden in Roseburg, OR is one of the loveliest we’ve seen.

Visits to botanical gardens and nurseries allow us to revel in the scope and breadth of their plantings or to view imposing and impressive mature specimens.  Visits to such places can be educational and inspiring, but they can also be daunting, for few if any of us can hope to replicate their grandeur and scale.

conifers, American Conifer Society, pine trees

Ken and Elena show us around their garden.

That’s why we also like to visit private gardens, such as that of Ken and Elena Jordan in Roseburg, OR.  Their garden, while enormous and ambitious by most standards, is constructed on a more intimate scale, and demonstrates the owners’ personality and connection to their residence that is characteristic of the most successful private efforts.

conifers, foliage plants, evergreen shrubs

The Jordans use a mix of conifers, Japanese maples and other interesting foliage plants, and use different kinds of stone for accent.

The Jordans sited their house on a bluff overlooking the Umpqua River.  Ken designed and built the Craftsman style home himself, and the couple made their garden on the wooded slope facing away from the river, under the remnants of the native forest.

conifer garden, foliage garden, pine trees

A few old oaks provide a high canopy that shelters and shades the garden below.

The steeply sloping lot posed design and circulation challenges which the Jordans met by making switchbacked paths and stone retaining walls.  Native stone is also incorporated into the garden in the form of boulders and pathways.  Both Ken and Elena have design and horticultural talents, and a sense of humor that has caused them to name the property ‘Stonehedge’.

conifer garden, foliage garden, pine trees, evergreen shrubs

The Jordans use different kinds of stone to add interest, structure – and support! – to the garden.

The steep slope could prove tiring to navigate if it were not for the many seating opportunities along the paths.  Each spot provides a different aspect, with different vistas and plants to enjoy.  Ken’s mastery of both the wood shop and the forge are evident everywhere.

Ken designed and built this structure - the perfect place to sit and enjoy the view and the plantings.

Ken designed and built this structure – the perfect place to sit and enjoy the view and the plantings.

Despite the structures, stone and art, in this garden the plants rule.  The Jordans were bitten early on by the conifer bug and with encouragement from Larry Stanley of Stanley & Sons Nursery, made their garden around their large conifer collection.  They are active members of the American Conifer Society and travel all over the world to view–and acquire–choice specimens.

foliage gardens, evergreen border, American Conifer Society

A weeping pine (Pinus strobus ‘Pendula’) frames this grouping of conifers, grasses and Japanese maples.

Although the Jordans like all manner of conifers (and many foliage plants such as Japanese maples), their property really showcases the large, contorted cultivars such as Pinus strobus ‘Pendula’ and Cedrus atlantica ‘Glauca Pendula’ and they have several choice specimens of each.

conifers, foliage garden, blue foliage, blue needles

Weeping blue Atlas cedar (Cedrus atlantica ‘Glauca Pendula’) has room to show itself off.

The contorted trunks of the weeping specimens are beautiful in their own right, and provide ‘small moments’ to enjoy that balance the scale of the sweeping beds and pathways.

pine trees, conifers

The trunk of Pinus densiflora ‘Pendula’ – weeping Japanese red pine – is textural and sinuous.

As much as they love conifers, both Ken and Elena know that good design requires contrasting colors, textures and forms, and have interplanted the conifers liberally with deciduous trees such as Japanese maples and beech.  Fall is a particularly beautiful time in this garden as the fiery colors of the maples are dramatically set off by the greens and blues of the conifers.

conifers, foliage garden, evergreen border

Japanese maples, an ornamental cherry and a European beech add diversity and interest.

Autumn’s low sun shines through the maples and casts a glow over the entire garden, lighting the chartreuse, green, blue and teal conifers.

conifer gardens, foliage gardens, mixed foliage

The setting sun catches the autumn leaves of a Japanese maple.

In fact, that sunset drew us right up the slope and around to the back of the house, where we turned from looking at the beauty that the Jordans had created to enjoying the natural view over the river. What a paradise Ken and Elena found when they chose this spot, and what a masterpiece they have created! We look forward to visiting again soon.

