Watering the Garden: You Can Relax this Summer

Right now it’s hard to imagine that the super-saturated ground in the Seattle area will ever dry out. But it will, and quickly — remember last summer? It doesn’t take long once the dry season comes. And the last few years, we have even been surprised by some hot days early in the season.

If you are not into watering by hand and have ruled out automated watering — or if you simply want to conserve natural resources — you’ll need to:

  1. Start with the right plants
  2. Use water efficiently

At the peak of summer, few gardens can get by without some supplemental watering (the exceptions being certain types of plants and trees that are very well established, or a rock garden).

Look at the lawn

Let’s start by drought-proofing your lawn. Grass is an expensive ground cover, and if it’s not watered and maintained, it’s a brown eyesore for months. Think about replacing that lawn with a stepable ground cover or drought-tolerant succulents.  Most are very easy to grow and many can also handle soggy Northwest winters.

Drought-tolerant plants, native and non-native

When looking at drought-tolerant plants for the garden, it’s easy to get bogged down in plant selection. Northwest native plants might sound like a good choice. They are already adapted to this climate and can survive a short dry spell. However, our yards aren’t much like the environments where these plants naturally occur, so there is no guarantee of success. And, sad to say, most native plants don’t offer much in the way of “eye candy” in the summer garden. If you are a purist and want a native plant garden, you will find a long list of easy-to-grow plants — just don’t demand too much of them in the way of appearance.

If you add drought-tolerant plants that are non-natives into the mix, you’ll find there are a lot more possibilities. Colorful perennials, plants with interesting leaves, bark, and fall color are readily available. You can see examples of this type of garden, mixing native and non-native plants, in my online Portfolio.

Previous Design Tips blog posts talk about my top picks for plants, shrubs, and trees that do well in the Pacific Northwest.

Designing the water-wise garden

Working with plants on a regular basis for years, I’ve learned what conditions they need to thrive in our region. This helps me decide what plants to use for any application — and, just as importantly, what plants not to use.

Once the framework for a garden design starts to take shape, then plant selection is an important part of making the landscape work. That’s when considerations like ease of maintenance and drought tolerance come into play. But keep in mind that there are many other criteria that influence what type of plants will thrive in your garden, especially in a sunny Northwest summer.

Call us  for a consultation to discuss garden enhancements, landscape renovations and sustainable gardens.














Hedging Your Bets

Deciduous grasses are an uncommon seasonal hedge, certainly not a traditional one.

What is a hedge?

By definition, a hedge is “a fence or boundary formed by closely growing shrubs.”

During wintertime, we are more aware of hedges. Usually evergreen, they dominate the barren landscape when there’s not much else happening. The rest of the year they fade into the background, serving as backdrop for a more interesting garden display.

Because hedges are usually repetitive and often made up of tightly formed geometric shapes, they create a green wall — especially in contrast with a garden that has a more natural feel. If you want to soften a hedge, choose plants with a more natural growth habit. For this, Myrica californica, Laurus noblis or even great perennial grasses need only some shaping and thinning to stay in check.

Can a “hedge” be used as a landscape feature, not just a boundary?

English gardens provide some of the best lessons in using a hedge as a feature. Hedges serve as the walls of an outdoor room. This can be very effective on a large piece of property, such as in estate. A hedged area can provide intimacy and “people scale” or it can be used to define and contain a perennial or vegetable garden.

Low hedges (the obvious example being Buxus sempirvirens, the boxwood) will create a border to contain a garden bed and keep a clean edge and tidy appearance around otherwise floppy perennials, as well as provide structure in the winter.

Only in Japanese gardens can one get away with pruning Azaleas into a hedge or mounded drift. Pruned carefully and at the right time of year, Azaleas are solidly covered by flowers and a quite stunning sight. However, taken out of context —outside a formal Japanese setting — too many Azaleas can be problematic.

Keep in mind that your hedges do not have to be at the borders of the property.  They can define space within a space, mark an entry or be juxtaposed with one another in modern planes creating an interesting interplay of light and shadow — think Stonehenge in England.

How do you choose shrubs for a hedge?

Before buying hedge plants, carefully consider the finished height and width you would like to obtain. Consider the site and growth rate along with the size the plants will achieve in ten years.

Beware the conifer Cedrus leylandii — it is rarely used properly for hedges, and after a few years it turns into a monster that can no longer be pruned to size (plus it has dead growth at the base, just where you don’t want it). If you use it in the city, be prepared to remove and replant shrubs every several years. This plant is better off bordering a field or rolling estate lawn, where it can be allowed to grow without pruning. I advise spending a little more up front and buying a conifer that won’t grow so quickly. Taxus bacatta, commonly called a yew, is a good choice. It grows slowly, but its rich green foliage keeps a pleasing shape. Buy plants big, plant them closer together, and you’ll get the look and size you want without the bother of overgrowth later.

