form and foliage

Year round garden interest with minimal care


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!




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.


The Greens of Summer

green shrubs, evergreen plants, designing with shrubs

A cool pathway on a sizzling day at the JC Raulston Arboretum in Raleigh NC

Even though Paul Simon writes about his Nikon camera and Jan uses a Canon, we can’t help but think of the lyrics from ‘Kodachrome’ when we are out in the late summer garden.  By the end of August perennial gardens are often tired from the prolonged heat, but not so the foliage garden.  When we go out to stroll on torrid days, we gravitate to the cool, shady spots and keep movement to a minimum. And we plan for the dog days by making sure we’ll have an abundance of green around to soothe and cool us when the weather is hot.

conifers, foliage plants, evergreen border

Cool green comes in many shades, as we see in this grouping from The Oregon Garden

While Sara didn’t originally plan it this way, due to the overwhelming preponderance of foliage plants in her garden, there are decided colors associated with each season.  Autumn, not surprisingly, is dominated by the turning leaves and many berries and is very orange. Winter, with bracts, stems and berries taking center stage, reads ‘red’.  Spring, with the flush of new growth, is very yellow. Summer is refreshingly green.  If we had planned it, we would have chosen just this color progression: when better to have cool green be the dominant hue than in hot summer, and how better to light up the weak winter light than with red?

locust tree, foliage tree, interesting foliage

The minty foliage of Robinia pseudoacacia ‘Lace Lady’ turns the heat down and provides texture

Annuals and perennials flower in every hue in the rainbow, and color choices usually come down to personal preference; some gravitate to pinks and purples, there are those who adore red and blue is the favorite of many a gardener.  ‘Those nice bright colors’ that Simon writes about are dramatic and eye-catching, but they don’t do much to lower the heat.  In fact, they seem to raise the temperature a degree or two.  So even though it seems counter-intuitive to de-emphasis flowers for summer, it will cool you down when you need it most! At the very least, surround those flowers with enough foliage to make the mood serene.

cape rush, landscaping with evergreen plants, conifers, shrubs

A bench in Sara’s garden is surrounded by foliage, dominated by the restio Elegia capensis

Going green doesn’ t mean giving up a variety of textures, shapes or hues.  The Elegia capensis (horsetail restio) pictured above has grass-like foliage that holds its clear green shade all year long,  and does not fade in the summer sun’s hot rays.  Look how different it is from the ‘Lace Lady’ foliage in the earlier shot:

cape rush, evergreen plants, foliage plants

Foliage of Elegia capensis (horsetail restio) in summer

Even the crabapples fall in with the cooling scheme; this fruit ripens to vivid orange in another month but in summer is, well, apple-green.  In fact, we think that crabapples are among the most under-respected landscape trees, providing a lovely floral display in spring, months of lush green foliage, finished by a riot of colorful fruit in autumn.

malus 'Professor Sprenger'

‘Professor Sprenger’ crabapple in summer hues

For ornamental grass fans, there are many varieties that stand up to sun in summer and mimic the sensation of a turfgrass lawn.  The LeCocq garden in Bellingham WA has the lovely coolness on sunny days that a lawn provides, with no mowing or fertilizing and much more texture and interest.

Decorative ornamental grasses in different shades of green turn down the heat

Decorative ornamental grasses in different shades of green turn down the heat

Another shot of the LeCocq garden illustrates how lovely the green backdrop can be when flowers are treated as ornamentation, rather than used for the ‘bones’ of the garden.  We feel cool just looking at this photograph, despite the current temperature reading of near 90 degrees:

Cryptomeria japonica 'Sekkan', conifers, foliage gardening

Mixed greens, anyone?

Back at the JC Raulston Arboretum, we find another serving of mixed greens, with both conifers and broadleaved evergreens providing a nice range of textures and colors.  The glossiness of the broad leaves plays well against the soft fuzziness of the pine.  We’re really cooling off as we continue our green parade.

designing with foliage plants, evergreens, conifers

Mixed broadleaf evergreen and conifer border at the JC Raulston Arboretum

Liven up your greens with some variegated foliage, such as that of the sycamore maple ‘Nizetii’.  This stunner takes baking sun all summer long and stays cool, calm and collected, casting welcome shade for other plants – and us.  The maple’s dense crown casts deep shadow in which it feels many degrees cooler than in the sun.

trees with variegated foliage

Acer pseudoplatanus ‘Nizettii’ (sycamore maple) has two-toned leaves and red petioles

So remember, as you were always instructed to eat your green vegetables, plant your green plants.  If your plate is supposed to be 2/3 vegetables, think of your garden in the same manner and make it at least 2/3 green.  You’ll find that most of those foliage plants don’t require anywhere near the maintenance that the flowering perennials do, most of them require virtually no tending in summer when it’s too hot to work comfortably outside, and you’ll get even more pop from your flowers when you showcase them against an emerald background.

designing with foliage plants, evergreen plants, shrubs, olive trees

A path of green in Sara’s garden in summer

We’re going out to walk in the garden now and enjoy our leafy greens!


