The Principled Gardener Part 2 – Unity by Dominance

Well here we are the last Monday of the month and time for your monthly measure of design doctrine. Last month, in Part 1 of this series, I discussed Unity in the garden and how it can be achieved using repetition. Continuing our discussion on Unity then, let’s look at the use of Dominance. By this I don’t mean standing over your plants, whip in hand, ordering them to behave themselves – nope, in fact a plant may get to do the dominating. Dominance occurs when one element or group of elements stands out or is more prominent than others.  The dominant feature may be a plant, a design line or space, or a non-living element. It can be dominant by way of its size, its shape, its colour, its texture or because it is a Focal Point (a Focal Point refers to a non-living element such as a bird bath or fountain.)

Dominance in the landscape can result from larger size, coarser texture, stronger form, stronger colour or the existence of a focal point.

Dominance in the landscape can result from larger size, coarser texture, stronger form, stronger colour or the existence of a focal point.

The arching purple branches of Berberis thunbergii ‘Rose Glow’ stand out against the softer greens of surrounding foliage. Photo: Pat Gaviller

A good design concept will have a hierarchy of spatial sizes with one dominant space. Here the lawn area in the centre is dominant as it is the largest design space.

A good design concept will have a hierarchy of spatial sizes with one dominant space. Here the lawn area in the centre is dominant as it is the largest design space.

The circular lawn area is the dominant space here because it contains the only arc in an otherwise angular concept.

The circular lawn area is the dominant space here because it contains the only arc in an otherwise angular concept.

The symmetrical planting (Hosta ‘Guacamole’ and Heuchera ‘Plum Pudding’) around this bird-bath enhances its role as focal point. Photo: Sue Gaviller

A garden devoid of any moments of emphasis can be visually unrestful as the eye tends to just wander. A dominant feature however will draw the eye and steady it, allowing it to rest. This is another concept that gardeners often intuit early on, but lose sight of later – myself included. When I purchased my first bird-bath and placed it in the garden, I indeed noted a more cohesive, restful composition………..so I bought another. Then I found a beautiful earthenware bowl, filled it with water and nestled it amongst some groundcover in my shade garden. My husband asked me ‘What is it with you and round things filled with water?’ Good question. The truth is I’d given in to the gardener’s favourite mantra ‘more is better’ and rendered ineffective the dominance I’d unknowingly applied with the initial bird-bath. A single strong feature demands attention. Too many strong features compete for attention.  This too can create unrest in the garden as the eye bounces around between competing elements.

Unfortunately there’s no dominance metre to tell us when enough is enough. Just keep in mind that the stronger the colour and/or the form, the more dominant it will be, hence the fewer of these elements your garden can support.  For example, weeping standards such as Young’s weeping birch or Walker’s weeping Caragana, have very strong architectural form thus should always be used as single specimens, whereas vertical accents like columnar aspens or tall reed grasses, though still fairly dominant, can be repeated a couple of times or used in small groups. Warm vibrant colours like bright yellow or lime green will really draw the eye so should be used with some restraint whereas cooler, less intense colours can be used more generously.

The key is to use elements within your garden composition that are dominant for different reasons – maybe one has brilliant colour, another is a small group of very coarse textured plants and another has unique form. Or maybe there are several that are dominant because of their unique form but they are very different forms. While each one will draw the eye, they tend to lead the eye from one to another rather than rival each other. As well, a single dominant feature will often stand out for several reasons, for example it may be larger and more colourful and have unique form, making it particularly dominant. And you can help your focal point or feature tree take centre stage by surrounding it with more subdued elements.

Good placement of dominant features is also important. Anywhere the eye is naturally drawn, like the deepest part of a curve or through a visual opening, is an obvious spot to situate a strong feature. The space where design lines form a visual frame is another good location, as is an area you want to draw attention to – your front door for example. Remember too, that some of these elements – focal points or feature trees and shrubs – will have a presence in the winter as well, so make sure they are visually supported by other woody plant material. For more ideas on Focal Points and dominant plant forms as they are experienced in the winter months, check out a couple of my earlier posts: Focal Points in the Garden and Form Colour and Texture in the Winter Garden.

