When Less is More


The Northwest Flower and Garden Show is always a highlight of the gardening year for me. Whether you are new to gardening or an experienced designer you will leave inspired, encouraged and ready for spring.

The display gardens take center stage, their styles ranging from whimsical to naturalistic but all find a way to connect to the annual theme which for this year was ROMANCE. Every garden offers an abundance of ideas yet there is always one designer who for me stands out from the crowd; Karen Stefonick of Karen Stefonick Designs.

The title of her 2015 design featured here is KNOTTY & NICE; Here’s to WE Time.


Here’s what Karen said about her design;

“For a couple seeking to connect, play, relax and set time aside to be with each other—“we time”—this garden caters to both the masculine and feminine senses; calling in the energy of both.

The ‘Knotty’ reference to this part of the vignette is both the trees and plantings which are various forms of pine as well as large beams of pine wood used to create the structure. Meanwhile, the ‘Nice’ traits are displayed by the more feminine attributes of lyrical water, warm fire and cozy furnishings.

A protective pergola surrounded by large bold stones–complemented by a soothing water feature–is mirrored in a reflecting pond. The final touch is a cozy fireplace and cushy furniture that you can sink into.

The majority of plantings in this garden are evergreen so you have a very textural and abundant array of visual interest year round, not just in the spring and summer. After all, romance is for all seasons!”

Why it Works

To me there are three key features that make this design so attractive and functional;

1. Use of Negative Space 

It would have been so easy to add more plants or an extravagant fountain into the pool. Or maybe a few large planted containers on the patio and baskets hanging from the pergola. Yet the essence of this design is all about restraint. Leaving open the expanse of water and allowing the naked architecture of the vaulted pergola to be seen creates uncluttered ‘negative space’. This becomes a visual break allowing focus to be on the clean lines and contrasting textures of natural materials. For the homeowner this translates to a feeling of meditative peacefulness and tranquility rather than over-stimulation.

2. Restraint in Color and Plant Palettes


A green and white monochromatic color scheme is always elegant but Karen’s design goes beyond elegant to timeless. She achieves this by focusing primarily on foliage. There are many evergreen trees and shrubs in this vignette with contorted pines playing an important role as they drape gracefully over boulders and fallen logs as well as gracing the pergola itself.

IMG_0743 White hellebores and cyclamen  add floral interest nestled among deer ferns and salal but the planting design is not centered around them.

3. Understanding scale


This is one of the hardest design criteria to understand and why working with a professional can be so helpful. Notice how Karen balances the hefty timbers of the pergola with bold but clean lined  furniture. How the substantial fireplace anchors the back wall yet is not imposing. How the tall conifers and specimen paper bark maple (seen in the top photo) balance the height of the structure. Every detail  feels ‘right’.

The final details

A subtle secondary water feature

A subtle  water feature adds sound and movement

In truth one could teach a full landscape design class from this garden so trying to sum it up in a few paragraphs is challenging but these are some of the other features I see as hallmarks of Karen’s work

1. Combining textures; soft pine needles brushing against rough, weathered stone. The peeling bark of the paperbark maple set against the smooth planed wood of the pergola. A swathe of round river rocks cutting through square pavers

2. Repetition; the furniture, mantel and chandelier all speak to the same design aesthetic as the pergola itself. Clusters of fat white candles have been used throughout the space for romantic lighting (Lanterns might have introduced a new and unnecessary design element)

3. The unexpected; a trickle of water from the pergola roof drips into a swale of river rocks, the droplets merging and slowly making their way across the patio and into the pool.

Karen is an exceptional designer and is no stranger to awards at the show. This year she once again received a gold medal as well as receiving the Sunset Western Living Award and the 425 Magazine Editors’ Choice Award.

Congratulations also go to colleagues Steve Spear of Complete Landscape Inc for the installation and Bill Ellsbury of Moon Shadows Landscape Lighting.

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Deer Resistant, Easy Care Annuals



Sapphire Blue sea holly (Eryngium) pierces a carpet of snowy white allysum


You know the scenario; there’s a space in the border. Which of course being a conscientious gardener means you have a duty to fill it. Such a dilemma typically results in hastily scribbled notes, a few iPhone snapshots for reference and hours of pondering. Your favorite gardening books, magazines and blogs all offer exciting suggestions, filling your mind with visions of bold shrubs, quirky conifers and romantic flowers.


Gaps! A shopportunity....

Gaps! A shopportunity….

