form and foliage

Year round garden interest with minimal care


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Winter Wonderland – California Style

conifers, leucadendron, cordyline

Winter in the foliage garden is often even more colorful than summer

We think of a winter wonderland as a landscape covered with snow, glazed and glistening, soft and serene. But for those of us who never receive snow’s purifying blanket, wonderland in winter is provided by the cold-weather hues of the conifers, the enduring, often colorful, leaves and bracts of broad-leaved evergreens and the ornamentation provided by berries, stems and seeds. Above, starting on the left,  the Thuja occidentalis ‘Rheingold’ (hardy to USDA Zone 3) wears an apricot winter coat (it’s yellow in the summer months), the Juniperus communis ‘Berkshire'(Zone 2) turns from blue-green to a rich plum color in the cold weather, the Cordyline banksii ‘Electric Flash’ (Zone 9), Pinus mugo ‘Pal Maleter’ (Zone 2), Leucadendron ‘Ebony’ (Zone 9), Loropetalum chinensis (Zone 7) and Cupressus macrocarpa ‘Greenstead Magnificent’ (Zone 7) are electric and magnificent all year-round. This rich horticultural tapestry is not difficult to achieve and creates a wonderland in the dead of winter.

barberry, Sweetgum, big cone pinyon pine tree

Winter color on Berberis thunbergii ‘Orange Rocket’ and Liquidambar styraciflua ‘Gumball’ are a dazzling combination with the icy blue juvenile foliage of Pinus maximartinezii.

Some of the winter colors come from the deciduous trees that are late to turn and even later to drop their leaves. Both the barberry (Zone 5) and sweetgum (Zone 5) above hold their leaves well into December in this zone, and by planting them near a blue-needled conifer, in this case big-cone pinyon pine (Zone 9), we get the dramatic effect provided by   complementary colors (color wheel-opposites).

Abies pinsapo 'Horstmann', Cordyline 'Design-a-Line Burgundy

A rich but more muted display comes from the analogous (adjacent on the color wheel) colors of blue and red. The rusty buds of the fir echo the dusky maroon of the Cordyline (Zone 9b).

Abies pinsapo, Spanish fir, has many cultivars that are garden-worthy. ‘Horstmann’, (Zone 6) pictured above, is slow growing and diminutive relative to its wild parents. Its blue-green needles are lovely themselves, but its russet buds, which are carried through the dormant season, provide additional interest. Note the contrast in shapes and textures of the two plants, as well as the lively color combination.

Beautyberry, dogwood, conifers

Brilliant display: Callicarpa bodinieri ‘Profusion’ , Cornus sanguinia ‘Midwinter Fire’, Parrotia persica ‘Vanessa’

Some plants are dramatic in winter yet would barely catch your notice in other months. The above trio provides stunning color: the Callicarpa (Zone 5) with itpurple berries, the Persian ironwood (Zone 4) cloaked in golden leaves, and Midwinter Fire dogwood’s (Zone 5) brilliant stems. However, all are unassuming in shape, color and texture for most of the year. It’s only when the weather turns cold that they erupt into this colorful display. And as if that weren’t enough, the ‘Motherlode’ (Zone 3) and ‘Blue Star’ (Zone 4) junipers and ‘Shirome-janome’ Japanese black pine (Zone 5) provide golden and blue highlights.

Monterey cypress, Australian plants

Cupressus macrocarpa ‘Greenstead Magnificent’ and Cordyline ‘Cha Cha’

Weak winter sun creates pleasing shadows and highlights, unlike summer’s harsh overhead glare. The Monterey cypress cultivar on the left, ‘Greenstead Magnificent’ shows off its sea-green color and tweedy texture much better in winter than summer, and the Cordyline’s delicate straps are teased and separated by the weak light. Cold also brings out its pink highlights.

