The Rougher Side of Beautiful


Good landscape design isn’t just about the pretty stuff.

As you browse Pinterest boards, Houzz ideabooks, garden design books, websites and magazines I’m  sure you are drawn to the dreamy images of a rambling rose adorning a weathered arbor, the quaint sitting nook, complete with vintage tea table set for two,  or the perfectly proportioned patio and pergola that inspires you to do something similar in your own garden  – not the overhead power lines, weedy driveway or soggy lawn. Yet most landscape designers have to address these issues before we can get you to ‘beautiful’ and our own gardens are no exception.

I can selectively frame my photographs to avoid things I’d rather you didn’t see – and have been doing just that for some time! Today I’ll show you a less-than-glamorous two month long project that is almost complete. I’m not going to wait for the borders to be mulched, for the flowers to be in full bloom or the dandelions to go away. This is the reality. Garden design, just like gardening itself, sometimes is just plain down and dirty. Dollars often  have to be spent on things other than pretty plants but the reward is – eventually – worth it.

The Problems

Overhead Utility Lines

SO exciting to see these power lines come down!!

SO exciting to see these power lines come down!!

While not uncommon in rural areas these can pose quite the challenge for delivery trucks, especially when the lines barely make the minimum 12′ height clearance required. In our case we had overhead electricity lines, around which was wrapped our phone line, all neatly tied together by wire (yes you read that correctly) and orange flags. In theory this was to alert drivers – whether to electrocution or decapitation we were never too sure but as decorative prayer flags they were far from attractive, and really detracted from what should have been curb appeal.

Of course we live at the end of a dead-end gravel road so ‘curb appeal’ isn’t really relevant but that does bring me to the next problem…..

Ugly, Weedy Driveway

This is how things looked on the day we moved in; October 2009

This is how things looked on the day we moved in; October 2009

Over the years the  driveway has been altered from a straight 140′ run to the garage, to include a pull-out to facilitate turning vehicles and eventually to a broader sweeping curve that leads away from the house to serve the barn and  greenhouse. In fact today we no longer have a garage so it was important to redirect approaching vehicles to a side parking area.

Meanwhile the weeds had become a regular battle and the definition between the grass, planted borders and gravel driveway had morphed into a mess.

The overall appearance was one of abandonment – the home and garden looked well cared for but the driveway gave the impression of country living at its worst and we weren’t proud of it.

The Front Path was Too Narrow

Originally the concrete path ran from the garage to a recessed entry

Originally the concrete path ran from the garage to a recessed entry – photo taken on move-in day

When the front entry was revised and the door centered the old path didn't connect easily

When the front entry was revised and the new door centered the old path didn’t connect easily. October 2010

When I first sketched our front landscape design in 2009 I knew I wanted to work with crisp rectilinear shapes rather than a traditional sweeping curve. It was one way I could take this 1960s rambler and give it a more contemporary, youthful look as well as being a play off the windows.

With the garage now converted to living space it was time to re-think the front path

With the garage now converted to living space it was time to re-think the front path and pull it away from the house. April 2011

I added Elfin thyme to soften the edges and thought it was a success – briefly. I quickly realized that by offsetting the pavers that way I had made the path  too narrow, exacerbated by the creeping thyme.


Those pavers are heavy and we just couldn’t face re-setting them – but the time had come to do something about it.

The Plan

Removing the Prayer Flags

The utility cables would be buried underground by digging a 2′ wide, 3′ deep trench from the house, under the driveway to the utility pole; 147′ in all. A local electrician would take care of permits, lay conduit, run wires and  revise our meter while the utility companies would take care of disconnecting and reconnecting as needed.

It had to get worse before it got better

It had to get worse before it got better

Meanwhile my friends and colleagues at Berg’s Landscaping would tackle the excavation.

It rained constantly! We had to run a sump pump in this pit so the utility crews could work

It rained constantly! We had to run a sump pump in this pit so the utility crews could work

Sounds straightforward? Try coordinating that many peoples schedules and you’ll quickly realize otherwise! It took almost two months. Local stores reported record sales of wine and chocolate….

Spiffy New Driveway

Could it get any worse? Yes it did....

