Wintertime: Light, Art, and Landscape Design

When planning outdoor spaces, light is a primary consideration that informs the design process.

Carsten’s Wintergold Mugo Pine

From an aesthetic viewpoint, good lighting serves to highlight the garden’s focal points and accentuate garden features. Good lighting can also be a safety consideration—it enables you to navigate the garden at night.

The availability of natural light during the day and from season to season is a key factor in garden design. Sunlight, partial sun, and shade will determine which plants you select and the roles they’ll play in the overall plan of the garden.

I also consider light in landscape design in a more abstract way—the effects created by natural light and how to leverage them when planning a garden. In comparison to the rest of the year, wintertime landscapes may seem spartan. However, when the angle of the sun is low, shapes, shadows, and silhouettes created by trees, shrubs, and garden features add interest and dimension to outdoor spaces.

During wintertime, deciduous trees are no longer obscured by foliage and more light comes through their canopies. The architecture of branching patterns and texture of bark is revealed by sunshine and by light that reflects off the snow. That’s why the peeling cinnamon-color bark of Acer griseum (Paperbark Maple) brings such warmth to a garden on a chilly day. At night, trunks and branches illuminated by moonlight or frosted by snow create dramatic patterns against the nighttime sky.

Although most conifers (shrubs and trees that produce cones) are green, variations available in nurseries include an array of colors, shades, and variegation. For example, Carsten’s Wintergold Mugo Pine (Pinus mugo Carsten’s Wintergold) reflects light when it turns bright gold during winter. By contrast, conifers with dark green needles, including many conifers trees native to the Pacific Northwest (such as the Douglas Fir), absorb light and recede into the background on dark winter days. They become essential structural elements that form the backbone of a garden. Throughout the year, these dark conifers will contrast with showy seasonal plants. That’s why the fine texture and rich greens of the genus Taxus (Yew) look consistently elegant as a background plant, hedge, or foundation planting.

Are you inspired by what lighting can do and what you can do with lighting? Now is the time to consider changes and improvements to your garden in time for spring 2022.

If you’re looking for more ideas, please contact me for a design consultation to learn about landscape design or how to maximize the impact of plantings for any spot in your garden.

Happy Holidays

Another year has quickly passed and I have many things to be grateful for, not the least of which are the amazing clients I work with and the projects we complete.

Although I always have a strong vision, it is rewarding to see my designs come, quite literally, to life. The creative process feeds my soul. So I say a heartfelt “thank you” to clients, vendors, laborers, and contractors—everyone who plays a part in this exciting and very satisfying work.

I appreciate your business and referrals.

Have a Joyous and Happy New Year.

Sincerely,

Michael Muro

Designing With Deciduous Trees

Hamamelis x intermedia in late January

November is one of the a best times of year to plant deciduous trees. Even after their leaves are gone, trees with interesting bark stand out, adding new interest to the winter garden. Many deciduous trees also bloom in early spring, before most other flowering plants—a welcome sight after a long winter.

The Witch Hazel (Hamamelis) is adorned with a profusion of delicate, fluffy flowers in late winter making it one the first deciduous trees to bloom in the Pacific Northwest. The brilliant sunshine-yellow flowers of the Arnold Promise Witch Hazel (Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Arnold Promise’) turn up as early as January to glow against a backdrop of snow.

The peeling cinnamon-brown branches of the Paperbark Maple (Acer griseum) pop when set against a backdrop of the cool Blue Ice Arizona Cypress (Cupressus arizonica var. glabra ‘Blue Ice’) or the Donard Gold Monterey Cypress (Cupressus macrocarpa ‘Donard Gold’). The exotic-looking bright green trunks of Acer davidii (Snakebark Maple) have off-white striations that catch the winter light, especially against a backdrop of contrasting branches and foliage. Cornus alba ‘Sibirica’ (Red Twig Dogwood) is a bush that features tight clumps of vertical coral-red branches that stand out during the wintertime when they are in full view. A red twig has the most impact when planted in masses as a background plant, allowing it to visually recede during the times of year when it looks uninteresting.

The bare trunks and branches of deciduous trees cast dramatic shadows in the low winter sun. You can get a similar effect by lighting them from below or stringing them with delicate white holiday lights. On a large property, plant deciduous trees in groves for a dramatic affect. For courtyards or in-city patios, use one tree in a planter to create a focal point. Pair with early blooming bulbs such as Galanthus (snowdrop) and perennial Helleborus for bright spots of color that relieve the post-holiday doldrums.

