form and foliage

Year round garden interest with minimal care


Hooray for the Red, White and Blue!


Acer tataricum Hot Wings (‘GarAnn’) lights up the garden with explosions of red!

Today the Internet teems with photos of red, white and blue flowers, and there are many lovely combinations. We find Old Glory’s colors in the foliage garden, too. Reds abound in seed pods and new leaves.


New leaves on Fagus sylvatica ‘Purpurea Pendula’ are bright red.

The weeping purple beech above is getting in on the act with a few late new leaves, which are red as can be and belie its otherwise dignified appearance.


Gunnera prorepens has firecracker flowers and a martial-sounding name.

We admit that the red from Gunnera prorepens is from its flowers, not its leaves, but we use it for its chocolatey leaves and consider the flowers a bonus.

pampas grass

Cortadera selloana ‘Silver Comet’ has white stripes down its long leaves and is sterile, so not invasive.

White is easy to find, too! The pampas grass in the photo above lights up the garden with its largely white foliage.

20090614-Circle Oak Ranch - June 2009-5977

Sorbaria sorbifolia buds and blossoms

False spirea (Sorbaria sorbifolia), an Asian member of the Rose family, graces the foliage garden with lovely new foliage, decent fall color, and a riotous display of crackling white flowers in mid-summer.


White can be subtle, too, as in this Zelkova serrata ‘Green Mansions’

Blues abound, especially in succulents and conifers.


Agave ‘Blue Glow’ up close – it even has red edges!

Picea pungens 'Lucretia'

Colorado blue spruce is blue blue blue!

Picea pungens (Colorado blue spruce) has so many cultivars that it is hard to keep track. ‘Lucretia’, pictured above, is one of the smaller, slower-growing introductions that is easy to keep to a manageable size.


Blue weeping Atlantic cedar (Cedrus atlantica ‘Glauca Pendula’

Lots of blue cedars, too.


Pinus maximartinezii, the bluest of the pines.

There’s even a blue pine. It’s from Mexico, but happy to take part in the July 4th festivities.

We even found some firecrackers in the garden!

20090614-Circle Oak Ranch - June 2009-6028

Aloe flowers look like firecrackers about to explode

You can almost hear this one sizzle:


Most aloes have orange flowers borne well above their leaves

And then, after the fireworks are over, the smoke drifts through the air…


Artemisia versicolor ‘Sea Foam’ has a smoky look to it


Happy 4th of July to all!



The Color Purple


smoke bush

Picea pungens ‘Lucretia’ with Berberis wilsoniae and Cotinus x ‘Grace’

In spring the go-to colors are pastels, and the foliage garden certainly has its share of baby blues and soft yellows. However, they often share the garden space with deep, grown-up purple, which contrasts richly with the softer hues. Colorado blue spruce cultivars (Picea pungens cv.) are the quintessential powder blue foliage plants. When paired with other pastels, they have a demure persona, belying the strength inherent in their tough, spiky needles. Around purple, however, the blue acquires a steely note.


Picea pungens ‘Lucretia’ against Cotinus x ‘Grace’ foliage

Purple works well as a background color, especially if you want the background to be, well, in back. Lighter colors draw the eye, darker ones recede. A purple background allows the plants in front to claim the attention.


Eucalyptus pulverulenta ‘Baby Blue’ against the purply Cotinus x ‘Grace’

The Eucalyptus in the shot above is about as pastel as it gets, yet takes on a more sophisticated mien when backed by smoky Cotinus x ‘Grace’.


The blues and greens  gain prominence when backed by purple

Circus canadensis ‘Forest Pansy’ is a lovely, if somewhat awkwardly shaped, small tree. Here it is planted behind a grouping of different shades of blues and greens and serves as a backdrop which adds richness to the scene and disguises its lanky branching.


Picea pungens ‘Stoplight’ and Mangave ‘Macho Mocha’

Succulents are a good place to look for ‘evergreen’ purples; the Mangave above is another great companion for blue spruce. Not only do the colors provide fabulous contrast but the strappy leaves of the Mangave are a wonderful foil for the spruce’s small needles. And in true F&F fashion, these plants do the job all 12 months of the year.


