form and foliage

Year round garden interest with minimal care


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Strange Bedfellows…or ‘What’s that Succulent Doing Next to that Spruce?’

succulents, conifers

Agave ‘Blue Glow’ has maroon edges that echo the deep hues of the Cotinus x ‘Grace’ on the right and the Acer palmatum ‘Twombly’s Sentinel’ on the left

Succulents seem to be all the rage these days, with specialty nurseries and designers abounding. We admire many of the succulent creations, but never really embraced the ‘total look’, which seemed often to lack scale and suffer from excessive cuteness. When we focused on some of the edgier genera, with larger specimens, such as Agaves, we also realized that we didn’t need to isolate succulents in their own beds and containers, we could incorporate them into the overall garden design.

succulents

Agave ‘Blue Glow’ can hold its own beside conifers (in this case Chamaecyparis pisifera ‘Golden Girl’, Picea pungens ‘Glauca Procumbens’ and ‘Picea orientalis ‘Golden Start ‘) and other woody foliage plants.

 

A study in dusty blue: Cedrus deodara 'Prostrate Beauty' and Agave parryi var. huachucensis share the same hue with vastly different structures and textures.

A study in dusty blue: Cedrus deodara ‘Prostrate Beauty’ and Agave parryi var. huachucensis share the same hue, but with vastly different structures and textures.

Foliage gardeners continually must grapple with the fact that most of the interesting foliage plants have small leaves. From the conifers’ needles to shrubs such as Abelia, Berberis and Hebe it is difficult to get away from fine textures. Most of the large-leaved shrubs, such as Rhododendron and Pieris, are denizens of the woodland garden and not happy in sunny gardens without acid soils. Many succulents provide large scale leaves that beautifully contrast with finer foliage.

conifers, succulents

Agave lophantha ‘Quadricolor’ and Juniperus x media ‘Daub’s Frosted’ share the same yellow and green foliage colors. Pinus strobus ‘Mini Twists’ is to the right.

 

succulents, barberry, manzanita

The same Agave, this time keeping company with Arctostaphlos ‘Emerald Carpet’ and Berberis thunbergii ‘Maria’ (sold as Sunjoy Gold Pillar)

The idea of interplanting succulents with conifers and other foliage plants strikes some as odd if not downright unnatural. To get a taste of how Nature herself does it, visit a forest in Mexico and see Yucca and Agave growing side by side with pines and cypress. We think of Mexico as a succulent haven when in fact Mexico also has more native pine species than any other country. Many of our perceived design rules are products of our own traditions and not necessarily representative of what is possible or, indeed, even plentiful in Nature.

succulents

Yucca ‘Tiny Star’ and other succulents with coniferous accompaniment. The conifers echo the yellow in the Yucca and soften its sharp lines.

Succulents come in a vast array of colors although most of the genera with larger species (Yucca, Agave, Aloe, etc) have the most selections in shades of green, blue and yellow. It is not uncommon to find multiple colors with either stripes, such as many Yucca and Agave, or marginal accents in contrasting shades.

conifers, succulents

Aloe striata in a bed of Juniperus procumbens, flanked by golden Chamaecyparis.

Aloe striata has coral leaf margins and in shade, rosettes of broad, flat, bluish-green leaves. The leaves turn ruddy pink in full sun and make for a beautifully two-toned plant. In the photo above, the blue-green of the Aloe is echoed by the juniper, again with a marvelous textural contrast. The Aloe is hardy to only 20 degrees, so in this garden is planted in a container, which may be moved to a protected area when necessary.

Mangave 'Macho Mocha' is one of the few larger succulents with significant maroon coloration.

Mangave ‘Macho Mocha’ is one of the few larger succulents with significant maroon coloration.

There are larger succulents with maroon foliage. Some of our favorites are the Mangaves, thought to be crosses between Agave and Manfreda. ‘Macho Mocha’ is a stunner; it reaches 4-6′ across at maturity and its broad, strappy leaves are liberally peppered with deep, bronzy red.

Mangave 'Chocolate Chip' has distinctively wavy leaves.

Mangave ‘Chocolate Chip’ has distinctively wavy leaves, which contrast nicely with the other foliage.

There are several Mangave cultivars, ranging in size from the large ‘Macho Mocha’ to ‘Blood Spot’, which makes a compact rosette about a foot across. Most Mangave appear to be hardy to between 0-10 degrees, which make them, along with some Agave, among the most cold-tolerant succulents.

conifers, succulents

Aloe polyphylla, with its distinctive spiral leaves, stars in this bed, with Pinus strobus ‘Mini Twists’, Abies pinsapo ‘Horstmann’ and Cryptomeria japonica ‘Knaptonensis’ in the chorus. A string of Echeveria elegans rims the bed.