Stylish Simplicity – Paul and Paula’s Garden

Purple-leaved plants, foliage plants

Loropetalum ‘Shang-Lo’ (Purple Pixie) lines the brick walkway to the front door

Because of our passion for plants, we tend to focus on gardens that feature collections of specimens and stretch our imaginations devising pleasing and provocative combinations of colors, textures and shapes. Sometimes, however, the strongest statements come from the deft use of massed plantings and fundamental color and design principles.  Paul and Paula’s garden is a beautiful example of keeping it simple without sacrificing interest or sophistication.  And in best form and foliage fashion, this garden shines through the fall and winter months as well as spring and summer!

purple leaved plants, color wheel combinations, purple evergreen plants

The plummy Lorapetalums pick up the same underlying tones in the brick and contrast boldly with the deep green lawn

Despite the unfettered design, much care went into its conception and the selection of the plantings.  Paula, who has an artist’s training and sensibilities, chose the Loropetalum to border the path because she wanted to  echo the tones of the brick with a complementary plant that was appropriately sized and attractive year-round.  The decision to use deep reddish-purple against the brick was daring; most of us think ‘red’ when we think of brick, but the purple brings out the rosy tones.  Also, most of us would have not been able to resist the urge to plant a jumble of different colors and textures; Paula’s confidence in the essential design principles of repetition, scale and color harmony allowed her to resist that temptation!

Chamaecyparis obtusa, purple-leaved foliage, succulents

The purple is repeated in the sedum ‘Voodoo’ under the foundation plantings

The distinctive purple of the Loropetalums is repeated in the carpet of Sedum ‘Voodoo’ around the foundation plantings of Chamaecyparis obtusa cultivars. This is horticultural ‘color blocking’ with rich, deep tones, and the repetition of the purple and green makes for a unified design.  While respecting the formal lines of the brick house, these plantings also soften, enrich and complement it.

conifers, foliage plants, evergreen plants

The icy blue atlantic cedars (Cedrus libani var. atlantica) bring out the orange tones in the brick

On the side of the house, Paula used more mass plantings of evergreen shrubbery and chose two Cedrus libani var. atlantica (Atlantic cedars) as focal points.  Those of you that read our post on Color Scheming will recognize that the purple/brick combination represents an analogous color pair, while the blue/brick is a complementary combination.  That’s why the cedars are edgier and demand more attention, and their skirt of shrubs is correspondingly subdued.  The brick borrows tones from the adjacent plants, appearing rosier next to the purple-leaved Loropetalum and more orange next to the blue cedar.

Arbutus 'Marina', Loropetalum 'Purple Pixie'

The Loropetalums punctuate this bed of woody ornamentals

Note the crisp edging and the clean lines of the multi-trunked trees (an Acer palmatum cultivar on the left, Arbutus ‘Marina on the right).  The planted are sited to ‘let the shapes show’ and their structure is as important as their colors and textures. In this bed the Loropetalums function as punctuation and connect it to the walkway and foundation plantings.

purple foliage plants

The purple and green theme continue with Japanese maples and ferns

The rich jewel tones are repeated throughout the garden, with different plant combinations. The Japanese maples and ferns adorn the wooded side yard that is shaded by towering Atlantic cedars and oaks.  By varying the plant materials but sticking to the color scheme, the different areas of the garden are connected and unified.  The overall sensation is one of serenity; the simplicity of the design is in itself relaxing and the choice of colors reinforces the calmness.

Japanese maples, gardening with rocks

Structure is provided by stones and woody plants

We like to say that sometimes the best plant  for a particular spot is a stone…and Paula repeats the blue of the cedars with specimen stones.  The combination of purple, icy blue and rich green now has many textural components that continue to be unified by color and simplicity. The stones also echo the structural lines of the woody plants and provide interest throughout the year.

foliage garden, evergreen foliage

Paula has started a rock garden with blue rocks, roses, succulents and conifers

The latest project is a rock garden at the back of the property with newly planted roses, succulents and a few specimen conifers, anchored by a pair of mature Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’ (Harry Lauder’s walking stick, one of which can be seen on the right side of the photo). Here purple gives way to accents of brilliant gold and chartreuse, and when the plantings spill over the rocks this will be the spot in the garden where the formality eases a bit, as it is away from the house and can set its own tone.

conifers, foliage plants, golden foliage

The Abies nordmanniana ‘Golden Spreader’ is sited so that it is a focal point from the kitchen window

We look forward to visiting the garden again when the plantings around the rocks have matured and provided the cohesiveness that Paula intends.  Although this spot is across the back lawn from the house, the brilliant Caucasian fir ‘Golden Spreader’ shines like a beacon and calls the eye.  Another design principle that Paula has employed: light, bright colors project, dark colors recede.  The strategic placement of one golden plant draws attention to the entire bed.