Then reality hits. For some that’s a budget crunch as we have to admit that mortgaging the children to buy that latest trillium may not be the wisest decision. Or you remember as you reach for the sunglasses that you live in Santa Barbara not Seattle so you have to focus on water-wise plants that love full sun. Maybe you have decided that this is the year you will look for plants that require lower maintenance – no primping or pruning? For me it’s the deer. Having decided the size, shape, texture and color I need I then have to run my plant selection through my deer and rabbit resistant (hopefully) list. Actually I also need my garden to be drought tolerant (we live on acreage), low maintenance (I’m busy) and budget friendly (I’m cheap)

This used to be the point where I would close the gardening books and give up. However there is an easy and inexpensive way to fill those garden holes this year – with annuals that you can grow from seed right now. For the past couple of years I have been experimenting with using annuals as fillers in my garden and have really enjoyed the freedom of adding something for just one season.

Why Annuals?

Dibbers make asy work of seed sowing. Ours are made from salvaged wood

Dibbers make easy work of seed sowing. Ours are made from salvaged wood

Their entire life cycle is complete in a single year. Unlike perennials that will often take three years to get into their stride, annuals go gang busters right from the start; instant gratification

They are usually pretty cheap, especially if you grow them yourself from seed.

The annuals I show here were all used in my landscape, received little or no supplemental water and weren’t so much as sniffed by the deer or rabbits. I didn’t dead head them, stake them or prune them. In other words they passed the rigorous Karen test!

Annuals as Problem Solvers


Tobacco plant; tall spires of tubular white flowers scent the evening air


Use annuals as a temporary fix when something dies back

When my prized 6′ tall Lochinch butterfly bush was abruptly cut down to a measly 6″ after a harsh winter storm I planted a broad sweep of tall white tobacco plant (Nicotiana sylvestris) to fill the space. Their huge basal foliage rosettes quickly smothered any weeds (a bonus) and the tall spires of fragrant white flowers were a perfect temporary substitute for my shrub in scale, height, color (the butterfly bush has silver leaves) and perfume. At the end of the summer I pulled them out and added them to the compost pile and discovered that my butterfly bush was 4′ tall again. That means I don’t actually need them this year but they looked so pretty I may use them elsewhere.


Senorita Blanca spider flower is a lovely shade of white flushed with lilac. Grow it in the garden or container


Use annuals to fill gaps while specimen plants mature

Big plants cost big $$ so most of us have to buy small and allow time for things to grow. Annuals can quickly and inexpensively fill the gaps while the permanent plants mature. One of my favorites for this task is spider flower (Cleome), especially the shorter, non-smelly, sterile varieties such as Senorita Blanca by Proven Winners. Since this does not set seed you won’t be able to grow it yourself which makes the plants rather pricey. However a single plant can easily fill a 3′ x 3′ area.


If you need height you may prefer to stick with the more traditional varieties – this cerise color was a standout against my golden locust trees. These are very easy to grow from seed and can be started on a windowsill


Lemon licorice plant does best in afternoon shade to avoid scorching. I loved the way it thread its way up through an adjacent Red Carpet barberry


Use as a short term groundcover

Bare ground is in invitation to weeds. I add mulch to conserve moisture and help suppress weeds but generally prefer not to use a permanent groundcover in my sunny beds as it means I can’ t amend the soil with compost easily should I feel the soil fertility needs a boost. I’ve discovered two ridiculously fast growing annuals that make five star summer groundcovers; the silvery-grey Petite licorice plant and Lemon  licorice plant (Helichrysum petiolare varieties).


The silvery haze at the lower left is the Petite Licorice. Looked great anchoring that corner of the border!


One 4″ plant will spread 3′ in every direction. They are reliably drought tolerant (i.e. I never watered them after they were planted) and the deer completely ignored them.

To add summer sparkle 

My front garden needed some help in the sparkle department last year. I rely on white whirling butterflies (Gaura) for a hazy froth of white flowers from summer to fall but I lost quite a few over the winter and I wasn’t sure if the remainder would really perform as I needed them to (we had a film crew due in July so time was of the essence!)


Allysum adds honey scent and a romantic touch to the front garden

I bought a flat of simple white allysum and tucked the plants throughout the border; lining pathways, meandering between trees and shrubs and snuggling up to boulders. The results were so pretty I’m going to do it again but this time I’ll grow them from seed.


Alyssum is available in several shades or mixed colors which may work better with your color scheme.

What are you growing this year?

This is the time of year to buy seeds so start planning! if like me you need to consider the deer you may find this resource helpful as a starting point.

I’m itching to try something new – any suggestions?

