When next evaluating your garden in the crisp morning sun or warm evening glow, consider whether there is an opportunity for backlighting. The best lighting effects typically occur with either the early or late sun. When the rays hit a lower level they can light up any translucent plant from behind creating a gorgeous halo. In northern latitudes, the low winter sun can provide backlighting for a good portion of the day. Full sun is not always required for backlighting, filtered sun can also create a wonderful effect. If you study the space, with filtered light you can strategically place a plant to be the only one lit.
Once you determine whether you have the light, then set the stage with plants that will show off. Hands down, the best plants for backlighting are ornamental grasses. From blade to feather – they simply glow. Throw in a breeze and you have performance art. Beyond grasses, just about anything translucent will light up. Red leaved Acers and other similarly hued trees such as Cercis canadensis ‘Forest Pansy’ and Cotinus coggygria ‘Grace’ create a particularly stunning effect with several warm shades defining the canopy. Even some of the small chocolate colored Phormium like ‘Jack Spratt’ look fabulous when back lit. Bulbs such as tulips look lit from within.
When designing a garden, I always look for an opportunity to backlight plants. Its one of the many ways to make a space magical.
Acer palmatum ‘Fireglow’ is well named
Sesleria autumnalis lights up while Phormium ‘Jack Spratt’ steals the show
Filtered late afternoon sun creates a spotlight with the nearly white Miscanthus sinensis ‘Variegatus’
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Designing & installing a garden is a birth of sorts. I just returned from Los Angeles and wrapping up phase 3 of my parents’ gardens. This time we tackled the final frontier: the beds on either side of the driveway and a small side courtyard. Near the driveway, we wanted a drought tolerant, easy-care and minimalist plant palette that still maintained a natural feel. We first set boulders and sited a large specimen fruitless olive (Olea europaea ‘Fruitless’). Powder blue agave (Agave ovatifolia ‘Frosty Blue’) provide a repeated sculptural form. The agave are interplanted with soft masses of the work horse ornamental grass for the coastal west – Sesleria autumnalis. Accents of the restio Chondropetalum elephantinum provide vertical interest and movement. A few nearly black Aeonium arboreum ‘Zwartkop’ and soft yellow Yucca ‘Bright Star’ spice up the color while CA native Verbena lilacina ‘De La Mina’ creates a natural looking backdrop with a long bloom season. Masses of Senecio mandraliscae edge the drive. All plants are drought tolerant in this maritime climate. Looks a bit anemic in the below photo – but those plants need space! As things fill in, ground covers can be added to take up the slack, though this planting will be quite dense over time.
Now on to the more mature stuff. I was very pleased to see the completed gardens (phase 1 & 2) filling in and looking lovely. See my prior entry for more on the design and installation of these gardens – Keeping it in the Family. The meadow garden heads into year 3 this summer while the entrance courtyard is at about 8 months. Still plenty o’ room for things to stretch their legs, which is important if you don’t want to be making heartbreaking decisions a few years down the road (first year it sleeps, second year it creeps, third year it leaps). If any of these plants look enticing – keep in mind that much of this would not survive a frost. Their typical winter lows do not dip much below 40 as they are near the ocean (Sunset Zone 24).
Just a few photos to share now – can’t wait to see it grow up!
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Pounding rain greeted us in Los Angeles this year – even stranger since we left sunny skies in Seattle. Same thing when we flew out – a monsoon in LA…sun in Seattle. Bizarre.
Record rainfall in Southern California has wreaked havoc, however the dry garden I designed over the summer is doing very well – albeit quite wet right now. Soil improvement prior to planting has paid off by aiding drainage around the succulents, and everything is looking wonderful.
Six months old…
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Rounded boulders, stone walls and meadow plantings feel as if they have always been a part of this old orchard
Much of my design work is on Bainbridge Island – an isle off Seattle with rolling hills, open meadows, grassy beaches and quiet forests. I consider myself fortunate to work in a beautiful environment where each project offers a unique setting. A pastoral feel prevails, whether a forested or open site. In an urban setting, almost anything goes with the city as backdrop, whereas a rural environment requires a different approach. I have found that the most moving gardens respect the surrounding landscape. These gardens are authentic.
If you are in a forest with towering conifers and primal ferns, a sweet cottage garden probably will feel out of place as would a sunny Mediterranean look. Imagine a mass of lavender stuck below a towering Western red cedar. Even if you have enough sun, this is not the best look. This does not mean that in a forested environment you are limited to hostas and hellebores. A shady, coniferous environment is great for introducing unique and eclectic plants from other forested regions as it already feels otherworldly. On the other hand, an environment such as a sunny glade is perfect for prairie perennials and sun-loving ornamental grasses swaying in the breeze, evoking a meadow. In both cases, plants that may not be quite spot on for the actual environment can work wonderfully as long as the overall setting is respected and echoed in the garden, and they are the right plants for the conditions available.
When it comes to architecture, I diverge. Beyond scale, mass, color and all the functional issues to consider in a garden, there also is the architectural style of adjacent structures. Here is where I find it more interesting to marry opposites. For instance, softening modern architecture with a naturalistic style or updating traditional architecture with a minimalist planting.
Gardens are human constructs, yet we can take cues from our surroundings to create with authenticity. The best gardens feel effortlessly in step with their setting.