Opuntia santarita 'Tubac'

Don’t ignore the color and texture that garden art and sculpture can add

Some inanimate additions can pump up the color and texture, such as ceramics or water features. The celadon ball intensifies the Echeveria‘s (Zone 9) color and the water reflects the Opuntia santa-rita ‘Tubac’ (Zone 8) as it is touched by the morning sun.

succulents and conifers

Agave vilmoriniana ‘Stained Glass’ and Yucca desmetiana ‘Blue Boy’ steal the show in this shot

The glazed ball dominates the Echeveria, but when we step back we see it in context with the larger plants. It still provides textural and structural contrast, but the ‘Stained Glass’ octopus agave (Zone 9) and the clump of ‘Blue Boy’ yucca (Zone 7) are hard to compete with!

Cousin Itt Acacia, Agave Quasimodo

Agave ‘Cornelius’ (Zone 9) and Acacia cognata ‘Mini-Cog’ (Cousin Itt)

Although we’ve been focusing on other colors, brilliant green is just as dramatic in winter as purple or orange, especially when it is contrasted with yellow and gold, as in the above photo. Acacia Cousin Itt (Zone 9) is mouthwateringly verdant all year round, but we really appreciate it in winter’s soft light, especially when highlighted with nearby yellow foliage.

conifers

In winter the low setting sun ignites the golden foliage

The yellow foliage, already a winter beacon, becomes downright fiery when hit by the late afternoon sun. Even the drabber colors, such as that of the tall Cunninghamia unicanaliculata (China fir, Zone 7) in the above photo, lights up like a torch.

Echeveria agavoides 'Prolifera', Lomandra 'Platinum Beauty'

Many succulents become colorful due to the stress of cold weather

Like many conifers, a goodly number of succulents take on added hues in winter. The Echeveria agavoides ‘Prolifera'(Zone 9) pictured above looks like it is wearing nail polish, but it’s just its response to colder weather. The Lomandra ‘Platinum Beauty’, (Zone 8) on the other hand, is always beautiful!

Graptoveria, Sedum pork and beans, palms, aloe

We’ve shown you this shot before – it’s a combo that won’t quit, no matter the time of year

We also appreciate our workhorses: the plants that look lovely all year round, need little to no maintenance and don’t quickly outgrow their spaces, such as the Aloe arborescens, (zone 8), Chamerops humilus ‘Cerifera’ (zone 8), Graptoveria ‘Fred Ives’ (Zone 9) and Sedum rubrotinctum (Zone 9) pictured above. Cold weather doesn’t stop their display, rather, it adds more red highlights to the Sedum. Even if you are in a colder zone, you can  plan for at least one part of your garden that looks good in all seasons.

cedars, conifers

Let’s not forget the blues!

We tend to love the warm colors in winter but blue can be just as colorful and dramatic. The combination of Cedrus atlantica ‘Glauca Pendula’ (Zone 6) and Cedrus deodara ‘Prostrate Beauty’ (Zone 7), together with a variety of blue-foliaged succulents makes and icy display in front of the golden needles of Thuja occidentalis ‘Malonyana’ (Zone 4) and the lingering leaves of Fagus sylvatica ‘Dawyk Gold’ (Zone 4).

But sometimes you go into the garden and find serendipitous color combinations, such as when the deep orange leaf of a Liquidambar dropped into the arms of an Abies concolor ‘Blue Cloak’ (Zone 3). Backlit by the weak winter sun, it is surely one of the season’s garden jewels.

Abies concolor, Liquidambar styraciflua

A sweetgum leaf nestles in the needles of a California white fir

A very happy new year from Form and Foliage!

 

Note: USDA minimum zones are provided as a guide; many factors contribute to a plant’s success, including maximum cold temperatures, humidity, summer heat (especially at night), etc. 

 

 

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Summertime Blues

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Chamaerops humilis var. argentea, Atlas mountain palm

When the weather is hot, we look to cool blues for relief. We’ve written about blues in autumn, when they contrast strikingly with the fiery colors of the changing foliage, but in summer, especially late summer when we are tired of the heat, we like a splash of blue almost anywhere. The palm pictured above is hardy to about 10 degrees fahrenheit, so it is not a tropical. It’s short and clump-forming, so easy to mix with other kinds of plants.

Chamerops humilis var argentea, Brahea armata

Blue repeats through the border from the Picea pungens ‘Blue Stoplight’ to the Atlas mountain palm and finally the blue hesper palm in back

There are lots of blue palms, many of which are cold-hardy. For a bigger plant with specimen status, try the Mexican Brahea armata.