A richly hued combination of purple Sedum, yellow Chamaecyparis and orange-tinged grass


Chaenomeles, Cotinus x ‘Grace’ and Juniperus conferta ‘All Gold’

For a stained glass effect, mix purple with other saturated tones such as the greens and yellows pictured above. Paired with the yellow the purple warms up and creates deep contrast to the other colors.


This Cordyline has ‘burgundy’ in its name but to us it’s a reddish purple

There are many grass-like plants (and even some true grasses) that add purple to the garden. The Cordyline ‘Design-a-Line Burgundy’ in the photo above adds depth and flair to what would otherwise be a colorful but flat combination, and, like the Libertia peregrinans (the orange grass) and the blue spruce and holly, holds its leaves all year. Many Phormium come in shades of purple and for those that don’t mind the maintenance, there are several Pennisetum cultivars in deep purple tones.


Leptospermum ‘Dark Shadows’, Cotinus x ‘Gracel and Cordyline ‘Design-a-Line-Burgundy’ repeat the purple notes

Colors work best when they are not isolated; don’t hesitate to echo the tones throughout the garden. If you look carefully at the above photo you will also see a bit of purple in the far back about 3/4 of the way across the photo, as well as some purple tones on the plant in the immediate middle front.


Sambucus nigra ‘Black Lace’ is really dark purple

Apparently the colors ‘Blue’ and ‘Black’ sell better than the color purple. There are many plants sold as blue or black that are really purple, such as the Sambucus (elderberry) above. Remember, when selecting your plants, go by what the foliage looks like, not what the label promises. This Sambucus is deep wine-purple, and can be grown as a large shrub or limed up to make a small tree.


Picea pungens ‘Fastigata’ and Coprosma ‘Plum Hussey’

Purple gets more subtle in plants with two-toned leaves like the ‘Plum Hussey’ mirror plant. This cultivar of the New Zealand Coprosma leafs out bright green and the older leaves take on purple-tinged edges until the cold weather comes and drenches them in a deep, plummy coat. You can see Cotinus x ‘Grace’ in the background, striking, as befitting,  a grace note. We can’t seem to stop pairing our purples with light blue, can we?


The Cordyline in back and the beech in front stake their claim for purple in this mixed foliage garden

The genus Fagus, or beech, is another good place to go purple-hunting. In the shot above the tones of the large Cordyline in the back are picked up and carried forward by the glossy purple beech. The Yucca ‘Blue Boy’ (really purple, but that didn’t make for the alliterative name) in the lower right hand corner continues the theme.


Yucca desmetiana ‘Blue Boy’ (not to us, it’s not!)


Fagus sylvatica ‘Rohanii’ leaves up close

Beech trees (Fagus sp.) are  welcome additions to gardens that are climate-appropriate because of not only their beautifully colored and textured leaves–at once both glossy and fuzzy–but also their elegant, silky bark which graces the winter landscape. They do best in spots with ample rainfall but once established will manage fine in even mild Mediterranean climates with little more water than some of the drought-hardy standbys.


Podocarps elongates ‘Monmal’ (Icee Blue) is flanked by Hebe ‘Amy’ for a subtle hint of purple

Purple doesn’t have to be bold or strident; there are many plants with purple leaf edges or undersides, like Hebe ‘Amy’ in the photo above. ‘Amy’ also has purple flowers, but they are ephemeral. The leaves and stems are purple all year long.


Abies x arnoldiana ‘Poulsen’

For real subtlety, treat purple as an ornament, the way that one might wear an amethyst ring or a garnet brooch. The cones on the ‘Poulsen’ fir are luscious, deep purple and decorate the shrub for months in spring and early summer.

Get your purple on!





Jan Takes the Wheel

conifers, garden photography, foliage gardening

Every time I go through Sara’s garden I see new vistas with mind-boggling color and texture

Our posts have always had their inspiration in Sara’s garden. The concept of ‘form and foliage’ comes from her particular gardening focus. Jan attempts to capture this concept and as she has become more familiar with both the garden and her craft, she has had more of a tendency to go rogue and resist direction. Thus, we bring you some of her favorite images, unrestrained by Sara’s prejudices or guidance. Her comments follow.