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Posted in garden design, ornamental grasses, tagged Acorus gramineus 'Ogon', Anemanthele lessoniana, Deschampsia cespitosa 'Goldtau', Festuca glauca 'Elijah Blue', Hakonechloa macra 'Aureola', Miscanthus sinensis 'Adagio', Miscanthus sinensis 'Morning Light', Molinia caerulea 'Variegata', ornamental grasses on 2010/01/06 |
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Like many gardeners, I am a plantaholic. While I try to plan before I buy, I am not always immune to the charms of plants. Sometimes fall prey to the outstanding beauty or unique nature of a certain plant then work to find a home in my garden. In fact, I have been guilty of completely redoing an entire bed to design around a plant. Despite this, I need to keep the garden looking good year round and my beds are also stuffed with dependable friends. With the motto that it is best to test things in my garden before a client’s, I try a variety of plants. Then, I cull what I think are the best.
Below is the first installment of my picks. I’ll start with my favorite group, ornamental grasses. I could design entire gardens with grasses, their seasonal color, movement and grace is unmatched. Every garden should have several. Some of these are quite ordinary, however I have found if you fill your garden with many dependable performers, then save a little room for the unique (read: needy), you can be a collector, yet still have a well designed garden.
- Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’ – There are a few cultivars, but I always select ‘Aureola’ which has a fine line down the blades that gives the grass more definition. Cascading over a path, a rock or massed in a group - this one is dependable, low maintenance and breathtaking. Slowly expands to a larger clump. Prefers some shade and does need regular moisture. Also prefers humus rich soil. Pairs beautifully with the black heucheras such as ‘Obsidian’. In sun, it will bleach a little lighter - but this color effect is beautiful too. Herbaceous.
- Molinia caerulea ‘Variegata’ – Another light colored grass for those damp areas, however don’t put it in the shade – this one needs sun or it fades away. The purplish-bronze inflorescence in late summer are outstanding – better when positioned for back or spotlighting with the late afternoon sun. Herbaceous.
- Miscanthus sinensis ‘Adagio’ and ‘Morning Light’ – There are so many Miscanthus to choose from, however many will flop on you later in the season if not given perfect conditions…and in my eyes – nothing is worse than a grass that has opened up and is rudely smothering its neighbors or sprawling over a path. I love to use them for form and movement, but I stick to these two for dependable upright habit, coupled with good color effects. ‘Adagio’ stays shorter, has a fine white stripe down each blade and bronze inflorescence in late fall. ‘Morning Light’ provides a punch of white – like a beacon of light but often will not flower until the clump is mature. Thin blades keep this grass upright and strong. Both need as much sun as possible to reach peak performance. ‘Morning Light’ is a little slower to fill out, so if you want immediate impact, invest in a little bigger specimen at purchase (#3 or #5). Not always easy to find these sizes – but Wells Medina seems to carry them in the bigger grasses. Herbaceous.
- Anemanthele lessoniana – Still included, despite its marginal hardiness here in the Pacific Northwest. Winter 08-09 did some significant damage to these – especially ones already hampered by poor drainage. Regardless, what else gives you this effect? You might say Carex testacea…but I would argue in favor of Anemanthele any day – especially with that foamy pink inflorescence….wow. Lots of sun, and drier conditions seem to keep these guys happy. A protected position also helps keep them looking good. If there is too much die back after winter, cut back to the ground well after the last frost in spring. Better yet, give them a good clean up in spring by raking out the dead bits. With the orange color effects, I love to pair these with blues. Semi-evergreen.
- Deschampsia cespitosa ‘Goldtau’ – Many deschampsia are not stocked at retail nurseries – primarily because they don’t show well in the pots. Are they worth it? Take a look at Piet Oudolf’s work. Get these guys in the ground and you will not be disappointed. ‘Goldtau’ has attractive, dark olive, semi evergreen foliage that sticks around through winter (and looked great after the last winter with all the snow). Then, in mid summer, masses of foamy gold seed heads coat the plant. Needs some moisture like all deschampsia. Best in a mass – even better back lit. Semi-evergreen.
- Festuca glauca ‘Elijah Blue’ – In the wrong position, this grass looks terrible – sulky and anemic. Put this pup in your tough hot and dry positions and it will thrive with splendor. Very little else will give you this ice blue color – plant in trios or masses for best effect. A good combing each spring keeps the thatch out. I love it with the smaller, deep burgundy barberry like Berberis thunbergii var. atropurpurea ‘Concorde’. Evergreen.
- Acorus gramineus ‘Ogon’ – OK – not a grass, but everyone thinks this is a grass and it looks like a grass so I include it here. It is actually an evergreen perennial. Outstanding chartreuse evergreen foliage brightens shade. Takes sun in stride too – but does need moisture. Great for edging ponds or creating a watery effect. One down side to these that I sadly learned this year – voles love them as much as I do; specifically their fleshy roots. I had a magnificent full stand that was devastated by these little monsters, and I have not had much luck with the ultrasonic devices. I refuse to bait because of the impact on the food chain (e.g. – vole dies in forest and eaten by larger animal that then gets sick too). Not above trapping and relocating to another part of our property…
- Pennisetum setaceum ‘Rubrum’ - Sadly an annual here in the Pac NW (hardy to about 40 degrees), mature stands are ubiquitous in warmer climes. This is a fine looking grass with soft, fluffy seed heads that look fabulous in pots or beds. Purchase a larger one for the best summer show. You will find that you want one in the garden every year.
That’s it for part 1. Up next – dwarf conifers. Forget about the swathes of junipers overused in the 1970s – there is so much more out there now…
Molinia caerulea 'Variegata'
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