form and foliage

Year round garden interest with minimal care


The Color Purple


smoke bush

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

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


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

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


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

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


The blues and greens  gain prominence when backed by purple

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.


Picea pungens ‘Stoplight’ and Mangave ‘Macho Mocha’

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


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


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

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


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

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


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

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


Sambucus nigra ‘Black Lace’ is really dark purple

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


Picea pungens ‘Fastigata’ and Coprosma ‘Plum Hussey’

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


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

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


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


Fagus sylvatica ‘Rohanii’ leaves up close

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


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

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


Abies x arnoldiana ‘Poulsen’

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

Get your purple on!





Jan Takes the Wheel

conifers, garden photography, foliage gardening

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

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

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

succulents, garden photography

Agave ‘Blue Glow’ beginning to flower

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

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

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

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

Cryptomeria japonica 'Elegans Compacta', garden photography

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

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


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

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

Cedrus atlantica 'Glauca Pendula', conifers, garden photography

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

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

Brahea armata, garden photography

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

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

garden photography, Brahea armata

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

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

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

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

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

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

Complementary colors and contrasting textures make for a pleasing combination

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

Phormium 'Dusky Chief', garden photography

Sometimes I just can’t help myself

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



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…


The Hit Parade: The Best Foliage Plants, Part I

succulents, foliage plants

Yucca gloriosa var. recurva ‘Walbristar’ (bright star Yucca)

We’ve long intended to provide plant lists for readers, with criteria such as ‘most durable’, ‘best winter interest’, ‘prettiest, etc. However as we begin, after a long hiatus, to to assemble the lists, we find that the easiest one to create is the list of plants that we simply can’t imagine being without. These aren’t the hardiest or the prettiest or the most drought-tolerant, they’re the go-to plants that both do the job and look like they are doing it effortlessly. This list is from the perspective of a long-time San Francisco Bay Area gardener, so may not apply to your situation. However, others’ lists are simply excuses to create your own, so if you don’t have a ‘must have’ list already, this is your chance to begin! We will note up front that all of these selections are more expensive than many other plants of similar look and size. However, they are worth it! Plants that behave well, that do not readily outgrow their spaces, are not susceptible to pathogens or predators and have long lives should cost more. How many cartloads of perennials do you really need every season? Forego one of them and buy a special plant instead.

bright star yucca

‘Walbristar’ glows in the landscape

1. First on our list is Yucca gloriosa var. recurva ‘Walbristar’ (Zone 7-10), quite a mouthful so easier, perhaps, to simply think bright star Yucca. We used to use Phormiums extensively, and gradually got tired of reversions (when those glorious colored or striped leaves return to dull green), growth rates far beyond the promises on the tags and difficult upkeep. One of our favorites had been ‘Golden Ray’, which features yellow and green striped leaves and thrives in full sun. Once we discovered ‘Walbristar’, however, we turned our back on Phormiums and have never looked back! ‘Walbristar’ has both a more refined look and more refined colors, the leaves do not shred and brown and it develops a distinctly rosy tint in the winter:

Yucca 'Walbristar' turns rosy in cold temperatures

Yucca ‘Walbristar’ turns rosy in cold temperatures

It’s drought tolerant, thrives in most soils and needs little to no upkeep. So far all we’ve had to do is to cut off a few spent flower stalks. It’s smaller ‘cousins’ Yucca filamentosa ‘Color Guard’ and Yucca gloriosa ‘Tiny Star’ have many of the same attributes with a smaller profile (and ‘Color Guard’ is clump-forming).

conifers, foliage plants, colored foliage

Ginkgo biloba ‘Todd’s Dwarf’

