form and foliage

Year round garden interest with minimal care

A bit of background


Form and Foliage was started by Sara and Jan to illustrate and share a garden style with more year-round interest and lower care than the herbaceous perennial garden.  While we primarily use evergreen shrubs and trees, both needle and broadleaf, we incorporate evergreen groundcovers, grasses and grass-like plants and succulents.  We also favor plants with notable new foliage, good fall color and interesting bark, stems and berries.

The winter foliage garden is rich in colors, shapes and textures

We find that the vast majority of perennial gardens, while beautiful in season, lack structure and early spring, fall and winter interest.  We have also gotten tired of the repeated demands of a perennial garden – shearing, deadheading, refreshing, etc.

Sara gardens in Northern California and Jan in the Florida panhandle.  While the USDA used to classify both as Zone 8b, Sara was just reclassified into 9b, which fits her conditions better.  The specific growing conditions between Sara’s and Jan’s gardens are quite different.  Sara’s Mediterranean climate is hugely influenced by the nearby Pacific Ocean, and lacks summer rain.  Jan’s inland garden is hotter in summer, but has the humidity that many plants enjoy. Nighttime temperatures are very different, as well, with Sara’s garden always cooling off at night, and Jan’s warm in summer, no matter the hour.

Succulents provide year-round structure and a wide range of colors

Because of the maritime influence in Petaluma, Sara’s garden rarely sees a hard freeze; consequently she can grow varieties that are not hardy in many parts of the country.  Jan, while colder in winter, also enjoys a milder climate than many, although she does see the occasional hard freeze.  Some of the examples that we use are not applicable to gardens with harsher winters.  However, the concepts of planting for winter interest, incorporating more structure into the garden and increasing foliage’s contribution to the garden palette are valid throughout the world.

Deciduous trees and shrubs, conifers, broadleaved evergreens and grasses are all part of the foliage garden

Wherever possible, we will include a plant example that thrives in tougher winter conditions.  We also like to hear from readers who garden in other zones but are interested in incorporating our themes into their gardens, or have already done so successfully.  What ‘form and foliage’ plants do you use?  How do you create winter interest?  Are ‘form and foliage’ plants readily available where you live?

We plan to post monthly, and will answer relevant comments.    Our posts will be seasonally appropriate; you will not find photos of summer foliage in February or autumn berries in May.  Jan’s photos aim not only to meet her artistic standards, but also to depict, as accurately as possible, what the plants actually look like in the landscape.  Published and ‘fine art’ garden photos are often supersaturated, some almost surreally. We want our readers to understand how these plants would appear in their own gardens, so Jan tries to make the hues and contrasts closer to what Nature created.

Sara’s garden, with photos by Jan, is featured in the Jan/Feb issue of Garden Design magazine, on the newsstands now.  It will hit the electronic version in a few weeks and we’ll post a link.

A foggy autumn morning is brightened by rich green, blue and maroon foliage

Resources: (Readers, please contribute suggestions from your areas or libraries)

Selected nurseries in Sonoma County, California:

Each of these organizations is owned and staffed by plant geeks who love interesting trees, shrubs and succulents and will delight in discussing them with other like-minded enthusiasts.  You will not find a plethora of flowering perennials at any of them – go elsewhere for those temporal pleasures.

Pond and Garden, Cotati, CA

Peacock Horticultural Nursery, Sebastopol, CA

Sweet Lane Nursery, Cotati, CA (wholesale, but may be available by appt. or with a designer)

Garden Weaver Design, Sebastopol

Lone Pine Gardens, Sebastopol (succulent specialists)


Some of these are out of print but easily available from used booksellers at very modest prices.

Gardening with Conifers, Adrian Bloom

Designing with Conifers, Richard L. Bitner

Plants that Merit Attention, Volume I: Trees, Garden Club of America

Plants that Merit Attention, Volume II: Shrubs, Garden Club of America

Trees and Shrubs for Foliage, Glyn Church (part of The Woody Plant series)

100 Great Garden Plants, William H. Frederick, Jr.

Evergreen foliage isn’t only provided by conifers – there are plenty of broadleaved evergreens and grass-like plants from which to choose, as this December shot illustrates


Copyright 2012 by Form and Foliage


29 thoughts on “A bit of background

  1. Hey Sara – Thanks so, so much for the mention as a resource nursery! I really appreciate it!



  2. Have started getting your post by email and look forward to following.
    All the best from the uk!

  3. Thanks, Robert -taking gardening advice to the UK is, truly, taking coals to Newcastle! Your posts have been great, so don’t hesitate to suggest plant ideas or combinations. Sara and Jan

  4. I have envied the large Juncus(?) in your bottom photo (at left). I saw one growing in Mendocino right beside the boardwalk, but no one seemed to know who to talk to to find out about it. Can you give me a nwme? It’s so tactile and the lines are striking!

    • That is actually a Chondropetalum elephantinum. They are great plants. They get quite large (six feet across)but there is also a smaller variety, C. tectorum, which is about 1/2 the size of C. elephantinum. I think that the common name is cape rush, but they are not Juncus, they are restios. They are evergreen, do not self-sow (like some of those Juncus…), move beautifully in the wind like an ornamental grass, never need refreshing and make a real structural statement as well as that color combo of rich green and brown. A great garden citizen! If you live in Sonoma County, they are available at Emerisa Gardens retail nursery, which is closed for the season but will reopen in March.

      • Yes, I am here in Sonoma County, albeit in the very north end. I have seen it growing in Mendocino along a boardwalk and in San Francisco near an apartment building and am quite thrilled to finally have a name, and now even a resource! I thank you. Yes, it’s structure and year-round good looks iand those green and brown wands make it an eye-catcher.

