form and foliage

Year round garden interest with minimal care


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Color Riot

foliage gardening

Acer palmatum ‘Iijima Sunago’, Physocarpus opulifolius ‘Mindia’ and Spirea japonica ‘Goldflame’

The garden blogs and magazines are full of photographs of spring flowers as much of the country says farewell to a brutal winter. It’s no coincidence that many of these are macro shots, as the flowers are often a small part of the overall landscape this early in the season. If you’re a foliage gardener, however, you can get out your wide-angle lens and snap away, almost indiscriminately. The colors assail you from every part of the spectrum: yellows, blues, maroon, orange, red, bronze and of course, green. In the photo above, the Spirea does look like it is on fire, giving credence to its name of ‘Goldflame’.

conifers, foliage gardening

The landscape is rich with jewel tones of maples, spruce and ginkgo

At this time of year, texture and form take a back seat, as the colors are bright enough to leave afterimages on the retina. The fiery yellows and oranges are complemented by the richness of the greens and reds, while blue strikes a soothing note.

foliage gardening, evergreens

Coprosma repens ‘Plum Hussey’, Abelia ‘Kaleidoscope’ and Arctostaphylus densiflora ‘Emerald Carpet’

The spring colors are also borne by evergreen shrubs, which perk up and shine with the stronger sunlight and longer days. The trio in the photo above are all evergreen; they carried the garden interest through the winter and now aren’t about to be outshined by their deciduous neighbors.

foliage gardening, conifers

Cupressus cashmeriana, Viburnum nudum ‘Winterthur’ and Pinus ponderosa ‘Big Boomer’, with Berberis thunbergii ‘Orange Rocket’ and Quercus robur ‘Butterbee’

Some of the evergreens seem to spring to life as the deciduous shrubs and trees nearby leaf out. The soft, deep green conifers provide the perfect backdrop for the red and yellow of the barberry and oak.

conifers, foliage gardening

Pinus mugo ‘Ambergold’, Leptospermum ‘Dark Shadows’, Coprosma ‘County Park Red’, Juniperus x-media ‘Daub’s Frosted’, Cordyline ‘Design a Line Burgundy’, Libertia peregrins and Cupressus glabra ‘Blue Pyramid’

Even the dark foliage has a richness in spring, especially when repeated throughout the border. The Leptospermum, Coprosma and Cordyline are drenched in the same deep burgundy, which provides the perfect anchor for the yellow, blue and orange. Green, as always, is the unifying theme.

foliage gardening, maples, conifers

Acer palmatum ‘Mizuho Beni’, Juniperus communis ‘Kalebab’ and Loropetalum chinensis ‘Chang Nian Hong’

The burgundy of the Loropetalum in the photo above provides the same contrast to the greens and yellows and the orange of the maple (Acer palmatum ‘Villa Taranto)  just leafing out on the right.

redbuds, maples, foliage gardening

Even the seed pods of the Cercis chinensis are playing along with the theme

In the photo above we see the Spirea, Physocarpus and Acer ‘Iijima Sunago’ again from another angle. The oranges and reds are made even brighter when contrasted with the blue of the cedars over the door and the seed pods of the redbud in the foreground pay homage to the maples’ fiery tones.

conifers, foliage gardening

Ginkgo biloba ‘Mariken’ and Berberis thunbergii ‘Admiration’

Green and red are color wheel opposites and make dramatic combinations. This pair of deciduous hardwoods slumbered through the winter unnoticed until they burst into attention-grabbing foliage in spring.

conifers, foliage gardening

The same Berberis, flanked on the other side by evergreens

The ‘Admiration’ barberry has evergreen neighbors on its other side, and when it leafs out in its red glory it brings out the crimson stems of the Drimys lanceolata on the right and the bronze tones of the Thuja plicata ‘Whipcord’ and Cryptomeria japonica ‘Elegans Compacta behind.

foliage gardening, conifers

The dogwood is late to leaf out but the maple in front obliged, providing more red/green contrast with many yellow accents