Malus ‘Rosyglo’, with its elegant form, takes centre stage in the foreground while Syringa prestoniae dominates the background. Note the placement of the two features – Malus is framed by the curving design line and Syringa is situated at the deepest part of the curve. Both are well staged by subdued plantings of Juniperus sabina cultivars. The junipers will serve as visual props for these features in the winter. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Hosta 'Sum and Substance' stands out because of its very coarse texture (large leaves) and its bright lime green colour. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Hosta ‘Sum and Substance’ stands out because of its very coarse texture (large leaves) and its bright lime green colour. Photo: Sue Gaviller

While too many dominant elements in close proximity is bad design, there are scenarios where several strong features can be present together in a co-dominant relationship – for instance a vase shape tree with a bird bath in front of it. One may be slightly more dominant than the other but the effect is that they appear as a single focal vignette, not two competing entities.

A container filled with brightly coloured annuals is quite dominant on its own, as is the top graft Picea pungens 'Glauca Globosa', however because they are so different, their proximity to each other is mutually supportive rather than conflicting. Photo: Sue Gaviller

A container filled with brightly coloured annuals is quite dominant on its own, as is the top graft Picea pungens ‘Glauca Globosa’, however because they are so different, their proximity to each other is mutually supportive rather than conflicting. Photo: Sue Gaviller

The dominant feature brings unity to the garden by subduing all other elements in its presence, hence unifying them in their shared secondary status.

A dominant feature like this gazing ball focal point, can pull together an otherwise nondescript scene, thus creating unity and harmony in the garden. Photo: Sue Gaviller

So go out and buy yourself a graceful weeping standard like Malus ‘Royal Beauty’ – but just one. Indulge yourself with that beautiful bird bath – but just one. You’ll see how creating areas of emphasis can bring about peace and harmony in your garden.

Yours,
Sue
© Sue Gaviller and Not Another Gardening Blog 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sue Gaviller and Not Another Gardening Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Reasons to Celebrate

Today is the first day of summer and a lovely day it was. On days like today all seems right with the world, or at least with the garden. Our vegetables and herbs have been planted and despite the lack of any extended warmth, most seeds have germinated. Tomatoes are in, ornamental containers are done, and we’ve finally been able to determine whether those dead looking shrubs are actually dead or just really slow. Of course a gardener’s work is never done, but we’ve earned the right to rest for a bit, sit back with a glass of wine and appreciate our handiwork. If ever there were a reason to do just that it would be Summer Solstice – no weird rituals, just a really nice glass of Chardonnay, Viognier or…….okay I’m venturing into territory not my own. So please let me introduce to you, professional Sommelier, Len Steinberg as he explores why and what to sip while enjoying our gardens.

Any Excuse Will Do

…….by Len Steinberg

We all live busy lives – work, school, households and just stuff. Sometimes we just have to make time to sit back and experience the moment. Today is June 21st – summer is finally here and the longest day has just passed. It is a perfect time to sit outside on the patio after dinner with a glass of wine and enjoy the early spring excitement in the garden.  My point – any excuse is a good excuse.

In Calgary our summers can be challenging so we have to take advantage of every opportunity to spend time outdoors. While beer is always a summer favorite, along with some amazing choices for cocktails, wine always has a place on the patio, and with dining  ‘al Fresco’. Tonight when Sue gets home we have a date to sit on the patio and taste some of the open wines left over from a recent tasting. It would be a shame to let it go to waste.