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Scratch and Sniff


Pallida has an open shape with a rounded crown – shown here underplanted with hellebores


Seattle is having an unprecedented mild spell which tempted me out  to visit the winter garden at the University of Washington arboretum this weekend. The birds were singing, the frogs were….doing what frogs do, the hummingbirds were dipping and diving and people were swooning. Really? Yes really. Pure olfactory overload – the witch hazels are in full bloom, the sweetbox is flowering, some of the Oregon grapes still have fragrant blooms and the daphne are just getting started. So for those of you buried under snow or battling icy winds, here is a little witch hazel Scratch and Sniff from Seattle to cheer you up.

Witch hazel (Hamamelis species)


Winter Beauty blooms prolifically in full sun

Winter Beauty blooms prolifically in full sun

Witch hazels (Hamamelis sp.) are small trees or large deciduous shrubs originating from North America (H. ovalis, H. virginialis, H. vernalis), Japan (H. japonica) and China (H. mollis). Many of today’s favorites are a hybrid between H. japonica and H. mollis known as Hamamelis x intermedia from which cultivars such as Jelena (coppery orange) and Diane (red) have been propagated.

Gives these beauties room to spread – some can reach 15′ tall and wide! I too am guilty of ‘tucking’ them into a corner….

Pruning can be tricky and I don’t recommend it except to remove suckers. Those are the branches which stick straight up (the natural habit is of sideways or fan shaped growth). You may also see suckers from the base of the main trunk which again grow straight up. The general consensus is to remove these when the shrub is completely dormant (in winter) to reduce the possibility of stimulating new growth at that point. If you must prune for size then do so after flowering but before summer so that new buds have a chance to set for the following year.

Selecting for fragrance

Gold Crest is worth seeking out for its intense spicy fragrance

Gold Crest is worth seeking out for its intense spicy fragrance

While all witch hazels are fragrant some are more so than others. These are noted for their exceptional scent;

Gold Crest, Arnold Promise, Boskoop

Selecting for flower color

Ruby Glow is an unusual shade of brick red

Ruby Glow is an unusual shade of brick red

Yellow;  Gold Crest, Arnold Promise, Sandra, Sweet Sunshine, Pallida

Red; Diane, Agnes, Birgit, Foxy Lady

Orange; Jelena, Aphrodite, Gingerbread

Selecting for bloom time

This winter vignette captures two witch hazels and hellebore all in bloom together

This winter vignette captures two witch hazels and hellebore all in bloom together

The bloom time may vary from year to year, from one area to another and is weather dependent but this general guide will help you select a couple of cultivars that will provide you with an extended dose of swoon-worthy fragrance!

January-March; Chinese witch hazel (H. mollis)

February-March; Japanese witch hazel (H. japonica)

Fall; H. virginiana This native species is hardy in USDA Zones 3-8, spectacular in autumn as flowers at the same time as its leaves turn golden yellow

Late winter/early spring ; H. vernalis

Late spring - April; Orange Encore ( H x intermedia ‘Orange Encore’)

Selecting for fall color

Diane has a wide range of colors in fall

Diane has a wide range of colors in fall

Arnold Promise  – yellow

Diane – orange, gold and purple!

Jelena – orange and red

H. virginiana – yellow

Selecting for size/shape

Winter Beauty has a broad, spreading shape

Winter Beauty has a broad, spreading shape

Most witch hazels are typically as tall as they are wide, ranging from 10-15′ but these are notable exceptions

Narrower profile - Arnold Promise, Sweet Sunshine

Arnold Promise is narrower than many

Arnold Promise is narrower than many

Weeping – Lombart’s weeping witch hazel (Hamamelis vernalis ‘Lombart’s Weeping’).

Basic cultural requirements

Full sun or partial shade but flowering is best in full sun

Average, moisture retentive, acidic soil

Typically hardy in zones 5-8

Want to know more?

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New Easy Care Shrubs for 2015

Gardening in deer-prone country is so frustrating. As a designer I envision grand plant and color combinations in my mind – only to struggle to then find deer resistant plants that fulfill those criteria of shape, color and form. As a result I feel as though I’m working with a very limited plant palette at times, especially as I also need plants that are drought tolerant. Add to my list of ‘must have’s’  low maintenance and great foliage and you’ll see why I’m a tough customer.

So you can imagine how excited I get about new plant introductions and  even if you don’t have these restrictions you’ll be impressed by the shrubs here. Get your notepads out and start your shopping list!

First Editions Limoncello barberry (Berberis thunbergii ‘BailErin’)

Photo courtesy Bailey's

Photo courtesy Bailey’s

If barberries are invasive in your area skip ahead. For the rest of us – WOW!