Every photographer interprets light and color in their own way, and photographers develop a style or a ‘way of seeing’ that they present in their photographs. Sara wants the photographs to ‘look real’, i.e. the way SHE sees the scene. My reality is not always the same as hers.

succulents, garden photography

Agave ‘Blue Glow’ beginning to flower

The phenomenon of ‘digital darkroom’ technology provides so many tempting opportunities to play with images and take them beyond what the eye sees. The Agave above is a good example, tuned up with Trey Ratcliffe’s Aurora HDR (Macphun) and Adobe Lightroom software.

Senecio 'Staghorn', Pinus contorta 'Spaan's Dwarf', Spirea 'Goldmound', garden photography

I’m always fascinated by color repetition, which leads the viewer’s eye through the scene.

One of the photographers who has inspired me is Dewitt Jones. He doesn’t go out capturing images, he waits for the images to capture him. The above shot caught me due to the wonderful repetition of the steely blues in the Mexican pebbles, the succulent, the copper top of the lamp and the spruce in the distance, all complemented by the vivid red and green.

Cryptomeria japonica 'Elegans Compacta', garden photography

This is an exquisite plant with soft colors, enhanced by the bejeweling water droplets.

Close-up photography is challenging, because composing an image with the right “depth of field”  (how sharp the image is throughout) is very challenging.  In this case, I want to capture the delicate shape and coloration of the foliage while keeping it in the context of the overall characteristic of the plant: an explosion of clouds of needles in shades of burgundy, mauve and pink.  I strive to have just enough background to give context without overpowering the delicate subject.


When I take close-ups of plants, I am aware of the life that exists in a garden

Our objective on this day was to photograph yellows and blues, both in landscape shots and close ups. I am always attracted to spider webs, because they demonstrate that the garden is teeming with life, much of it hidden. This ladder-like structure is particularly distinctive.

Cedrus atlantica 'Glauca Pendula', conifers, garden photography

I love the structure of the blue Atlas cedar, but it was the combination of colors and shapes on the ground that caught my eye

I concentrate on our focus, which is woody foliage plants, but I can’t control how my eye is drawn to other aspects of the garden. Just as with the spider web, the garden is home to many other forms of life, which ebb and flow with the seasons. The cedar’s bristly, blue needles interact with the fragile mushroom and the rusty leaves to create a completely different perspective. Dewitt Jones has always counseled ‘the first image that you see may not be the one that is most distinctive. You need to move around and look at the subject from different perspectives, and maybe change your lens. In doing that, you may discover something more beautiful than you thought you saw originally.’

Brahea armata, garden photography

Sara wanted a photo of her favorite palm tree. She was startled when this is what I produced.

Sara expected a shot of the graceful blue-gray fronds that fan out over the succulent garden. When I went out to shoot the plant, I found myself fascinated with the yellow teeth along the stems and the fibrous trunk. I ignored the fronds and focused on what spoke to me. It took her a while to understand what I saw. This image now hangs in her home, because the plant took on an additional dimension for her once she understood my perspective.

garden photography, Brahea armata

The Mexican blue fan palm provides a fantastic opportunity for a classic graphic image.

I threw Sara a bone and focused on the leaves. Once again, I produced a different image than the one she expected. I was struck by the color and the steely structure. The pleats emanate from the stem dynamically, creating a sense of movement that I could not ignore. The imperfections make it more interesting.

Mangave 'Macho Mocha', succulents, foliage gardening, garden photography

I’m fascinated by this plant; it’s an amazing combination of reptilian marking and metallic texture, complemented by beautiful colors

I’m really drawn to agaves because of their structure and their prehistoric aspects. This agave hybrid is particularly compelling, and I love the explosion of the lime green from the center to the mottled leaves. If you’re any good at photography, you’ve learned early that you need to go beyond what first captured your attention and seek alternative views.

Mangave 'Macho Mocha', succulents, foliage gardening, garden photography

Complementary colors and contrasting textures make for a pleasing combination

The colors of the mangave are echoed in the colors of the restio, giving the image integrity and continuity. The image is strengthened by the contrast between the broad, strappy leaves of the mangave and the wispy, threadlike stems of the restio, capped with the burgundy seedheads.