Here’s a hardscaping tip: If a stone patio or walkway is part of your winter garden plan, considering incorporating silvery quartzite that sparkles as it reflects light. You might not be spending much time outdoors this winter, but being able to look out the window and see an inspirational winter garden can lift the spirits even on the darkest days.

If you’re looking for more ideas, please contact me for a design consultation to learn about landscape design or the best plants for any spot in your garden.

Using Evergreens to Extend Fall Color

No matter how you feel about the transition to fall, the unmistakably rich hues of our autumn foliage are something to look forward to.

Elaeagnus pungens ‘Maculata’

Though deciduous trees have lost their leaves and winter is on its way, there are still many plants that can brighten your garden with colorful foliage. You don’t have to wait for the first blooms of snowdrops and hellebores to appear in late winter and early spring.

There are two categories of plants that will add colorful foliage to a winter garden: conifers (plants with needles and cones) and broad-leaf evergreens (plants that keep their leaves year ’round). Of course, these plants add depth to your garden during all the seasons, but when flowering plants and deciduous trees are dormant, these become important players and move onto center stage. Whether positioned en masse as a backdrop or at the forefront of a planting, colorful foliage provides contrast, supporting the rich shades of deep green in the surrounding plants and trees. And, if you add strategic lighting, you can brighten even the shortest day and darkest winter night.

Here are a few plants that will lighten up your garden this fall and winter.

Buxus sempervirens ‘Variegata’ (Variegated English Boxwood) has dramatic fine-textured foliage with creamy yellow margins that contrasts well with other darker green foliage. This boxwood can be grown as a clipped or unclipped specimen, suitable for use as a hedge, or a focal plant in a container garden, or repeated in a symmetrical composition. A versatile plant, it’s easy to grow in a variety of conditions.

Choisya ternata ‘Sundance’ (Sundance Mexican Orange) produces bold yellow-green new growth that matures to a vibrant grass-green. This bright foliage creates dynamic combinations with other colorful foliage such as blue, gray, burgundy and dark purple. Tolerant of many soil types, but needs some sun for the best color.

Elaeagnus pungens ‘Maculata’ (Maculata Golden Elaeagnus) has dramatic leaves with chiffon yellow centers that contrast with rich, two tone-green margins. Each leaf of the plant has a different pattern, giving the plant amazing depth and texture. You’ll find it performs well in sun or shade. It’s perfect for a dark spot in your garden.

Fatsia japonica ‘Camouflage (Camouflage Japanese Aralia) has big palmate leaves and highly textured yellow, lime, and green foliage that will illuminate the dappled shade locations where it does best. The large leaves and open habit give it an exotic, almost tropical look.

Ligustrum sinense ‘Sunshine’ (Sunshine Ligustrum) has intense golden-yellow foliage that makes a statement. Plant it en masse, or as part of a vibrant foliage combination, or use it as a centerpiece in a container garden. Be sure to use this plant strategically, ensuring it will not visually dominate a combination planting. Not that this ligustrum requires a sunny location.

As you create the master plan for your garden, keep in mind that artful composition—balanced with repetition for continuity—will minimize seasonal downtime and ensure that all parts of your garden flow together seamlessly from just about any viewpoint. Avoid the temptation of random plant selections! You want to make sure whatever you plant is part of a thoughtful, comprehensive plan.

If you’re looking for more ideas, please contact me for a design consultation to learn about landscape design or the best plants for any spot in your garden.

When Is The Ideal Time To Plant?

Acer griseum (Paperbark Maple)

Fall’s cooling air and still-warm soil are ideal for establishing new transplants. Perennials and evergreens alike can establish root systems before winter—and they require less water as the weather cools down and precipitation is more likely.  

If you are not ready to plant but garden projects are on your mind, fall and winter are great times to think about changes to your garden that would make it more enjoyable at this time next year or plan a new one.

Last spring I wrote the following, and it’s worth repeating now:

Consider making a list of goals for your garden and prioritizing them in case you can’t get to everything you would like to do this year. A garden log is an easy way to stay on track, measure your progress, and celebrate your accomplishments. You can add notes throughout the year as new ideas come to mind.

Gardens are built over time, improving as they mature, and benefitting from adjustments along the way.

Here are some basics to consider when setting out your priorities:

  • Screening and privacy. Do you have the coverage you want when deciduous trees lose their leaves?
  • Circulation. Are pathways and patios in the best location? Is it easy to walk the entire garden and keep your feet dry?
  • Structure. Are garden focal points and plant groupings positioned to provide good views from inside the house as well as in the garden?
  • Winter color. Do your perennial borders need something added to create dormant season interest? Would evergreen color and texture add depth?
  • Outdoor living. Would a covered outdoor structure create a quiet, dry place to get out of the house and enjoy your garden on a rainy winter day?

