Colouring Your Garden – Part 3; Value Added

“Nowhere in nature can you find purer color than sunlight passing through the petal of a flower.”     ~ Larry K. Stephenson, Artist ~

Sunlit petals – the imagery evokes such warmth. Indeed there would be no flower petals without sunlight – plants require light to bloom, and light gives the flower (or any object) its colour.  In my last post I discussed the attribute of Hue which results from the particular wavelength of that light. In this post I’ll look at Value, which results from the amount of light reflected back from an object.

In simpler terms, Value is how light or dark a colour is. If you recall from Part 1 of this series, the value scale is located along the central vertical axis of the Munsell 3D Colour Space. Black is at the bottom of the scale and since it reflects no light, has a value of zero. White, located at the top of the value scale, has the highest value (10) because it reflects the most light – so the darker the colour, the lower the value. Here we start to see colour relationships within a single hue. For instance, maroon, red and pink are all the same hue but at different values, and mauve is the same hue as purple but at a higher value.

Photo: Sue Gaviller

Prunus cistena and Potentilla  ‘Pink Beauty’ displaying light, medium and dark values of the same hue. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Munsell value scale resample

An image from Munsell’s Colour Atlas depicting the basic hues at values from 2 through 8.

High Value Colours

Colours that have high value, pastels for example, are highly visible because they reflect so much light. Like warm hues, they appear to advance towards the observer, thus seem closer than they really are. For these reasons, plants with pastel colouring provide real ‘pop’ in the garden. And of course for these same reasons, overuse of light bright colours can fatigue the eye.

Graphics and photos: Sue Gaviller

High Value Colours. Graphics and photos: Sue Gaviller

High value colours are especially noticeable in shady locations, at twilight, or against a dark background. On the contrary, these colours get washed out in strong midday sun or near highly reflective surfaces such as concrete or light coloured stone.

Left: High value colours, like the pastel mauve of these Campanula, appear washed out under strong sun. Right: These same plants seem to glow in the fading light of dusk. Photos: Cathy Gaviller.

Left: High value colours, like the pastel mauve of Campanula, appear washed out under strong sun. Right: These same plants seem to glow in the fading light of dusk. Photos: Cathy Gaviller.

This washout effect can be minimized with the abundant use of dark green – its lower value helps to absorb reflected light. In fact pastel-coloured plants are at their best when seen against a backdrop of lush green foliage.

Photo: Sue Gaviller

Panicles of pastel mauve Syringa blossoms are a real standout against dark evergreen foliage.
Photo: Sue Gaviller

pastel rose - resample 2

Soft lemon-peach blooms of Rosa ‘Morden Sunrise’ are a striking contrast to the rich green surrounding foliage. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Photo: Pat Gaviller

Variegated foliage. Photo: Pat Gaviller

Plants that contain two colours of contrasting value, variegated green and white foliage for example, will appear pastel-coloured when seen from a distance – particularly if the variegations are small. This is called assimilation – the eye optically mixes the colours, averaging the high value of the white and the lower value of the green to make a lighter green. The smaller the variegation the more evident is this effect. In the photo on the right, assimilation is most apparent with the Lamiastrum in the centre – the variegation is barely evident and the leaves appear silvery pastel green. The Hosta in the foreground exhibits no assimilation at all and the Euonymus in the background, only slightly.

Low Value Colours

Low value colours reflect less light than their high value counterparts so are less visible in the landscape, especially in shade, at dusk, or against a dark background.

Low Value Colours. Photos and graphics: Sue Gaviller

Low Value Colours. Photos and graphics: Sue Gaviller

When viewed from a distance, dark-coloured garden elements lose their visual impact and recede into the background, an effect that is compounded by the optical illusion of appearing further away than they actually are. While low value foliage plants (especially dark green) make good garden backdrop, any dark feature you want to draw attention to is best situated close to the viewer, where the deep opulent colour can be appreciated.

barberry hedgebarberry hedge 2

Left: The low value red of this barberry hedge is rich and vibrant up close. Right: When viewed from further away the dark colour has a subtler effect, becoming part of the background. Photos: Sue Gaviller

Dark-coloured plants look exceptional against light-coloured stone, concrete, stucco, etc. and because they absorb light reflected from these surfaces, they also help to reduce glare and the washout effect of midday sun.

purple verbena resample

Low value colour from dark green hedging and dark purple Verbena, provides a good foil for the higher value of the tile-stone promenade. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Since dark colours make good background plantings, and because they don’t draw a lot of attention, they can be used  generously in the landscape. But don’t overdo it – too much low value without some medium and higher value to punctuate, will result in a garden composition that feels heavy and sombre.

Natural Value of Hues

Natural Value of HuesIt’s important to note that the basic hues in their pure state don’t have equal values. If I were to pose the question, “Which of the spectral hues has the highest inherent or native value?” you wouldn’t have to think long before responding. You’d answer yellow right? It is obviously the lightest hue on the spectrum. Likewise you would probably intuit that the hue with the lowest natural value is violet or purple.

This ranking of hues by value is of particular significance as it relates to colour balance. For example, if you want to use the conventional opposites of violet and yellow you can’t use them in equal proportion – their disparate values will create too much visual tension.

I experienced this in my own garden years ago – in my infinite gardener’s wisdom I’d decided I wanted a colour scheme consisting of only purples/violets and yellows. And in my ultimate gardener’s naiveté, I planted an alternating border of pure yellow marigolds and dark purple Lobelia (yes, yes I can hear your snickers and snorts at the mention of such amateur plant choices). It didn’t take long for me to realize how very grating this composition was, although I didn’t know why – I would later learn it takes three or four units of low Value to balance one unit of high Value, and this 3 or 4 to 1 ratio should be applied to violet and yellow.

Photo: Pat Gaviller

Bright yellow Osteospermum and dark violet Petunia appear quite jarring when present in equal quantity. Photo: Pat Gaviller

Photo:

The same pairing, now seen in more balanced proportions with 3 or 4 parts low value to one part high value. Photo: Pat Gaviller

Another way to balance these two hues, and maybe a better way, would be to use darker yellow and lighter violet elements, which lessens the disparity between the two values. They can then be present in more or less equal proportions without the visual discomfort.

Photo: Sue Gaviller

Violet and yellow can be present in equal quantities by using a higher value violet, and lower value yellow, as in this container arrangement of mauve Petunia and dark golden Calendula at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Hamilton, Ont. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Contrasting Values

Value contrast in the garden results from both the strength & direction of sunlight, and from the pigments present in the plants. The sun shining on our gardens creates shadows and highlights that we take very much for granted – we don’t always notice the resultant areas of perceived lighter or darker colour. In fact it is this contrast of light and dark that defines an object in space and enables us to discriminate between like-coloured entities. It’s what allows us to see edges and depth, therefore texture. No one knows this better than the painter – he knows if he is painting a red flower that it involves many variations on red. He adds a little black here, some white there, or grey, thus bringing his 2D image alive. The photographer too, recognizes this – she adjusts her camera settings to compensate for natural lighting that may be less than ideal (well she knows she should, regardless of how finicky and annoying it is). In this way harsh contrast between light and dark can be minimized in her finished product.

Photo: Sue Gaviller

Paeonia ‘Unknown Soldier’ – note how many different values of the hue of red are seen in the shadows, midtones and highlights. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Using contrasting values of a single hue in a planting composition creates dramatic effect in the garden; indeed nature often does this within a single plant….

peach iris-resamplebicolour iris

Left: soft orange-peach standards and falls are set off by a darker orange beard. Photo: Sue Gaviller Right: velvety purple falls contrast nicely with softer mauve standards. Photo: Pat Gaviller. 

