Designing with Fall Foliage

It's that time of year - warts and all

It’s that time of year – warts and all

As the PNW braced for the predicted hurricane force winds, most homeowners dashed to the store for candles, groceries and chocolate. Essentials. What did I do? Grabbed my coat, wellies and camera then ran outside between rain squalls to take photos of the garden while there were still some leaves on the trees!

I can’t say that fall is my favorite time of year exactly, because I prefer warmer temperatures and that laid back vibe of summer gardening which typically means harvesting yummy fruit and vegetables and strolling around the garden with friends who stop by. But the colors of the autumn garden are outstanding – especially when you plan for them.

That’s right, a fall garden doesn’t just happen. One has to think about colors and textures as well as the timing of the display. Here are a few snapshots of my mid-October (pre-storm) garden to show you what I mean.

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This island border is truly a year round showcase

This island border is truly a year round showcase with gorgeous colorful foliage and seasonal flowers but fall may be my favorite time

Notice how in this photograph of my island border the dominant yellow foliage that immediately catches your eye is well spaced out. To the right is my golden locust tree (Robinia pseudoacacia ‘Frisia’) and to the left a frothy haze of Arkansas blue star (Amsonia hubrichtii). A bright gold-chartreuse conifer (Thuja plicata ‘Forever Goldie’)is set farther back towards the middle, flanked by contrasting deep burgundy foliage of a Grace smoke bush and Fireglow Japanese maple.

The next layer comes from the multi-colored fall foliage of the Ruby Vase Persian ironwood tree (Parrotia persica ‘Ruby Vase’), orange toned spirea and blushing Lime Glow barberry.  Evergreen conifers provide a deep green backdrop as well as blue carpet in the foreground.

If all the yellow and gold  colors were adjacent to one another the impact would have been lost. To make this design work in autumn I had to plan ahead even when the trees, shrubs and perennials were in their spring shades. Using colored pencils on a tracing overlay of your garden plan can help you visualize seasonal changes.

Contrasting textures

img_0184 A close up of this vignette shows how the bolder smoke bush leaves act as a perfect counterpoint to the feathery bluestar, both set off by the large mossy boulder.

With contrasting foliage textures you can achieve striking combinations even with a monochromatic color scheme as seen below.


In the photo above the finely textured Shenandoah switch grass (Panicum v. ‘Shenandoah’) shows up against the round leaves of a Glow Girl spirea even though both have the same color palette. Incidentally the spring-summer color of this spirea is lime green! Adding the cool grey-blue conifer (Chamaecyparis pisifera ‘Baby Blue’) in the background is a wonderful way to emphasize the warm fall colors of the deciduous shrub and grass.

Borrowed Landscape


The photograph above is deceptive. It is taken from the path that runs through the island border; Red Carpet barberry can be seen in the foreground while a haze of Shenandoah switch grass and a mounding weeping willowleaf pear (Pyrus salicifolia ‘Pendula’) are actually on the other side of the winding path.

When you looked at this photo did your eye immediately bounce from the red barberry to the red trees in the background? Those are actually almost 250′ away at the entrance to the woodland border, yet from this perspective they seem to be part of the immediate scene don’t they? Designers refer to this as ‘borrowed landscape’ and here I have specifically used it to enhance a fall scene. the two red maples (Acer rubrum) and the golden locust tree they flank, repeat the colors of shrubs in the foreground. Again, thinking ahead to the fall colors was key. If those maples had turned yellow the impact would have been lost.

Here’s a close up of those trees

img_0197 Now you can glimpse the understory of shrubs and grasses in this border as well as some trees which haven’t started their fall display yet. A rock cairn designed by sculptor Luke DeLatour marks the entrance to this border and was a special gift from some wonderful friends.

When more is more!