2. Next is our favorite dwarf Ginkgo biloba, ‘Todd’s Dwarf’ (Zone 3-10). Ginkgo are ancient trees that have barely changed over the millennia. Where they have changed, man has been the manipulator, cultivating naturally occurring mutations and interesting chance seedlings and producing numerous garden-sized small trees. The species Ginkgo, albeit slow-growing, attains heights of 70-80 feet, while these petite versions are often under 4′ at 10 years. They have interesting branching and leaf variations although all retain a semblance of the iconic ‘butterfly’ leaf shape. Our favorite is ‘Todd’s Dwarf, due to its full habit ruffled leaves, but there are many others, such as ‘Mariken’, ‘Troll’, ‘Munchkin’, ‘Jade Butterfly’ and ‘Chase Manhattan’. They all turn butter-yellow in autumn and generally drop their leaves all at once, making a glowing carpet. Four of these tough trees survived the atomic blast at Hiroshima, and they can withstand heat, cold, drought and pollution. They are some of the easiest care, low maintenance garden plants.

conifers, evergreen foliage

Cedrus deodara ‘Cream Puff’

3. The lovely deodar cedar ‘Cream Puff’ (Zone 7-11) is one of the best medium-large evergreen shrubs for Bay Area gardens. The soft, green needles are a classic deodara feature, in this cultivar augmented by creamy white new growth that glows in the landscape, especially during the colder months. Deodara come from the middle East, and deal well with our Mediterranean climate. Once established they are drought-tolerant and can take full sun without any burning or scorching.

conifers, cedars

The needles of Cedrus deodara ‘Cream Puff’ are beautiful up close as well

Up close, the needles look like they have been flocked or frosted. ‘Cream Puff’ is slow-growing and can be kept to shrub form, as the one above, by snipping out any leaders that may form.

Agave x 'Blue Glow'

Agave x ‘Blue Glow’

4. We love our succulents, and rather than relegate them to their own beds, we prefer to choose larger varieties and interplant them into the rest of the garden. Agave x ‘Blue Glow’ (Zone 8-11) is our very favorite. In the world of Agave, this counts as a small plant, but as you can see, it holds its own amongst many reasonably large shrubs. ‘Blue Glow’ provides both stunning structure and color and the maroon margins are complemented with maroon-leaved plants such as Berberis, Cotinus or certain succulents. Its water needs are lower than the nearby shrubs, which we take care of by mixing a goodly dose of lava rock into the soil around it and planting it up about 2-3″. It’s on the same irrigation as the rest of the garden. This Agave will ‘pup’, or produce smaller plants around its base. The leaf spines are extremely sharp; if you have young children or dogs it is advisable to snip them off with a scissors. It’s hard to imagine a plant that provides this much oomph with virtually no maintenance.  looks great up close, too:

Agave 'Blue Glow' up close

Agave ‘Blue Glow’ up close

5. Trees never get enough attention on top plant lists, and there are several that we wouldn’t be without. Arbutus ‘Marina’ (Zone 7-9) tops the list for us because it provides all-year interest, incredible bark, glossy evergreen leaves and decorative flowers and fruit. Give it good drainage and a sunny spot and it will flourish. Judicious pruning can result in fabulous shapes and branching.

strawberry tree, interesting bark

The peeling, cinnamon-chartreuse bark of Arbutus ‘Marina’

The ancestry of ‘Marina’ is unknown; it was first observed at a nursery in San Francisco’s Marina District and it is likely a hybrid between two species of Arbutus. ‘Marina’ flowers year-round, with peak bloom in spring and fall, and the fruit persist from yellow immature to red mature fruit, for a very decorative effect. The leaves flush bronze, later maturing to deep green. There is not one part of this tree that is not showy! ‘Marina’ grows slowly but will eventually become a full-sized tree, so site it accordingly.

Arbutus 'Marina'

Evergreen glossy foliage adds texture and interest all year

6. Osmanthus heterophyllus ‘Goshiki’ is our favorite variegated evergreen shrub.

holly, variegated shrubs, evergreen shrubs

Osmanthus heterophyllus ‘Goshiki’

At a quick glance Osmanthus resembles holly and is commonly called ‘false holly’. There are many lovely green Osmanthus, and we use them extensively, but ‘Goshiki’ (Zones 6-9) is a special cultivar with its leaves flecked with yellow and cream. The new foliage has distinctly rosy-bronzy tones and the entire effect is light, bright and sparkling. We like to use ‘Goshiki’ against dark green conifers, where we get contrast of both color and texture. ‘Goshiki’ grows slowly and while it eventually will attain some size, it can be snipped back easily. Slow growth means that it is much harder for a plant to get out of hand! In this area it benefits from some afternoon shade, but it can be grown from almost full shade to full sun. It is a wonderful way to brighten a dark spot in the garden.


