The unusual: A Gothic garden, and beyond

Huchera ‘Onyx Odessey’

I’ve always been intrigued by black flowers. Many varieties of  black-flowering plants have flowers that are closer to intensely dark purple or aubergine.

My interest in black flowers started with limited varieties of bearded iris and tulips. They had dramatic names like Anvil of Darkness, Queen of the Night, Onyx Odyssey and Black Magic. When I was a kid, I was really excited about planting my first bearded iris, named ‘Superstition’. I’d spotted in a catalogue, and persuaded my mother to order it for me.  Because of its color, she (who liked traditional color palettes), considered it “gimmicky” — not be taken seriously.

The Gothic Garden

Black flowers make a statement. When designing a garden, the color black can be used much the same way that you use white.  Black dominates other colors, so it can be a dramatic way to set off other flowers and plants. But black can also blend beautifully. Try it with dusty shades of grey (like Licorice Plant), the smokey blues of lavenders, and deep shades of yellow.

Landscapes with black flowers make a statement. They can express the owner’s personality — and they don’t need to limit you. If you like change, different looks can be created by changing seasonal color or bulbs from year to year while keeping the black flowers constant. You employ black flowers in traditional or more edgy designs.

Recently, I had a request for such a garden design on a tiny city lot with lots of potential. Black flowers looked right at home framed by the grid of the black powder-coated iron fence that I designed for the small entry courtyard. Black pots pulled the theme together, drawing out different colors and textures — especially shades of lime green against the leaves of Black Magic Elephants Ear (Colocasia esculanta ‘Black Magic’).

The Unexpected

In the Pacific Northwest, we are blessed with a seemingly endless palette of plants that thrive. The same good design principles always apply, but the color and composition of a garden can vary widely. Garden design is like a work of art — you never know exactly how it will turn out until it’s completed.  Gardens are like living works of art that keep morphing and changing forever.

Let your garden be a reflection of your own creativity and an inspiration to others! Don’t hesitate to try something new and different — your garden starts with your ideas, even ones that you might not immediately know how to put into words.













Spring Flowering Bulbs by Design

About now the deciduous trees are coloring up nicely and the squirrels having been busy burying nuts (probably in your container gardens—just where you don’t want them) since last month. But, in my garden, it’s not officially fall until I can begin to plant spring-blooming bulbs. That’s usually about mid-October.

That is the perfect time to integrate bulbs in to my designs for clients. Interesting bulbs are readily available from suppliers, and it’s easy to dig. I also like to sneak bulbs into potted gardens to provide an early spring surprise after a long winter.

You’ll find a wide choice of bulbs to add color your spring garden. Snow drops (Galanthus) will bloom as early as late January and some varieties of tulips bloom as late as May. Allium finish blooming in June. If you plan well, choosing the right bulbs to create a sequence, you can enjoy a non-stop show from late winter through spring. This is not hard to do. Because different species of bulbs need to be planted at different depths, you can easily plant multiple types of bulbs in layers, in the ground or in large pots. I look forward to seeing masses of crocus, daffodils and narcissus that have naturalized and grown into tight clumps that get fuller by the year.

Keep in mind that some bulbs, such as tulips, aren’t as persistent — they may thrive for two or three years and then it will be time to plant more of them. There are also areas where I like start with a fresh palette each year. In the summer, when those bulbs are through, I give them to neighbors or plant them somewhere else.  I plant  summer blooming annuals in their place until it’s time to plant the newbulbs for the fall. (I’ll talk about seasonal color rotations in another blog post.)

Designing with Bulbs

For smaller gardens, try planting clumps of like varieties and complimentary combinations with varying heights. For larger gardens, a drift of all one type of bulb—in a single color—is stunning. On hillsides or woodland gardens, bulbs can be planted in bands to suggest the flow of a stream or in other patterns, such as sequences or gradations of color.

Some of my favorite bulbs include:

  • Tulipa batalinii ‘Bright Gem’, with its delicate sulphur-yellow petals blushed with warm orange
  • The ‘Black Parrot’ tulip—a velvety purple-black heirloom parrot tulip
  • Tulipa ‘Apricot Impression’—a  giant Darwin Tulip with smoldering tangerine-orange, nasturtium-red and pink persimmon with an interior yellow-edged black base
  • The ‘Pheasant’s Eye’ poeticus narcissus, with large, reflexed white petals and a small yellow cup edged in orange-red with a green eye

A cautionary note: Your bulbs will not do well in hard, compacted soil and will not tolerate muddy or saturated soil for any length of time. Some bulbs will do well in pots if the soil is light and the drainage is very good. Pots should be raised off surfaces with hidden feet or trivets to provide air circulation and drainage.