And the gardener does it within a planting scheme or vignette….

purple bicolor daylily and rose glow barberry 2

Value contrast within a planting composition – here I’ve paired cool-pink daylilies with dark plum-red barberry. Each plant contains value contrast as well – the daylily has a plum-red eyezone and the barberry has cool-pink variegations. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Photo: Cathy Gaviller

Dwarf Iris and creeping thyme – beautiful value contrast of red-purple hue. Photo: Cathy Gaviller

Lovely though these colour combos are, as with almost everything in the garden (and in life), too much of a good thing is… well, too much. Imagine how unpleasant it would be to look at a garden filled with high contrast plant combinations. While value contrast helps us discriminate between the various elements in a planting scheme, it doesn’t always have to be dramatic.

And don’t forget balance when contrasting values – use more low value than high value (remember that ratio of 3:1 or 4:1). And green; use lots of it (have I said that before?) low value green, as well as basic green, which has medium value and helps to balance the higher and lower values.

In the words of Spanish Poet and Playwright, Pedro Calderon de la Barca, Green is the prime color of the world, and that from which its loveliness arises.

On that note fellow gardeners, I will conclude today’s lesson – hope you’ve learned something of value.

’Til next time,
Sue

There and Back; a Hortigeek’s Tale, Part 3 ~ Going Coastal ~

Our time in wine country had been amazing – Len has professional associates in the area so we’d been treated very well. The coast was calling though, and for me this was the most anticipated part of our trip. Our next stop would be Monterey, which hubby had determined (mistakenly) we could reach via a single Interstate. Somewhere between Fremont and San Jose he asked his navigator (me) to check his directions (which he proactively wrote out every night before bed) to make sure the highway didn’t turn anywhere. Comparing his written directions to our TripTik, I realized something wasn’t right. I advised The Captain that according to our map, I-680 did not continue through to Monterey, that in fact it appeared to end abruptly just east of San Jose. It’s not so much that he didn’t believe me, as that he couldn’t disbelieve Mr. Google… until we found ourselves on the 101 heading towards San Francisco and there were no more signs for I-680. So we turned west somewhere, then eventually south until we ended up in Santa Cruz (which fortunately was less than an hour from Monterey and a very nice drive along the coastal highway). After this, it was I who consulted Google maps every night and wrote down directions for our next day’s destinations. I won’t say we didn’t get lost again after that, but at least I could read and understand my own directions. I suppose our continued use of such tools as maps must seem archaic, considering every cell phone now comes equipped with GPS.

When we arrived in Monterey and finally found our hotel (my husband did eventually break down and use his GPS), we checked in and asked the young ladies at front desk where we could find the best seafood. Our intention had been to have dinner in the famed Cannery Row district, but hotel staff asserted that the best seafood was to be had at fisherman’s wharf. The hotel was several blocks from the waterfront so we could walk along the beach to get to the wharf. It was windy and cool walking along the Monterey coast – a refreshing change from the hot still air of the valleys. I was fascinated with the unique coastal vegetation – rugged wind-sculpted Monterey cypress punctuated masses of succulent Delosperma carpeting the sandy hills beside the shore. Every so often I’d stop and turn to snap another shot.

Photo: Sue Gaviller

Photo: Sue Gaviller

Photo: Sue Gaviller

Photo: Sue Gaviller

I inhaled deeply the ocean’s salty aroma and revelled in the wind blowing through my hair. I heard the distant bark of sea lions which grew louder as we neared the wharf.

When we reached the dock it was too early for dinner so we wandered a bit. We found a little coffee shack and as usual, ordered a dark-roast – almost everywhere we visited we’d been unable to get a cup of dark-roast coffee. I started to think maybe it was a Canadian thing, this love of really rich dark brew, but here in Monterey we were finally able to sate our coffee cravings. Sipping the first dark brew I’d had since leaving Canada, we strolled around the wharf area and soaked up the coastal essence.

Beautiful Mexican sage bush (Salvia leucantha) in Monterey. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Beautiful Mexican sage bush (Salvia leucantha) at the Monterey wharf. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Photo: Sue Gaviller

Masses of Grasses: the reddish inflorescence of this dwarf fountain grass (Pennisetum alopecuroides) looks stunning against red-brown cedar shakes, Monterey Marina. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Echium - monterey

Purple spikes of Pride of Madeira (Echium candicans) are a common site in coastal gardens and landscapes. Photo: Sue Gaviller

We followed the sound of sea lions to their basking place on a raft beside the docks. I don’t know why I became so enamoured of these particular marine mammals – perhaps it was their goofy social antics, belying the incredible grace with which they swim and dive. Or the way they lay in the sun, their soft brown fur glistening, lifting their heads periodically to peer around before laying back down again, so seemingly content. They reminded me of our sweet brown dog Pepper, whom we’d lost only a couple of months before. It was mid January when we were given the news that she was terminally ill. My one wish had been that she’d have a chance to soak up the sun in her backyard, splayed out on her side the way she loved to do – just one more time. On a warm March day after weeks of vicious cold, she was able to do this – for maybe five minutes she lay there on a patch of dry grass, breathing softly, then got up and looked me straight in the eye as if trying to tell me something. I knew then that she was ready, indeed she wanted, to be set free to chase rabbits – in that big dog-park-in-the-sky. She’d lived a good life, a long life, and while I was at peace with the decision that had to be made, I knew I’d miss her terribly. And so it was that every time I saw or heard sea lions, I’d think of her and feel awash in warmth… and just a little melancholy.

Photo: Sue Gaviller

These furry brown sea mammals are sooo adorable are they not? Photo: Sue Gaviller

The wharf offered many choices for dining, each venue featuring plated displays of mouth-watering menu items and someone posted at the door beckoning passersby to come dine there. It was difficult to choose, so we chose the one with the first available window seat. Equally difficult was trying to decide what to select from the menu – in the end I opted for a ‘Captains Plate’ which had a bit of everything. And they boasted the best clam chowder in town so I had to try some of that too… yup I rolled outta there when we were finished. But a divine meal it was, eating succulent seafood and watching the sea lions settle on the rocks as the sun set.

While in Monterey we did visit Cannery Row (had another great cuppa dark java), as well as the artist’s community of Carmel about 20 miles south of Monterey. Both are tourist destinations, and since it was a weekend, they were very busy places. We agreed that we’d like to come back one day, when we had more time – and there were fewer people.

A contemporary planting, with a nautical flair in Cannery Row. Photo: Sue Gaviller

A contemporary planting – with a nautical flair. Cannery Row, Monterey. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Photo: Sue Gaviller

A Brewer’s Blackbird flits about a casual coastal planting. Photo: Sue Gaviller

In the artist's community of Carmel by the Sea, the artist's touch abounds, as in the pretty painted vine on the house above and the artful container arrangements below. Photos: Sue Gaviller

In Carmel, the artist’s touch abounds – note the pretty painted vine on the house (above) and the artful container arrangements (below). Photos: Sue Gaviller

container planting Carmelcontainer planting Carmel 2

When we left Monterey we drove south along the Big Sur coastline – a magnificent drive along winding, cliff-hugging roads with panoramic views of the ocean. The heights and the road’s proximity to the edge might have made me queasy had the vistas not been so awe-inspiring.

Photo: Sue Gaviller

Breathtaking views along the Big Sur coastline have earned this portion of route #1 the designation of National Scenic Byway and ‘All-American Road’. Photo: Sue Gaviller

We continued our drive along the beautiful coastal highway until we reached the town of Cambria where we turned inland towards Paso Robles – there were a couple of wineries in the area we wanted to visit, so we spent the night. We’d been on the road now for two weeks and I needed to wash some clothes – fortunately our hotel had laundry facilities. When I approached the front desk to get some coin for the washer and dryer, the clerk politely obliged. Well, more than politely – in his Southern-drawl he added, “Ma’am you smell real good. Like real expensive perfume.” The young fellow was probably just being friendly, but I found his candor a bit unnerving, especially since I wasn’t wearing any perfume.

It was pretty here, though hot and very dry – the effects of California’s drought were more obvious the further south we went. I was thankful we were back inland for only a day or two before we’d be heading back to the coast. San Francisco was our next destination.