If you’re looking for more ideas, please contact me for a design consultation to learn about landscape design or the best plants for any spot in your garden.

Plant Selection: form + function

Queen residence, Seattle WA

It’s prime time for Pacific Northwest Gardens so almost everywhere one looks there is something blooming or succulent new foliage unfolding.  If your garden isn’t in on the party, take note of what seems lacking and take pictures when you see plants that inspire you – they might just work in your landscape design.  At trip to a nursery is a good way to to see what is in season, but buying plants without a plan will not  necessarily result in a sustainable and cohesive long term plan.  So a little restraint can go a long way if you are looking for lasting improvements in your garden (think: going to the grocery store on an empty stomach without a shopping list).

The concept of right plant, right place is popular for a reason – successful plant selection is based on consideration of numerous factors that result in plants that thrive and a garden that has interest throughout the seasons.  If your garden needs a more comprehensive renovation or if you are planning a new one, before plant selection, come practical considerations like circulation, space planning and what features you require to suit your functional needs and aesthetic desires.  These factors along with site conditions will inform plant selection (think: brains and beauty). 

Here are some basics to consider once you are ready to select plants for your garden:

  • Screening and privacy. Do you have the coverage you want when deciduous trees lose their leaves?
  • Structure. Is there enough evergreen color and texture to add depth and create dormant season interest? 
  • Color. Do you have favored color palette? Are perennials and bulbs used to add seasonal color? 
  • Repetition. What plants provide continuity, create a rhythm and connect different parts of your garden.

If you’re looking for more ideas, please contact me for a design consultation to learn about landscape design or the best plants for any spot in your garden.

Rebirth, Renewal and Regrowth

Hyacinthus orientalis

Hellebore, snowdrop, Himalayan sweet box and other winter-blooming favorites are in full bloom and the buds of early spring-blooming bulbs like crocus and narcissus are starting to pop. In just a few weeks it will officially be spring, so if garden projects are on your mind, now is a good time to take inventory and consider adjustments before spring is in full swing.

Consider making a list of goals for your garden and prioritizing them in case you can’t get to everything you would like to do this year. A garden log is an easy way to stay on track, measure your progress and celebrate your accomplishments. You can add notes throughout the year as new ideas come to mind.

Gardens are built over time, improving as they mature and benefitting from adjustments along the way.

Here are some basics to consider when setting out your priorities:

  • Screening and privacy. Do you have the coverage you want when deciduous trees loose their leaves?
  • Circulation. Are pathways and patios in the best location? Is it easy to walk the entire garden and keep your feet dry?
  • Structure. Are garden focal points and plant groupings positioned to provide good views from inside the house as well as in the garden?
  • Winter color. Do your perennial borders need something added to create dormant season interest? Would evergreen color and texture add depth?
  • Outdoor living. Would a covered outdoor structure create a quiet, dry place to get out of the house and enjoy your garden on a rainy winter day?

If you’re looking for more ideas, please contact me for a design consultation to learn about landscape design or the best plants for any spot in your garden.

A Bright Spot: Winter Flowering Plants And Trees

In the mild climate of the pacific northwest, it seems that something new is always blooming—even during the shortest, darkest days of wintertime. We don’t need to look far to see a flower reminding us that spring will come again. Reliable winter-blooming plants ensure that your garden has color even when many plants are dormant. Plant them near walkways, entrances and driveways where they can be seen as you come and go. Or place them where they can be seen and enjoyed from the indoors

One of the best winter-blooming camellias is Camellia sasanqua ‘Kanjiro’. It has deep cerise pink semi-double flowers with bright yellow stamens that are borne on the ends of gracefully arching branches. These flowers glow on a dark winter day and camellia’s glossy, dark green leaves reflect light to brighten even a shady corner beneath a canopy of mature trees.

Camellia sasanqua ‘Kanjiro’

Mahonia x media ‘Winter Sun’ (Winter Sun Oregon Grape) is another evergreen shrub that has striking, large, bright yellow racemes of fragrant flowers in late fall and winter. Its stiff, glossy, deep-green pinnate leaves flare out around upright, angled stems, giving it architectural stature. ‘Winter Sun’ can reach up to 10 feet high, making it stunning as a focal plant or at the back of a border. Either way, it takes center stage when it is covered with glowing flowers that develop into clusters of waxy, deep blue berries that provide food for many birds.

Prunus subhirtella ‘Autumnalis (Higan Flowering Cherry) is a deciduous tree with an elegant vase shape and a graceful horizontal branching pattern. It has delicate light pink flowers and blooms from late fall until early spring before its leaves emerge. While ‘Autumnalis’ blooms less profusely than other ornamental flowering cherries, it’s in flower for a much longer period. A must-have for a collector’s garden.