The final component of the garden design is a serene water feature

The final component of the garden design is a serene water feature

While Paula works with plant selection and design, Paul tends the Koi pond that not only provides pleasing sound and interest, but reflects the branches of the specimen trees.  We came away from Paul and Paula’s garden feeling relaxed and as if our blood pressure had dropped a notch.  Isn’t that a wonderful gift  for a garden to bestow?


Coenosium Gardens – A Conifer Laboratory!

Bob Fincham, evergreen foliage, designing with evergreens, conifers

Bob Fincham has a worldwide reputation as an conifer expert, with a list of introductions and publications to his name of which any plantsman would be proud.  Coenosium Gardens, the 5.6 acre property that he and his wife, Dianne, have developed in Eatonville, WA over the last few decades, is a virtual laboratory of conifer grafting, breeding and experimentation.  Their website explains that that they focus on plant introductions and that they are the ‘go to’ site for those wanting to locate rare conifers, read articles about conifers or just generally find out what is going on in the conifer world.

evergreen foliage, conifers, designing with foliage plants

A dazzling array of evergreen and deciduous foliage incorporates many colors and textures

When Form and Foliage made the pilgrimage to Coenosium in September, we found all that we had been expecting…and more.  What the articles and the Fincham website don’t convey is what a beautiful spot the couple has created, by having an eye for color, shape and texture combined with deft plant combinations.  The word ‘Coenosium’ comes from ancient Greek and means ‘plant community’.  Plant community, indeed!  A virtual wonderland of the principles that F&F holds dear: interesting plant material, combined to enhance the attributes of each plant, not detract from them, planted with regard to the shapes and sizes so that each plant can do its part and not get lost in a shapeless mass.

evergreen foliage, conifers, foliage gardening

Beds of foliage combinations flank mature trees in a woodland setting

Bob and Dianne run a successful mail-order nursery from their home, but the majority of the acreage is given over to expertly landscaped plantings, with a focus on pleasing combinations of foliage.  Deciduous trees and shrubs (especially beeches and maples) are interplanted with the beloved conifers to provide contrast of both color and texture.

Japanese maples, fall color, conifers, foliage gardening

Fall color is shown to advantage against the conifer specimens

Our visit coincided with peak fall color, but the huge variety of plant specimens at Coenosium guarantees a show at any time of year.  As the photo above illustrates, conifers come in many different shapes, sizes, colors and textures.

dwarf conifers, evergreens, foliage gardening

One of the newer gardens, planted with dwarf conifers of every imaginable color, shape and texture

The grounds range from more mature plantings around the house to newer gardens that focus more on dwarf varieties.  Bob has written a book about dwarf conifers, entitled ‘Small Conifers for Small Gardens’, that is a must-read for anyone wanting to learn more about incorporating conifers into the home garden.

Dwarf ginkgo, foliage gardening, conifers

While strictly speaking not conifers, Ginkgos are gymnosperms like conifers and are closely related

Many of the gardens have an Asian feel, with plants such as Ginkgos and pines that are associated with Asian gardens and statuary and hardscape distinctly Asian in design.  The dwarf Ginkgo above is suitable for even the smallest gardens, and contrasts beautifully with its conifer cousins.

gold foliage evergreens, golden conifers

Gold foliage brightens cloudy winter days

Bob has made somewhat of a specialty of gold-foliage conifers, perhaps because the Seattle area is known for its share of overcast winter days.  The sunny foliage of the spruce in the photo above shines like a beacon even when the sun is nowhere to be seen.  It also contrasts beautifully with the maroon and blue foliage in the background.

A fine grouping of conifers with deciduous trees in the background

Bob also uses conifers in containers – a practice that those with small gardens (or even those limited to terrace gardening) can adopt.  Many of the dwarf and miniature varieties are so slow-growing that they can exist happily for years in containers, sometimes even sharing space with others.

conifers in containers, container gardening

Conifer container gardening is the ultimate in easy plant care

Bob and Dianne’s mail order nursery is the place to go to find rare varieties and a good selection of garden-worthy dwarfs and miniatures.  Their stock is healthy and well-cared for and we confess to falling victim to the wide array of choices available and picking out a boxful for shipping.  Needless to say, the plants arrived in perfect condition.

conifers, foliage gardening, evergreens

The nursery stock is healthy and gorgeous – we couldn’t resist!