Could it get any worse? Yes it did…. With the trenching it looked as though we had a major mole infestation! For a while we couldn’t access the front door and now we had orange tape to coordinate with the orange prayer flags

Meanwhile we decided to add concrete curbing to the driveway as a way to make things more orderly and fill in with fresh, compacted gravel over landscape fabric. Other ideas we considered were concrete and asphalt but both would  make this look like a runway due to the sheer size and didn’t really work with the overall aesthetic. Pavers would have been beautiful but cost prohibitive.

We also wanted to keep this as a pervious surface taking into account the high water table in this area and our clay soils. Any rain we can get to soak into the land rather than pool or run off is a good thing

The crew from Berg's Landscaping preparing for gravel and easing the grade on the outer edges of the curbing

The crew from Berg’s Landscaping preparing for gravel and easing the grade on the outer edges of the curbing with new soil and grass seed to facilitate mowing


The main challenge was where to stop? Should we run the curbing all the way to the barn for example? To the greenhouse? That certainly would have made everything looks clean and sparkly but it would also have directed the eye – and possibly vehicles, away from the home. One of the aims was to establish public versus private boundaries.

Grascrete acts as a visual endpoint while the curbing indicates parking

Grascrete acts as a visual endpoint while the angled curbing indicates parking

Berg’s had the great idea to create a transition using Grascrete blocks, in this case filled with gravel rather than grass. The blocks suggest an endpoint for visitors yet are easily driven over when we need to.

Refine the Front Path

We marked the new path entry with paint to get a feel for it

We marked the new path entry with paint to get a feel for it

Once again landscape architect John Silvernale helped me out with ideas. He liked my concept of the offset pattern, the journey through the front garden and agreed with me that just one additional 18″ paver  width would solve the problem. However he also suggested making a more substantial ‘landing’ at the front door as well as the point where it meets the driveway.

I sketched the revised design on the computer to help determine placement and materials

I find it helpful to sketch things out on paper (or the computer) as well as visualizing in situ. It helps to assess materials that need to be ordered, final placement in relationship to other elements such as the driveway and tree and also spot any problems. The plan above shows sections of the original path in black, some placement adjustments that I felt were needed (in green) and the expanded landings and path width using new pavers (in red).

It starts to come together!

It starts to come together!

The talented crew from Berg’s lifted the original pavers (I cleaned them first with 30 second cleaner and a stiff scrubbing brush so they would blend more easily with the new bluestone), re-graded and prepared the base then set out the revised path.

The Results


(The propane tank will eventually be moved – it used to be hidden by a stand of bamboo – not a great choice since the septic heads are also in that area!) Notice how our ex-garage doesn’t look like a garage anymore since the driveway sweeps off to the left

For someone who usually only gets excited about  artistic details and cool plant combinations  I have to say I am thrilled with my concrete, gravel and bluestone garden additions! I love the defined boundaries and the clear routes for wheels and feet (and paws). Delivery trucks are delighted too – they automatically look for the overhead cables and are much happier now that they can reverse safely and easily.


The new large path landing gives a clear visual cue to direct visitors to the front door

We still have to finish revising the landscape lighting, mulch borders and finish planting the newly extended front bed. The grass seed needs to grow (if the robins ever stop eating it) and the house is about to be repainted which is why it has several test colors on it! So we are still not quite at beautiful, but life is like that. Sometimes it’s OK to celebrate improvements even when we’re not  ready for the magazine photo shoot.


Love the broad entry from the driveway to the front path.  The grass will fill in the area to the right in time

So here’s to Progress. It was a long, muddy, messy and frustrating journey yet also exciting and rewarding and we are so glad we tackled this less than glamorous project. We’ve come a long way from a dirt track.

Do you need to get down and dirty?


Berg’s Landscaping

American Curb and Edging

NaBr Electric

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Party Time for Hummingbirds!


King Edward VII flowering currant

Zzzzzzzzzzip. Zzzzzzzzzzzzip.

Yes it’s that time of year when hummingbirds can be seen, heard and enjoyed daily as they flit from one flower to the next. Like most gardeners I used to rely on hummingbird feeders to entice them but quickly transitioned to adding flowering plants that provided a natural food source and habitat to support their presence year round.