I’d never been to San Francisco and I really didn’t think I was going to be all that thrilled with the sprawling metropolis. But I agreed to go for one night just so I could say I’d been to San Fran. Thanks to my directions we had no trouble finding our hotel, and to my delight, our room was on the 20th floor, providing a spectacular view of the city and a glimpse of the Golden Gate Bridge. I was beginning to like it here. It was mid afternoon so we had time to grab a Starbucks and take a leisurely stroll before heading to the wharf for dinner.

We made our way up the hills and down, marvelling at the distinctive design of the buildings. San Francisco’s architecture can only be described as… well, San Francisco. It is entirely unique. Of course there are many examples of contemporary design, but it is the peculiar mix of architectural styles in the older row homes that I found so intriguing.

san fran

Mosaic tile steps, terra-cotta containers and scrolled wrought iron create a distinct Spanish Mediterranean feel in the front entrance of this San Francisco home. Photo: Sue Gaviller

It is often referred to as Victorian, and there are certainly those elements – bay windows, steeply pitched roofs and highly decorative flourishes.

But there are also Spanish Mediterranean influences (mosaic tile, scrolled wrought iron, courtyard gardens) and some even exhibit a hint of New England Colonial – clapboard-like siding painted soft blue, ivory or beige, with white trim and paned windows.

Photo: Sue Gaviller

A pretty courtyard garden in San Francisco. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Photo: Sue Gaviller

Bright fuchsia Bougainvillea and white climbing rose frame an entryway; lavender, lily of the Nile and azaleas line the pathway. Photo: Sue Gaviller

We reached fishermen’s wharf about half an hour before our dinner reservation so we had time to do a little souvenir shopping. San Francisco’s wharf isn’t near as quaint as Monterey’s – it’s big and busy and… utterly enchanting. The sound of jazz floated through the air. I assumed it was music being piped from one of the many shops or restaurants, but I discovered later it was a lone busker – with a really big amp. And of course there was the now familiar sound of sea lions – here there were dozens of rafts for the cute critters to pile onto.

 

As expected, dinner was delectable, and the taxi-ride back to the hotel quite entertaining. The driver, a big fellow with a silky smooth voice, drove for a limo-tour company and did a fine job promoting San Francisco; not that it needed promoting – I was already smitten with The City by the Bay.

We spent the following morning in Golden Gate Park – the park has a world-renowned Japanese garden which I’d always wanted to see; another reason I’d agreed to visit San Francisco. After the difficulty I had photographing Portland’s Japanese gardens I hoped to have more success here. This garden was very different – brighter and more open than the dappled shade of Portland’s moist, almost-tropical garden. I mistakenly assumed this would make it easier to shoot. It didn’t. The hazy white sky created unpleasant glare and gave everything a yellowish tone. Of course if I was a real photographer I’d have known how to compensate for this. As I looked about the gardens I noted another significant difference – whereas Portland had more coarse textured plants like Hosta and abundant large-leaved rhododendrons to break up the finer texture of pines, ferns and grasses, much of the plant material here seemed finer textured. This resulted in a somewhat busy feel to plant compositions and also contributed to my photographic woes – the fine texture created so many areas of light and dark, hence the same difficulty with harsh contrast as the dappled shade of Portland. Sigh.

Still, it was beautiful and given the Japanese philosophy of celebrating ‘place’, it’s entirely valid that a Japanese garden in coastal California would differ from that of an Oregon rainforest. Regardless, it was well worth the visit.

Photo: S Gaviller

Iris ensata adds an elegant splash of colour to rich green vegetation at the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Photo: Sue Gaviller

Cloud pruning is the Japanese practice of trimming trees and shrubs into cloud-like forms. Known as ‘Niwaki’, which means ‘garden tree’, it is seen throughout the gardens. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Photo: Sue Gaviller

Stone lanterns are an integral part of the Japanese garden. Here a small lantern provides a solid foil for the many fine-textured elements. Photo: Sue Gaviller

fern grotto

Circle of Peace in the Fern Grotto, National Aids Memorial Grove, Golden Gate Park.
Photo: Sue Gaviller

We had both thoroughly enjoyed San Francisco and knew we’d visit again – for much longer next time. But now it was time to head to our next and final destination where we would spend our anniversary, and the last few days of our trip before embarking on the long journey home. Originally Len had suggested we stay in a big fancy resort hotel in Sonoma to celebrate our marriage milestone. However, I thought something quieter would be more relaxing and romantic. My research led me to a beautiful spa resort at Bodega Bay on the Sonoma coast – very elegant but not the least ostentatious.

We arrived mid afternoon and checked into our ocean view suite, complete with luxurious lounge furniture, a wood burning fireplace, a hot tub and a private patio. A bottle of chilled champagne awaited us – a gift from resort staff in honour of our special day. Pouring ourselves a glass of the cool effervescent nectar we relaxed on the patio and gazed out at the ocean. Tidal channels and saltwater marsh, creating a bird sanctuary, lay between us and the ocean. We could hear birdsong all day, frogs chirping all night… and sea lions barking all day and all night. Tastefully landscaped grounds, gorgeous pool, 4-star restaurant – truly this was a little piece of paradise. I didn’t think I’d ever want to leave.

Photo: Sue Gaviller

Native grasses and yellow lupins along the shoreline. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Not sure if this is the invasive artichoke thistle, but it was certainly photogenic against the misty marshlands at Bodega Bay. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Photo: Sue Gaviller

The softly draping form and muted colour of dwarf ornamental grasses contrasts beautifully with the rich colour and stiff upright texture of New Zealand flax. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Photo: Sue Gaviller

This lovely coastal landscape includes handsome New Zealand tea tree (Leptospermum scoparium), Mexican feather grass (Nassella tenuissima) and lavender cotton (Santolina chamaecyparissus). Photo: Sue Gaviller

Photo: Sue Gaviller

A bench in a cozy nook amid ferns and fuchsias. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Photo: Sue Gaviller

A fine pair; rich dark Aeonium and soft blue-green Echeveria. Note how the foliage rosettes echo the scalloped edge of the planter. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Photo: Sue Gaviller

A statue of Poseidon, Greek God of the Sea, watches over the pool area. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Yes indeed it was hard to leave – the Oceanside walks, strolls though the bird sanctuary, wonderful fresh food,  champagne by the fireplace, sea lions swimming and diving around the pier. But alas the time soon came for us to bid the coast goodbye. Our trip had come to an end – all that was left was the four-day drive back to Calgary, and this time we weren’t taking the scenic route.

Interestingly, the only negative experiences we had on the entire trip occurred on the drive home – a resort hotel in Reno with a casino that was so smoky we could smell it in our room. The room itself was posh on the surface, but somehow seemed really seedy – dozens of faux satin and velveteen pillows on the bed, and a black, not-terribly-clean hot tub at the foot of the bed. I wondered if the adage ‘what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas’ might apply to Reno as well.

While we were out for dinner that night we received a panicked text from one of our sons who’d been looking after our house while we were away. He’d been heading out the door to leave when he saw, at the foot of the steps, a big ol’ skunk. He wasn’t sure what to do. I knew what he was thinking – a number of years ago, his friend from across the road came home late one night, startled a skunk that was hiding in the shrubbery and got himself sprayed. I’d never really had any ‘up-close and personal’ dealings with the striped villains, though I’d smelled their stench periodically in the neighbourhood. And growing up on an acreage in Southern Ontario, the family dog would run afoul of one at least once every summer. Supposedly the only way to get rid of the smell was to bathe them in tomato juice, but I don’t honestly remember doing so with any of our dogs. I was pretty sure my twenty-something son wasn’t going to be too keen on a late night tomato juice dip – and there was no way of avoiding Pepé Le Pew in his current position. I texted him back, “Pour yourself a Scotch and sit down for a bit til he’s gone,” was the best I could come up with.