I have designed both tiny gardens and estate gardens with hedges, and the principles of good design hold true for both. Contact us to talk about the best plant for your hedge and how to use hedges in innovative ways.









The White Party

Looking for a crisp, clean alternative to traditional holiday decor? Consider white, symbolizing peace, harmony and clarity. It’s hard to go wrong with white for the winter season, inside or out (unless you use cotton-candy-like fake snow, but we won’t go there).

How does this relate to landscape design? In garden design, white is also a distinctive choice. White is popular for themed gardens and for what are called moonlight gardens (with lighting, and silver and grey foliage). Moonlight gardens radiate from dusk until late, and are particularly striking on starry summer nights when skies are clear. Viewing from a deck or patio is a moving experience.

If you are looking for variety in your garden, try using white annuals and other plants with white flowers for a year or two. White is also a good rotational color for seasonal annuals and potted gardens. Consider the subtle peaceful garden that relies on shades and textures of green with small white flowers and white variegation for a clean and simple look.

A garden experiment

Several years ago, when I moved into a new house, I demolished the existing backyard garden. In its place I envisioned a serenity garden that also provided privacy from neighbors. I zealously designed a landscape featuring white annuals, white rhododendrons, white hydrangeas and, of course, white spring-blooming bulbs. But my dedication didn’t last. After the second season, I lost interest, realizing I could not be limited by an all-white palette. I missed color, so my white garden involved into a warm jeweled-tone palette vaguely reminiscent of a Mediterranean-style landscape, using plants that thrive in the Pacific Northwest’s micro-climates. But I enjoyed the experiment and I still drool over a friend’s ever-changing, white-themed small city garden — especially the well-established sheets of white floribunda climbing roses and clematis draped over classical trellises and arbors.

If you are not ready for an all-white garden, consider the impact that white flowers can add to your landscaping, whether you love color or embrace a more reserved palette. For instance, the pure white flowers of the compact and reliable hybrid ‘Gumpo White’ Azalea and demure perennials like white astilbe and helleborus lend themselves to accent hues like blue, violet, soft yellow and light purple. Not sure where to start? Consider working with a designer. An experienced landscape designer is well trained in color theory and knows how colors relate. They can talk with you about the impact of color and give you some options to consider.

Call us for a consultation to discuss design options for garden enhancements, landscape renovations and sustainable gardens.







The Beauty of Repetition in the Garden

Deciduous grasses

A riotous landscape packed with color and texture stimulates the eye, activates the senses and makes one feel alive.

That’s why I like to offer my clients many stylistic options when we start the design process for a new or soon-to-be-renovated landscape. After listening to their preferences, I then see which ideas can be blended into a garden that suits the setting. For a quiet back yard retreat I would make different recommendations than I would for a colorful front yard border for curb appeal.

One style element that I enjoy working with is repetition — using masses of single plant or just a few varieties of plants. I find that repetition creates a calming and peaceful effect. And who doesn’t need that after the stresses of a long day?

Repetition can take many forms. For a softer, more relaxed feel, I might suggest relying on shades of greens and a soft palette that includes pale blues, white and lavenders. This creates a visual foundation that slows the eye and gives a feeling of groundedness and security.

Here are some ideas for putting repetition to work in the garden:

• Mass plantings around a focal point such as a plant, tree or potted garden. This has the effect of creating a foundation for the main event.

• Use evergreens in repetition to create structure in the winter garden and provide a backdrop for winter blooming plants and bulbs.

• Create solid borders of a single blooming plant, perennial or annual, running along a garden bed or path. This pulls the eye forward to the path’s destination. (Think of a multitude of yellow roses on a wall, or sweeping bands of deciduous grasses. You get the idea.) The impact of a single vision of one color — white Mophead Hydrangeas, for instance — can be at once stunning and serene.

Planting bulbs? Think repetition.

Fall is here and it’s time for planting bulbs. Mass plantings of bulbs can be very effective whether they are contrasting colors or a single favorite hue. Since different types of bulbs bloom at different times, you can plant layers of bulbs that will bloom in sequence as spring goes on. Snowdrops bloom as early as January and Allium bulbs bloom in late May or early June here in the Pacific Northwest, taking your landscape right up to the point where summer perennials burst into bloom.

Happy planting!

Call us for a consultation to discuss design options for garden enhancements, landscape renovations and sustainable gardens.









A Step Toward Sustainability


“Sustainable gardening” is a term that has no technical definition. It’s more of a concept: gardening using practices that cause no harm to the earth and its inhabitants.

A sustainable landscape or property is an ecosystem of sorts. If you’re starting a new garden, it’s easy to be a purist about creating a sustainable landscape. It’s trickier if you try to apply the same principles to an existing garden that was created without a plan for sustainability. But no matter what the type or the history of your garden, there are always steps you can take to move toward a sustainable landscape.

