Water + Foliage = a Perfect Vignette


We all love the soothing sound of water, whether the rushing torrent of a waterfall or the gentle trickling from a fountain. It stills the soul, giving us permission to pause and enjoy the moment. Shallow birdbaths and fountains attract birds from hummingbirds to Western tanagers while butterflies can be seen ‘puddling’ in a simple dish rock.

A large water feature may well be a major focal point in your garden or a partially hidden birdbath could be a delightful ‘garden moment’ – discovered as you stroll along the path. Whatever the size there is one key design tip that will transform your focal point into a vignette and that is FOLIAGE and there are two ways in which it is typically used;

1. As a backdrop



Tall Shenandoah switch grass (Panicum v. ‘Shenandoah’) is the perfect backing for this luminous red glass birdbath by Seattle artist Jesse Kelly. A shorter copper stand would not have had the same impact. Rather the height of the stand emphasizes the erect architecture as well as the color of the tall grasses. The deep burgundy smoke bush set off to the side also plays into this scene well.

In the top photograph a rusty old tractor has sprung a serious leak! Love the whimsy of this. In this instance the hefty vehicle is seen against solid conifers while a rhododendron appears to be trying to escape from within. Great re-use of something that was headed to the landfill.

2. As a picture frame



Th image above is a wonderful lesson in composition. Firstly there is the geometry with the repetition of circles within squares (circular columns within a square pool) and also squares  within circles (pavers set within the boxwood perimeter).

Then we have the three columnar fountains that slowly drip water into the pool. Each is topped by grass or grass-like foliage which softens the hard appearance. The entire water feature is surrounded by a boxwood frame, adding a crisp picture frame to the  scene.



For a more naturalistic look this boulder lined pond, nestled within ferns, grasses and conifers could easily be found on a hike in the forest. Water loving foliage plants within the pond itself adds to the sense of integration between water and foliage.


How do you make a diminutive mossy birdbath into a noticeable garden moment? By setting it within a shady nook surrounded by shade loving plants in simple shades of green.

I have lots more ideas for creating a focal point using water features in my garden design course GORGEOUS GARDEN DESIGN  - Foliage and Focal Points. Click on the title to find out more . Craftsy is the fastest growing site for inspirational and educational courses led by professionals and the classes can be watched whenever you want – you own the class for life!

In my next blog post I’ll tell you about using foliage with garden art to create a unique focal point while adding your personality to the design.

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And the winner is….


If you didn’t win, don’t worry! I have a special consolation prize for you. For this week ONLY I will discount my class for you if you sign up from this post. Just click on the the photo below to get 25% OFF!


SORRY – but MY special discount has now expired. However you may still enroll in the class  - and sometimes Craftsy offers it’s OWN discount!! Click on the image below for more details


titleCardI’ll see you in the garden


Foliage & Focal Points – and a GIVEAWAY!

IMG_5980 When you look out into the garden what do you see? Is there something specific that catches your eye or do you find yourself just scanning the horizon? In our excitement to add plants to the garden it is easy to forget that a garden without distinct focal points can be unimaginative at best and boring at worst. Thankfully this is easy to correct even if you have already overstuffed your garden with your favorite perennials and shrubs.

Over the next few weeks I’m going to show you four different elements you can use as a focal point; water features, garden art, structures and containers – many are inexpensive, some you may already have gathering dust in the garden shed. There is one theme we will come back to every time though and that is the use of foliage to enhance our chosen focal point, so that seems like a good place to start.

Why foliage? What about flowers?

The simple fact is that flowers only bloom for a relatively short time. Even my whirling butterflies (Gaura) seen above only blooms from mid June until late September and that is one of the most floriferous plants in my garden. If I rely on those flowers for year round interest I am going to be disappointed.

On the other hand there are many  trees, shrubs and perennials that have beautiful leaves from early spring until late fall, often changing hue through the seasons and of course there are also many evergreens from magnolia trees and conifers to lavender and many grasses which keep their leaves year round. If we use foliage as a frame for our focal point we will always have something special to look at. In my front garden shown above I have dwarf conifers, silver wormwood (Artemisia), lavender, thyme, parahebe, daphne and more.

But I want COLOR!