Typically hummingbirds prefer blooms with tubular flowers  but in my summer garden they regularly feast on more open flowers also e.g. tall verbena (Verbena bonariensis). Likewise although all the literature tells us they prefer red I have seen these diminutive birds slurping on everything from white and purple to pink and orange flowers.

These are the early spring flowering shrubs and perennials currently on the brunch menu at the Chapman’s.

Flowering Currant


Flowering currant is a great addition to a large mixed border, seen here with conifers and spirea


A modern selection  of a native shrub, King Edward VII flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum ‘King Edward VII’), quickly grows to 6′ tall and at least as wide. Although browsed occasionally by deer the damage is rarely noticeable as you can see and the hummingbirds LOVE these flowers!

One thing that I found interesting this year is the color variation. This plant (photo above and also the one in the leading photo) grows in full sun and the flowers are an intense, deep pink.


The shrub pictured above is exactly the same variety but the flowers are smaller and a softer hue. This shrub is shaded somewhat by neighboring trees which presumably accounts for the discrepancy. However, it struck me that to extend the duration of available flowers for the hummingbirds it would be a good idea to deliberately plant these in a variety of lighting conditions from partial shade to full sun.

Flowering currant is hardy in zones 6-8 and is drought tolerant once established. There are many named varieties with both pink and white flowers.



I think this variety may be Mrs. Moon

One of the easiest perennials to grow, lungwort (Pulmonaria) has many other common names including soldiers and sailors! This old fashioned favorite is now available with other flower colors from deepest cobalt blue to pure white but I still prefer the traditional coloring that shows both pink and blue flowers as they age. Likewise the foliage typically has silver spots but you can now find varieties with almost entirely silver foliage.

Fashion statement regardless, hummingbirds will squabble loudly over these! Be sure to place them where you can enjoy the show from your armchair or while strolling along a path in spring. The clumps grow quickly and are easy to divide to expand your planting area.

TIP: older varieties are prone to mildew. Shear the entire plant down to 2″ after blooming. It will quickly regrow and the new leaves will remain clean and healthy.

Although recommended for partial shade and moist soil I also have these growing in full sun with no summer irrigation –  and they still thrive!

Andromeda, Lily of the Valley shrub


I first saw these thirty years ago, flourishing in the acidic soils of Scotland and was envious of those gardeners who could enjoy the heady perfume and evergreen foliage. When we moved to the USA in 1996 I was thrilled to discover that Seattle also has acidic soil and so can now grow these in my own garden. The variety above is Mountain Fire (Pieris japonica ‘Mountain Fire’)- one of many to choose from.


New foliage growth is a deep mahogany red, making a striking contrast with the older mid-green leaves. Tough, dependable and deer resistant this has also proven to be surprisingly drought tolerant and yes the hummingbirds love these flowers too – even if they are white!

I also have a young Impish Elf that looks promising with raspberry red flowers and several Little Heath which as a dwarf has much smaller flowers and I grow primarily for its foliage.


Variegated leaves of the compact Little Heath  – love the rosy flush of new spring growth

Winter daphne


These blooms are almost gone – most are faded to a dirty white although still emit a remarkable fragrance. The winter daphne (Daphne odora ‘Aureo-marginata’) has been flowering since early February and as such was one of the first blooms to entice the hummingbirds to visit. Planted adjacent to the lungwort these little birds won’t go hungry as they simple move from one flower to the next!

In harsh winters my daphne can lose a lot of their leaves but the plants quickly recover and are a highlight of the late winter and early spring garden, welcoming visitors of all species with their intoxicating fragrance and pretty variegated leaves.

And for dessert…


A special gift from my daughter last year – found at the Northwest Flower and Garden Show

I’d love to add a few more treats for these wonderful little birds. What do YOU grow for hummingbirds? Leave me a comment here or on Facebook – I always enjoy hearing your ideas.

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When Life Isn’t Fair


July 2013

July 2013

Today I should be writing a blog post about gardening, offering ideas, inspiration and possibly a few laughs along the way (usually at my expense). Today that isn’t going to happen.

Regular readers may recall when we adopted these two fluffy love bugs in July of 2013. While I was in England last October big, blonde Bo was diagnosed with advanced cancer and had to be put to sleep. Yesterday little Mia joined her. We discovered that she too had multiple tumors that were inoperable barely a week ago.