Then there was the horrible meal we had in Twin Falls the following night – the vegetables were literally rotten. And our last night on the road, in Great Falls – we got bumped from our hotel room (which we’d reserved weeks before) and dumped into what was likely the worst room in the hotel; way at the back with train tracks only a few feet from our window, and a really small bed. It made us all the more eager to get home.

Late afternoon the next day we arrived home. I was greeted with the colorful blooms of moss phlox, creeping thyme, dwarf iris… and lilacs. I hadn’t missed them after all! Walking up to the front door, suitcase in hand, I stopped and closed my eyes. For a moment, the breeze carried me back to the California coast I breathed deeply and my nostrils filled with Syringa‘s sweet perfume. I was home. Though I still felt the call of the road, it was time to dig in and get to work. This was my busy season and I knew I’d have to hit the ground running….

‘Til next time,
Sue

There and Back; a Hortigeek’s Tale, Part 2 ~ California Here we Come ~

We left Portland on Saturday of the Memorial Day weekend. Apparently traffic is bumper-to-bumper heading to the coast on holiday weekends, but since it was Saturday, our hope was that everyone would’ve arrived at their destinations already.  We decided to get an early start just to be safe. Indeed it was quieter on the freeways than any other time during our 5-day stay – if we’d known how much time we would spend in heavy traffic travelling to and from wine country, we’d have opted to stay in one of the smaller towns down the valley. I heard one of the locals comment that even visitors from LA, which is known for crazy car congestion, complain about traffic in and around Portland.

The drive to the coast took us through wine country again, then onto the Salmon River Highway which eventually joined up with the Oregon Coast highway just North of Lincoln City. We stopped in Lincoln City for a cuppa java – one of the finest we’d have on the entire trip; whether it was the coffee itself or the fact that we sipped while gazing out onto the Pacific Ocean I’m not sure. It had been years since I’d been to the ocean, and never the Oregon coast. I felt the familiar call of the water, as I always did since leaving my home on Georgian Bay as a young woman. Why I chose to move to an inland city (a semi arid one no less) I really don’t know, but I knew this trip would have me longing again for a life on the water.

The Coastal Highway was, as expected, very scenic – Oregon’s coast is varied in its topography, the highway traversing a shoreline of rugged rocky bluffs, massive sand-dunes that were oft right next to the highway, and dense forests of shore pine, rich with Rhododendron understory. I marveled at the range of conditions in which these Ericaceous shrubs thrived here – from the rich fertile soils of the Willamette valley to lean, sandy (and likely salty) coastal soils. I remembered something I’d read recently about successfully growing Rhododendrons in less-than-ideal soil conditions – amend the soil with pine needles. Noting the masses of healthy-looking native rhodies beneath the pines, I understood why. I noted too how Mother Nature, the ultimate designer, had perfectly paired the fine feathery texture of pine foliage with the coarse leathery Rhododendron foliage.

We pulled off the highway at a particularly gorgeous ocean look-out and I took a few shots of the breathtaking view. Then I heard it – a sound I’d miss more than any other sound the ocean offered – the barking of sea lions. Adjusting our vantage point we saw them, camped out on the rocks far below, basking in the sun. From where we were they looked rather like slugs. Turned out that just up the road were the Sea Lion Caves, a very busy Oregon Coast tourist attraction.

Heceta Head and Devil's Elbow Bay, Oregon Coast. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Heceta Head and Devil’s Elbow Bay, Oregon Coast. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Sunbathing sea lions. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Several hours later we crossed the border into California. Shortly thereafter the highway veered inland and before long we found ourselves among giant redwoods. I’d of course seen the behemoth redwoods before. I’d had the dizzying experience of looking up, looking waaaayy up, into the soft-needled crown of a single specimen or small stand, but never had I seen a whole forest. These horticultural giants were truly awe-inspiring. I wondered if maybe J.R.R. Tolkien was staring into an old-growth forest such as this when he created his beloved Treebeard and the other Ents.

Somewhere around Crescent City the highway met the shoreline again. We found a sandy cove where we dipped our feet, me for the first time, in California’s Pacific waters.

Photo: Sue Gaviller

I first set foot in California waters here on Wilson Creek Beach, Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park. Photo: Sue Gaviller

We spent the night in pretty Eureka on the North coast. Looking out over Humboldt Bay we watched a big orange sun drop beneath the misty horizon. My husband ate fresh oysters from the bay and I partook of a fine California Riesling – this would be the first of many California sunsets we’d witness in the coming weeks.

Continuing South the next day on U.S. Highway 101, fittingly called the Redwood Highway through this part of the state, our destination for that day was Napa Valley. The fastest route would have been to follow 101 all the way down, but hubby wanted me to experience the Shoreline Highway as he had when a 20-something young man. So at Leggett, it’s Northern terminus, we turned off 101 and headed West on California State Route 1. Though it’s called the Shoreline Highway, it is well inland at this point and to the East of heavily treed mountainous terrain. To get to the coast one must first navigate this terrain…………

I took a deep breath. I knew I was in for a wild ride. At first it didn’t seem so bad, but very quickly the road heads into dark foreboding territory. We were climbing, climbing, following the winding, twisting road, narrow and full of snake-turns and switchbacks. Though we were always aware of the steep slope on one side or the other, periodic breaks in the trees allowed us to see how far up we were. And just when I’d think we were through it all and we’d start descending, we were climbing again. At times it was so dark, the tree canopy so dense, and the road so narrow that my husband commented, “I feel like we’re on some kind of hobbit trek.”

“Yeah, like through Mordor,” I muttered. If you aren’t familiar with Tolkein’s mythical realm of Middle Earth, then suffice it to say that Mordor is a very bad place. I don’t know how long we actually drove through this – it was only about 26 miles, but the going was slow and it seemed like hours. We finally emerged from Mordor about a half hour north of Fort Bragg, drove up around a bend and there stretched out before us, was the spectacular California coastline in all her windswept glory. Never had I felt so elated to see the endless expanse of water.

Photo: Sue Gaviller

Gorgeous view of California coastline just north of Westport-Union Landing State Beach.
Photo: Sue Gaviller

When we reached Mendocino, where we’d planned to stop for lunch, it was so full of tourists (yes we too fit that description) that we decided to wait. I needed to get out and stretch after the white knuckle drive I’d just endured, so we opted to have coffee and wander around the historic little town. I asked the young girl in the coffee shop where their washroom was – she informed me that due to the drought, all their wells were dry and the only available washroom was a public one down the street. I went in search of the facilities, passing numerous expensive shops and boutiques – in my ignorance I still thought of Mendocino as an old hippie town. There was a line-up for the ladies’ room – standing in line gave me the opportunity to take some photos of pretty gardens nearby. Vegetation here, both natural and garden, differed from that further up the coast.

Photo: Sue Gaviller

Mounds of pink and white rock rose dress up Mendocino’s wooden water tower. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Still waiting in line, I noticed a young man with long hair and a beard (which was as long as his hair), wearing cargo shorts, work boots and walking a beautiful bloodhound. “Must be a local,” I thought to myself, still showing my naivety (as if I had any idea what a local Mendocino-ite might look like). “Nice dog,” I remarked. He looked at me warily and muttered something – everywhere we’d been people were so open and friendly and this man’s guarded response was a marked contrast. “Is that a Bloodhound?” I persisted. At that the bearded fellow opened up completely, informing me that yes she was a bloodhound, that she was in heat, the second phase of her heat to be precise, and she was really………..well to put it a tad more delicately than he did, apparently her sex drive was extremely elevated. He was looking for another bloodhound to breed her with but the only one in the area belonged to the local police chief or sheriff or whatever and blah, blah, blah……..the guy was harmless but I was now a little uncomfortable with the conversation – fortunately by this time I’d progressed to the front of the line and could politely dismiss myself.