Japanese maples, conifers, fall foliage

The view from the Jordan’s back porch over the Umpqua River.

conifers, Conifer Kingdom, Rare Tree Nursery


Brent Markus: Reigning at Conifer Kingdom

foliage plants, evergreens, pine trees

The Kingdom of Conifers at Rare Tree Nursery in Silverton, Oregon

One of the difficulties in creating a form and foliage garden is that most nurseries and garden centers play to the ‘perennialistas’, with a focus on flowering plants.  While there are some specialty nurseries with interesting selections of trees and shrubs, most garden-makers are relegated to shopping at the more mainstream spots where dwarf conifers, Japanese maples and the like are after-thoughts, if, indeed, thought of at all.  That’s just what Brent Markus, the wunderkind of the Oregon nursery world, aims to change.  We visited Brent a couple of weeks ago and he showed us around his kingdom. We are now loyal subjects!

Conifer Kingdom, Rare Tree Nursery, conifers, evergreens

Brent Markus (in the white shirt) treats us to a tour of his kingdom.

After mentoring by horticultural luminaries Henri Bort, Don Howse, Larry Stanley and Rich and Susan Eyre, Brent burst onto the scene in 2007 at the age of 24 when he bought Dick Haslebacher’s Woods Creek Horticultural in Salem, OR and started Rare Tree Nursery in Silverton.  Conifer Kingdom is the retail/mail-order arm of Rare Tree.  Brent oversees an operation that today is propagating roughly 700 different varieties of conifers, Japanese maples and Ginkgo—more than any other single supplier in the U.S.

conifers, evergreens, foliage plants

Rare Tree Nursery specializes in pines, fir, spruce, Ginkgo and Japanese maples.

For Brent, it’s all about quality and educating the customer, whether that means the wholesale buyer at the garden center or the retail consumer who orders on line.  He starts with high quality plants that are showcased in gorgeous website photography by employee Sam Pratt.  Brent has also developed distinctive and informative plant tags that provide planting and care instructions.

conifers, evergreen plants, foliage plants

Newly grafted plants sit in neat rows, until ready to be moved into larger containers.

Most high quality conifers and Japanese maples are propagated by grafting cultivated varieties onto durable rootstocks, in the same manner as roses.  Grafting is more expensive than growing from cuttings, but produces better plants. The quality at Rare Tree/Conifer Kingdom begins with their careful choice of understocks. Brent explains, ‘For example, with firs, we’ve used what we have experienced to be the best performing understock for a broad range of hardiness, heat and humidity, Abies bornmuelleriana, the Turkish fir.  However, this winter we’re starting to use Abies firma as our rootstock. We believe that this will even allow firs to excel in the heat and humidity of the Southeast. They’ve never been able to grow firs down there, but with Abies firma as the rootstock, there is a very good chance that they will thrive.’

conifers, evergreen shrubs

Rare Tree moves plants up into larger pots when root conditions require more space – a rarity in the nursery world.

The quality continues with the maintenance of the plants. Dick Haslebacher, who has remained with Rare Tree, is the nursery manager and in charge of quality control. It is Dick who carefully monitors which plants need to be potted up into larger pots and regularly culls the blocks of sub-standard individuals.  Brent notes that even though it raises the cost to repot plants into bigger pots and to discard some, it’s critical to ensure that the customers always receive high quality plants that meet Rare Tree’s standards.

conifers, Conifer Kingdom, Rare Tree Nursery

Larger specimens usually appeal to landscape designers and those who want immediate gratification.

‘We want to make interesting varieties available to the educated landscape designer and the forward thinking garden centers.  But there is only so much that they can carrry–they can’t carry 600 varieties of conifers! So for that market, we focus on a smaller number of varieties but in much greater numbers. For retail, we have a much broader offering, with some new cultivars that are hard to find, especially in many parts of the country.’

Rare Tree Nursery, Conifer Kingdom

Specimen conifers and maples in boxes designed for the garden center customers.

The garden centers can order their plants in attractive wooden boxes with the informative labels, giving them a distinctive look with more eye appeal. Brent’s idea is to focus on a key list of specific cultivars—similar to ‘Proven Winners’—that the garden centers can promote and that retail customers will gravitate to.

conifers, Conifer Kingdom, Rare Tree Nursery

Field grown conifers at the kingdom represent about 10% of the production.  That’s Picea omorika ‘Peve Tijn’ in front.