So I no longer need to take two bowls out to the vegetable garden to harvest strawberries or tomatoes.



I no longer have an excuse to stroll through the meadow and explore the wilder reaches of the garden.



I no longer have sticks left all over the grass waiting to wreck unsuspecting mowers

Really, there are plenty of leaves for both of you....

Really, there are plenty of leaves for both of you….

I no longer have my deer and rabbit alerts, gardening companions, truck dogs, welcoming committee.


Life is different. So I’m not going to try and write  today except to say give your family, friends and pets an extra hug. Because life isn’t always fair.

Mia and I getting to know one another; July 2013

Mia and I getting to know one another; July 2013



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Serenity in Seattle; my favorite display


While most visitors to the 2016 Northwest Flower and Garden Show were jostling for position to photograph the large display gardens, I found myself drawn to the smaller City Living  exhibits. Each designer worked with a 6 x 12 space defined by pavers to represent a high rise apartment balcony. The criteria was that all materials used in the display  could be carried through the home to the exterior. In addition the glass walls of the Skybridge where these exhibits were located should be kept open and the Seattle skyline view incorporated.

Ten designers took the challenge and created lavish displays incorporating edible gardens, lush container plantings and furniture that ranged from rustic to contemporary; something for every taste and style. While each one sparked ideas the exhibit that was my personal favorite was From Sea to Shining Sea, designed by Dee Montpetit of Ma Petite Gardens.  From the dusky purple and silver plant palette to the watery hues of the containers and the innovative use of fence pickets it afforded a wealth of take-home ideas for every gardener.

Create Your Own Style

When selecting containers many homeowners will opt for a matching set, perhaps varying the size while keeping the same shape and color but there are other ways to create an interesting cluster. For example one could stick with the same style (rustic, contemporary or traditional) but vary the color or do as Dee did and select a number of pots that are all  in cool shades of aqua but vary the style and finish.

aqua pots

A stunning selection of ceramic containers from AW Pottery were featured

This is a wonderful way to add some interest into a small space with different textures yet avoid the overall look being too busy. From a rustic finish with  detailed embossing  to a traditional high gloss and smooth finish and an intriguing ribbed detail, these ceramic containers are beautiful independently but become works of art as a composition.

Notice also how Dee used these containers in different ways.


This container cluster has it all; water, tropicals, perennials and fragrant spring bulbs


A shallow rectangular container was used to grow a vine up a woven fence panel for vertical interest, a tall vessel is used as a bubbling fountain, others hold shrubs, perennials, grasses and fragrant spring bulbs to give the illusion of garden borders, creating a sense of intimacy for the sitting nook.


Notice how the deeper brown-grey tones of the container are picked up by the New Zealand flax and wooden fence pickets

Plant Selection

It is important when viewing show gardens to realize that considerable license is taken when combining plants. Shade and sun lovers share space, while drought tolerant and thirsty plants also co-habit for the brief duration of the show. Likewise tropicals and Pacific Northwest natives mingle for a few days. The designer wants to inspire you to look for interesting foliage and flowers, to vary the height, leaf texture and form and to have fun. To that effect Dee used whatever she could find in Seattle in February! The result is a soothing but visually exciting palette in shades of blue-green, dusky purple and silvery white.


Westland astelia has beautiful dusky lavender foliage with silver overtones

Intriguing Details

Does your patio have an unattractive wall that you need to disguise? I love the way Dee addressed this in her display.


The careful placement of a wood framed mirror gives the illusion that this space is larger while also bouncing additional light onto the patio. The reflection even appears to work as ‘art’, bringing color to an otherwise blank space.


On the opposite wall, weathered wooden pickets are tied together with jute , creating an informal trellis on which the evergreen clematis can climb. This mix of materials was a lovely  personal touch, crossing stylistic boundaries to marry rustic with elegant. You could probably use old pallet wood for this project if the length of each board was sufficient.

Lighting is important in any garden and what could be easier than this string of patio lights?


The organic nature of these vine spheres doesn’t compete with the other elements in this small space the way Edison bulbs or dragonfly shaped lights might for example. A hurricane lantern containing a mosaic glass candle added light to the table.

Dee even added frosted beach glass as a mulch to several pots, again in the soft watery shades.