When I exited the washroom Mr. Mendocino was nowhere to be seen. I heard the sound of acoustic guitar and soft voices – a few yards away under a shady tree, a group of young people were playing guitar and singing old Neil Young tunes. I guess it was still a hippie town – young and old. I smiled, remembering my own youth and my first acoustic guitar, singing Mamas and Papas or Joni Mitchell tunes around a campfire – I was barely a teenager…………..and such a wannabe hippie.

I found my way back to the car where hubby was waiting, wondering if I’d got lost. We took a stroll, coffee in one hand, camera in the other, and explored scenic Mendocino before heading out on the road again. The gardens here were quite unique – picket fences, roses, heathers and other old-fashioned garden elements spoke to the vintage of the area, and spiky upright plants like Echium, Phormium and tall stiff grasses spoke to its coastal locale and lent structure to the softer elements.

Photo: Sue Gaviller

The juxtaposition of New Zealand flax (Phormium) with the white picket fence and heritage building makes quite a statement. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Photo: Sue Gaviller

Purple-blue spikes of Echium contrast nicely with the old-fashioned white roses in the foreground. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Photo: Sue Gaviller

Variegated New Zealand flax and tall ornamental grasses frame and anchor the mixed shrub/perennial border lining this pathway. Photo: Sue Gaviller

We continued our drive south on the #1 until it met up with #128 which would take us back inland, through more redwood forest on more winding roads – but nothing like Mordor. As we left the giant Sequoia forest behind, the landscape and vegetation changed quickly – we were entering wine country, more specifically the Anderson Valley Appellation (appellation is a fancy word for wine-growing region). We stopped for lunch in a little town called Boonville (yes that’s right; a little town out in the boonies called Boonville). It was hot here, like all wine growing regions, and like all small towns associated with wine growing regions, there were lots of great places to eat. We found a casual salad and sandwich place – I had one of the most flavourful salads I’d ever tasted; arugula, mango, grilled chicken breast, fresh cilantro…………mmmmm I can still taste it.

A couple of hours later we arrived in Napa Valley where we would stay and explore for the next 5 days. I won’t bore you with a play-by-play account of our stay in California wine country – I’ll just say it was fabulous; fine wine, great food, stunning scenery, beautiful gardens………………..

Chateau Ste. Jean, a Sonoma winery, boasts beautifully landscaped grounds - Mediterranean inspired in the Italian Renaissance style, with classical statuary, parterres and hedging, archways and rustic pergolas. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Chateau Ste. Jean, a Sonoma winery, boasts beautifully landscaped grounds – Mediterranean inspired in the Italian Renaissance style, with classical statuary, parterres and hedging, archways and rustic pergolas. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Photo: Sue Gaviller

Truchard vineyards are one of the oldest vineyards in the Carneros region of Napa and produce beautiful wines, my personal favourites being Chardonnay and Cabernet Reserve. After a lovely lunch in the gazebo with Tony and Anthony, we took a stroll through the vineyards. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Photo: Sue Gaviller

Modern, minimalistic promenade in downtown Napa. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Photo: Sue Gaviller

Simply planted , it is the shape, colour and placement of these terra-cotta pots that provides the appeal. Photo: Sue Gaviller

In Yountville, a gorgeous little town just North of Napa, beautiful gardens and landscapes abound - here lavender, roses and the ever-present columnar cypress adorn a restaurant parking lot. Photo: Sue Gaviller

In Yountville, a picturesque town just North of Napa, gorgeous gardens and landscapes abound – here lavender, roses and the ever-present columnar cypress adorn a restaurant parking lot.
Photo: Sue Gaviller

Poolside planting outside private residence at Trefethen Vineyards. Note how the form and dense texture of the columnar cypress nicely dominate the scene with the rounder forms playing a supporting role. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Photo: Sue Gaviller

Roses planted alongside a stone wall create real old world appeal in this roadside planting next to a vineyard in Napa. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Photo: Sue Gaviller

Rhythmic repetition of narrow upright cypress creates nice movement around this circular drive. Photo: Sue Gaviller

lambert bridge lavender 2

Layered planting – a swath of lavender repeats the horizontal line of the stone wall, which is again repeated in the barberry shrubs and the trees beyond. Lambert Bridge Winery. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Photo: Sue Gaviller

Kendall Jackson, another Sonoma winery, has lush gardens to wander through. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Photo: Sue Gaviller

A stunning ‘hedge’ of Cannas near Dry Creek. I guess they don’t get hail there. Photo: Sue Gaviller

After 5 days of hot weather, daily wine tasting and other overindulgences, I was ready to move on to the next leg of our journey – back to the coast. I was so looking forward to fresh seafood, the smell of saltwater and walks along the beach. Join me next time for more garden pics from the California coast.

Til then,
Sue

 

 

Colour – the Absence of White

My back yard was still covered in snow as of yesterday – or to be more accurate, my back yard was covered in snow again as of yesterday. Spring had teased us with some warm-ish weather for a week or so;  enough that the snow had melted, leaving in its wake swaths of pallid yellow-brown turf and dull grey-brown soil – colour so de-saturated it could hardly be called colour at all. But at least it wasn’t white. Then a weekend of snow and below-freezing temperatures, and the ground was again blanketed in white – I might have called it pretty had we not already had 6 months of it.

Today the spring weather has returned and the snow has all but receded, this time exposing green. Green – the colour of awakening life. It warms us to the core – indeed it’s all the colour we need right now. It signals the beginning of another long-awaited gardening season.

But as the season progresses, gardeners are no longer as enamoured of plain old green; we want bigger colour, brighter colour, and zealously apply it to our gardens without understanding its impact – for good or for bad. What is there to understand you ask? Why is colour any different for gardeners than anybody else? Well, it’s not really – it’s just that we face some unique challenges when employing it.

Working with colour is different for a gardener than for example, a painter.  A painter works with paints and pigments, mixing them in various proportions until the desired colour is attained. A gardener on the other hand, has only what Mother Nature (or the hybridizer) offers. While there are plenty of colours to choose from, it can be a challenge to find a plant in the exact colour we want, have it grow and thrive in the exact location we want and have it bloom at the exact time we want.  And even a novice gardener quickly learns that a flower described as ‘blue’ is rarely blue, but more purple-blue or mauve-pink, and supposedly purple foliage isn’t really purple but rather a dark wine colour.

As well, we can’t control the existing colours in the larger landscape; the colour of our neighbour’s house for example. What if it’s red, or bright blue or yellow? How does one work with that as a backdrop for your garden?

And what about the impact of light? Outside under full sun, light shines at an intensity of 100,000 lux. Inside, directly in front of a sunny window, light intensity is about half that – 50,000 lux, and once you are a few feet further into the interior of a building, light intensity diminishes to as little as 1000 lux. Due to the sheer intensity of it, light has a greater potential to impact colour outdoors than it does indoors.

A garden isn’t a static reality either; it is a dynamic interplay of living, growing things – a vision in flux. So a garden that looks fresh and full of promise in the spring might be an overgrown mess come midsummer. Individual plants also change over the course of a season, or even a day or two – for example the lilac flower shown below is made up of many little florets, each with their own life span; the buds and newly opened florets are rich violet-red, whereas older florets are somewhat faded and will eventually turn brown. As more florets age and fade, the colour of the whole panicle is affected and eventually the appearance of the whole shrub.

Syringa 'Ludwig Spaeth'

So, now that we recognize some of the unique challenges gardeners face when working with colour, let’s see if we can’t find a way of understanding it so we can respond to those challenges.

Over the spring and summer months I’ll be discussing colour theory specifically as it relates to garden design – hope you can join me.

Until next time,
Sue

Say it Again Sue

Happy New Year fellow gardeners! It’s a week or two into 2014 and I’d like to bid a fond farewell to 2013. Let me rephrase that. I’m so glad to see the arse-end of the year 2013!

It wasn’t my finest year.