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I’ve got good news – foliage comes in every shape, size, color and pattern imaginable so color is not a problem. From the spots and splashes on drooping fetterbush (Leucothoe) to the multi-hued heavenly bamboo (Nandina),  every shade of green and blue-green offered by conifers and the endless offerings of Heuchera and Heucherella (gold, cinnamon, black, purple, lime, orange, pink, peach, silver, green and more) your garden has no excuse to look drab.

How do I use foliage with my focal point?

Think of a picture frame – that’s the role foliage plays. It will typically either surround your piece or act as a backdrop Got you thinking? Well I have exciting news for you.

Next week (September 9th) will be the launch of my online class for Craftsy;

GORGEOUS GARDEN DESIGN – Foliage & Focal Points.

This is a 7 part class that will dive into this very topic in depth. You’ll walk around my garden and several others as I share ideas and we explore not only what you can use as a focal point but also how to link them together to create a garden. These classes are SUCH good value. In fact they cost less than just a one hour design consultation!

You can also watch the class at your leisure – your access never expries, so if you need to get up and put the kettle on or pour another glass of wine I’ll wait for you. Craftsy is a very interactive platform too. You can post questions and photographs as well as discuss ideas and projects with your fellow students.

My free gift to you

Click on my photo to enter to win my class!

Click on this photo and enter to win my class!

By way of thanking you for following my blog I’m giving away ONE FREE CLASS & A SIGNED COPY OF MY AWARD WINNING BOOK ‘FINE FOLIAGE’ ! Just click on my photo above to enter.

A winner will be selected at random on the day my class goes live; Tuesday September 9th, when you will be notified by email. Craftsy will set you up for your free class and I’ll mail you my book. (Note; sadly this giveaway is only available to residents of the USA and Canada but everyone will be eligible for my ‘runners-up’ prize mentioned below…)

I’ll have a nice commiseration prize for everyone else – but you’ll have to read my next blog post  (9/16) to find out what that is! And in case you are wondering the examples I’ll share in my Craftsy class will be unique – everything on my blog will be bonus material.

Good luck – I’ll see you in my garden

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Sticks and Stones

Blue and teal shades work so well with the white stones

Blue and teal shades work so well with the white stones. Photo courtesy Alyson Ross Markley

Sculptor Luke DeLatour of Stones and Steel knows a thing or two about rocks which is why we invited him to our Meet the Artist – Become the Artist event recently.

He has created some beautiful sculptures from twisted ribbons of steel into which he incorporates hand selected river rocks and  pebbles – beautiful when fresh from the workshop and possibly even better when rusted to cinnamon tones.

The trick is knowing how and where to place them in the garden to showcase their shape, color and texture. Here are a few examples of my favorite pieces.

For Big Spaces

Sometimes you don’t have a little gap in the garden you have a HUGE gap – such was the case after several shrubs gave up the ghost this winter. Clearly a cute 2′ tall birdbath was not what I needed here but Luke’s ring of stones was perfect. The solid green backdrop of the Hinoki cypress allowed the shape of the sculpture and color of the stones to be clearly seen together with the striking vertical steel poles. The height nestled it in nicely between shrubs yet was tall enough to be a focal point.

Ring of stones

Ring of stones

Perhaps the art I miss most is the cluster of seed heads. They stood 8′ tall and looked just right emerging from our meadow.

Large spaces call for large scale

Large spaces call for large scale. Photo courtesy Alyson Ross Markley

I know Luke is designing some other versions of this including pieces you would set on the ground. Can’t wait to see them!

For smaller spaces

Most homeowners need pieces of a more modest scale so what about these? Luke handpicks each rock  - they are reminiscent of seed pods, especially when set among fading astilbe flowers and grasses in our woodland garden.


One of Luke’s most popular designs was actually a spur of the moment idea – incorporating  pale aqua beach glass into the design. The translucence of the glass works especially well when light is allowed to stream through so think about where best to place these so you can enjoy them.

Layers of pebbles and beach glass - juxtaposition of light and dark, ought and smooth

Layers of pebbles and beach glass. Photo courtesy Alyson Ross Markley

For Kids of all Ages


Photo courtesy Alyson Ross Markley

Who can resist this game of trying to maneuver the pebbles along the wire? A perfect table-side game in the garden

From Sticks to Showcase

While glass artist Jesse and Luke were displaying their art my husband Andy was busy offering woodturning demonstrations in the barn. He showed enthusiastic visitors how he selected each piece of wood, looking for interesting swirls and patterns to create our one of a kind tools, heirloom bouquets, bowls, Holiday ornaments and more. It’s only when you watch him working at the lathe that you truly appreciate the craftsmanship involved.