Dee has demonstrated unequivocally that small in size doesn’t mean sacrificing style. Rather it is about expressing your creativity in such a way that it balances your desire for individuality with an eye to scale, proportion, texture and color. Has this given you some ideas for your own garden?


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Taming the Front Garden


The existing landscaping suggested a neglected home; a far cry from the truth!


Where would you start? Pruning the overgrown rhododendrons and camellias? Removing towering, diseased conifers? Hauling away a pampas grass the size of a Volkswagen?


Overgrown bushes and weeds did nothing to enhance curb appeal

Well maybe, but the biggest problem was actually the driveway, assuming you drove a vehicle larger than a Mini cooper.


The edge of the driveway was crumbling

Besides some areas that were crumbling away, it was extremely difficult if not impossible to navigate the existing U-shaped driveway without at least a three point turn and reversing back out of the garage was equally challenging so that was actually where my design had to begin – with improved vehicular access and parking.

Good design has to go hand in hand with function so I always begin by assessing the inherent challenges and figuring out how to solve them, as much as I may already be dreaming about which trees to add!


Ivy and cotoneaster ran rampant towards the street

The second problem was privacy. There needed to be a buffer from the street, a separation of private and public spaces within the property and some screening from neighbors without appearing to be un-neighborly! Fences would solve part of the problem but they needed to look fabulous and not turn this large front garden into a fortress.


Three tall conifers were far too close to the driveway for safe driving.

Finally the overgrown landscape clearly needed to be addressed, saving what I could but not being afraid to remove several large conifers that were too close to the driveway, as well as the aforementioned unruly pampas grass and a thicket of ivy and cotoneaster.

The Design Criteria

I always work with the clients to determine their preferred design style, even while taking some cues from the contemporary architecture of this newly remodeled home. In this case I was asked to create a relatively ‘naturalistic’ planting style with a focus on foliage and texture over flowers (my sort of garden!) Note that naturalistic does not have to mean using only native plants. Rather the request here was to have something that had some Pacific Northwest flair with conifers, maples and boulders but to broaden the plant palette without it appearing overdone. Although one of the homeowners is a keen gardener it was important that this front garden was lower maintenance so that gardening time was primarily focused in the private rear garden areas (I’ll show you that before/after another time). It also needs to be drought tolerant although we have installed a drip irrigation system to help establish the new plantings for the first couple of years.

This garden won’t be used for entertainment or even as a casual seating area for the homeowners. It is simply the front entrance to the home, a foliage picture frame of sorts, so my aim was to have it tidy but also show an artistic flair (the interior of the home is beautiful and one of the homeowners is a fiber artist). It needed to say ‘Welcome’ and set the tone for what would be revealed. This wasn’t the place for a meandering  path through the beds or a semi-secluded bench for example.

The Plan – on Paper

front garden landscape re-design

The driveway was repaired and expanded by 10′ at the turnaround to allow better access and a dedicated parking area was established near the home’s entrance. You can see where the original brick and gravel driveway edge was on the plan. There is additional parking to the west of the home behind a new wide gate. However budget did not allow for a concrete pour so for now these additional areas are compacted gravel.


We reclaimed about 10′ of driveway to improve access. Compacted gravel was a budget friendly solution for now. On the far side of the driveway layers of trees and shrubs will soon screen the neighbors

A low wall and contemporary styled fencing (the fence and gate were designed by the homeowners and their general contractor) addressed many of the privacy issues. Rather than create a barricade between this home and the neighbor, the fence transitioned to a deep border of layered evergreen and deciduous trees and shrubs that will quickly fill in.


A custom fence and gate greatly enhanced the visual appeal while affording some privacy. This pullout provided parking for guests too.

Tall vertical grasses were added to create a buffer at the roadside; or at least they will be tall and vertical next year!


With the house number now lit and a simple planting of grasses replacing the straggly shrubs, the entrance to the home looks much cleaner. These grasses will grow 5′ tall next year, yet retain a degree of transparency

These Karl Foerster feather reed grasses (Calamagrostis acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster) will grow to 5′ tall and over 2’ wide, their tan plumes lasting well into winter even if it snows. I had originally planned a double row but we reduced this to a single row as the homeowners were concerned about visibility when pulling out of their driveway. Good call!