Phormium 'Dusky Chief', garden photography

Sometimes I just can’t help myself

I recently got an ‘infrared kit’. I love the way shooting in infrared reveals aspects of the image that conventional photography does not. If the palm shot nonplussed Sara, what do you think this one will do? Stay tuned….



A Berry Happy New Year from Form and Foliage!

foliage gardening, broadleaved evergreens

California buckthorn (Rhamnus californica) ‘Eve Case’ has deep purple berries in winter.

The solstice has passed and the new year is upon us. This is supposedly the drabbest, dreariest time in the garden. To disabuse all of the belief that that must be so, we present a gallery of berries to enjoy as we wave farewell to the old year and welcome the new.

malus, ornamental fruit

‘Professor Sprenger’ crabapple is known for its lovely springtime apple-blossom pink flowers, but oh the fall and winter fruit!


‘Professor Sprenger’ fruit up close


crabapple, Malus

Even the immature fruit of ‘Professor Sprenger’ is decorative.


Berberis wilsoniae, Berberis wilsonii, ornamental berries

Wilson’s barberry berries range in color from flamingo to salmon, and contrast beautifully with the glaucus foliage.

The genus Berberis, or barberry, has some of the most ornamental berries of any group of plants. From the subtle tones of the Wilson’s barberry pictured above, to much larger, robust fruit on our native California Berberis aquifolium, these plants decorate the winter landscape. When lacquered by raindrops even the berries of the most common species, Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergii), are strikingly beautiful. (note: Japanese barberry is invasive in many areas. Seek sterile cultivars if you wish to add this plant to your landscape.)

American barberry, foliage gardening, ornamental berries

The berries of Berberis aquifolium (formerly Mahonia aquifolium). It’s easy to see why the common name is Oregon grape-holly!


Berberis thunbergii, berries, foliage gardening

Japanese barberry fruit on a rainy winter day.

Berries are a great way of adding purple to your fall and winter garden, and there are a variety of trees and shrubs that bear berries of regal hues.

Chilean myrtle, foliage gardening

Luma apiculata has shiny purply-black berries that last for months.


'Profusion' beautyberry

For purple punch, though, it’s hard to beat beautyberry! (This specimen is Callicarpa bodinieri var. giraldi ‘Profusion’).


foliage gardening, evergreen plants

California native Heteromeles arbutifolia (toyon) can hold its own in a berry contest.


ornamental berries, foliage gardening

Cotoneaster berries can be very decorative, but make sure to select only non-invasive species.


foliage gardening, ornamental berries

Cotoneaster buxifolius is commonly called bright bead cotoneaster. It has an attractive low, spreading habit and wears its berries for months in winter.


foliage gardening

Sarcococca ruscifolia (sweet box) is grown primarily for its fragrant flowers, but don’t forget the ensuing berries !


Nandina domestica is overplanted, and paradoxically, under-appreciated. Try the ‘Compacta’ version for a more manageably-sized shrub. The cultivars with dramatic foliage generally do not bear fruit, so go with the old standby for winter berry interest.

Heavenly bamboo

Berries on Nandina domestica ‘Compacta’ last for months in the garden, weeks if brought inside as holiday decor.


And of course we cannot leave out the traditional holiday berry, the holly! There are many kinds of holly, most with red berries, but some have golden or yellow fruit. Some even have variegated leaves.

Ilex, foliage gardening

Holly is the traditional winter holiday berry.


So if your garden is dull on a winter’s day, put ‘berries’ on your gardening shopping list for spring. We have a tendency to buy plants when they are in bloom and most of us don’t visit nurseries during the off-season, so you need to think ‘winter’ even when you’re shopping in April. You will be rewarded when December rolls around.

Here’s to a berry wonderful 2016 from Form and Foliage!

(Note: some berries are poisonous to humans or certain animals. If you have concerns about children or pets, please read about any plants that you are considering.)









A couple of months ago we visited Glacier’s End Arboretum, in Olympia, WA, where we found that we kept wanting to touch the plants! It wasn’t just that the shapes and colors were striking; the textures made us feel like we were in a petting-zoo.

conifers, foliage gardening, plant texture

Helleborus argutifolia, Abies procera ‘Glauca Prostrata’ and Cotoneaster horizontalis combine for a textural treat at Glacier’s End.