Yellows, like all light colors, draw the eye and liven the landscape. Yellows are represented above by Abelia ‘Kaleidoscope’, Euonymus ‘Emerald ‘n Gold’, Yucca ‘Walbristar, Acer palmatum ‘Mizuho Beni’ and even the light green foliage of the Banksia in the foreground. A softer blue note is provided by Cedrus deodara ‘Prostrate Beauty’.

conifers, foliage gardening

Variations on a theme: the same colors with different plants

The other side of the path has a similar theme, but the Euonymus is joined by Phormium ‘Golden Ray’ and the blue is provided by Picea pungens ‘Lucretia’ and Agave ‘Blue Glow’.

conifers, foliage gardening

A rich tapestry of color

From the other angle, burgundy plays a much more significant role, and the blue of the plants is echoed in the ceramic pots around the folly.

conifers, foliage gardening

Softer combinations can be achieved by using analogous colors, those next to each other on the color wheel

The brighter colors draw the eye, but there is also beauty in the softness of groupings of colors that are next to each other on the color wheel, termed analogous combinations. The CedrusArctostaphylos and Banksia provide repose from the incendiary foliage around them.

conifers, succulents, agave vilmoriniana

While structure is not as obvious when bold color abounds, it can’t be ignored!

Even though we are overwhelmed with the spring colors, we can’t ignore structure and form completely. A trio of young Agave vilmoriniana, aptly named ‘octopus’, anchor a corner and provide textural as well as color contrast. We’re using more and more succulents in the foliage garden, interplanting among the conifers, maples and other woody plants. Stay tuned…

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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?


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Color Scheming…using color theory to create harmonious foliage combinations

We’ve written about color theory before (‘I’ve Got the Blues…’), and with spring’s hysteria now receding into summer, gardening life has calmed down enough that it seems a good time to revisit some of the basic principles that we can use to create striking and harmonious garden moods.  Remember, foliage generally endures much longer than floral displays, so getting the foliage colors right has a more lasting impact than pairing flower combinations.

color wheel plants, color wheel flowers, color wheel gardens, color wheel leaves

The color wheel is a must-have tool for garden planning

Generally, the most dramatic combinations are achieved by pairing complimentary colors – those that are opposites (across from each other) on the color wheel, such as red and green, blue and orange or yellow and purple.  These dramatic moments work best as exactly that – moments.  A garden composed entirely of pairs of complementary colors would almost certainly be too strident for most tastes.  Color wheel opposites, such as red and green, however, are striking and energizing in small doses, as in the leaves and bracts of Leucadendron ‘Jester’, here backed by Cupressus nootkatensis ‘Green Arrow’, which ably echoes ‘Jester’s  green tones.

Rich drama is produced by complementary colors.

In the far background is Acer palmatum ‘Mizuho Beni’, which not only repeats ‘Jester’s yellow, but soothes its dramatic stripes, by teaming with ‘Green Arrow’ to provide what is termed an ‘analogous pairing’ of yellow and green.  Analogous colors are those that are next to each other on the color wheel, such as yellow and green or blue and purple.  See how the green and yellow soften the ‘Jester’s bold colors?  Of course that splash of yellow in the leaves is an added bonus in the matching scheme!

The complementary color pair in front is softened by the addition of the yellow foliage in back. Eye-popping color without harshness.

‘Mizuho Beni’ is paired on its other side with its color analog, the lovely green Cornus mas ‘Spring Glory’ (truly stunning in flower, but pulling its weight as a foliage plant in late spring/summer and into autumn). By backing the maroon Berberis thunbergii ‘Rose Glow’ with the analogous color pair of green and yellow, the drama is muted and kept from stridency and harshness.

Saturated soft pinks combine with deep greens in an eye-catching pairing.

When white is added to any color the resulting hue is said to be a ‘tint’, and is generally more subdued and of lower impact.  However, nobody told this Acer palmatum ‘Beni Schichihenge’ and Phormium ‘Jester’ that!  This pink/green combination is a variation on the complimentary color pairing of red and green – softer, but with its own kind of drama.  By not tinting the green (i.e. keeping the green shade of the Lonicera pileata deeper than the pink of the other plants) the resulting combination retains structure and strength.