We have a choice of an Argentinean Torrontes by Mauricio Lorca, Jackson Estate Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, or a Prado Rey Verdejo from Rueda Spain. All are fresh and crisp, perfect for summer sipping. The open reds are a Merlot based Bordeaux Superior Chateau l’Esperance that has matured nicely, a Sangiovese from Amador Foothills Winery in Northern California and one of my favourites, Truchard Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon – a very nice selection with some aged cheese.

Entrance to the caves at Truchard Vineyards. Photo: S Gaviller

Entrance to the caves at Truchard Vineyards. Photo: Sue Gaviller

I recently finished a contract for a wine competition, The International Value Wine Awards, sponsored by Wine Access Magazine. During the competition 1100 wines were tasted over five days. The selection of styles and varietals in the competition is staggering. This inspires me to expand my tasting experience and to try new wines from all over the world. Don’t be shy, if you don’t like it you can always use it for cooking.

One of my favourite reasons to open a bottle of wine is dinner or any meal. While the meal is being prepared I take a look at what we have in the cellar and choose a wine that will pair well with the menu. Not everyone has a wine cellar but a local wine shop is usually not far away. This is especially nice if the warm summer weather is enticing you to dine al Fresco. We can talk about wine pairing another day.

Here are some of my favourite excuses to sip on wine in the garden:

My good friend Tom Firth of Wine Access really needs no excuse except, “It’s already in the fridge” or, “I think this would be fun to drink with……..works as good as any”.

Shelly Boettcher, wine writer and editor says “any night that it isn’t snowing and that I don’t have to drive my kids anywhere”.

I think we can all relate to these reasons for a sip of magic surrounded by the wonders of nature.

What’s your excuse?

To your Health,
Len

Father’s Day Plant Pick

Syringa vulgaris  ‘Ludwig Spaeth’

Syringa vulgaris ‘Ludwig Spaeth’. Photo: Sue Gaviller

After my last post extolling the virtue of lilacs, it should come as no surprise that my plant pick for this past week was a lilac. This handsome fella was also featured in that post. Why so enamoured am I? Well for one, the colour – intense, dark red-violet buds open to gorgeous, slightly softer hued florets. As well, Ludwig Spaeth is a very early bloomer – in my garden the first florets open up about the time the earliest of the flowering crabs are blooming. The blossoms are still going strong several weeks later when the blue oat grasses are sending up their arched inflorescence. And they will still offer robust splashes of colour well after most other cultivars of this species have faded.

The only deficiency is that the scent is so reserved – while it has the classic lilac aroma, one must have the nose buried right in it to experience it. Now as you know, the scent of lilacs makes me positively giddy, weak in the knees even, so the lack of fulsome fragrance was a bit of a disappointment for me. And this is precisely why I’ve chosen Mr. Spaeth as my Father’s Day Plant Pick – for my husband, father of my children, who loathes the smell of lilacs – this one’s for you.

To Dad’s Everywhere, Happy Father’s Day!

Sue

Mmmmm…. Love those Lilacs

On a gorgeous June evening, as I drive home from a client appointment, I notice a couple of young ladies walking down the street giggling, their faces pressed deep into big bunches of freshly picked lilacs. I smile, remembering a humorous moment of my youth – I was 20 years old and I’d come to Calgary to work for the summer.  A couple of friends and I had gone out on a Friday evening. Sometime in the wee hours of the morning, we found ourselves taking shelter from the rain under a huge stand of lilacs. As we stood there breathing in the heady scent, I commented that the aroma of lilacs was purported to induce feelings of euphoria and/or relaxation. Within seconds the three of us were giggling uncontrollably, convinced that this power of lilacs was real. Of course it may have had something to do with the other ‘herbals’ we’d just inhaled (what can I say – before I became a responsible parent, I was a bit of a party girl).