Like many of you, I made some New Year’s Resolutions. Most are pretty straightforward; return to healthier eating, lose some weight, get more exercise, spend less time in front of my computer screen, blah, blah, blah. Challenging as it may be to abide by such resolutions, if I can commit to them for even a few weeks, perhaps these lifestyle changes will become re-established in my daily repertoire of healthy behaviours – they say it takes only 21 days to form a habit.

However, not all of my avowed changes are quite so straightforward; be more organized, procrastinate less – qualities that just aren’t part of my make-up……….supposedly one can learn though. I’ve also decided that from now on I will try to think before speaking. Yikes! How does one possibly remember to catch oneself each time the mouth opens to speak; to always first consider: is what I’m about to say necessary, or useful? Will I come on too strong, or too loud, is this a ‘think’ or a ‘say’, will I be oversharing or heaven forbid, repeating myself?

I was advised once, by a well-meaning person of course, that I have an annoying habit of repeating myself. Not entirely untrue I guess. In my defense though, experience has taught me that some people need to hear things several times before they get it. And as a design instructor and lecturer I also know that some things merit repeating – whether within the same address or at a later date as a review. It’s what good teachers do. For example, since this blog’s inception I have thrown oodles of design advice at you – do you remember all of it? Not likely. Do you remember exactly where to find whatever information you might want to revisit? Probably not. Repeating myself would be helpful here no? Perhaps a review to help you navigate both the design process and this site – all my design advice in a tidy little bundle with links to the applicable posts where you’ll find the information you seek.

You’re welcome! It’s what good teachers do.

Design Process and Principles – A Review

The Process

The first thing I want to reiterate, and this can’t be overstated, is that design is primarily about organizing and arranging space, not plants. The same way a house must first be properly designed and built before it can be furnished, so the outline of a garden or landscape must first be planned before plants are considered. The functionality of any given space should be the designer’s chief concern, followed by its form – hence the designer’s mantra ‘form follows function’. The design process then, looks like this (click on the red text to go to corresponding post):

Phase 1 – FUNCTIONAL DRAWINGS: one must first determine what one want or needs; for example, garden beds, a deck or patio, walkway, lawn, fireplace etc., and then decide where each will be situated. Various possible locations for each element can be explored before deciding on the best placement for your particular needs.

Phase 2 – CONCEPT DRAWINGS: once you know what you want and where you want it, you can give form to your garden beds, patio, walkway and other garden elements. Remember your design concept can consist of:

As you play with various design lines, there are some Key Things to Remember:

  • Maintain Continuity
  • Avoid acute angles
  • Use design lines to guide planting

Phase 3 – Planting Plan: when your landscape or garden outline has been conceptualized, plants can then be considered. However, before one can effectively arrange plant material, some governing principles must first be understood – we’ll return to the Planting Plan later.

The Guiding Principles

Although designing a garden or landscape requires both creativity and knowledge, anybody can learn how to improve their own gardens with the help of a few guidelines or Design Principles. These principles, as applied to landscape design are:

  1. UNITY – a sense of oneness and harmony in the garden, achieved through:
    • Repetition – repeating elements throughout a composition.
    • Dominance – one element or group of elements is given emphasis
    • Unity of Three – arranging elements in groups of three (or odd numbers)
    • Interconnection – physically connecting all landscape spaces
  2. BALANCE – perceived equilibrium in a garden or landscape composition. Balance can be Symmetrical or Asymmetrical.
  3. MOVEMENT – visual motion throughout a composition
  4. SCALE – size of landscape elements in relation to their surroundings
  5. PROPORTION – size of landscape elements in relation to each other

The Planting Plan Revisited

With a rudimentary understanding of design principles you’ll now be in a better position to choose and arrange plant material, but there are still procedural steps to follow:

  1. FUNCTION – determine if there are functional roles like shade or privacy that you need plants to play.
  2. AESTHETICS – plants provide visual appeal from their physical traits:
  • Colour
    • Gardeners looove colour don’t we? I have touched only lightly on the effective use of colour in the garden. Colour theory is a big topic and I’m still trying to decide how I want to approach it – how much information will be enough, without being too much…………..see I’m already adhering to one of my resolutions; I’m thinking before speaking, er writing.

Well my friends that ‘wraps up’ my review – a little New Year’s gift for you. Keep this post handy for future reference – design advice is just a click away.

You’re welcome! It’s what good teachers do.

Yours,
Sue

How Lovely Are Thy Branches

O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree,
How lovely are thy branches.
Not only green when summer’s here
But in the coldest time of year.
O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree,
How lovely are thy branches.

                                                ~ Author Unknown ~
 
 

Nothing says Yuletide quite like evergreen boughs, whether still on the tree, or as part of some other seasonal ornamentation. Almost every home at this time of year has the requisite evergreen wreath, swag, garland, or container arrangement. I myself dabble only in the latter; the seasonal container.

I didn’t always participate in this Christmas container frenzy – mixed evergreen branches billowing over the tops of pretty pots, complete with festive balls and bows. It all seemed a bit artsy-crafty to me. But I had to admit, a tasteful arrangement could enhance the overall appeal of a winter landscape. In time I learned to embrace my ‘inner Martha’, though I soon discovered that arranging evergreen boughs in a winter container required a different skill-set than designing a landscape, a garden, or a summer container arrangement. No this required a florist’s flair, a talent this garden designer is decidedly lacking.

My early attempts weren’t particularly spectacular – spruce and juniper branches harvested from trees and shrubs in my garden, with a few dogwood stems sprinkled in. They were a bit drab actually – not surprising since many spruce and juniper species tend to lose colour saturation in our very cold winters, becoming dark and dull. In containers their presentation is therefore lacklustre. Pine however, stays delightfully green, cedar too – I tried those, but apparently any old pine or cedar won’t do. My garden gatherings of stiff upright mugo pine branches and sprigs of Emerald Green cedar just didn’t do the trick. Something with a more draping habit was needed.

Eventually, about the 23rd of December one year, knowing we’d be entertaining family the following night, I decided I should really purchase some suitable greenery. I live only a few minutes away from several greenhouses, so off I went in search of greener greens. Fortunately, since it was so close to Christmas, everything was discounted – which also meant of course, that selection was limited. There was still some fir to be had, and one scruffy bundle of pine. A gentlemanly sales attendant scrounged up a few cedar boughs for me. I needed something taller too, for height and structure. All that was left was some twiggy, tawny-hued huckleberry branches – this would have to do I guess. I plopped my greenhouse finds into my containers, fussed with them a bit, then fussed some more. The end result was…………..well, acceptable.

I continued with these last-minute arrangements for a number of years – they were attractive enough, but I certainly wouldn’t say I’d found my calling. And no festive balls or bows – this was definitely still too Martha Stewart for me.

I guess we must have had mild autumn temperatures that extended well into December, or maybe very timely Chinooks, because in all those years I whipped up my eleventh-hour Christmas containers, not once was the soil in my ceramic pots frozen………until last year. This was the year I decided to shop early for Christmas greens so I’d have lots to choose from. I was like a kid in a candy store. Beautiful bunches of fir and hemlock, soft pine, lacy cedar and elegant cypress, rich red dogwood stems, pretty berried branches and crisp white birch branches – I bought it all, hundreds of dollars worth.

The plants from my summer arrangements were still in the pots, covered in snow (winter had come early) and had to be removed before I could do my holiday arrangement. “No problem,” I thought, “I’ll get my trowel and quickly pop out the dead plants.”  Clunk.  Metal hit ice.  Hmmm.  “No problem,” I thought,  “I’ll get some warm water and melt the frozen soil and then with my trowel pop out the dead plants.” Scrape, scrape, scrape – the warm water thawed enough soil for me to remove about a teaspoonful. More warm water, more scraping, another teaspoonful of soil removed. This was not going to work. Hmmm. “No problem,” I thought. I went inside and got my blow-dryer. “I’ll blow hot air on the frozen soil to melt it and then with my trowel I’ll pop out the dead plants.” Whirrrrr. Whirrrrr. Whirrrrr. There I was sitting on my front steps, in sub-zero temperatures, bundled up like a snow-suited child, attempting to melt a huge block of ice-soil with a blow-dryer. The neighbours must have had a good chuckle at the sight.  Unfortunately, the hot air wasn’t making any difference. My hands were freezing. Feeling foolish and very frustrated, I gave up and went inside.