Complementary colors provide vibrancy.

Adding black instead of white produces a shade, rather than a tint, and, with red, in practical terms gets you maroon instead of pink.  This pairing of two extremely well known plants, Berberis thunbergii atropurpurea ‘Nana’ (common barberry) and Geranium ‘Rozanne’, doesn’t need flowers to provide pizzazz.  Note that here, with the darker red shade, the slightly lighter green allows for contrast and brightness.

Try the same color pairing with succulents for a different textural effect.

The same effect can be achieved using succulents, in this case Delosperma nubigenum, with a light, crisp green leaf and Sempervivum tectorum ‘Red Beauty’.

The drama of complementary colors is enhanced by textural contrast in this pairing of a Japanese maple and a Phormium.

Adding gray (a mix of black and white) to any color creates a ‘tone’, and takes maroon to brown, and Phormium tenax ‘Jack Spratt’ is a satisfying, rich cocoa.  Again traveling to the opposite side of the wheel for the complementary color, we find that an even lighter green works best, in this case the chartreuse-hued Acer palmatum ‘Capersi’s Dwarf’.  Bonus points for its red-margined leaves and the great textural contrast between the two plants!

The strong contrast of the Phormium and the Cotinus is buffered by the deep green of Prunus lusitanica.

Another brown Phormium, P. ‘Dusky Chief’ pairs well with any number of light green or chartreuse-leaved shrubs, such as Cotinus ‘Ancot’, here buffered by the deep green of Prunus lusitanica.  If you haven’t got space for such large shrubs, try the same color grouping using smaller Phormium varieties and perennials such as Heuchera.

Analogous colors create softer moods with less tension than complementary colors.

A different mood is created using reddish brown with its next-door neighbor, apricoty-gold.  Lighter, brighter, and producing a pairing with less tension and impact than one made up of complementary colors, Physocarpus ‘Mindia’ (sold as Coppertina) and Spirea ‘Goldflame’ make a soft, mouthwatering combination for the months both pre- and post-bloom.

Pink and light blue are the analogous colors red and blue, tinted with white. This pairing is soft, yet retains richness.

Another analogous combination is pink and powder blue (the tints of red and blue).  In this case, Acer pseudoplatanus ‘Esk Sunset’ is paired with Picea pungens ‘Fat Albert’.  Both tints are soft and undemanding, yet result in a pairing both rich and satisfying.

This triadic combination shows the softer side of Acer palmatum ‘Mizuho Beni’.

Technically a triadic combination, (three colors that are spaced evenly around the wheel), this yellow leaf (our friend ‘Mizuho Beni’ again) with its red stem floats in front of the powdery blue Cedrus libani var. atlantica ‘Blue Cascade’.  The most successful triadic combinations feature one dominant color, in this case yellow, accented by the other two.  The yellow displays more richness backed by the soft blue than it would if paired with green.

Cool greens in varying shades create a calm, soothing mood.

Finally, see what happens when color combinations are narrowed to the tints, shades and tones of only one color, in this case the ‘cool’ color green.  This restful grouping of foliage would lack definition and impact if it were not for the wide variety of leaf sizes, forms and textures.  Combining broad-leafed evergreens (Lonicera pilleata top left, Pieris japonica ‘Silver Flame’ lower center); conifers (Chamaecyparis lawsoniana ‘Barry’s Silver’ lower left, Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Golden Fern’ lower right, Cedrus deodara ‘Silver Mist’ upper right/center) and the perennial Lobela tupa, this display is calming and serene 10 months of the year, only interrupted when the Lobelia blooms dramatically in summer and succumbs to frost for a month or so in the depths of winter.

So decide what mood you’re looking for – if it’s drama, go for complementary colors, if it’s calm, try analogs and if you are game to try something more complex give a triadic combination a whirl – and take your color wheel to the nursery on your next visit!

Copyright 2012 by Form and Foliage