Some trees are just out and out show-offs. They are outstanding no matter when you view them. Such is my love affair with  Ruby Vase Persian ironwood seen here in its multicolored glory. This kaleidoscope of color needs a simple backdrop, provided here by a golden locust tree while the finely textured Shenandoah grasses are once again  working with a monochromatic scheme beautifully. Another large boulder works well against the finely texture grass while Jerusalem sage (Phlomis fruticosa) adds interest in the foreground (plus repeats the color yellow with its last few blooms) accompanied by the feathery yellow Ogon spirea (Spiraea thunbergii ‘Ogon’). So many layers of loveliness yet it isn’t too busy because there is one clear focal point – the Ruby Vase Persian ironwood.


Tips you can try

Grab your camera and photograph your garden; vignettes you like as well as those you are less satisfied with. Assess what has worked or not.

Are the fall colors evenly distributed throughout the space?

Do you need to introduce some bold conifers to anchor the autumn display?

Would boulders help to balance a lot of fine textures?

Can you take advantage of fall colors in a borrowed view from your own garden or a neighbors?

Does everything happen at once? Include early, mid and late season beauties. My fall display typically begins in September with vine maples and katsura trees and continues through the end of November with paperbark maples and purple smoke bushes.

Do you need a focal point for a fall vignette? This can be a specimen tree but here is another idea. See how the rustic pot below repeats the fall shades of a weeping Japanese maple behind it. Sometimes it’s the simple things.


The colors of a rustic pot repeat the autumnal shades of Acer palmatum ‘Viridis’

More resources

Fallscaping:extending your garden season into autumn by Nancy Ondra, Stephanie Cohen and photographed by Rob Cardillo (Storey, 2007)

Timber Press Pocket Guide to Japanese Maples by J.D. Vertrees and P. Gregory (Timber Press 2007) includes lists by size, fall color and much more.

Gardening with Foliage First – my NEW book co-authored with Christina Salwitz. Pre-order available now. (Timber Press, 2017) includes some STUNNING fall ideas

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Design Inspiration from Chihuly in Atlanta

Seemingly rising from the water is the botanical masterpiece Earth Goddess

Seemingly rising from the earth is the botanical sculpture ‘Earth Goddess’

I had the opportunity to visit the Atlanta Botanical Gardens last month while speaking at a symposium for the Garden Writer’s Association and was thrilled to discover that my visit coincided with an exhibit of Chihuly’s work. While  enthralled by the sheer scale and extravagance of his masterpieces I was also intrigued to seek out design lessons for homeowners with a more modest budget!

Glass as a Focal Point

Perhaps the most obvious use of glass art in any garden is to make a statement, to catch the eye and become a focal point. Often these focal points are on a primary axis or at an intersection of pathways.

This fountain was perfectly centered in a formal garden, commanding attention from every direction. Elegant without the glass. Exquisite with it.


Intricately curled glass pieces in shades of aqua suggest bubbling water while the overall composition balances the shape  and scale of the stone base.

Do you already have a fountain or water feature in your garden? Could you enhance it by adding some  glass art?

Reminiscent of a dandelion clock, this piece captures the imagination as well as the eye

Reminiscent of a dandelion clock, this piece captures the imagination as well as the eye

Think about whether  you want to mimic the movement of water or suggest plants growing in or floating upon the surface.

'Fern Dell paintbrushes' add light, height and color to a shady pool within a fern grotto

‘Fern Dell Paintbrushes’ add light, height and color to a shady pool within a fern grotto

Using Glass Art to Enhance an Existing Focal Point

It may be hard to imagine a Chihuly piece playing second fiddle to anything but as the following images show, while the glass is in itself remarkable it can also be used in more of a supporting role.

Notice how these vertical glass elements draw the eye upwards to the evening Atlanta skyline  – visible when walking this path in a clockwise fashion. To my eye the skyline is the focal point, enhanced and framed by the glass.

Carefully framed vignettes such as these are pure genius

Carefully framed vignettes such as these are pure genius

Yet stroll the same path anti-clockwise and you will perhaps better appreciate these flickering flames of glass are being used to pierce the billowing meadow-inspired plantings, creating punctuation points. So in one direction these glass pieces are seen as enhancing a focal point (the skyline) and in the other direction they are creating a focal point themselves. Intriguing.