“How’s it going out there?” asked my husband as I came in the front door. The look on my face answered his question. Not well. What was I going to do with all the beautiful greenery I’d purchased? There was no way those pots were coming inside to thaw – they were way too heavy. When I first bought them I was concerned that, being such pretty pots, someone might walk off with them – so I filled the bottom half with sand and gravel. Nope, nobody was going to move those babies – ever.

“I have an idea” Hubby said. I didn’t want to hear his idea. I wanted to pout and throw a hissy-fit. But I remembered what I’d always told my kids when they were young and something would go wrong: “You need to get out of flip-out mode and get into problem-solving mode,” I’d chirp. So I listened to my husband’s idea. We had some reasonably attractive plastic pots on the back patio – they were painted black but finished to look like burnished bronze. While the soil in these pots was also frozen solid, they weren’t so heavy and could easily be carried inside to thaw. It was a good idea; better than anything I had come up with.

It took at least 2 days for the soil in the plastic pots to thaw, but once it was workable I went to work poking the myriad of branches into the soil. First the birch branches for height and structure. Then the bendy cedar and cypress boughs which would drape over the edges. Then the more rigid fir and hemlock branches, and finally the dogwood stems and red-berried branches for colour. But still no festive balls or bows.

We carried the two pots outside and placed them in front of the unusable ceramic pots. They looked pretty impressive……………impressively large anyways – so large that the evergreen boughs impeded access somewhat to the front door. Perhaps I’d purchased more container ingredients than I needed.

This year I got smart – I made sure I removed the summer arrangements from my containers well before freeze-up. I also removed about a third of the soil so I could add fresh topsoil in which to arrange my evergreens and accoutrements.

A few weeks ago I espied some pretty potted arrangements when driving by a large department store (which I shall not name because I don’t want to give them free advertising). What caught my eye in these holiday arrangements was, I’m embarrassed to say, the beautiful copper-coloured festive balls and bows. I couldn’t stop thinking about these lovely rich-hued ornaments and visualizing how pretty they’d look in my earthy-coloured ceramic pots against the café-au-lait colour of my house and the chocolatey colour of my front door and wrought iron railings. So I went back and bought them.

Originally the idea was to take everything out of the store-bought plastic pots and rearrange in my own pots. However, the plastic pots fit nicely into the mouth of my tear-drop-shaped containers – so there they stayed. I know, I know, for a garden designer this was shamefully lazy, cheating even. It never pays to cheat though, because the next day all the evergreens in one of the store-bought arrangements had turned brown, despite watering as directed. I returned it to the store-which-won’t-be-named, and to their credit, they happily exchanged it for one that still looked alive.

The weather turned nasty a day or two later and my holiday arrangements were soon covered in snow – it was very pretty and Christmassy, but the evergreen boughs turned suspiciously crispy in the frigid cold. I had a feeling they wouldn’t look so good when the temperatures rose again with the next Chinook. Indeed when the Arctic front blew out and a Chinook blew in, my evergreens became everbrown. Sigh. It was now past the middle of December and I was running out of time……..and patience. I brought the pots inside and tried to pull out the dead stuff – they wouldn’t budge. I examined the centre of the arrangements to see what was holding everything so tight – it was florist’s foam ……..very frozen florist’s foam. Sigh.

After a day or two the foam thawed. I poked some fresh pine branches and cedar boughs into it and some reddish twiggy things from an indoor vase which I bundled together to add height. My backyard containers hadn’t been cleaned out yet and still housed clumps of coppery sedge (Carex comans ‘Bronco’) – it was dead but still had some colour and made a pretty addition to my Christmas arrangement. A few sprigs of blue spruce, the copper ornaments from the store-bought pots, and my holiday containers were done. It was night-time when I placed my newly created evergreen arrangements into the ceramic pots – from what I could see in the dark they looked okay; better than the prearranged ones I’d purchased and certainly better than any of my previous attempts.

The following morning, seeing that it had snowed over night, I offered to relieve Hubbie of front-walk-shoveling duty.  My new Christmas containers were dusted in snow. The now white-capped copper ornaments sparkled in the sun.  As I moved down the walkway piling snow this way and that, I looked back towards the house and noticed that from this vantage point the black plastic pots were visible above the ceramic pots. “That looks tacky,” I said to myself. Thinking I hadn’t placed them properly, I attempted to adjust them, but to no avail. I guess the fit wasn’t as good as I thought when I first popped them in there. Sigh. My work was still not done.

I considered my options and determined they were limited. The foam was frozen again so I couldn’t just poke more drapey branches in. I thought about taking the foam out of the plastic pots and placing the whole arrangement right inside the ceramic pots, but one of the chunks of foam had split in half when I was manhandling it trying to remove dead evergreens. I was afraid without the pot to hold the foam together that everything might fall apart. So……….I decided my best option was to drill holes through the side of the pot into the frozen foam and stick more evergreen boughs in the holes. My husband brought me his battery operated drill and showed me how to use it. Bzzzz. Bzzzz. Bzzzz. There I was again, sitting on my front steps, in sub-zero temperatures, bundled up like a snow-suited child, this time drilling holes into my pots – more entertainment for my neighbours I’m sure. I didn’t last long in the cold though, so I brought the pots inside and finished my drilling and poking in the basement. I soon became very adept with the drill, exchanging drill bits from small (to puncture the pot) to large (to fit branches in) with a few quick flicks of the wrist. That’s right, this girly girl was using power tools. For some reason Hubbie found this very amusing, attractive even.

So in the end I did create some not-too-bad looking Christmas arrangements…………………..

Christmas container - RChristmas container - LMy latest container attempts  – I don’t have the flair of a florist, but aren’t the colours pretty?                 Photos: Sue Gaviller

So now that y’all know what not to do when creating your Christmas arrangements, it’s only fair I provide some examples of really well done containers. Deborah Silver, owner of Detroit Garden Works, creates stunning arrangements and shares some of her secrets on her blog Dirt Simple (check out her 3-part tutorial: Sticking It: A Foam Story, The Center Of Interest: A Short Story and The Details: A Story Board).

Just look at these – are they not perfect?

DS Containers 2Photo: Dirt Simple
DS Containers 3Photo: Dirt Simple
DS Containers 5Photo: Dirt Simple
DS Containers 6Photo: Dirt Simple

Well folks it’s December 22nd and despite my best attempts, it seems that my Christmas containers are once again last-minute – but this time they come with festive balls and bows.

 Merry Christmas to All and to All a Good Night,
Sue

Gardens are Like Kids

They Need a Little Structure 

  

Last month, a reader posted a comment recommending a couple of articles she thought might interest me – one written by author/garden designer Rory Stuart and another by garden photographer Charles Hawes. Both were discussing issues related to garden photography and both gentlemen brought up the point that gardeners seem to want their gardens viewed (and photographed) only when they look their finest.

Rory Stuart writes, “Gardens are always hymns to time, and gardeners the leading choristers – “if only you had been here last week”, or “come again next week and they’ll all be out.”

Charles Hawes concurs, “Garden owners want their gardens to be seen at their best and are hungry for praise…………….the garden can never be praised enough and yet such praise never satisfies the owner.”

It got me thinking – why this need to apologize for the state of our gardens, even when complimented?  If a garden is well designed, shouldn’t it look good all the time, and the gardener always feel good about his/her creation? In our harsh prairie/foothills climate, our gardens are perpetually one weather calamity away from near-destruction – late spring frosts, spring flooding, crazy hailstorms, early fall frosts, Chinooks, too-long winters, too-cold winters, too-warm winters with little or no snow. We must approach garden design in such a way that we can be pleased with our creations – no matter the season, or the weather.