The well-textured garden is delightful in all seasons. While we think of texture as a component of how something feels, texture also affects appearance. Texture can be fine or coarse, matte or glossy. The above trio contains a large-leaved (coarse), glossy hellebore, a small-needled (fine) matte fir and a very fine-leaved glossy cotoneaster. Lots to interest, even without the lovely colors!

conifers, plant textures

The textural combinations are striking, even when the color is removed.

Eliminating the color does not decrease the textural variation; it actually enhances it, with the fir’s needles bristling and the glossy hellebore continuing to shine. Now, what about color variation without different textures?

calluna, erica, conifers

Visitors to Glacier’s End are greeted by a beautiful bank of mixed heaths and heathers backed by a living fence of Cedrus atlantica ‘Glauca Pendula’.

The colors of the heathers are striking and the fact that they (and the cedar) share the same fine texture does not diminish the loveliness of the planting. However, if you remove the color, you flatten the effect and reduce the impact.

conifers, heaths and heathers

A collection of similarly textured and colored plants lacks impact.

When most of us begin to garden we are attracted first to color and tend to think of garden design and plant selection with color as the sole attribute, usually flower color. As we approach the shortest day of the year and the time when gardens are mostly bereft of flowers, it is a good opportunity to consider how to make our gardens interesting and inviting all year long.

conifers, Serbian spruce

Texture alone makes an impact; the Picea omorika ‘Nana’ needles contrast beautifully with the glossy leaves of the Camellia.

The photo above illustrates the most basic of textural combinations: pairing matte needles with coarse, shiny leaves.

conifers, pines, firs, garden color, foliage gardening

Color amps the effect: there’s that powder-blue Abies procera ‘Glauca Prostrata’ again, this time paired with a Pinus contorta var. latifolia ‘Chief Joseph’. The ‘Chief’ is only yellow in winter, just when we need the cheer.

Texture is a continuum. The plants in the above photo are both technically fine-textured, but the Abies has short, stubby whiskers and the pine’s needles are wispy threads. The twigs and stems add a tougher grace note. Yes, it’s hard to ignore the color, but texture is unwilling to cede the floor completely.

conifers, spruce, foliage gardening

A mixed border of conifers and broadleaved evergreens. Shapes and colors (especially that Picea orientalis ‘Skylands’ on the right) and textures provide a year-round display.

Glacier’s End is primarily a conifer garden. Mixing conifers, which generally have needles, thus are fine-textured, with broad leaved, coarsely textured, plants is an easy way to create interesting combinations that are attractive and eye-catching all year round.

Crytomeria japonica 'Elegans Compacta' and Corylopsis

It’s hard to decide if the color combination or the textural contrasts are the winners here!

Most Cryptomeria (the shrub on the left in the photo above) take on lavender or rusty hues in winter; the two tones of this one match the Corylopsis spicata leaves and stems. We’d like to give a gold star to the garden makers, who not only got the color combination right, but created a marvelous contrast of opposite textures.

Pinus, foliage gardening

Five different species of pine all play together with varying textures, shapes and structures.

You can even create textural variety within one group of plants. For example, pines can have needles that are long or short, bristly or wispy, dense or loose, upright or droopy, even matte or shiny. All affect the way that light and wind interact with and intensify the textures.

Pinus, conifers, foliage gardening

Pinus wallichiana, Bhutan pine, is probably the loveliest of the temperate pines, with long, drooping, feathery needles. Underneath sits its cousin, Pinus thunbergii ‘Banshosho’, which has short, stubby, upright bristles.

Textural differences can be very subtle, and structure, size and orientation play parts as important as color. It also depends on distance. Fine differences such as in the above photo are only apparent when you get close to the plants. Isn’t it wonderful that as you approach, the plants become more interesting?


Plants with blade-like leaves, such as this Yucca, texturize the conifer border.

Plants with strappy leaves like Dasylirion, Yucca or Phormiums add coarseness to an otherwise finely-textured combination. The conifers and heathers in the above photo are anchored by the coarser Yucca and, we note, the stone.