Finally, the following photos show that the ‘mad scientist’ is at work in the ‘laboratory’! Bob is continually fascinated with what he can do using his grafting skills and his imagination.  Whether the gardening world is ready for some of his creations remains to be seen, but no one can accuse him of not pushing the envelope!

grafted conifers

Two spruces grafted to produce one plant with contrasting form, color and texture

grafted conifers, evergreen foliage, gold conifers, blue conifers

Another ‘twofer’ – blue and yellow spruces are combined to provide sunshine and shadow in one plant

Check out Coenosium Gardens on line, with information about ordering plants – and the book!  Meanwhile, stay tuned for our next stop: the demonstration gardens at Iseli Nursery in Oregon.

Copyright 2012 by Sara B. Malone and Janice M. LeCocq


Private Spaces: The LeCocq Garden

gunnera, Japanese maples

Foliage combines with sculptural trunks to provide year-round interest in the LeCocq garden.

When Frances and Irwin LeCocq built their home overlooking Puget Sound almost 30 years ago, their steep front yard was a tangled mass of weeds.  With an almost 23 degree  slope, mowing was out of the question, so a lawn was never a consideration.   The LeCocqs initially covered the expanse with ivy, which they soon realized was a deer delicacy.  Time for Plan B!  In envisioning revised plantings, the LeCocqs didn’t consciously seek out a ‘form and foliage’ design, but  they did have some specific criteria.

gardening on a hill, gardening on a slope

The steep slope presented design challenges, especially since the LeCocqs wanted to be able to walk down to pick up the mail!

First, the slope meant that ongoing maintenance would be difficult and disagreeable (the reason for their first choice of ivy).  Second, in Bellingham’s mild climate, the garden is enjoyed year-round, so should be attractive year-round.  Finally, the LeCocqs knew that they would have to share their garden with the deer, ruling out most tender, floriferous plantings.

foliage gardening, winter gardens

A mix of conifers and deciduous woody plants provides four seasons of interest.

Over the next 21 years, a sequence of talented designers and gardeners assisted the LeCocqs in realizing their vision.  Richard Haag, a Seattle landscape architect, provided the initial plan.  One of his first tasks was to lay out a concrete and gravel pathway following the serpentine track that Irwin had made along the contours of the hill as he made the daily trek to the mailbox.   The mainstays of the garden would be shrubs and trees that could withstand the bands of marauding deer, with a generous component of evergreens to provide winter interest.

foliage plants, Japanese maples, ornamental grasses

A Japanese maple graces the front patio, complemented by ornamental grasses.

They chose numerous Japanese maples and other deciduous plants to ensure a spectacular autumn.  As with all gardens, this one evolved with the help of many hands, including David Steinbrunner, now in Texas, and Bear Creek Nursery’s Jeanne Hager, who currently tends the garden.  Recently, Susan Harrison, of Private Gardens in Bellingham, helped redesign the entry.

woodland gardens, foliage gardening

A wide variety of plantings with lots of trees and shrubs create a lush, woodland feel on what had been a bare slope.

Throughout the garden’s history careful attention was paid to creating combinations of complementary and contrasting textures, as well as colors.  The woody plants do the ‘heavy lifting’ in the garden, but there are enough herbaceous varieties interplanted among the trees and shrubs to create a lush, woodland feel.

peonies fall color, foliage plants

Peonies, with a second season of interest that we didn’t think possible!

Our visit in September caught the deciduous plants at the beginning of their autumn color, and it wasn’t just trees and shrubs providing the show; we were repeatedly amused (and a bit chastened) to see bold oranges and reds provided by peonies, which heretofore we had dismissed as one-season wonders.

A scarlet-leaved Cotinus coggygria in a container on the deck brings the autumn foliage right up to the house.

The LeCocq’s home overlooks most of the garden, as well as Bellingham Bay, the San Juan Islands and the Olympic Peninsula, and has a large deck that feels nestled in tree tops.  Frances has container plantings to complement the beds, and the autumn standout is a scarlet Cotinus coggygria.

foliage gardens, foliage gardening

The LeCocq garden, viewed from their deck.

While the garden could not be described as ‘no maintenance’, the upkeep is far less than would be necessary for flowering perennials. Although the deer visit nightly, their nibbling has generally been minimal.  The LeCocqs remain grateful to those original marauders, who, by eating the ivy, were responsible for Plan B!

foliage plants, fall color

A Cornus in fall color nicely complements the blue-green leaves of a Euphorbia.

This is a lovely garden in which to wander, to sit and enjoy, and to revel in the colors, shapes and textures.  We thank the LeCocqs for graciously hosting the first segment of our road trip.  Astute readers will have noticed that their last name is the same as Jan’s.  That is because they are her parents!

Admittedly, the garden does get a bit of competition from the view beyond!

Yes, we started close to home, but we branched out. Stay tuned for the next stop: Coenosium Gardens in Eatonville WA, home of Bob Fincham, plantsman extraordinaire.

Copyright 2012 Sara B Malone and Janice M LeCocq