So what about cultural requirements? How can low-water succulents exist next to conifers and other woody plants, much less green lawn? Something isn’t right, right? Wrong! Firstly, most succulents need more water than is popularly supposed. While they can be classed a ‘low water’ plants, they are certainly not ‘no water’ plants. Those fleshy leaves store water but it needs to be replenished. The only tricky part is understanding what time of year each particular succulent grows, as this is when it needs the most water. Many are spring and summer growers; others, such as many Aloe, grow in winter months.

succulents

Graptoveria ‘Fred Ives’, which flourishes in very well-drained soil and is slightly frost-tender, is an excellent choice for a container, which can be placed amongst complementary foliage and moved to shelter during the coldest months.

Secondly, many conifers and woody plants can do with less, or at least less frequent, water than many perennials. The fussiest succulents–those that are frost-tender or require extremely well-drained soil–can be planted in containers which both allow for removal to shelter during winter and provide excellent drainage. However, it is perfectly possible to grow succulents near other plants simply by creating a mound made up of 1/2 soil and 1/2 a gritty substance such as lava pebbles. If the succulent is planted high up in such a mixture, it can receive the same amount and frequency of water as the other plants, and it will drain much more quickly.

Most succulents do not like to be cold and wet at the same time, a challenge for those in Mediterranean climates. Mounding with pebbles or judicious use of containers generally works to provide enough drainage for all but the fussiest plants. Planting next to a hardscape that warms quickly in winter sun can also create a more friendly microclimate.

Agave vilmoriana on a mound next to a flagstone patio.

Agave vilmoriana (appropriately called octopus!) on a mound next to a flagstone patio.

Fall is a great time to plant and winter a great time to ponder and plan. So when you are looking for the perfect plant for a particular spot, whether it is next to a spruce or a spirea, consider whether a succulent might fit the bill!

Succulents, conifers, woody foliage plants and grasses make a rich and varied foliage garden.

Succulents, conifers, woody foliage plants and grasses make a rich and varied foliage garden, with a broad range of colors, textures and forms.

 

 

 

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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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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.

conifers

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.

Note:

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.

 

 


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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.

rhododendron

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!

 


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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.

conifers, Conifer Kingdom, Rare Tree Nursery


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Brent Markus: Reigning at Conifer Kingdom

foliage plants, evergreens, pine trees

The Kingdom of Conifers at Rare Tree Nursery in Silverton, Oregon

One of the difficulties in creating a form and foliage garden is that most nurseries and garden centers play to the ‘perennialistas’, with a focus on flowering plants.  While there are some specialty nurseries with interesting selections of trees and shrubs, most garden-makers are relegated to shopping at the more mainstream spots where dwarf conifers, Japanese maples and the like are after-thoughts, if, indeed, thought of at all.  That’s just what Brent Markus, the wunderkind of the Oregon nursery world, aims to change.  We visited Brent a couple of weeks ago and he showed us around his kingdom. We are now loyal subjects!

Conifer Kingdom, Rare Tree Nursery, conifers, evergreens

Brent Markus (in the white shirt) treats us to a tour of his kingdom.

After mentoring by horticultural luminaries Henri Bort, Don Howse, Larry Stanley and Rich and Susan Eyre, Brent burst onto the scene in 2007 at the age of 24 when he bought Dick Haslebacher’s Woods Creek Horticultural in Salem, OR and started Rare Tree Nursery in Silverton.  Conifer Kingdom is the retail/mail-order arm of Rare Tree.  Brent oversees an operation that today is propagating roughly 700 different varieties of conifers, Japanese maples and Ginkgo—more than any other single supplier in the U.S.

conifers, evergreens, foliage plants

Rare Tree Nursery specializes in pines, fir, spruce, Ginkgo and Japanese maples.

For Brent, it’s all about quality and educating the customer, whether that means the wholesale buyer at the garden center or the retail consumer who orders on line.  He starts with high quality plants that are showcased in gorgeous website photography by employee Sam Pratt.  Brent has also developed distinctive and informative plant tags that provide planting and care instructions.

conifers, evergreen plants, foliage plants

Newly grafted plants sit in neat rows, until ready to be moved into larger containers.

Most high quality conifers and Japanese maples are propagated by grafting cultivated varieties onto durable rootstocks, in the same manner as roses.  Grafting is more expensive than growing from cuttings, but produces better plants. The quality at Rare Tree/Conifer Kingdom begins with their careful choice of understocks. Brent explains, ‘For example, with firs, we’ve used what we have experienced to be the best performing understock for a broad range of hardiness, heat and humidity, Abies bornmuelleriana, the Turkish fir.  However, this winter we’re starting to use Abies firma as our rootstock. We believe that this will even allow firs to excel in the heat and humidity of the Southeast. They’ve never been able to grow firs down there, but with Abies firma as the rootstock, there is a very good chance that they will thrive.’

conifers, evergreen shrubs

Rare Tree moves plants up into larger pots when root conditions require more space – a rarity in the nursery world.

The quality continues with the maintenance of the plants. Dick Haslebacher, who has remained with Rare Tree, is the nursery manager and in charge of quality control. It is Dick who carefully monitors which plants need to be potted up into larger pots and regularly culls the blocks of sub-standard individuals.  Brent notes that even though it raises the cost to repot plants into bigger pots and to discard some, it’s critical to ensure that the customers always receive high quality plants that meet Rare Tree’s standards.

conifers, Conifer Kingdom, Rare Tree Nursery

Larger specimens usually appeal to landscape designers and those who want immediate gratification.