My love affair with lilacs actually began many years earlier. As a young girl visiting my grandparents’ acreage every Sunday, I would eagerly await the blooming of the huge bank of lilacs that bordered a portion of their long driveway – I’d pick big bouquets to take home. Later we inherited this property and for several weeks each spring I brought fresh lilacs into my bedroom every night. Falling asleep to their sweet perfume was so very peaceful.  Hmmm, maybe there is something to this lilac lore. When I came to Calgary I was thrilled with their abundance – on boulevards, in city parks, residential yards and vacant lots. I felt a little less homesick with the familiar scent wafting through open windows.

My affection for lilacs isn’t all about nostalgia though – they have legitimate design value, especially in our harsh climate. I’m always surprised when a client says ‘I don’t like lilacs’. My first thought is always ‘What’s not to like?’ Granted there are those who have a justifiable beef with them – for allergy sufferers, the intense fragrance can be an assault on already challenged olfactory systems. However, it’s not usually the scent that my clients object to; it’s the growth habit. Invariably I discover that the lilacs they have such strong distaste for are the big ol’ sprawly things that are really old, never pruned (or badly pruned) and positioned inappropriately.  Some of these babies get big, so they need some elbow room, and even if left to develop naturally into their loosely globose form, they need periodic pruning to remove deadwood.

The Syringa genus consists of many species, cultivars within those species, and interspecific hybrids. The resulting selection in terms of colour, size and bloom-time is considerable. In addition, the foliage (shape and size) is quite variable, as are the flowers and even the scent. This all adds up to a designer’s choice plant – if I seem determined to convince you of the lilac’s design worth, indeed I am. Here’s why:

Colour

These fragrant  beauties have been putting on a real show for the last couple of weeks – bold masses of colour in pale mauves and pinks, icy blues, intense violets and crisp whites. It started with Syringa vulgaris (common lilac) and Syringa hyacinthiflora (Hyacinth Lilac), followed by Syringa meyeri (dwarf Korean lilac) and hybrids thereof (eg. Fairytale series). Syringa prestoniae (Preston lilac) is beginning to bloom as I write. Syringa patula (Manchurian lilac) will soon follow and Syringa reticulata (Japanese tree lilac) will close the show with white feathery blooms.

Cool spring colours – the Sryringa genus with its many species, cultivars and hybrids, can be used to create lovely soft colour combos. Photos: Sue Gaviller

Syringa vulgaris ‘Katherine Havemeyer’ has large luscious blooms and is particularly fragrant – photographing her was sheer bliss. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Hot pink buds open to soft pink blooms on Syringa ‘Tinkerbelle’, the first of the Fairytale series. Spicy fragrance, dwarf habit and winter hardiness, make this an ideal choice for any garden. Photo: Sue Gaviller

It’s hard not to be impressed with these floriferous specimens,  but what about when they’re finished blooming – then they’re just boring green things right? Well they are indeed green but they’re not boring. Most lilac foliage is dark saturated green, as opposed to much of the other deciduous foliage in the garden, which is medium green, sometimes with slight yellow or blue undertones. The dark green Syringa foliage provides stunning contrast to other foliage colours, especially lime green or variegated. It also creates a lush backdrop for the whole garden throughout the season – since lilacs are very drought tolerant, they continue to look fresh and green when the foliage on many plants is fading, wilting or browning in the dry heat of late summer. As well, there are a couple of lilacs with green and gold variegated leaves – Syringa reticulata ‘Golden Eclipse’ and Syringa vulgaris ‘Aucubaefolia’. And if that weren’t enough, Syringa patula and Syringa hyacinthiflora have great fall colour. So now you know – lilacs have colour value through most of the growing season.

