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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A Must Have Book For All Cancer Survivor’s; Review & Giveaway

Final Cover

Few of us will get through life unscathed by the Big-C; Cancer. Even if we escape the diagnosis ourselves the chances are high that we have family and friends who were not so fortunate. My Dad (esophagus), maternal granddad (throat), paternal grandma (ovarian) and maternal aunt (breast and melanoma) all faced this challenge and I have sadly lost count  of the number of friends who have battled this disease. It’s a cruel, life changing diagnosis that leaves us all; patients and caregivers, reeling and wondering what the future will hold.

This powerful book written by my friend Jenny Peterson will look you in the eyes, pull you up and help you take the first step and then the next and the one after that. As a garden designer and cancer survivor herself she writes from experience, balancing compassion and empathy with practical ways to “cultivate hope, healing and joy in the ground beneath your feet”. It isn’t a ‘how-to garden’ book but rather has been written to help readers “enjoy your life and the world around you, even if you have cancer” . Consider this book your companion during the journey of healing. The Cancer Survivor’s Garden Companion is set out in three section; Body, Mind and Spirit.


yoga deck garden2

Does the very thought of getting out of bed exhaust you? Does working in the garden seem an overwhelming task? Jenny has got some great ideas to help you get some gentle exercise outdoors as part of your daily routine. From cardio (e.g. hoeing weeds) to stretching (e.g. raking leaves) and ways to strengthen your bones (weight bearing exercises such as rearranging patio furniture or dragging a garden hose!) and shares how yoga has helped her together with design tips for a yoga deck garden that you could build. You’ll also laugh out loud as she relays the story of her late night planting by headlight with husband Brett …..

In this section you’ll also visit inspirational therapeutic gardens, learn about juicing your home grown veggies and discover easy aromatherapy.


Jenny & Rebecca in garden

Jenny and Rebecca Sweet; fellow survivors, friends, designers and mutual cheerleaders

Depression affects far more than just those struggling with cancer. That dark, foggy cave is familiar to many of us who have battled chronic disease, bereavement (loss of family, friends, job, marriage…) and more yet Jenny encourages you to “allow your garden to heal your mind, keep it sharp, and ultimately bring you joy in the midst of the difficulties“.

I love the ideas in this section which were practical and creative without being too taxing. Things like seeking inspiration in gardening catalogs, Pinterest boards, magazines and books all remind us of the possibilities. Then Jenny puts her designer hat on as she shows you how to sketch a new garden bed, research cool new plants and solve garden problems.

Another idea which I highly endorse is to take up garden photography; even with your phone. I know from experience that I always feel much happier after an hour of taking pictures in the garden. Instead of focusing on myself and my worries I find myself totally absorbed in the delicate petal formation of a flower, or the way the sunlight glints on a frosty branch like a thousand diamonds, or how stunning the red maple leaf looks next to a golden smoke bush…. Basically I look out and not in and that is the first step to healing the mind at least for me. Being in the garden and observing the natural world that continues its cycle whether or not we are sick is a much needed reminder that life does go on outside our personal bubble.

This second section also talks about building your personal community and ways your garden can become a nurturing gathering place. You’ll meet my dear friend and cancer survivor Rebecca Sweet in this chapter and will doubtless shed tears (as I did) reading about her Head Shaving Party but the very fact that this took place in Rebecca’s beautiful garden was in itself healing. The garden and her friends and family were wrapping their arms around her during that difficult time.


hanging bells in the garden

A quiet spot for meditation anchored by a metal sculpture with bells that move in the breeze

Acknowledging different belief systems, Jenny discusses prayer and meditation in the garden  in a very easy-to-read/non-New Agey way. It won’t offend Christians nor turn off atheists in case you were wondering! The sounds and scent of the garden together with the feel of the breeze all helped her body relax which allowed her heart and mind to follow. Jenny also offers suggestions for the flowers you may like to incorporate in your meditation garden based on their meaning e.g. coneflowers (Echinacea) for strength and healing.

