Fabulous Fountain Grasses: “Temperennial” New Varieties

Fabulous fountain grasses!

While many in the perennial world seem to think that annuals have gone out of style, the “wow” factor they provide is undeniable. Tropical plants and annual flowers are perfect for temporarily filling in the spaces between slow-growing shrubs and trees, which is one of the many reasons books like Stephanie Cohen and Jennifer Benner’s The Nonstop Garden recommend that annuals and tropicals make up about 20% of your garden beds.

New varieties of fountain grass have become the latest trend for those looking for a fast, bodacious blast of seasonal color. You might think of fountain grass as being one of the sturdiest perennials around, even for colder climates. But these new varieties fall under the category of “temperennial” (read it again, I didn’t say temperamental!), which is to say they’re a perennial in temperate zones 9 to 11, but best treated as an annual in cooler climes or areas with a lot of rainfall (i.e., most of the Northwest).

[Read more...]

Designing a Meditative or Yoga Garden


Guest post from Jan Johnsen, author of the new book Heaven is a Garden and my co-contributor over at Garden Design magazine.

Yoga and gardens are a natural fit! Both are very personal endeavors – Yoga practice elevates our sense of wellbeing and makes us more aware of the present moment while gardens encourage us to appreciate the ‘now’ as we inhale the aroma of flowers or the green atmosphere after a quiet rain. When you put the two together and create an outdoor space where you can practice Yoga in a meditative garden, it is joyful, indeed!

Gardens are a simple way to celebrate our time with Nature in our own individual way. Some of us thrill to a garden filled with flowers, in colorful bloom all summer. Others yearn to be in a quiet, simple space, with rocks and trees sighing in the breeze. Whichever type of environment speaks to you, it can become a Yoga garden where you face the morning sun and breathe in deeply.

Here are a few ideas that you can use to make your outdoor space a serene yoga garden.

[Read more...]

Wildlife Garden Design Tip: Plant in Masses

Wildlife-friendly-gardens-with-good-design-3.jpgThink native plants and wildlife-attracting gardens look messy? It doesn’t have to be that way. In this series, we’ll talk about the techniques involved in designing a beautiful wildlife garden. Many native plant enthusiasts and wildlife gardeners start out by trying to replicate the randomized “design” of nature, by planting a lovingly-curated collection of individual wildlife-attracting plants throughout the garden. But the effect of this just isn’t right next to a home. A home is large and its design speaks heavily of human involvement, so going from the clean lines of a building straight to a replication of wilderness seems out of scale (wrong size) and out of place (wrong feeling). While a home landscape should provide a connection to nature, wildlife and the seasons, it should also reflect elements of our architecture, provide comfortable places for us to spend time, and soften the strong lines of a home with plantings that feel in scale with the surroundings. A well-designed garden is in harmony with both the human world and the natural world. One of the simplest ways of integrating home and garden is to use large groupings of individual varieties of native or wildlife-attracting plants. By using plants in drifts or masses, we set a scene that draws the eye through our landscape in an organized way and makes our home seem more in tune with the surroundings. When we go for the one-of-this-one-of-that approach, our eyes wander from spot to spot, which feels unsettling. Larger groups of plants “read” as one, so they feel more right-sized next to the home. And by using natives, you’re reflecting the natural beauty of your region as well as attracting local wildlife. Drifts or masses of plants:
  • Give natives instant design appeal
  • Lead the eye through the garden
  • Create a sense of flow and enhance the shapes in the landscape
  • Have a billowing effect which is more like a grand, far-off view of nature than a close-up
  • Move with the wind in a graceful way that is fun to watch
  • Reflect the scale of the architecture
  • Integrate home and garden
Of course, all this “reflecting the architecture” business may have you feeling worried if you go in for a softer design style. I’m not saying your plants should be planted in a straight line just so they go with the home. A meandering swathe of native grasses or perennials can emulate natural shapes such as that of a stream, yet the bold nature of the design would still fit in nicely next to a building. Neither do you need to feel bound by a naturalistic design style just because you’re designing with natives or with natural processes in mind. Native plants can be planted in traditional or formal gardens, and can be pruned or shaped appropriately to fit in with the surroundings just as other plants can. Loads of our natives are bright enough to go in an English cottage style, have architectural forms suitable for modern landscapes, or can be pruned and manipulated to show man’s influence in a Japanese-style landscape. There’s a horticultural benefit to planting in masses, too. Many plants use a type of chemical warfare (allelopathy) to stunt the growth of other types of plant growing nearby. By planting in drifts, your plants will cooperate with one another rather than wage war on their neighbors, and your garden will thrive with less care from you.