Thuja plicata ‘Whipcord’ works beautifully in a large container

7. If you like the look of ornamental grasses but hate the mess and upkeep, Thuja plicata ‘Whipcord’ (Zones 6-9) is your plant. With the fountain-like habit of a large ornamental grass and the no-nonsense low-care attributes of a conifer (which it is!), it is the perfect marriage of style and simplicity. The dark green foliage bronzes in winter, complementing the rusty brown stems. Its mounding, weeping habit is graceful and soft and its pendulous branches move in the breeze. We often purchase special, highly desirable plants and find ourselves walking around the garden, trying this spot or that, never finding quite the right one. We can always find a spot for ‘Whipcord’! It seems to fit in anywhere. ‘Whipcord’ is slow growing but over time will form a 4-5′ shrub that is almost as wide. Easy pruning keeps it much smaller, much longer.

colored foliage

Acer pseudoplatanus (sycamore maple) ‘Esk Sunset’ gets our vote for loveliest tree

8. Acer pseduoplatanus ‘Esk Sunset’ (Zones 5-9) is such a lovely tree that we just can’t imagine being without it. Sure, there are hundreds–maybe thousands–of beautiful Japanese maples, and we love them all, but to some extent they begin to blur into each other after a while. ‘Esk Sunset’ is unique. Even the other pseudoplatanus cultivars don’t match its incredible flair. The leaves are mottled pale salmon and green, and the coloration varies from leaf to leaf.

sycamore maple

The undersides of the leaves of ‘Esk Sunset’ are purple!

And as if that weren’t enough, the undersides of the leaves are purple! When we catch sight of it backlit, we have to stop what we’re doing and just goggle at it. ‘Esk Sunset’ comes from the Esk Valley in New Zealand but some energetic nursery worker decided at some point that ‘Esk’ was short for ‘Eskimo’. Thus, you will usually see this tagged that way. ‘Esk Sunset’ is a slow-growing tree that appreciates some afternoon shade. The largest tree we’ve ever seen was at Buchholz & Buchholz Nursery in Oregon, an in-ground specimen that was about 25′ tall. You really don’t want to be without this one if you can grow it in your Zone.

conifers, California native plants

Pinus jeffreyi ‘Joppi’ – a California native at home in the garden

9. In California, planting natives is all the rage, and what we don’t understand is why that never seems to include the conifers? California has over 50 native conifers and many have garden-worthy cultivars.  Pinus jeffreyi ‘Joppi’ gets our vote for one of the best. It has a short, squat habit with long (up to 8″), deep green bristly needles and resembles some kind of troll-like creature. We half expect it to talk to us when we come near. The specimen in the photo above has not been pruned, but we’re considering borrowing a technique from bonsai and opening up the structure a bit so that we can see the trunk. This will grow slowly to about six feet tall in 10 years, but it can be kept squat by cutting out the central leader. Don’t you want to pet it?


Robinia pseudoacacia 'Frisia' (golden locust)

Robinia pseudoacacia ‘Frisia’ (golden locust)

10. We end this entry with a controversial choice: Robinia pseudoacacia ‘Frisia’. ‘Frisia’ is a large, fast-growing tree that not all gardens can accommodate. Some say it self-sows almost to the point of invasiveness; we have never found it so here, with our drip irrigation and sumptuous mulching. Others complain about the brittle branches–again, they have never presented a problem for us. We do some pruning to tidy it up but other than that we leave it alone. The key to making this tree work in your garden is having enough space for a large tree, and preferably siting it against a backdrop of darker foliage, such as the redwoods in the photo. Some do regularly prune it hard and use it as a large shrub, but we prefer the graceful canopy and the dappled shade that it creates. The light underneath is golden and bright. ‘Frisia’ only gets more beautiful in autumn, when its chartreuse foliage softens to a creamy golden yellow. It rivals the Ginkgos for its beacon-like effect as the days shorten at year end.