Syringa vulgaris ‘Ludwig Spaeth’ is an older cultivar, well-behaved with dark violet blooms and subtle fragrance. When finished blooming, the handsome dark foliage still provides striking contrast to the bright gold foliage of its neighbour Cornus alba ‘Aurea’. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Syringa reticulata ‘Golden Eclipse’ has very large beautifully variegated leaves. Despite the tendency for variegated cultivars to be less hardy than the species, this tree is very hardy in our climate, with no winterkill on my own or client’s trees in the five years since they were planted. There have been reports that the leaves lose their variegation – this may happen, but only in the second year after planting. Subsequent years show a return of full variegation. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Texture

The large leaves of Syringa vulgaris contrast nicely with the tiny needles of Picea abies ‘Nidiformis’. Photo: Sue Gaviller

The larger Syringa species, for example S. vulgaris, S. prestoniae and S. reticulata are relatively coarse textured, meaning their leaves are quite large. Much of our garden foliage tends to be medium to fine textured, hence coarser texture is invaluable for creating emphasis and contrast. Syringa patula is a midsized shrub with medium size leaves and Syringa meyeri and hybrids are more compact shrubs with smaller foliage. The leaves, though smaller, still present interesting texture as they have a bit of a wave to them.

Compare the very different leaf shapes in the above three examples – the leathery heart-shaped leaves of S. vulgaris, the puckered ovate leaves of S. prestoniae and the smaller round, wavy leaves of S. meyeri. Photos: Sue Gaviller

Form

All members of this genus, with the exception of S. reticulata, are roundish or oval. However, when purchased at the nursery, they are upright vase-shaped plants and gardeners mistakenly assume they will continue to grow this way. They do for a while but then begin putting out growth from the bottom and are hence accused of ‘suckering’. These are not really suckers, they are basal shoots and they aren’t necessarily bad.  To some degree this is how shrubs grow – they grow from the bottom as well from the top. The problem is, when allowed to grow naturally, many lilacs form very large round or oval figures so need to be situated with their generous future size in mind.

Syringa vulgaris can get quite large, some cultivars larger than others. When left to develop naturally they may get too large for a small city lot but they are useful in providing intermediate scale, relating larger trees to their smaller neighbours. Here two mature lilac cultivars, together with the spruce, create a well proportioned trio. Photo: Sue Gaviller

This mature Preston lilac has been planted too close to the fence to grow naturally. It has thus been pruned into the familiar arching vase so often associated with the genus. Despite the need for constant pruning, the effect is quite attractive. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Since they are rarely given the kind of room needed to reach full spread, they are often pruned heavily to create tree-like forms. While this can be quite elegant, it will require a commitment to maintaining the shape or the end result will be sloppy and misshapen. Many of us opt to prune this way because we’ve ‘inherited’ a mature, but inappropriately placed specimen, and must maintain it within the bounds of its available space.

Keep in mind too, that lilacs prefer full sun. They will lose their full-bodied form if they don’t get enough, becoming leggy and bare. This also happens with age as the lower branches become shaded by full crowns of foliage – pruning out of older stems will encourage new growth from the bottom.

Scent

If like me, the scent you yearn for is that old-fashioned lilac fragrance, then Syringa vulgaris, the common lilac, is the finest aroma there is. Remember though, that not all cultivars have equally strong scent – I usually stick my nose into a bloom at the greenhouse to check it out before purchasing.

Syringa hyacinthiflora has a scent very similar to Syringa vulgaris so is a close second. Syringa meyeri is incredibly sweet-scented, some would say sickly sweet, but I quite enjoy its robust perfume. Syringa patula ‘Miss Kim’ is also strongly fragrant, but a little less sweet and Syringa Prestoniae, while strongly scented, seems slightly more vegetal than floral – but still pleasant.

Mmmmmm – can’t you just smell it? Photo: Sue Gaviller

My husband doesn’t like lilacs – he says they smell like little old ladies. I remind him it won’t be long before I’m a ‘little old lady’, but he assures me I’ll still smell good. And while he has admitted on several occasions that lilacs can look magnificent when in bloom, he remains unrepentant in his disdain for them. I doubt I’ve yet convinced him. How about you?

Yours,
Sue

© Sue Gaviller and Not Another Gardening Blog 2012.

Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sue Gaviller and Not Another Gardening Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.