This final section also includes ideas for activities that can be meditative such as watering and deadheading flowers together with a great idea for walking a labyrinth with tips for designing one.

Throughout the book you will also notice Survivor Spotlights where you will meet men and women, learn a little about their journey and read the ways they found their garden to be healing for them.

Win a Signed Copy


I was so taken with this book that I sat and read it cover to cover in one sitting. I laughed and I cried. I was inspired and felt empowered. More than anything I felt as though Jenny while acknowledging the difficulties life could throw at us she wouldn’t allow me to wallow in a heap of self pity, but rather was willing to come alongside me and gently prod and push as needed. I don’t have cancer but know many who do. I have already given this as a gift to a friend and plan on purchasing several more.

You can order copies online or enter to win simply by leaving a comment below. A random drawing will take place on Monday February 1st 7pm Pacific Time and the winner notified by email. If you are not a regular subscriber and are concerned I won’t be able to find you feel free to include your email address in your comment. Jenny will send a copy to the winner as soon as I can relay your mailing address to her.

The drawing is now CLOSED. Thanks for taking part and congratulations to the winner LAUREL HOUNSLOW!! I’m sending you an email. :)

If you’d like to keep in touch with Jenny you can follow her on Facebook or come and hear her talk at the Northwest Flower and Garden Show next month where she will also be signing books.

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Plant Whimsy

I always want the gardens I design to reflect the homeowners taste and personality. There are many ways to do this such as carrying through a key color from the interior decorating scheme or including signature art pieces in the landscape. However sometimes you can have fun with the plants themselves.

This Under The Sea  garden designed  the Los Angeles arboretum is a perfect example. By combining the unique metal sculptures created by local artist James B. Marshall with evocative plant forms, this underwater fantasy garden captures the imagination of visitors young and old.


Setting the scene

Cogs, chains and gears combine to create this outstanding collection of sea creatures that include seahorses, an octopus, turtle and dolphin. Such ingenuity! Marine chain such as might be used for anchors is used as an edge for the border reinforcing the aquatic theme.

This sea turtle is 25″ wide; 24″ long; 10″ high and weighs about 75lbs. It is a clever composition of  transmission gears, tractor track and steering lever while  the head is a truck trailer hitch.

Love the mouth on this turtle - watch out!

Love the mouth on this turtle – watch out!


Note the curling tentacles - this octopus is on the move

Note the curling tentacles – this octopus is on the move

Skipper the dolphin is 55″ in length, 46″ in height, 17″ in width and weighs about 50 lbs


A smiling dolphin leaps past the octopus and fish

Contact the artist directly if you are interesting purchasing any of his pieces or commissioning something special

Plant selection

We may not all be able to grow these plants (too wet, too cold…) but we can still recreate this look if we understand what to look for. The idea is to seek out plants whose color, shape and texture suggests coral or seaweed.

Coral-like cushions

Coral-like cushions and waving ‘seaweed’ in watery hues

Cacti and succulents have been used to great effect in this design but most of these would only be suitable for an annual display in colder climates. What else could be used to represent coral or seaweed? Here are a few ideas.

The spurge (Euphorbia) family offers many possibilities. Fen’s Ruby (Euphorbia cyparissias ‘Fen’s Ruby’) forms a feathery cushion of finely textured semi-evergreen foliage that opens burgundy and matures to green. Chartreuse flowers add to the display in spring, Be warned that this plant can be a thug – check to see if it is invasive in your area before you let it loose. This may be best for a container display.

Fens Ruby spurge can be invasive

Fens Ruby spurge can be invasive – you have been warned!

Donkey tail spurge (Euphorbia myrsinites) is  stiffer, more blue, has gorgeous succulent foliage and is not quite so thuggish as its cousin Fens Ruby although is also listed as an invasive species in some states.