Serbian spruce, foliage gardening

Is this Picea omorika ‘Pendula Bruns’ or a woman posing? Either way, it’s wearing a fur cloak!

Sometimes a single texture can be on display as with the Serbian spruce above. The foliage begs to be touched.


Cupressus glabra var. arizonica ‘Raywood’s Weeping’

Similarly, without help from others, ‘Raywood’s Weeping’ Arizona cypress provides a virtual explosion of texture, with immature pollen cones lighting up the tips of the branchlets.

Bald cypress

Taxodium distichum ‘Peve Minaret’ is soft and feathery.

A garden’s textural highlights vary with the seasons. Most of the plants at Glacier’s End are evergreen, but even with deciduous plants you can have texture in winter, when it often comes from bark and stems.


fir, conifer, foliage gardening

The needled trunk of Abies procera ‘Rat’.

And don’t forget hardscape when creating textural contrasts in your garden. Stones add coarseness and heft that offset the fine needles and small leaves of the nearby plants.

conifers, pine trees,

The stones do an even better job of textural contrast than large leaves, and don’t need water, fertilizer or pruning!

We don’t want you to forget about color and we don’t want you to forgo form and structure. We  just want you to add texture to your garden to-do list. Make a New Year’s resolution to texturize your garden in 2016!

Glacier’s End Arboretum is a private garden in Olympia, WA. It is open by appointment to members of the American Conifer Society (

Read more about garden texture: Not Another Gardening Blog – Weaving your Garden



Creature Feature

Our traditional Halloween post! These creatures may be up to some tricks, but they’ll treat you all year long…

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!


Strange Bedfellows…or ‘What’s that Succulent Doing Next to that Spruce?’

succulents, conifers

Agave ‘Blue Glow’ has maroon edges that echo the deep hues of the Cotinus x ‘Grace’ on the right and the Acer palmatum ‘Twombly’s Sentinel’ on the left

Succulents seem to be all the rage these days, with specialty nurseries and designers abounding. We admire many of the succulent creations, but never really embraced the ‘total look’, which seemed often to lack scale and suffer from excessive cuteness. When we focused on some of the edgier genera, with larger specimens, such as Agaves, we also realized that we didn’t need to isolate succulents in their own beds and containers, we could incorporate them into the overall garden design.


Agave ‘Blue Glow’ can hold its own beside conifers (in this case Chamaecyparis pisifera ‘Golden Girl’, Picea pungens ‘Glauca Procumbens’ and ‘Picea orientalis ‘Golden Start ‘) and other woody foliage plants.


A study in dusty blue: Cedrus deodara 'Prostrate Beauty' and Agave parryi var. huachucensis share the same hue with vastly different structures and textures.

A study in dusty blue: Cedrus deodara ‘Prostrate Beauty’ and Agave parryi var. huachucensis share the same hue, but with vastly different structures and textures.

Foliage gardeners continually must grapple with the fact that most of the interesting foliage plants have small leaves. From the conifers’ needles to shrubs such as Abelia, Berberis and Hebe it is difficult to get away from fine textures. Most of the large-leaved shrubs, such as Rhododendron and Pieris, are denizens of the woodland garden and not happy in sunny gardens without acid soils. Many succulents provide large scale leaves that beautifully contrast with finer foliage.

conifers, succulents

Agave lophantha ‘Quadricolor’ and Juniperus x media ‘Daub’s Frosted’ share the same yellow and green foliage colors. Pinus strobus ‘Mini Twists’ is to the right.


succulents, barberry, manzanita

The same Agave, this time keeping company with Arctostaphlos ‘Emerald Carpet’ and Berberis thunbergii ‘Maria’ (sold as Sunjoy Gold Pillar)

The idea of interplanting succulents with conifers and other foliage plants strikes some as odd if not downright unnatural. To get a taste of how Nature herself does it, visit a forest in Mexico and see Yucca and Agave growing side by side with pines and cypress. We think of Mexico as a succulent haven when in fact Mexico also has more native pine species than any other country. Many of our perceived design rules are products of our own traditions and not necessarily representative of what is possible or, indeed, even plentiful in Nature.