These distinctive winter-blooming plants are easy to grow, but like all plants, they need the right conditions to thrive. Before you plant any large plant, familiarize yourself with its mature size, growth rate and environmental needs and make sure you have the right spot for it in your garden. Vigorous, healthy plants will produce an abundance of flowers and simply look better.

If you’re looking for more ideas, please contact me for a design consultation to learn about landscape design or the best plants for any spot in your garden.

Design In Full Color

For me, if there is anything that means fall is really here, it’s planting bulbs.

It’s not too late to plant spring bulbs. In fact, in the Pacific Northwest bulbs can be planted well into November. And you’ll find they are readily available in nurseries and garden centers.

With bulbs, you can enjoy spring flowers in a multitude of types and sizes. These range from tiny species Crocus (less than 3 inches tall) to Allium (Ornamental Onion) that can reach nearly 4 feet. When it comes to color, the possibilities are nearly endless. Options range from bold and contrasting to elegant and monochromatic.

In small gardens, I suggest planting bulbs of the same type in small clumps, and achieving variety using different types of bulbs. That way the clumps will be complimentary when they bloom and your garden won’t risk looking too busy.

Another approach is to plant a drift of the same type of bulb in a single color. If your space allows, bulbs can be planted to create intricate patterns and combinations. For a natural appearance on a hillside or in a woodland garden, try to copy the undulating flow of a stream or other landscape feature by planting bulbs in bands.

If you’re putting bulbs in containers, try the “bulb lasagna” planting technique: layer bulbs so that they will flower in succession throughout the bloom season.

Keep in mind that Snow Drops bloom as early as late January and some varieties of Tulips bloom in May with Allium finishing up as late as June.  With thoughtful planning it is possible to have bulbs flowering throughout spring so there is no down time before the first perennials start to bloom. If you enjoy having your garden in continuous bloom throughout the seasons, bulbs are an important part of a comprehensive landscape plan.

Looking for ideas? Here are three of my favorite bulbs:

  • Early-blooming double tulip ‘Monsella’, with fragrant bright canary yellow flowers with red flames
  • Peony-flowering tulip ‘Blue Spectacle’, with rich deep violet-purple flowers with a blue sheen and a form that resembles that of peony
  • Small cupped Narcissi ‘Dreamlight’. It’s white with a champagne- tinted cup that has a luminous green eye and a scarlet-orange rim.

If you’re looking for more ideas, please contact me for a design consultation to learn about landscape design or the best plants for any spot in your garden.

What’s Down This Fall?

Acer palmatum ‘Purple Ghost’

With the arrival of much needed rains, it seems that we may not have an Indian Summer in the Pacific Northwest this year. Another sure sign of fall, I saw the first mushroom of the season clinging to the root of a spent tomatoe plant when pulling it up to discard it. Some perennials in your garden may also be looking spent, but others, like Rudbeckia, many types of Salvia and Asters will continue to bloom until frost.

With shorter days and cooler temperatures ahead, it may seem like time to to turn the focus toward indoor activities. But any gardener knows, the real work of making gardens begins now. Fall is one of the the best times to evaluate your landscaping and make changes. Maybe you are ready for an overhaul or just want a new look. Some types of plants are best planted in the fall and will grow roots until the ground freezes so, come next summer, they need less water to thrive. Even if you don’t intend to take any action right away, fall and winter is a good time to plan changes to your garden to implement next spring. Taking pictures each season allows you look back and see what is working best, record your successes and watch your garden mature. Also note which areas need a boost in order to look better at this time next year. If you are working with a garden designer, sharing these images is a good way to start a conversation.

A garden that starts with structural plant elements (good bones) will look good all year long and may become the focus during late fall and winter when branches are bare, perennials are dormant and most blooming plants are not producing flowers. For beginners this is a good place to start and build from. Or, if your garden has never had a plan or lacks unity, looking at it through this lens may be eye opening and give you some ideas about where to focus on or where to get help.

With thousands of plants to choose from, it may seem like an overwhelming task to select plants that look good and support your overall landscape plan. Identifying the type plants you favor is a good place to start. With that information, a garden designer can figure out which ones will thrive in your garden and how those can fit into a cohesive plan.

I hope this blog post helps you get started thinking about enhancing your garden. If you are not a gardener or don’t have the time, you can work with a landscape designer to be able to enjoy the beauty and benefits of curated outdoors spaces.

Need more ideas? Contact me for a design consultation and learn about landscape design or the best plants for any spot in your garden.