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Brahea armata, blue hesper palm, from Baja California

Palms provide a very different texture and structure than other plants. Because we think of them as tropical, we hesitate to mix them with temperate species. But many palms are also temperate and grow happily among conifers and succulents in their native ranges.

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This silvery blue Puya cools down the heat from the Japanese maple in front of it.

There are lots of succulents and succulent-like plants in shades of blue. You can also add blue with pots or other ceramics.

succulents

The glossy ceramic globe matches the aqua of the Echeveria

Many rocks have blue tones and can help keep the apparent temperature down. In this garden in Roseville, Oregon, the stonework gets outdone by the spruce, though!

Picea pungens

Colorado blue spruce might just be the bluest foliage plant there is

There are many blue conifers, beginning with Colorado blue spruce (Picea pungens). There is probably not a more maligned suburban landscape tree, due to the enormous size the species attains. Happily, there are many cultivars that are slow-growing and garden-friendly. In the shot above the spruce cools down the entire garden.

Cedrus deodara 'Feelin' Blue', Cedrus atlantica 'Sahara Ice'

PInus maximartinezii is another very blue conifer, as is the Cedrus ‘Feelin’ Blue’ to the right

The blue comes from waxes that the plant carries outside its leaf cuticles, which retard absorption of certain wavelengths of light.

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Podocarpus elongata ‘Monmal’ (Icee Blue) has a turquoise cast

For those that can grow it (it’s tender), Podocarpus Icee Blue is the ultimate summer cooler.  A blade-leaved conifer (instead of needles), it works with a multitude of shrubs to bring down the hot summer temps.

So plant blue to cool down your summer and heat up your fall!

 


8 Comments

This rainbow doesn’t just END in gold!

landscape design, shrubs and trees

A rainbow over the foliage garden after a sun shower

 

Generally the winter skies in Sonoma County are the most dramatic; the low sun lighting up the clouds and sky all shades of orange and pink. We were missing them the other day when we had a bout of unsettled weather, with rain and hail followed by brilliant sunshine. The setting sun lit up the sky where it was not still covered by glowering clouds. The result was bands of brilliance alternating with deep, rich hues.

Eucalyptus globulus

That Eucalyptus is GREEN. Not this evening!

Moving in a little closer, you can see four yellow trees in the background. The two on the left are, indeed, fairly yellow in normal light. They are two cultivars of Cupressus macrocarpa, our native Monterey cypress. The one on the far left is ‘Citriodora’, the next one in is ‘Coneybearii Aurea’. They were lit up like beacons on this rainy afternoon. The yellow tree on the right is a Japanese maple called ‘Mizuho Beni’. It’s quite yellow, too, but generally doesn’t look like it has an on-off switch. What was really amazing, though, is that the Eucalyptus globulus, second in from the right, is ordinarily a solid gray-green. This afternoon’s light makes it look positively radioactive!

Parkinsonia 'Desert Museum

The near ground was in shadow, providing dramatic contrast to the fiery trees behind.

In the shot above, the Japanese maple is now on the left, in the background. You can see lots of other yellow trees back there, although none of them are yellow, they are just on fire!

Brahea armata

The other side of the rainbow ends in gold, too!

The band of gold went from horizon to horizon, wrapping the garden in brilliance.

Foliage garden

We just couldn’t get enough of this light. The trees seemed to get brighter and brighter.

So now we won’t just look for dramatic skies in winter. Spring has shown us that it can hold its own!

 


7 Comments

Hooray for the Red, White and Blue!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

Blues abound, especially in succulents and conifers.

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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.

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Blue weeping Atlantic cedar (Cedrus atlantica ‘Glauca Pendula’

Lots of blue cedars, too.

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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!

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Aloe flowers look like firecrackers about to explode

You can almost hear this one sizzle:

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Most aloes have orange flowers borne well above their leaves

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

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

 

Happy 4th of July to all!

 


8 Comments

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.

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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.

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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’.

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The blues and greens  gain prominence when backed by purple

Cercis 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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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!

 

 

 


13 Comments

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.

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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….

 


8 Comments

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.

succulents

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.

succulents

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.

succulents

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.