Here are some native and wildlife-friendly gardens that use massing effectively:

Wildlife-friendly gardens with good design Wildlife-friendly gardens with good design (5)
Wildlife-friendly gardens with good design (9) Wildlife-friendly gardens with good design (7)
Wildlife-friendly gardens with good design (2) Wildlife-friendly gardens with good design (6)
Wildlife-friendly gardens with good design (4) Wildlife-friendly gardens with good design (8)
  Next up: Choosing a Color Palette

Backyard Landscaping Not Looking as Good as You’d Like? Here’s Why

Landscaped-Garden.jpgGen here – today’s article is a guest post from my friend Rachel Mathews of Successful Garden Design. Rachel’s an established landscape designer in the UK, and I’ve been been enjoying her landscape design eBooks and courses for some time. Today she’ll share one of the biggest secrets to success in designing a landscape: [Read more...]

2012 Garden Trends: What the Cool Kids are Planting This Year

5030535643_554e158d90_z1.jpgI have a weakness for all the trend reports that come out at the start of each new year. While I have my own ideas about what’s going to be hot, I love to pore over these reports and alternately nod my head or think (hope!) the writer is crazy. Trend reports are a fun way of getting encouragement to try something new, because if something’s coming into style, you can bet you’ll find the resources and instructions you need at local garden shops or in the glossies. So what are my predictions for 2012? Here goes. . . [Read more...]

Drumroll Please: 2011’s Garden Trend Award Goes To. . .

Nadine-Bergs-succulent-planters-3.jpgSucculents! Forget the “Year of the Protestor“, 2011 was the Year of the Succulent. From green roofs to succulent spheres, these low-maintenance, year-round plants have been everywhere. With Debra Lee Baldwin’s classy instruction in her books, we’ve been using succulents in rose gardens, container plantings, and some creative people have even used them as Christmas ornaments. While succulents had some stiff competition this year from trends like edible ornamentals, vertical gardening, and gardening for wildlife, the fact is that succulents were a big win this year because they’re easy. You can’t kill ‘em, they make great gifts, they’re not too expensive, and if you have friends who garden, you can get into the succulent trend without spending a dime since they root so easily. [Read more...]

Mediterranean Garden Design: How to Create a Tuscan Garden

Mediterranean-Garden-Design-Creating-a-Tuscan-Garden-14.jpgRecently, I was lucky enough to visit the Mediterranean garden of Lynda and Jack Pozel in Eureka, CA. Lynda’s a writer and artist, and until five years ago, owned a gorgeous cottage-style garden that was on our local garden tour multiple times. So when they moved and Lynda had a whole new garden to create, most people would have expected her to design a garden along the same lines. Just one problem – the architecture at her new home was totally different than her last one. Plus, Lynda was ready to move on from the high-maintenance cottage style and towards a more minimalist, low-care garden. So she designed a Tuscan/ Mediterranean garden, with a few bold colors, iconic plants, and strong hardscape lines to define the theme. Here’s what makes her Mediterranean garden design work.

Boldness and Simplicity

Hot colors. Strong design elements. Large swathes of one plant meandering through the beds or marching along a wall. Under the hot Mediterranean sun, design elements need to be strong and intentional to keep from looking washed out. The thing that’s hard about creating boldness is it requires editing and willpower. Once you’ve chosen a theme, you can’t just cram the latest impulse buy into whatever empty spot you have. Part of creating a successful anything is in the elements you leave out. In Lynda’s garden, she chose a simple color scheme, with shades of green, orange, and purple taking center stage. Because so many Mediterranean plants have purply blue flowers (lavender, rosemary, thyme), choosing a hot color to contrast makes the traditional Tuscan garden plants look rich and vivid in the bright light of the sun. In addition, the greyish leaves on many Mediterranean plants can look faded or dull if not supported by a few lush, bright greens. Mediterranean Garden Design - Creating a Tuscan Garden (27) Mediterranean Garden Design - Creating a Tuscan Garden (4) Mediterranean Garden Design - Creating a Tuscan Garden
Mediterranean Garden Design - Creating a Tuscan Garden (9) Mediterranean Garden Design - Creating a Tuscan Garden (21)
Mediterranean Garden Design - Creating a Tuscan Garden (19) Mediterranean Garden Design - Creating a Tuscan Garden (24)
Mediterranean Garden Design - Creating a Tuscan Garden (3) Mediterranean Garden Design - Creating a Tuscan Garden (20)
  Even with such a simple color palette, you can see there’s a ton of room for individuality here. Were I to design my own version, I would add a few more of our California natives, like mimulus, leopard lily (L. pardalinum), and California poppies. There are an infinite number of ways to personalize. Paring down your color scheme, and even choosing a design style doesn’t have to limit your plant choices, as you can see from the wide range of plants Lynda selected.


