form and foliage

Year round garden interest with minimal care


Form and Foliage Takes a Road Trip: First Stop, Sonoma County CA

Western Hills

A foggy morning at Western Hills, recently reopened by its new owners

We’ve been silent for a couple of months as we’ve been visiting landmark gardens in the Pacific Northwest and California.  Working backwards in time, we will begin by sharing some images of California gardens that we toured with the American Conifer Society‘s Western Regional Conference, held in Sonoma County, CA last weekend.  50 conifer enthusiasts from around the country gathered to visit two iconic gardens–Western Hills and Quarryhill Botanical Garden, a private garden–Circle Oak Ranch, and Cornerstone Gardens–a multi-garden ‘installation’ by a variety of notable garden designers, landscape architects and artists.

Color combinations of conifers

Cupressus macrocarpa ‘Conybearii Aurea’ pokes up amongst the other trees in the canopy

Western Hills was our first stop, and the new owners, Chris and Tim Szybalski, have done a wonderful job of restoring this legendary garden.  The trees are now roughly 50 years old and have turned what was originally a sunny plot into a shade garden.  An enormous Cupressus macrocarpa ‘Conybearii Aurea’, for instance, shows no golden foliage on its lower branches where it grows in the shade of the other trees. From a choice viewing spot across the garden, however, its golden crown glows amidst the green and blue foliage.  Note the blooming Erythrina in front – a rare specimen that doesn’t often attain significant size here in Sonoma County, where it is occasionally subject to freezing.

color wheel combinations

Broad vista of foliage textures and colors at Western Hills Garden

In a broader shot taken from the same spot, the enormous variety of foliage colors, textures and forms is evident.  The Cupressus torulosa ‘Cashmeriana’ (center right) provides weeping interest and the Loropetalum with its purple foliage contrasts smartly with the dominant green theme.

Interesting bark

Contrasting shapes and textures at Western Hills Garden

The Western Hills of old was far more floriferous than today’s garden.  During the troubled years of foreclosure and neglect, maintaining the perennials became difficult and the volunteer brigade concentrated on saving the trees and shrubs. Rather than succumbing to the tendency to mourn the passing of garden’s illustrious past, we viewed the garden with a fresh eye, and it is a beautiful place, full of a wide range of interesting specimens that display more form and structure than in prior years.  In the photo above, for example, the shining bark of the cherry on the left and the bold spikes of the Dasylirion on the right make strong statements amongst shades of green.

Western Hills

An Abutilon ‘Dwarf Red’ provides a hint of color amidst bare trunks

The Abutilon ‘Dwarf Red’ in the above photo is one of the unusual plants that Western Hills Nursery had featured–it has a densely branching habit that makes it much more compact and well-behaved in the garden than most Abutilon.  We are happy to say that we have several here at Circle Oak, all from the original plant purchased at Western Hills 15 years ago.

An Acer palmatum ‘Sango Kaku’ glows in fall color at Western Hills Garden

Our last shot of Western Hills Garden features an Acer p. ‘Sango Kaku’ in fiery orange fall foliage, set off by a plummy Cordyline, with Dasylirion, Euphorbia and Cotinus in front to provide texture.  For anyone in or visiting the Bay Area, Western Hills Garden is now open on Saturdays or by appointment:

American Conifer Society

Sara Malone and Jani Weaver discuss the garden with members of the American Conifer Society

Our next stop was our own gardens at Circle Oak Ranch.  Since we have featured this garden in virtually all of our posts, Jan concentrated on shots of the American Conifer Society members enjoying themselves in the garden.

American Conifer Society, Western Region, visits Sara’s garden at Circle Oak Ranch.

Although this was a Western Region conference, conifers lovers came from all over the country to enjoy the Sonoma Wine Country in the mild autumn weather.  Accompanied by Phormiums, Leucadendron and Leptospermum, the conifers took on different personalities than those from colder zones were used to seeing!

Asian plants, plant conservation

The lake at Quarryhill Botanical Garden

We spent a gorgeous afternoon at Quarryhill Botanical Garden in Glen Ellen.  Quarryhill is dedicated to the preservation of Asian plant species, and the vast majority of the garden’s plants were grown from wild-collected seed in China, Japan, India and other parts of Asia.  Quarryhill has received international recognition for its efforts and is a must-see for any serious plant lover.

Asian plants

A witch’s broom in a Pinus densiflora at Quarryhill Botanical Garden

For conifer lovers there was much to admire, including a witch’s broom in a large Pinus densiflora.  The garden is replete with deciduous trees, as well, making the fall foliage display here one of the loveliest in the Bay Area.

Asian plants

The Pinetum at Quarryhill Botanical Garden showcases approximately 50 different species of conifers

Since the plants at Quarryhill are from wild-collected seed, there are virtually no named varieties (the majority of the conifers that we plant in our gardens are named varieties, or cultivars).  It was fun to see all of the species, many of which have attained significant size in the garden’s 25 years.  The conifers in the Pinetum are all labeled, making it a great learning spot for anyone interested in comparing and contrasting the different genera.

The trees at Quarryhill dominate in autumn, when most of the flowering plants are dormant.  The dramatic bark on this China berry makes a striking statement even when the tree is leafless.

An autumn afternoon at Quarryhill Botanical Garden

Perhaps even more important than Quarryhill’s worldwide significance, however, is that it is a simply glorious place to spend an afternoon:

Next stop: Notable gardens of the Pacific Northwest, including Coenosium Gardens, Buchholz & Buchholz, Iseli and The Oregon Garden

Copyright 2012 by Sara B Malone and Janice M LeCocq


A bit of background

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Selected nurseries in Sonoma County, California:

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

Pond and Garden, Cotati, CA

Peacock Horticultural Nursery, Sebastopol, CA

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

Garden Weaver Design, Sebastopol

Lone Pine Gardens, Sebastopol (succulent specialists)


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

Gardening with Conifers, Adrian Bloom

Designing with Conifers, Richard L. Bitner

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

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

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

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

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


Copyright 2012 by Form and Foliage