No small part of Brent’s success as a grower is that he is a credentialed designer and understands how to use plants in the landscape.  He sells most cultivars in several different sizes: ‘We have plants to fit every budget. If you’re a collector and your budget needs to accommodate a lot of different cultivars, we offer small sizes for you to buy and grow them on.  Or you can order a specimen from us in larger size.’

Pine trees, conifers, Rare Tree Nursery, Conifer Kingdom

Pinus x schwerinii ‘Wiethorst’ is available in three different sizes, as are many selections.

‘You can accomplish the same design no matter what size plant you order, it’s just a lot easier to visualize when the plants are bigger! The larger versions can be planted and mulched and they look great right away.’  When asked about the conventional wisdom of larger plants being difficult to transplant successfully, Brent responded that that is not a problem as long as you don’t buy large balled & burlapped specimens that aren’t properly root-pruned over a period of time.  ‘That’s one reason to buy larger plants from us where you will never encounter that problem, as we are vigilant about quality control. ‘

conifers, Rare Tree Nursery, Conifer Kingdom

Taxodium distichum ‘Secrest’ in a 65 gallon pot.  Imagine this next to a garden water feature!

Rare Tree also carries large, ‘specimen’ plants, some of which are mountain-dug.  All have unique shapes and character and each plant has an individual label; if you see a photo of a particular plant and order it, that is the exact plant that you will receive. The Taxodium pictured above, for example, is specimen #1468 and can be found on the website!

conifers, Conifer Kingdom, Rare Tree Nursery

The rows of plants create a rich tapestry of many colors and textures.

At this point we were confirmed believers and pleased to get such a detailed behind-the-scenes peek at how a high quality grower operates.  The rows and rows of specimens–75,000 retail-ready plants!–are gorgeous in their own right, like racks of paint samples, yarn or piece goods.  “But wait,’ said Brent, ‘there’s more!’ as he led us to a grouping of trees and shrubs of varying textures and colors.

Japanese maples, Rare Tree Nursery, Conifer Kingdom, foliage colors

The Acer shiraswanum ‘Autumn Moon’ draws attention with its brilliant golden foliage.

Brent is a practicing landscape architect as well as a nurseryman, with academic credentials in landscape design and horticulture.  He set out the grouping of plants pictured above to demonstrate the beauty of different colored foliage used in combination–not a hard sell with us!–and also to highlight power of yellow in the landscape.  The maple in the center of the photo is a brilliant chartreuse and gold, and draws the eye in, as do all lighter colors.  It ‘pops’ in the landscape and adds depth and interest.  The burgundy, blue and orange also augment the different shades of green, and the chartreuse Thjua plicata ‘Franky Boy’ in the foreground echoes the foliage of the maple.

Japanese maples, Conifer Kingdom, Rare Tree Nursery

The same grouping with the ‘Autumn Moon’ replaced by the green-leaved Acer palmatum ‘Autumn Fire’

In the photo above, the chartreuse-leaved ‘Autumn Moon’ and ‘Franky Boy’ have ben replaced with a green-leaved ‘Autumn Fire’ and Thuja plicata ‘Whipcord’.  Pretty, but nowhere near as exciting or interesting as the first grouping.  None of the other plants have been changed, and yet the burgundy and blue don’t seem as striking as they do in the first photo.  The lighter chartreuse livens up all of the plants around it.

Pine trees, conifers, Rare Tree Nursery, Conifer Kingdom

All pines are not created equal: the needles of P. x schwerinii ‘Wiethorst’, P. sylvestris ‘Aurea’ and P. strobus ‘Vercurve’ each have their own distinctive colors and textures.

So if you’re looking for interesting dwarf conifers, Japanese maples and Ginkgo to add beauty, texture and value to your landscape and you don’t have a good local source (or even if you do!), visit Conifer Kingdom.  This kingdom is not found in a fairy tale, it’s at  Order some trees and we think that everyone will live happily ever after!


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