For instance, stop using chemical pesticides and fertilizers. That’s a very basic move in the right direction.

After that, evaluate your mature landscape and see if you can reduce the amount of water your plants require to thrive. Are your trees and plants in the right locations? Check the native soil type and the existing sun exposure. Most gardens have shady and sunny spots, and plants that need more moisture may be happier in areas with at least partial shade. With that goal in mind, consider if your existing plants are grouped by their moisture needs. You might need to move some plants.

Fine-tune and adapt your existing watering habits. When you do water your garden, you can do it by zone. That avoids wasting water by watering all areas equally, regardless of their need. Go a step further by regrouping or even removing plants to take advantage of your plan for watering zones.

Keep in mind that urban and suburban gardens are man-made environments. There are special challenges to keeping plants healthy and attractive under these conditions, so planning is important.

Call us for a consultation to discuss options for enhancements, renovations and sustainability in your garden.


Paradise in July

So much is happening in the July garden that’s it’s difficult to focus on a single plant to report on. So this month I’ll talk about one the foundations of landscape planning: hardscapes. A “hardscape” is a level, two-dimensional hard surface that covers the ground. In other words: driveways, walkways, and patios.

When planning a garden—or renovating an existing one—hardscape is one of the first things we look at. Perhaps the most popular garden hardscape project is a patio, so we’ll consider that example.

Patio design

When planning a patio, you want to determine the best location, size, and shape. Consider these factors:

  • where your garden gets sunlight at various times of the day
  • how you want to use the hardscape space for entertaining or recreation
  • what views you want to enjoy from the patio

Make notes so we can accommodate, or at least prioritize, the most important factors. If you are replacing an existing patio, make note of its appearance (such as wear or damage) and any drainage issues that might have come up during the winter and spring. The more you are aware of possibilities (and problems) the better prepared you are to make design choices.

Stone, pavers, concrete — and more

The next step is to look at materials. Consider your budget, your planting plan, and any structures you plan to add as part of the project. Materials for hardscapes include natural stone, tile, pavers, and aggregate—as well as modern solutions such as concrete. There are many choices, each with benefits and limitations. A qualified garden designer can help you evaluate all your options.

Summer is a great time to start planning for a new patio. Renovation of existing hardscape, or construction of new hardscapes, can be done year ’round (except when the ground is frozen or exceptionally muddy). Plan now, and you could enjoy a more attractive garden next summer.

Call today for a consultation to discuss options for enhancements, renovations and materials for your new hardscape.







Seattle’s June Blooms

Deciduos and Evergreen Azaleas.

What blooms when? The bloom times of some plants are predictable, while others vary year to year based on winter conditions and early spring temperatures. It’s no secret we’ve had a lot of late sleepers this spring. Maybe the plants, like many people, are just confused by changing and fluctuating weather patterns in general.

As a native of Seattle, I can’t remember a May as cold as this year’s. However, bulbs bloomed like clockwork and the cool weather preserved the blooms for longer than normal. In fact, I’ve never seen the bounty of tulip blooms I have the last couple of months. On the other hand, most rhododendrons have been late to flower.

Take heart. Most plants will have “caught up” by June, a month that never disappoints, whatever the weather conditions.

During June expect the late rhododendrons and azaleas to make a show along with many varieties of iris, budding allium, and other ornamental onions. Perennials will begin to flower when the temperatures warm up this month (some are in full bloom now). And flowering trees, which began in January with witch hazel, include late varieties that are still blooming in June.

When designing a garden, you want to think about bloom sequence. June, with so much going on in the garden, is a good time to examine which of your blooming plants compliment one another. When you evaluate your garden, pay attention to color combinations. Contrast size and textures of adjacent blooming plants. In nature almost all colors can look good side by side, but like paint, the right shades and combination can make a dramatic statement.

See color combinations you love or hate? Remember that most plants can be moved (or replaced) if next year you’d prefer to see a different palette. When you are examining your garden blooms, don’t forget to take into account the color and textures of foliage. You can fill in with annuals, too. Early June is a great time to plant annuals. As soon as there is enough sun to provide warmth, they’ll grow fast and full.

June here is Seattle is typically still cool and wet enough for planting. You’ll find that nurseries have their best selection of plants right now. So don’t procrastinate, plant a garden today!

For help with all types of garden planning, landscape design and successful plants for your garden, contact us.






May Plant Of The month

For May we’d like to introduce you to Styrax obassia, the Fragrant Snowbell tree. In the same family as the better-known Styrax japonica (the Japanese Snowbell Tree), it shares some of the prominent characteristics like the white bell-shaped flowers and a graceful silhouette. Otherwise, the Styrax obassia is has some noteworthy characteristics of its own that make it a sophisticated choice for your garden.