‘We want to make interesting varieties available to the educated landscape designer and the forward thinking garden centers.  But there is only so much that they can carrry–they can’t carry 600 varieties of conifers! So for that market, we focus on a smaller number of varieties but in much greater numbers. For retail, we have a much broader offering, with some new cultivars that are hard to find, especially in many parts of the country.’

Rare Tree Nursery, Conifer Kingdom

Specimen conifers and maples in boxes designed for the garden center customers.

The garden centers can order their plants in attractive wooden boxes with the informative labels, giving them a distinctive look with more eye appeal. Brent’s idea is to focus on a key list of specific cultivars—similar to ‘Proven Winners’—that the garden centers can promote and that retail customers will gravitate to.

conifers, Conifer Kingdom, Rare Tree Nursery

Field grown conifers at the kingdom represent about 10% of the production.  That’s Picea omorika ‘Peve Tijn’ in front.

No small part of Brent’s success as a grower is that he is a credentialed designer and understands how to use plants in the landscape.  He sells most cultivars in several different sizes: ‘We have plants to fit every budget. If you’re a collector and your budget needs to accommodate a lot of different cultivars, we offer small sizes for you to buy and grow them on.  Or you can order a specimen from us in larger size.’

Pine trees, conifers, Rare Tree Nursery, Conifer Kingdom

Pinus x schwerinii ‘Wiethorst’ is available in three different sizes, as are many selections.

‘You can accomplish the same design no matter what size plant you order, it’s just a lot easier to visualize when the plants are bigger! The larger versions can be planted and mulched and they look great right away.’  When asked about the conventional wisdom of larger plants being difficult to transplant successfully, Brent responded that that is not a problem as long as you don’t buy large balled & burlapped specimens that aren’t properly root-pruned over a period of time.  ‘That’s one reason to buy larger plants from us where you will never encounter that problem, as we are vigilant about quality control. ‘

conifers, Rare Tree Nursery, Conifer Kingdom

Taxodium distichum ‘Secrest’ in a 65 gallon pot.  Imagine this next to a garden water feature!

Rare Tree also carries large, ‘specimen’ plants, some of which are mountain-dug.  All have unique shapes and character and each plant has an individual label; if you see a photo of a particular plant and order it, that is the exact plant that you will receive. The Taxodium pictured above, for example, is specimen #1468 and can be found on the website!

conifers, Conifer Kingdom, Rare Tree Nursery

The rows of plants create a rich tapestry of many colors and textures.

At this point we were confirmed believers and pleased to get such a detailed behind-the-scenes peek at how a high quality grower operates.  The rows and rows of specimens–75,000 retail-ready plants!–are gorgeous in their own right, like racks of paint samples, yarn or piece goods.  “But wait,’ said Brent, ‘there’s more!’ as he led us to a grouping of trees and shrubs of varying textures and colors.

Japanese maples, Rare Tree Nursery, Conifer Kingdom, foliage colors

The Acer shiraswanum ‘Autumn Moon’ draws attention with its brilliant golden foliage.

Brent is a practicing landscape architect as well as a nurseryman, with academic credentials in landscape design and horticulture.  He set out the grouping of plants pictured above to demonstrate the beauty of different colored foliage used in combination–not a hard sell with us!–and also to highlight power of yellow in the landscape.  The maple in the center of the photo is a brilliant chartreuse and gold, and draws the eye in, as do all lighter colors.  It ‘pops’ in the landscape and adds depth and interest.  The burgundy, blue and orange also augment the different shades of green, and the chartreuse Thjua plicata ‘Franky Boy’ in the foreground echoes the foliage of the maple.

Japanese maples, Conifer Kingdom, Rare Tree Nursery

The same grouping with the ‘Autumn Moon’ replaced by the green-leaved Acer palmatum ‘Autumn Fire’

In the photo above, the chartreuse-leaved ‘Autumn Moon’ and ‘Franky Boy’ have ben replaced with a green-leaved ‘Autumn Fire’ and Thuja plicata ‘Whipcord’.  Pretty, but nowhere near as exciting or interesting as the first grouping.  None of the other plants have been changed, and yet the burgundy and blue don’t seem as striking as they do in the first photo.  The lighter chartreuse livens up all of the plants around it.

Pine trees, conifers, Rare Tree Nursery, Conifer Kingdom

All pines are not created equal: the needles of P. x schwerinii ‘Wiethorst’, P. sylvestris ‘Aurea’ and P. strobus ‘Vercurve’ each have their own distinctive colors and textures.

So if you’re looking for interesting dwarf conifers, Japanese maples and Ginkgo to add beauty, texture and value to your landscape and you don’t have a good local source (or even if you do!), visit Conifer Kingdom.  This kingdom is not found in a fairy tale, it’s at www.coniferkingdom.com.  Order some trees and we think that everyone will live happily ever after!


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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!