I find myself apologizing on behalf of my front gardens much more than those in the back. The gardens in my front yard were created before ‘Sue-the-gardener’ became ‘Sue-the-designer’, and though I’ve spent the better part of the last decade editing and correcting design faults, these gardens still lack overall structure. My back yard on the other hand, always looks appealing, always photographable – I don’t mean to suggest that it can compete with the great gardens of the world (the kind Mr. Hawes and Mr. Stuart would be referring to)…………of course it can’t. It’s a simple low-maintenance residential landscape, designed to withstand the rambunctious play of boys and dogs. Though it looks different at various times of the year it never looks better. The design consistently fulfills its purpose with grace and elegance – even after a hailstorm. And I never feel the need to say, “Oh you should have seen it last week when such-and-such was blooming.”

Okay, maybe not never.

Photos: Sue Gaviller

Two large adjoining arcs produce an uncomplicated but voluptuous curvilinear design. Low-maintenance shrub plantings highlight the design lines creating this attractive four-season view out my back window. Photos: Sue Gaviller

So what is good design? If you’ve been reading and following this blog you’ve learned the basic design process and the principles that guide it. Putting it all into practice – first on paper and then in your own garden – should yield some positive results. However, although a design is rendered on paper in two-dimensional plan view, a good designer must envision the end result in 3D. The garden in ‘real space’ is a three-dimensional entity. It has a floor and walls and often a ceiling – paying attention to both the floor plan (Concept/Layout Plan), and the wall and window treatments (tree, shrubs and spaces between them), will help you focus on creating a solid skeletal structure that can stand up to scrutiny………and the weather.

Ground Plane – The Garden Floor

Good garden structure starts on the ground with your design lines, i.e. the shape of all your garden elements, including hard surfaces like patios and walkways and soft surfaces like planting beds and turf. Design lines must be strong in order to contribute to the strength of the overall picture – this means longer lines, fewer lines, and fewer directional changes, i.e zigs and zags, wiggles and waves. For some reason, gardeners assume simple means boring when really the simpler the line the stronger the design. (Check out Good Lines Mean Good Designs Part 1 and Part 2 for more info on design lines).

Mike's back yard winter - resample

Mike's back yard - summer

This backyard belonging to garden designer Mike Palmer, demonstrates lovely lines – indeed the strength of the design is in its simplicity, and affords the yard year-long beauty. Photos: Mike Palmer.

Hardscapes in particular are bold design delineators and will emphasize good (and bad) design lines. I find it very frustrating when clients contract my services after a poorly designed patio or walkway is already in place – there is only so much I can do with plants to mitigate poor hardscape design. These hard surfaces should therefore be carefully planned and constructed.

Kiftsgate Water Garden. Photo: Marny Estep

A concrete border and step-stone slabs emphasize the clean contemporary lines of a water feature at Kiftsgate Court gardens. Photo: Marny Estep

The garden floor also consists of living material; groundcovers and other low-growing perennials/shrubs – think of this as the ‘carpet’. Some landscapes have few, if any design lines – for example, a small front yard which is entirely planted and has no lawn or hardscaping, save a straight walkway.  In the absence of design lines, plants alone must define the space, with flattish areas of groundcover and low growing plants serving as the ‘floor’.

In any case, keep in mind that whatever role plants play in your floor plan, herbaceous perennials die down at the end of the season so can no longer play their role. Make sure you include woody plant material, some of it evergreen, to provide year-long carpeting.

Low growing evergreens like dwarf mugo pine, kinnickinnick and Rhododendron make good 4-season floor coverings. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Low growing evergreens like dwarf mugo pine, kinnickinnick and Rhododendron make good 4-season floor coverings. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Vertical Plane – The Garden Wall

The vertical plane refers to upright elements in the garden, both walls and furnishings. Garden walls can be hardscapes, softscapes, or a combination thereof. Furnishings may be single accents (plants or focal points) or larger groupings of plants.

A hardscape wall is an actual wall – perhaps a courtyard wall, retaining wall, raised planter or fence. As with ground-plane hard surfaces, vertical hardscapes can be strong spatial definers, accentuating both good design and not-so-good – so remember simplicity is key.

Photo: Sue Gaviller

A low concrete wall outlines a simple rectangle, creating a very strong design. Linear plantings further strengthen the lines. Photo: Pat Gaviller

The role of garden wall can also be filled by plant material. These living walls can be quite variable in their effect – tall grasses suggest a softer kind of partition compared to the more sturdy presentation of woody shrubs, and a random shrub planting is less structured than the unyielding solidity of a clipped hedge. There are low walls, counter-height walls and full floor-to-ceiling walls, the function of which will determine how full, or how formal you want your wall to be, and what it will consist of.

Photo: Pat Gaviller

Grasses and daylilies softly delineate a property line with low iron railings and stone pillars providing more rigid structure. Photo: Pat Gaviller

Photo: Sue Gaviller

Evergreens, grasses and barberries contribute good structure to this landscape and provide a casual but effective wall between properties. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Photo: Sue Gaviller

A clipped Cotoneaster hedge forms a casual, but very solid partition along a client’s property line. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Perfectly trimmed hedges, upright evergreens, lattuce fence panels and brick walls provide formal sturcutre in the vertical plance while th wlow parterres [rovide the flooring in this old world courtyard. Photo: Evelyn Steinberg.

Perfectly trimmed hedges, upright evergreens, lattice fence panels and a brick wall provide formal walls in this old world courtyard. Note that here the low hedges or parterres provide flooring rather than walls. Photo: Evelyn Steinberg.

Plant material used for walls and accents should consist largely of trees and shrubs – while perennials can provide some structure during the growing season, trees and shrubs afford much heartier structure and offer their woody presence year round. As well, plants that are grouped or massed will be more visually substantive. A mix then, of herbaceous perennials and woody ornamentals, grouped plantings and single accents, will ensure year-long interest and good garden structure.

winter garden structure resamplegarden structure - summer resample

Photos: Sue Gaviller

This client’s garden presents good structure year round – trees, shrubs, a Cotoneaster hedge atop a concrete wall, and tall grasses occupy the vertical plane and spreading junipers carpet the ground. Photos: Sue Gaviller

Overhead Plane – The Garden Ceiling

The garden ceiling is provided by overhead features like pergolas and arbours and by the branches of canopy trees. While a ceiling isn’t necessary for good garden structure it does complete a space and create more human scale – by capping the spatial height, vertical scale is reduced to more human proportions. This results in an intimate space that is cool and quiet by day and warm and cozy by night.

Photo: Sue Gaviller

A cool, quiet path beneath the trees at Reader Rock Gardens. Photo: Sue Gaviller

An overhead presence also allows us to walk through to another space as though crossing a threshold – makes for some extra drama in the garden.

Photo: Sue Gaviller

An arbour and canopied walkway provide a graceful entrance to Countryside Garden Centre . Photo: Sue Gaviller

In addition, the garden ceiling can provide protection from the elements; shade for our delicate skin and a ‘hail helmet’ for our delicate perennials – Hosta after a hailstorm looks like coleslaw.

Coarse textures perennilas like HPsta and Bergenia are prone tp haol dmamge. Situating them beneathe a canopy tree proveds some proteciont. Photo: Sue GAviller

Coarse-textured perennials like Hosta and Bergenia are prone to hail damage. Situating them beneath a canopy tree offers some protection. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Earlier this week, as I was returning from a walk with Princess Pepper, I noted that my front gardens aren’t looking too bad, even in these barren winter months – deciduous shrubs, evergreens and ornamental grasses bring form, texture and subtle colour to the composition. More importantly they bring the garden some much-needed structure.

So the next time you find yourself impatient for the next wave of colour in your garden, or woefully observing how much better it looked last week, ask yourself, “What’s missing here?” Maybe it just needs a little structure.

Y’all stay warm,
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.