The Fragrant Snowbell is perfect for a city garden, topping out about 25- feet tall over many years. Although I have never seen one that large, it is a manageable size that grows moderately slowly and can be kept more compact with careful pruning. However, careless or unskilled pruning can lead to misshapen growth that will ruin the natural form of the tree. It’s a good idea to take classes on pruning, learn about it on line, or hire a qualified professional.

What to consider when planting Styrax obassia

Styrax obassia should not be cramped. Position it as a focal tree. If you up-light it you can enjoy it in the winter, too. Tolerant of soil conditions, it does best in average soil and should not be fertilized—you want to avoid weak, fast growth that can look awkward and out of character with its natural growth pattern. Plant it out of hot afternoon sun, as it is prone to burning—especially if it does not receive sufficient moisture. With its large (over 6-inch wide) ovate leaves and lively bright green color the Fragant Snowbell stands out beautifully among more finely textured foliage in the surrounding garden. The Fragrant Snowbell is not picky, but it sure looks exotic.

To learn more about garden planning, landscape design and successful plants for your garden, contact us.




March Plant Of The Month: Lavender

Lavender and other drought-tolerant plants create a casual border. A garden in the Greenlake neighbor in Seattle.

While we might think of Lavender as a common plant, it has some uncommon uses for landscaping.

A little background: Lavendula is the Latin genus referring to Lavender. There are about 39 recognized species of the Lavender plant. Countless variations are available as a result of cross-pollination of those species.

In other words there are many, many Lavender to choose from for your garden.

Lavender makes great informal borders (not hedges) that can be shaped as needed. Drifts created with like varieties look amazing. Or you can put together a collection of special varieties for an easy-going garden tapestry. Of course, Lavender is a standby for container arrangements with other sun-loving plants, annuals or herbs.

In summer, Lavender flowers attract lots of happy honeybees—so planting Lavender is a great way to support our threatened communities of bees. Unlike the aggressive wasps and hornets that come to crash your outdoor picnics, honeybees are peaceful and will sting only if they are startled by rapid movements. Bees keep to themselves and have no interest in our foods. You can happily work among the bees if you are trimming your Lavender on a sunny afternoon.

Note that Lavender is a great drought-tolerant plant and thus perfect for any waterwise and/or sustainable landscape.

In Pacific Northwest gardens, location is key. Lavender needs full sun and good drainage. Once well rooted, Lavender rarely needs supplemental water and is not picky about soil conditions. In fact, rich, moist soils may cause misshapen plants with few flowers and leggy growth. Lavender does not need fertilizer, either. Nutrient-rich soils may cause rapid, weak growth.

If you are looking for a tidy appearance, consider the dwarf varieties of Lavender (less than 18″ wide at maturity). They stay compact, making them perfect for city gardens that might be overwhelmed by full-size varieties that can reach four feet across.

My favorite dwarf Lavenders include:

Wee One Dwarf English Lavender (Lavendula angustifolia ‘Wee One’)—A compact plant that grows only 12″ high and sports an abundance of blue flower spikes.

Thumbelina Leigh Dwarf English Lavender (Lavendula angustifolia ‘Thumbelina Leigh’)—A robust grower to 15″ high with plump lavender-blue flowers and a strong, sweet fragrance.

Lusko’s Dwarf Spanish Lavender (Lavendula stoechas ‘Lusko’s Dwarf’)—Grows to only 12″ with fragrant foliage and thick, deep lavender-purple flowers.

Want to do something special with Lavender or other drought-tolerant plants in your landscaping? We can help. To learn more about garden planning, landscape design and successful plants for your garden, contact us.





Late-Winter Garden Design Checklist

Witch hazel, Hellebore and Sweet Box are blooming

Some of my favorite times to get outdoors are clear, brisk winter days. For avid gardeners there is is plenty to do when the rain stops.

Bu, if you’d rather stay indoors, there is much to do on the planning front. Late winter is a good time to take inventory of your garden and see what might make it more appealing at this time next year. Winter is also a great time to get a start on those design projects that seem to stay on your list year after year.

Here are some things to consider as you do your late-winter planning:

  • Screening and privacy: Do you have enough when your deciduous trees lose their leaves?
  • Circulation: Are pathways in the best location?  Is it easy to walk the whole garden and keep your feet dry?
  • Structure: Are garden focal points positioned for views inside the house, too?
  • Color: Do perennial borders need something additional for winter interest?
  • Moisture control: Look for standing water and muddy areas that don’t seem to drain all winter. Pay attention to annoying wet spots 
and make decisions about drainage issues so they can be resolved in drier months during landscape construction or as part of other summer gardening projects.

For these and other landscape planning questions, contact us for a design consultation. We can provide insight into the best options for your garden.