The bark of river birch peels away even at a young age to reveal shades of creamy tan and white

One of my favorite features is an allee of river birch (Betula nigra ‘Heritage’) that marks the main  entrance, the trees zigzagging down the driveway. With their attractive peeling bark and soft green leaves that turn to gold in fall these will be a year round highlight.

‘After’  – the Winter Version


Looking from the pull-out parking area towards the street. Note the five river birch on alternating sides of the driveway. We’ll add a few more grasses in the foreground until the cedars grow in.


I always hesitate to show ‘after’ photos when the design has been installed in winter because it looks a mere shadow of what I know is to come. Yet this is the reality and probably something that is helpful for you to see. The plants are all well spaced to allow for growth although we will be adding a few more grasses as temporary fillers.


With the driveway repaired and fresh landscaping this home now looks loved and lived in! Notice how the new fence and gate separates the private entrance to the home

I draw the design for suggested ten year growth so there will always be ‘gaps’. These can be filled with annuals or inexpensive perennials and grasses when homeowners want a fuller look straight away without compromising the overall design or heath of maturing trees and shrubs.


This Niagara Falls pine will grow to become a key feature on this corner with the finely dissected burgundy foliage of a maple and bold QuickFire hydrangea in the background

Even in winter you can see there is a good framework of evergreen foliage with the existing Rhododendron and camellia, the new Niagara Falls pine (Pinus strobus ‘Niagara Falls’)and Excelsa cedars (Thuja plicata ‘Excelsa’) to the bold David viburnum (Viburnum davidii), variegated Lemon Beauty box honeysuckle (Lonicera nitida ‘Lemon Beauty’) and blue oat grasses (Helictotrichon sempervirens).

To help you visualize the garden as it will mature here are all the plants;

Shades of Green and Gold

green shades

Clockwise from top left; Golden Spirit smoke bush, Excelsa cedar, Lemon Beauty box honeysuckle, David viburnum, Double Play Gold spirea, Niagara Falls pine

Accents of Burgundy, Blue and Copper


Clockwise from top left; spring foliage of Double Play Gold spirea, weeping Japanese maple (salvaged from existing landscape), blue oat grass, fall foliage of Snow Queen oak leaf hydrangea (latter photo credit; Monrovia)

Not shown is the Katsura Japanese maple which opens in ‘sunset’ shades before maturing to green and turning fiery orange and gold in fall.

Seasonal Flowers


Clockwise from top left; Snow Queen hydrangea (photo credit; Monrovia), Jelena witch hazel (photo credit; Le jardinet), QuickFire hydrangea (photo credit; Proven Winners), Summer Wine ninebark, substituted for Coppertina due to availability (photo credit: Monrovia).

Also offering blooms but not photographed is the David viburnum, existing rhododendron and existing camellia.

So within this naturalistic planting their is an underlying attention to the details of color and texture. No one plant screams “Look at ME!” yet there is a horticultural fugue being played as first one section of the plant palette is highlighted, the theme then being taken up by a second group and then a third.

Finishing Touches


This corner serves as a run off for rainwater so the river rocks are part of that drainage system as well as tying in visually to the boulders

Acting as anchors throughout the borders are boulders of varying sizes. These help keep vehicles where they should be but also create planting pockets for specimens such as the weeping pine which will grow to around 6-8′ wide and drape gracefully over the stone.

Lighting has been added which I have yet to see but the home owners tell me looks stunning! The river birch are all lit as well as the house sign and a golden spirit smoke bush which will grow to become a glorious splash of sunshine against the darker evergreens at the head of the driveway.


Winter containers by the gate that leads to the homes private entrance

A cluster of containers by the side entrance marks the transition and says ‘welcome’. These were planted last summer and will be refreshed and trimmed in spring but really help to bring the garden right up to the gate, connecting visitors with the garden.


Summer planting

Final Words

What do the homeowners think?

“We are surprised and delighted with how our new landscape has improved the street appeal and  resolved the challenging tight turn around. So nice to get rid of the unkempt woodsy look…

This was the final piece to our major home remodel project; it finally feels complete!”

Installed by the talented crew at Berg’s Landscaping

Is it time to rethink your front garden?

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