Jan and Sara took a brief hiatus from Form and Foliage in the first half of 2014 as Jan took photography classes and Sara became the website editor for the American Conifer Society. We hope to be back on a more regular schedule in the second half of the year.




Take My Hand, I’m a Stranger in Photographer Paradise


Jan goes native; trades pines for palms…at least for a week!

Jan just returned from Molokai where she attended the “See the Light” seminar run by Dewitt Jones, Rikki Cooke  and Jonathan Kingston, three fabulous photographers whose professional lives all have passed through National Geographic at some point and whose breadth of experience and approach to photography are rich and inspiring.  It would take pages to describe this course, but suffice it to say that she learned a lot, not only from this dynamic trio but also from their equally talented wives and the other course attendees.

Molokai plants

Form and foliage, Island-style. Aloes and bromeliads combine for fantastic effect.

She wanted to share a few “form and foliage” images from Molokai. While she didn’t go to Hawaii just to photograph foliage, it’s impossible to ignore that these exotic plants provide plenty of color, texture and interest, even before you notice that a lot of them also produce gorgeous blossoms.

Molokai foliage plants

Cordylines and Crotons join palms in paradise.

The “See the Light” workshop was based at the Hui Ho’olana (, the former hunting lodge for the Cooke family, one of the most influential families in the islands from the mid 1800s.  What started as a general store to supply missions grew to become Castle & Cooke, one of the “Big Five” corporations that dominated the Hawaiian economy for generations, until the  Hawaiian Democratic Revolution of 1954 struck a fatal blow to the sugar cane and pineapple industries as striking labor unions demanded the same wages and benefits as their mainland counterparts.

Lush tropical ferns lend soothing green.

Lush tropical ferns lend soothing green.

Molokai used to be the site of the best pineapples in the world; that is now long gone.  The island remains largely undeveloped, and many, if not most, of the residents wish it to remain so.   The Nature Conservancy and a foundation funded by Rikki Cooke and Dewitt Jones have purchased miles of coastline in an attempt to preserve the natural beauty and the habitats of the island’s native creatures.

The gardens at the Hui are serene and lovely

The gardens at the Hui are serene and lovely. This is Form and Foliage, Hawaiian-style!

The Hui Ho’olana today is a non-profit organization that hosts educational workshops and volunteer residencies to support a self-sustaining facility and Hui’s native Hawaiian reforestation projects.  The Hui has hosted photography workshops since the 1980s.  Rikki Cooke and his wife Bronwyn manage the Hui. The lodge is rustic, but roomy and comfortable, featuring a wrap-around porch with stunning panoramic views of the island.

The kitchen garden at the Hui

The kitchen garden at the Hui Ho’olana, with a spot for a tired gardener to rest.

The kitchen produces delicious meals, with many of the ingredients harvested from their extensive gardens and fruit trees.  Miles of trails snake down the island, and with a little advance planning you can get an expert massage in one of the yurts nestled in the woods on the hillside.  The Hui recently underwent a major upgrade of the landscaping.

The gardens are filled with textures and colors.

The gardens are filled with textures and colors.

While the plants in tropical gardens are vastly different than their temperate cousins (most are not even the same genera), design and color principles are the same, and year-round interest is the norm.

We don't generally think about large shade trees in the tropics, but they can be just as dramatic as in temperate zones.

We don’t generally think about large shade trees in the tropics, but they can be just as architectural as in temperate zones.

And although we wanted to showcase some of the foliage plants that Jan photographed, we couldn’t resist ending with a more classic Hawaiian shot.  Aloha from Form and Foliage!

Molokai coast

No foliage but lots of form.


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.