Donkey tail spurge

Donkey tail spurge planted with golden Angelina stonecrop

For a similar look to Fen’s Ruby without the concern of skin irritation common to the spurge family or its invasive tendencies consider Blue Haze stonecrop (Sedum reflexum ‘Blue Spruce’)

Blue Spruce stonecrop. Photo credit; Monrovia

Blue Spruce stonecrop. Photo credit; Monrovia

This cold hardy succulent (USDA zones 3-11) is typically evergreen, drought tolerant and tough!

Certain varieties of hebe may also work for cushion forms e.g. Red Edge and there are lots more cold hardy sedums to investigate.

Now for some of the truly unique plants that have been used to represent splays of coral or broad seaweed forms. Do leave me a comment if you can identify these!



Can't you just feel the current in the water as you look at this?

Can’t you just feel the current in the water as you look at this?

So what can we cold climate gardeners use? One suggestion is to look for fasciated forms of everyday plants; either those that just happen occasionally on a single stem within the plant or genetic forms that have mutated and been propagated to select for that feature. Fasciated stems are produced due to abnormal activity in the growing tip of the plant. Often an abnormal number of flowers are produced on affected stems; something I noticed on one of my Paprika yarrow plants this summer.

Ferns with fasciated tips often have names such as ‘monstrosa’ and ‘cristata’ and are highly collectable plants. Look out for crested hart’s tongue fern for example. There are also some fasciated conifers such as the crested Japanese cedar (Cryptomeria jap0nica ‘Cristata’). These would all be excellent candidates for a seascape.

On a recent garden tour in Portland I came across this fasciated form of a spurge which I believe to be gopher spurge Euphorbia rigida.

Fasciation - a funky accident of nature

Fasciation – a funky accident of nature

Note how only one stem was affected.

The finishing touches


To complete the scene I noticed a number of volcanic rocks used throughout the ‘sea bed’ and lava rock used as a mulch. There was also a few special specimen type plants, included for their unusual color or shape.

Now it’s your turn

Have I got you thinking? Next time you’re looking at plant images or walking through the nursery perhaps you’ll see a sea creature waiting to be discovered! Be sure to post photos on my Facebook page or leave me comments below. Imagination starts now………………………

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Finding Focus


I knew something was wrong; it was that little niggle in the back of my mind that prompted me to stop what I was doing and call Mum’s doctor. Sure enough Mum had just been admitted to hospital for the second time in a few weeks.

That was late September and from that point on my life became a surreal blur of hospitals, medical jargon and an emotional roller coaster that is impossible to describe in words but many of you sadly will understand all too well.

Mum passed away on October 27th as I sat by her bedside and held her hand. Barely allowing myself time to grasp the reality of what had just happened I went into full ‘organization’ mode, planning the funeral, completing the mountains of legal paperwork and clearing my childhood home for sale. With support from amazing neighbors, friends and my family I managed to get through it all and made it back home just before Thanksgiving.

Rock cairns are often used to mark the pathway along a journey

Rock cairns are often used to mark the pathway along a journey

I’m a list maker at heart and so far I was checking off the various ‘to do’ items at a good pace. The plan was that I’d take a few days to recover then get straight back to work, writing blog posts, designing gardens and more. You may have noticed that hasn’t gone so well; my last blog post was over two months ago and whereas I have continued to draw up designs it is taking me three times as long as I struggle to focus. Imagine yourself swimming through molasses (aka treacle) – that’s what my head feels like. I thought it was just me but now realize that this is a very common form of ’emotional jet lag’ associated with grief.

It’s the little things that throw me; looking at a purse full of coins and not having a clue what they are, forgetting the PIN for my debit card that has been the same for 20 years, turning up for a medical appointment – exactly one day late, going to buy Christmas cards for the family and realizing with a jolt that there is another whole section of cards that I won’t be shopping from any more…. and being convinced there are more cards for Mom, Mum and Mother this year than ever before.