Tuscan gardens often incorporate strong hardscape elements, especially stone walkways and patios, colorful tiles, and large pieces of pottery that house boldly-hued plants. Warm tans, reddish-browns, and terra cotta colors are the most common colors. Warm colors like this can soften the effect of a large area of stone or tile and make it feel inviting, rather than cold or formidable. The vase-shaped pots so integral to a Tuscan garden can be used to create a mini focal point in the garden, to draw attention to seating areas or direct the eye down a path. And under the heat of the summer sun, the sound and look of water can add a cooling feeling to the garden. They’re also valuable in urban settings for distracting from traffic noise. Water features can take a bit more maintenance in the garden, so aren’t for everyone, but if you’re willing to care for a small fountain or formal pool they can add a wonderful extra touch. If you’d like to personalize your hardscape even more, go on out to your local ceramics place and paint a few tiles with swirls of cobalt blue, orange, or deep brown to incorporate into stepping stones, a table, or the patio. If you’re looking for some color inspiration or ideas for those small, detailed touches that make a Tuscan garden work, Landscaping Network has some downloadable PDF stylesheets as well as photos of Mediterranean garden design. Mediterranean Garden Design - Creating a Tuscan Garden (16) Mediterranean Garden Design - Creating a Tuscan Garden (22)
Mediterranean Garden Design - Creating a Tuscan Garden (26) Mediterranean Garden Design - Creating a Tuscan Garden (7)
IMG_5647 Mediterranean Garden Design - Creating a Tuscan Garden (14)

Traditional plants

When you think of a Tuscan or Mediterranean garden, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Lavender! The fragrance of Mediterranean herbs like rosemary, sage, lavender, thyme, lavender cotton (Santolina), and others are an iconic part of Tuscan garden design. In particular, lavender makes a bold design statement when used to frame a low wall or pathway. It leads the eye to the focal point (a door or patio) while providing fragrance every time you brush against it. The shape and colors of olive and citrus trees are another element that bring visions of Tuscany. They can be trimmed formally and set in pots, or used within garden beds to screen unpleasant views or define a pathway or wall. The spires of Italian cypress are another traditional plant used in this style. Because they’re tall and slim, they make a great exclamation point and guide the eye to doors, seating areas, and pools. They work well when used formally to frame a view. The one problem with Italian cypress is they are short-lived in my cool, rainy climate (they prefer some summer heat), so in this type of climate I’d choose another plant with an upright, slim appearance (we say they have a “fastigiate” shape), even if I had to occasionally shear it to keep it slender. A few options are:
  • Juniperus scopulorum ‘Skyrocket’
  • Thuja occidentalis ‘Emerald’
  • Ilex crenata ‘Sky Pencil’
  • Podocarpus gracilior (can be kept sheared and small in a pot)
If you love the look of a Tuscan garden but already have some plants that don’t suit, you might be surprised at how easily just a little bit of editing and a few bold touches can give you the feeling of a Mediterranean garden. You can see from the creativity that Linda used in designing her garden that you can personalize this type of design in a number of ways to make it fit with your own style and home IMG_5253 Mediterranean Garden Design - Creating a Tuscan Garden (10)
Iconic Tuscan Planting Mediterranean Garden Design - Creating a Tuscan Garden (5)
IMG_5603 Italian Cypress
  For more inspiration, check out these two books: Italian Rustic Gardening the Mediterranean Way

Top Landscape Plants (Excerpts from Experts)

Excerpts-from-Experts.jpgWhen the Garden Designers Roundtable chose Top Landscape Plants as this month’s topic, I thought to myself, “Hey, no problem, I can write that in my sleep.” I mean, enthusing about plants is kind of my thing, you know? But given that this is book excerpt week here at North Coast Gardening, I thought it’d be fun to hand over the stage to five favorite writers, and let them enthuse for me. While each writer comes to plants from a different perspective, they share a love of gardening and language that makes each a pleasure to read. Without further ado, here are five of my top landscape plants:

Borage (Borago officianalis)

BorageFrom The Edible Front Yard by Ivette Soler:
“If, while strolling through a garden, you see little blue shooting stars exploding over a fountain of fuzzy leaves, you have stumbled upon borage. The luminous clusters of pinky-purple buds start off pendulous, then rear up and make themselves known with a burst of color. The edible grayish-green fuzzy leaves and stems of borage are a wonderful foil for darker foliage in the garden.”
While borage is a rampant self-sower in my climate, the cheerful blue blossoms attract honeybees and a number of other pollinators. This makes it a joy to photograph, since there’s always a bumbling somebody ambling along, ready for their close-up. [Read more...]