A partially rotted cherry tree gets a second chance at being beautiful

In fact the response to his work was so overwhelming that he is now offering  three different woodturning classes which are sure to be very popular and is setting up his own business; StumpDust which will launch shortly.

In the meantime you’ll find his sawdust still on this site in our STORE

One of my favorite pieces, this vase was made from a plum tree that had to be taken down in 2008

One of my favorite pieces, this vase was made from a plum tree that had to be taken down in 2008

Whether taking stones, weathered smooth over time by moving water and combining them with other materials to create art or salvaging wood from diseased or fallen trees and creating beautiful yet functional pieces there is something incredibly satisfying about taking natures creation and finding a way to reveal its hidden beauty. That’s what both Luke and Andy have done.

Watch for our Art in the Garden event next year; Earth, Wind & Fire! Be sure you’re signed up for my newsletters to get advance notice.

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When Gardens and Glass Talk

Perfect color echoes between the glass and orange daylilies, golden conifer and dark leaf maple tree

Perfect color communication between the glass and orange daylilies, golden conifer and dark leaf maple tree

We have just hosted a really exciting and extremely successful event; Meet the Artist, Become the Artist. The idea was conceived after I realized that although it is easy to buy  garden art it is much trickier to know where to place it in the garden so that both the art and the garden are enhanced. You can read more about the event and artists here, but I  have been asked so many times in the past 24 hours to post pictures on Facebook that I thought I would do better than that and give you a glimpse into the event (and our garden) itself.

There was so much to see that in this post I’m going to focus on the glass pieces created by Seattle artist Jesse Kelly.

Color Echoes

I asked Jesse to exhibit his work in such a way that it related to the garden, especially in terms of color. I think the photograph above perfectly demonstrates this. Notice how the glass trumpets are pointing towards a plant with the same color flower or foliage. The shape even echoes that of the daylilies. The great thing about using glass art with flowers is that even when the blooms are done the color story continues.



The photograph above shows how to create a similar look using taller, vertical glass elements. This time they remind me of tongues of fire erupting from the embers of daylilies. Taller accents like these work especially well in the middle of a border where the copper posts are partially screened. Notice the beautiful stamped detail at the base of each twisted flame; a fleur de lys.

Punctuation points



This garden border is approx. 150′ x 50′ and the overall color scheme is ‘sunset shades’ so Jesse had the challenge of creating different vignettes that all worked with these colors yet had a unique look. We wanted to inspire our guests and give them lots of ideas.

The photograph above shows an area of the border that has an extensive planting of low mounding shrubs and perennials; black eyed Susan’s (Rudbeckia ‘Goldsturm’) and spirea. Jesse added two exclamation points together with a lower sunburst form, showing how you can mix and match shapes while keeping to a single color. This adds vertical interest without being too ‘busy’ visually.

IMG_5729 For a softer look Jesse worked with the wispy Mexican feather grass and apricot tones of Apricot Sprite and Apricot Sunrise hyssop (Agastache sp.) These glass blades were a simpler form than the previous examples without all the twists and curves. Notice how the subtle ripples within the glass mimics the movement of the finely textured grass. Good design is always in the details.

Echoing form


My front garden has a different color scheme which once again Jesse worked with perfectly. Not only has he captured the color of the Rozanne geranium flowers and red tints in the Shenandoah switch grass (Panicum v. ‘Shenandoah’), he has also mimicked the lower mounding habit of the perennial and that of the taller, erect grasses. These pieces are both bird baths – I love their loose form.


There were many more pieces – metallic black bamboo in our woodland, soft purple forms emerging from grey stones at the base of a tree and long lime green trumpets that were perfectly placed to catch the light.

Jesse is more than a glass artist – he is observant, creative and conscious of all the elements that need to come together to make his art and the garden shine.

In my next post I’ll show you how sculptor Luke DeLatour used natural materials in unique ways as well as a glimpse into the workshop of my husband Andy as he demonstrated the craftsmanship behind his woodworking using salvaged wood.

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