A carved 'eye' in the top river rock focuses our attention

A carved ‘eye’ in the top river rock focuses our attention

So this short post is both apology and explanation as well as a promise to myself and readers that I will find my focus again shortly. I have some wonderful garden design ideas to share with you as well as some inspiring ‘before and after’ images from my own work. I’ll have ideas for every size of garden, budget and style and will continue to seek out the best of the new plants that hit the nurseries.

Meanwhile I’m going to focus on gratitude;  for treasured memories of those no longer with us, for friends and family near and far, for dog snuggles, for the blessing of a garden I can call my own.

Thank you to a group of precious friends who commissioned artist Like DeLatour to make this cairn for me, and had it installed in my garden for when I returned.

Thank you to a group of special friends who commissioned artist Luke DeLatour to make this beautiful cairn for me, and had it installed in my garden for when I returned. Your thoughtfulness and support means the world to me.

Wishing you all peace in your hearts, even where there may be sadness. Tomorrow is a new day.

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Designing with Water

In my last post A Change in Perspective, I showed you how I had taken advantage of the diagonal line across a rectangular lot to improve the function and make a small garden feel larger. Understanding how to use the line of sight – or axis – is a fundamental design principle no matter how large or small your space and there are different ways it can be accomplished.

On a recent trip to Pasadena, CA I was struck by several gardens, both public and private, that used water to highlight an axis. The  examples here showcase a rill, a reflecting pool, small ponds and a bubbling fountain, all used to highlight either a single or cross axis. The style and placement of such water features will determine whether the view is lengthened or foreshortened.

A Rill that Elongates the View

I’ve always been fascinated by rills and the way they draw the eye down a long axis but this one was especially captivating. The water was diverted into four narrow channels at intervals, causing it to move and ripple in interesting patterns down its length. On either side were wide, symmetrically planted borders accented with large rustic green containers.

The upper portion of the rill at The Huntingdon

The upper portion of the rill at The Huntingdon

The water commences its languid journey from an understated circular depression in a granite slab, flanked by pillars that are topped with succulent bowls. At its endpoint the water flows into a wide rectangular pool where it is pumped back to the head.

The overall effect was stunning; an oasis in a desert climate (it was 102′ that day) that drew the eye through the space and out towards the themed gardens beyond. The lush planting on either side added color and dimension, softening the design yet not detracting from it.

Using Water in  Cross Axes

A private Pasadena residence

A private Pasadena residence

The most compelling element of this private garden was the remarkable water feature that  highlighted both the long and short axes across the space. The long axis was dominated by a turquoise reflecting pool (possibly used as a lap pool) that led the eye to a domed pergola and trellis fence in front of which was a border of agave, aloe and other drought-tolerant species. This layered focal point is all the more dramatic for the pool pointing to it.

An assortment of water loving plants added color to the ponds

An assortment of water loving plants added color to the ponds

Intersecting the reflecting pool  was a series of partitioned ponds and a simple spillway that met visitors as they entered the gate and led them visually into the garden. These ponds were filled with water loving grasses, Canna and water lilies. Stepping stones encouraged close-up viewing and strolling.



Water features that are still or move very slowly afford the best reflections as can be seen above.

Marking an Intersection with Water

A simple fountain placed at the intersection of two paths

A simple fountain placed at the intersection of two paths adds a focal point

A second private garden demonstrated the use of a bubbling fountain at the intersection of two axes. This area was formerly a badminton court, reclaimed some years ago and transformed into a delightful strolling garden filled with water-wise shrubs and succulents , framed with brick and gravel and accented by a unique piece of garden art to draw ones eye to the farthest reaches of the space.

The use of a circular motif (the gravel path around the fountain, round container and spherical barrel cacti) helps to disguise the rectangular court dimensions while placing water in the very middle encourages visitors to slow down as they meander from one garden room to another.

Have you used water to emphasize an axis in your garden? Leave a comment and tell me all about it  or post a photo on my Facebook page. I always love to hear your ideas

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