I hope these tips help keep you motivated to be out in yard as the weather turns cool or at least inspire you to go to your favorite nursery to see what’s available.

If you need help planning your fall garden or developing a comprehensive plan for your landscape, contact me for a design consultation. I’m always here to help and love to hear from you about your garden successes.

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Plan Your Perfect Garden Now

photo of bungalow with foliageAdmiring gardens at their summertime peak? Grab your camera. Now is the absolute best time to capture pictures of the gardens you love. Note the patios, the pathways and the layouts you’d like for your own garden.

  1. Trees. Note the ones with sizes and shapes that would work in your garden. Do you want filtered shade over your patio at this time of year? Look for trees with a vase shape that grow large enough to do the job and observe which plants are thriving and which plants are struggling beneath these trees, including grasses and ground covers. While we often ignore evergreens in the summer, this is the perfect time to check out which ones blend or contrast with the summer colors in your garden. Does a lone conifer look like someone forgot to remove the Christmas tree?  It might need companion plants around it. If a tree is out of scale, dwarfs the rest of the garden, or creates too much shade, think about replacing it with a more suitable tree or using its space in a completely different way.
  2. Shrubs. Look at shapes and foliage colors and keep an eye out for shrubs look gorgeous even in yards with brown lawns. Note which shrubs stay neat-looking and which rapidly overgrow their places in the landscape and threaten to take over a yard without constant pruning (these include some lilacs, camellias and rhododendrons.
  3. Perennials. Now is the time to scrutinize the ornamental grasses, rosemary, lavender, and large sage plants that are so popular for water-wise gardens. Observing them in summer will remind you that most of them need large amounts of space, even if the ones you plant in the spring start out tiny. If you see any of these looking too large and ragged, it may be because they are played out and need to be divided or replaced with new plants. Keep an eye out for plant combinations that are unusual or striking and could make beds more exciting.
  4. Foliage. Speaking of color, be aware of leaf color — the small, shiny dark green leaves of a box-leaf azara or the large leaves of a magnolia add very different notes to the garden than the icy blue sprays of an Arizona Cypress. Silver-blue shades impart a sense of coolness even on a hot, sunny day. If you are looking to brighten a shady spot in your garden, consider planting a tree with glossy leaves that reflect light, such as the Japanese Aucuba plant (Aucuba japonica).
  5. Styles and traditions. This is also a good opportunity to observe garden styles. Are you drawn to a sleek, modern look or something that has tropical feeling? The Windmill palm (Trachycarpus fortunei) fits right in around a tiled patio, but will it look out of place at your home. If you have full sun and good drainage in your garden, you might like a desert style, with lots of silver/gray foliage bordering a rustic stone pathway. A classic English cottage garden is lovely in summer, but can you tolerate the barren look during its dormant season. An edible garden is fun and can produce superior fruits, but do you have the soil, the sun exposure, the space and the inclination to take care of it all summer?

The key to successful garden design is getting a sense of your personal style before you meet with a designer or go plant shopping. Summer is the best time to “window shop” your neighborhood. Take pictures and make a “look book” of your favorite gardens. You’ll be glad you did when you sit down to plan your garden in March

For more information about garden planning, please contact us.

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 Gift of Color in a Winter Landscape

A garden is for all seasons, but it’s always possible to super-charge your landscape for your favorite season. For some people, it’s all about garden beds bursting with summer-blooming perennials (they can put up with barren-looking beds during the dormant season).

But winter interest will be a priority for you if you are fond of the way icicles glisten in the sun on a Red Twig Dogwood or the way snow on the branches of conifers lets the imagination see horticultural “caricatures.”

Coral Bark Maple

If winter is your favorite season, consider adding these plants to your garden:

  • Plants and trees with red bark. These include the Red Twig Dogwood (Cornus sericea ‘Cardinal’), the Coral Bark Maple (Acer palmatum ‘Sango Kaku’) and the Marina Strawberry Tree (Arbutus x ‘Marina’).
  • Colorful conifers. Consider the Blue Ice Arizona Cypress (Cupressus arizonica ‘Blue Ice’) and the Dwarf Golden Hinoki Cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Nana Lutea’).
  • Trees and plants that bloom in late winter. You might use the Witch Hazel (Hamamelis mollis sp.), the early blooming Hellebores (Lenten rose sp.) and the Winter Sun hybrid Oregon Grape (Mahonia x media ‘Winter Sun’).

It’s a bonus that most of these versatile plants can have a place in any garden.

Take a break from the holiday buzz to breathe in the clean winter air and take a look around your garden. Envision where you might like to give your landscape the gift of color.

— Season’s Greetings from Michael Muro Garden Design





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.