Yucca ‘Tiny Star’ and other succulents with coniferous accompaniment. The conifers echo the yellow in the Yucca and soften its sharp lines.

Succulents come in a vast array of colors although most of the genera with larger species (Yucca, Agave, Aloe, etc) have the most selections in shades of green, blue and yellow. It is not uncommon to find multiple colors with either stripes, such as many Yucca and Agave, or marginal accents in contrasting shades.

conifers, succulents

Aloe striata in a bed of Juniperus procumbens, flanked by golden Chamaecyparis.

Aloe striata has coral leaf margins and in shade, rosettes of broad, flat, bluish-green leaves. The leaves turn ruddy pink in full sun and make for a beautifully two-toned plant. In the photo above, the blue-green of the Aloe is echoed by the juniper, again with a marvelous textural contrast. The Aloe is hardy to only 20 degrees, so in this garden is planted in a container, which may be moved to a protected area when necessary.

Mangave 'Macho Mocha' is one of the few larger succulents with significant maroon coloration.

Mangave ‘Macho Mocha’ is one of the few larger succulents with significant maroon coloration.

There are larger succulents with maroon foliage. Some of our favorites are the Mangaves, thought to be crosses between Agave and Manfreda. ‘Macho Mocha’ is a stunner; it reaches 4-6′ across at maturity and its broad, strappy leaves are liberally peppered with deep, bronzy red.

Mangave 'Chocolate Chip' has distinctively wavy leaves.

Mangave ‘Chocolate Chip’ has distinctively wavy leaves, which contrast nicely with the other foliage.

There are several Mangave cultivars, ranging in size from the large ‘Macho Mocha’ to ‘Blood Spot’, which makes a compact rosette about a foot across. Most Mangave appear to be hardy to between 0-10 degrees, which make them, along with some Agave, among the most cold-tolerant succulents.

conifers, succulents

Aloe polyphylla, with its distinctive spiral leaves, stars in this bed, with Pinus strobus ‘Mini Twists’, Abies pinsapo ‘Horstmann’ and Cryptomeria japonica ‘Knaptonensis’ in the chorus. A string of Echeveria elegans rims the bed.

So what about cultural requirements? How can low-water succulents exist next to conifers and other woody plants, much less green lawn? Something isn’t right, right? Wrong! Firstly, most succulents need more water than is popularly supposed. While they can be classed a ‘low water’ plants, they are certainly not ‘no water’ plants. Those fleshy leaves store water but it needs to be replenished. The only tricky part is understanding what time of year each particular succulent grows, as this is when it needs the most water. Many are spring and summer growers; others, such as many Aloe, grow in winter months.


Graptoveria ‘Fred Ives’, which flourishes in very well-drained soil and is slightly frost-tender, is an excellent choice for a container, which can be placed amongst complementary foliage and moved to shelter during the coldest months.

Secondly, many conifers and woody plants can do with less, or at least less frequent, water than many perennials. The fussiest succulents–those that are frost-tender or require extremely well-drained soil–can be planted in containers which both allow for removal to shelter during winter and provide excellent drainage. However, it is perfectly possible to grow succulents near other plants simply by creating a mound made up of 1/2 soil and 1/2 a gritty substance such as lava pebbles. If the succulent is planted high up in such a mixture, it can receive the same amount and frequency of water as the other plants, and it will drain much more quickly.

Most succulents do not like to be cold and wet at the same time, a challenge for those in Mediterranean climates. Mounding with pebbles or judicious use of containers generally works to provide enough drainage for all but the fussiest plants. Planting next to a hardscape that warms quickly in winter sun can also create a more friendly microclimate.

Agave vilmoriana on a mound next to a flagstone patio.

Agave vilmoriana (appropriately called octopus!) on a mound next to a flagstone patio.

Fall is a great time to plant and winter a great time to ponder and plan. So when you are looking for the perfect plant for a particular spot, whether it is next to a spruce or a spirea, consider whether a succulent might fit the bill!

Succulents, conifers, woody foliage plants and grasses make a rich and varied foliage garden.

Succulents, conifers, woody foliage plants and grasses make a rich and varied foliage garden, with a broad range of colors, textures and forms.