When doing a live radio broadcast not too long ago I was asked what my favorite plant was. When I said barberries the radio host (Ciscoe Morris) was clearly surprised and expected me to suggest something much more exotic. However I really do get excited about these shrubs because they have been reliably deer resistant in my garden, are super drought tolerant,  available in many colors including variegated forms and there are tall ones, prostrate forms and short mounding varieties. On top of that there are evergreen varieties as well as deciduous ones, the latter having great fall color and red berries.

All of which explains why I’m excited to try Limoncello. The growers claim this to have chartreuse foliage with an unusual red edge. It is recommended that this is grown in full sun for best color so I’ll be curious to see if it shows signs of scorching as some of the paler barberries can do. Grows 3-4′ tall and wide in zones 4-7. Introduced by Bailey’s

Lo’ and Behold Blue Chip Junior butterfly bush (Buddleia x)

IMG_3994 I grew this beauty last summer and was really impressed. It has all the best attributes of larger butterfly bushes without the bad habits. Highly fragrant, attracts bees, butterflies and hummingbirds, has a very long bloom time and attractive felted foliage in a silvery blue-green. The really good news is that it is sterile so no need to worry about seedlings.

Its compact habit at roughly 2′ tall and wide makes it a great container option or it would be lovely as a low hedge or at the front of the border. Hardy in zones 5-9 and available this year from Proven Winners.

You can see additional photographs and read more  in my article Contain Your Excitement in the March edition of Country Gardens magazine – out soon!

Double Play Blue Kazoo spirea (Spiraea)


Now I have to admit I’m pushing the boundaries a little on this one. It is drought resistant after about two years in good moisture retentive soil and as far as deer resistance; they may nibble some of the flowering shoots but don’t seem to eat the main foliage. However I love the smoky blue leaves and soft rose new growth plus it performed so well for me in a container last summer that I have transplanted it into the garden where I have high hopes for it! Probably my favorite spirea to date, this grows 3′ tall and wide (possibly larger) and is hardy in zones 3-8. Available from Proven Winners.

You can read more – and see gorgeous photos of this spirea in my article Contain Your Excitement in the March 2015 edition of Country Gardens magazine – out soon!

Tuxedo weigela (Weigela x ‘Velda’)


Here’s a new weigela to blow your socks off! I visited the breeders Van Belle  in British Columbia last summer where I got a teasing glimpse of this outstanding new introduction. If I could have smuggled one back across the border I would have but sadly I have had to wait like you to be able to get my hands on one of these.

weigela-tuxedo-0005 (Large)

Pristine white tubular flowers on black foliage – this makes quite the statement. Imagine it in a sleek silver container all on its own or next to a feathery yellow Ogon spirea. Or what about planting it next to a cushion of Silver Mound wormwood (Artemisia schmidtiana ‘Silver Mound’)? Now while Van Belle do not claim it to be either deer resistant or drought tolerant my own experience with weigela (I have four different varieties currently) is that in good moisture retentive soil they do not need additional water after the first year or two and the deer either leave them alone completely or may nibble a few new shoots depending on the year.

This unique variety grows 2-3′ high x 3-4′ wide and is hardy to zone 4. Hurry, hurry – these will sell out FAST!

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Peace in the Garden


As the Christmas decorations get put away for another year the house can seem a little bare. We’ve got used to the shiny glass baubles, the festive mantle and those special ornaments that we look forward to displaying each holiday. After a few days, however, I find myself enjoying the less flamboyant decor, the quieter colors and the uncluttered surfaces.

The winter garden is just like that. From spring until fall there is a kaleidoscope of colors that jostle and weave with containers, fountains and garden art. I love it. But as I went into the garden this morning the frosty scene reminded me that winter has its own quiet beauty. A friend recently commented that a winter photograph I had shown her looked as though it had been taken in black and white. In fact it hadn’t but stripped even of verdant greens the landscape was a mix of frosty white and the sepia tones of aged grasses.

Our little cabin shown above is tucked into a border  of rich sunset tones that warm the garden from spring until autumn; golden Coreopsis daisies, copper spirea and red-tipped grasses mingle with salmon Exbury azaleas and black eyed Susan’s. Yet even in winter the color palette is hinted at as the warm cedar shingles echo the cinnamon bark of our young paperbark maple (Acer griseum) adding contrast to the conifers. IMG_9751

Perhaps what I enjoy most about our winter garden are the shadows and silhouettes. From the low growing barberries to the tall golden locust trees, their bare branches have become ghostly silhouettes that sparkle in the watery sunshine. The layers of trees and shrubs are still clearly defined as are their unique shapes. Large boulders and our triple arbor also play an important role in the winter garden, adding visual interest beyond the plant life.

March will bring daffodils and April will see the emergence of the garden at large. But for now I’m going to enjoy the quieter moments.

May 2015 bring you peace in your garden, your home and your heart.

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