Book Review: Understanding Garden Design

understanding-garden-design.jpgUnderstanding Garden Design by Vanessa Gardner Nagel is billed as the “complete handbook for aspiring designers”, and that’s pretty accurate. Whether you’re a homeowner with a passion for gardening, or an aspiring pro, this book clarifies a number of professional tricks that Nagel uses to great success in her own landscape design business. So many professionals are greedy with their knowledge, afraid to share the unique understanding they have that makes their work great. Yet Nagel is so genuinely enthused about her topic that you can feel her desire to share good design on every page. She shares simple ways of measuring tough sites, rules of thumb for how much square footage you need for different garden elements, and ways of thinking about designing that differentiate her work from that of so many lackluster designers. Now, the kind of knowledge she’s sharing isn’t something you can absorb casually. In fact, I confess when I opened the book, I sighed when I realized that I’d need to buckle down and read every word. I’m used to skimming most garden books; I generally read the most exciting bits and get inspiration from the photos. This book, by contrast, is one of those books where you get out what you put in. That said, Nagel makes all that learning a pleasure with her wry sense of humor and warm guidance. I loved this missive early in the book, where she urges us to stop trying to fit in:
“Gardens can and should be a personal statement. Why would we want to have the same grinning garden gnome as our neighbor when there is so much that is unique to us? Does it make sense to duplicate that garden bauble that is so irresistible if it has nothing to do with our own personal experience and background? We need to get over our fear of doing something original because the design police might come after us. If we follow sound planning practices and tried-and-true design principles, we can be confident that what we create will work. Then give the raspberries to disapproving critics. Creating a garden brings a tremendous amount of satisfaction when it is not only full of a gratifying collection of plants but also enriched with our own philosophy and memories.”
I also loved her keen attentiveness to design elements that most people miss. For example, human psychology. On page 59, she says:
“Well-thought-out spaces not only provide for essential physical elements but also consider the psychology of space. How comfortable would you be with your back to a door or gate? Physically the arrangement may work, but our basic human instinct is always to watch our back. It is much easier, and more comfortable for us, to glance up rather than turning around to see who is entering our space.”
She also discusses the effects of color, like how we perceive color differently as we age, and how paint colors or different tones of lighting can affect how we experience a space. She gives a compelling grounding in the basics of color before moving on to discuss how to break the rules and have it work. Any well-read designer has seen a lot of info about color theory, but Nagel manages to bring fresh insights to the topic. Then, her discussion of plants, lighting and furnishings clearly show the design talent that has made her so successful. Nagel is not only a skilled designer, but she is thoughtful enough to be able to carefully analyze WHY she selects the materials, plants, and placement she does. Her explanations are clear and to-the-point, and the photographs clearly illustrate the design concepts she’s sharing. Bottom line – Understanding Garden Design is the type of design primer that any aspiring designer, whether professional or homeowner, will want to read thoroughly and understand before embarking on their first project. It’s a thorough, friendly book that will hopefully replace a lot of stuffy texts on the topic in college landscape design classes.

Read more from Vanessa Gardner Nagel:

On the APLD group blog Designers on Design On her own blog Garden Chirps Follow her on Twitter

Edible Landscaping Ideas at the 2011 San Francisco Garden Show

sweet-foliage-combos-Copy.jpgI was inspired by the copious use of edibles at the San Francisco Garden Show this year. In true garden show style, displays ranged from practical to completely outlandish. The highlights for me were Johanna Silver’s gorgeous alternatives to raised beds in the Star Apple Edible Garden, and the combining of vertical gardening ideas with edible landscaping seen in a number of the displays. Come along for the virtual tour: [Read more...]

Rockin’ It: Innovative Use of Stone at the 2011 San Francisco Garden Show

pretty-wall-idea-Copy.jpgRunning through the back of my mind when I visit a garden show is the knowledge that most of what I see isn’t really workable at home. The displays are pure fantasy – a chance for designers to show off what they could do if practical matters like watering and maintenance weren’t an issue. I’m not sure that home gardeners always understand this, since even I find it confusing trying to work out which ideas could actually function at home and which are best to just oooh and ahhh over. But the one thing that usually can be replicated at home is the hardscape. Stone, benches and walls make up the structure of the garden, and if you an afford the materials, you can usually straight up steal the ideas from garden shows. Come along for a pictorial tour of how designers used stone in the display landscapes at the 2011 San Francisco Garden Show. [Read more...]