      • You are most welcome! I have always purchased it in one gallon size – it grows reasonably quickly (at least quickly enough so that you get a good idea of the plant within a year or so, although it will take several years to reach its full size). They do not like fertilizer (true of all restios) which suits me just fine as I never seem to remember to fertilize.

  5. I was introduced to a bit of your gorgeous garden through the Fine Gardening – garden photo of the day this morning. I’m now suffering from shrub envy!

    Gardening in Calgary, Alberta – Canada, I’m always looking to incorporate more winter interest.

    We can grow an amazing number of plants in zone 3, but I still covet those I can’t have! Depending on the plant material available from season to season, I buy unusuals for containers and sometimes bring them into our unheated garage to overwinter (with occasional success!)

    Thanks for sharing your garden. I subscribed to your blog and look forward to seeing more of your fabulous creation!

    • Joan, your comment illustrates that winter interest is desirable – and possible – even in Zone3! What are some of your favorites? The container idea is a great way to go with more tender specimens, we do that here with some of the tender succulents that can’t survive even a light freeze.

      • Hardy ornamental grasses can stand up to Old Man Winter – Karl Forester, Overdam and Blue Oat Grass are my favourite taller grasses and Elijah Blue Fescue is a terrific shortie that is still visible under a few inches of snow. I also like to see Sedum Autumn Joy and Echinacea holding the snow like little caps on their seed heads. We have mature spruce and a Colorado Blue looks beautiful with a fresh dusting of the powdery white stuff – which accumulated over the last few days (with -29 deg C. temps = -39 deg. C with the wind chill!)

        Even with the snow, cold and windy conditions here in Calgary, these are tough plants that catch the snow, survive the cold and manage to stand against the wind – making gardening here pretty satisfying when those new shoots peek out of the soft spring ground! Keeps me digging in the ‘dirt’ year after year!

      • Some great grasses on your list and with the conifers you get a mix of textures. Even if all you’re doing is looking out the window (who wants to go out there with those temps!), it is great to have bones and structure in the winter garden. Can you grow any Ilex up there? A broad-leafed evergreen would make a nice addition to the mix.
        Thanks, Joan!

  6. Hi Sara,

    A friend and I were on our way to Lone Pine Nursery in Sebastopol for succulents; saw the Peacock Nursery sign and stopped. A lovely find and Robert was very helpful. Mentioned your blog and name. Robert says hi! You may want to add Lone Pine to your list of small but interesting nurseries in the area. It is wonderful to live in an area in which the planting season is year round.

  7. Hi Sara-
    I recently visited Cottage Gardens of Petaluma and they had a fantastic winter supply of succulents grown on site. Plus, industry wholesale prices. Really look forward to following your blog!
    Heather, Lead Designer, Hey Nice Garden

    • Hi Heather – nice website yourself! And thanks for the note on another great local resource. They are known as a perennial nursery (with a very good selection) but it is true – they do have a good supply of succulents. Jan and Sara

  8. Greetings ladies! I love having like-minded folks in the blogging world. Thanks for your frequent visits to my blog and facebook page.

  9. You’ll love it – so much to see in Oregon!

  10. Sara’s dad sent me this. Wonderful ideas and gorgeous photographs. I’m passing it to other gardeners on the Eastern Shore of VA.

  11. Hi Sara. I was just reading the current issue of Garden Design and thought that name and blog sounds familiar. Yes she is signed up for the Asheville 2012 Fling. I very much look forward to meeting you.

    One of the gardens you will be seeing is mine, a brand new just getting started garden in a completely deciduous eastern forest. Planning and planting for winter interest is a main goal for me. The forest trees here are literally bare for six months of the year and the native understory is almost completely herbaceous. I need more than that in a garden.

    My new garden is on the same parcel of land my gardening parents have been tending in the forest for the last 20 years. They are more flower obsessed and any shrubs planted were chosen more for that. You will see that garden too.

    I am in a zone 6a on a good day and feel there are plenty of choices available for evergreens; conifers and broadleaved, groundcovers, trees and shrubs that will survive my winters and I am just getting started.

    • Hi Christopher! Jan and I look forward to meeting you and seeing your garden. Once you make the commitment to winter interest you’ll never look back! How interesting to have two generations of gardens in one parcel – can’t wait to see them both. Sara

  12. I saw the article with beautiful pictures in Garden Design and look forward to reading your blog.

    Can you tell me more about the wonderful succulent, multi-tiered “fountain”. I love it! Was it purchased as shown or did you assemble it from various components? Would you share your source(s)?

    • Sure, Christy! It was a conventional fountain that we got for a great price at an end of season sale at Sonoma Mission Gardens in Sonoma. We had to do a bit of reconfiguring with a couple of concrete irrigation valve boxes that we painted the same color as the fountain (that was to raise each level up to provide enough space to plant). We then filled it with a mix of soil and kitty litter (the non-clumping kind) although there are all kinds of soil additives to increase drainage that can be used. The succulents were all on sale, too, since it was September. I tried to get a good mix of colors, shapes and textures and then laid them out on the ground first and then planted. I saw one like this at a friend’s garden and just had to have one. I did not plumb it for irrigation as it doesn’t need much water and there is a hose nearby and it’s easy to water. Our big problem with succulents in the Bay Area is winter rotting from too much water, which is much less of an issue in a container, but if we have prolonged rain I can always throw a tarp over it. I have never had such a low-maintenance eye-catching container garden!

      • Thank you! I will contact Sonoma Mission Gardens right away!

      • You may want to wait for their sale�and remember, too, that if you want to plant a fountain as opposed to using it for its intended purpose, it doesn’t matter if it leaks or is otherwise non-functional! Good luck and have fun with it! Sara

  13. Love your posts and your photos.

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