The same glass pieces but approached from a different direction

The same glass pieces but approached from a different direction

Can you get your glass art to multi-task in this way? What about placing the art at a turn in the path. Can you relate it to something unique when walking that path in opposite directions?

Back to glass art and water for a moment; the primary focal point below is the botanical sculpture (usually with water flowing from the Earth Goddess’ hand but we were here before regular opening so the pump had not been switched on).


Yet the glass filled Fiori Boat and Niijima Floats bring this scene to life. They may not be the primary focal point but their inclusion suggests a magical story; “Once upon a time, in a time before time……..

Does this give you ideas? Floating glass balls on water is an inexpensive way to create a Chihuly moment but can you take  that a step further and create a vignette that tells a story?

Or this scene from the conservatory shows how a backdrop of glass rising from a carpet of soft ferns perfectly frames the reflecting pool (the primary focal point), while repeating the organic form of the tropical foliage.


Color Echoes

One of the easiest way to start designing with glass art in your garden is to repeat the color of adjacent foliage and flowers.

Sol del Citron

Sol del Citron – bold and unexpected yet having a sense of place thanks to the repetition of the color yellow.

Framed by tiers of yellow blooms and yellow-variegated foliage this glass sunburst grabs your attention no matter which direction you approach it from, or at what time of day.

Lighting is everything

Lighting is everything

Add Lighting

Which brings us to the final design tip – add lighting to your glass art so you and your guests can continue to enjoy it in the evenings. Did you notice that several of these shots are taken at dusk. I loved my daytime visit so much that I went back again in the evening. Lighting adds dimension, enhancing reflections, intensifying color saturation, framing and highlighting.


I’ll bring the wine…..

If you would like more ideas on using glass art in your garden you may enjoy these posts;

When Gardens and Glass Talk

Find Your Inner Artist

Art Imitating Life Imitating Art

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Shades of September


Whats' new this month?

Whats’ new this month?

It’s an odd time of year. Neither summer nor fall. Cooler but not cold. Perhaps chianti rather than sauvignon blanc but not-quite-ready-for-a-full-Bordeaux type of weather

I typically head into the garden to see what is new – newly blooming or in leaf – not newly going into decline! So what is there to get excited about in September? October and November will be redolent with autumnal shades: does September offer anything other than a weary landscape?

As I uploaded my images I was surprised to see how many shades of red there were; not the fiery fall colors that the smoke bushes and maples promise for the future, but chill-tipped foliage and flowers in shades of rose and ruby that suggested it was time to find my fleece jacket. Berries were also in abundance, from the glossy red honeysuckle that cedar wax wings prefer to viburnum, barberries and Red Beauty holly.

Enjoy a September stroll with me

Flowers Galore!

Many perennials and shrubs put on a second flush of flowers in fall while others are an autumnal highlight.

Pink Micro Chip butterfly bush

This Pink Micro Chip butterfly bush  is STILL pushing out blooms even as it leans on a winter daphne – instant floral arrangement

Many of the white paniculata hydrangeas age to pink – a great opportunity to play with plant combinations

Sometimes it isnt the actual flowers that have a pink hie but rather the sepals as with this Abelia x grandiflora

Sometimes it isn’t the actual flowers that have a pink hue but rather the sepals as with this Abelia x grandiflora

Berries, seed heads and more

From oversized to teeny-tiny, there are berries and seedheads throughout the garden already.


Raspberry-like seed heads of the kousa dogwood tree –  Christmas in September??

Talking of the Holidays, this Red Beauty holly seems to be well ahead of the curve too!

Red Beauty holly with Tangelo barberry and Baby Blue boulevard cypress

Red Beauty holly with Tangelo barberry and Baby Blue boulevard cypress

Serotina honeysuckle, samaras on the Purple Ghost Japanese maple, tiny berries on a barberry

Left to right: Serotina honeysuckle, samaras on a Purple Ghost Japanese maple, tiny barberry berries


A solitary leaf on the Fireglow Japanese maple offers a prelude

A solitary leaf on the Fireglow Japanese maple offers a prelude

While shades of red, orange and gold are expected on many trees and shrubs as autumn approaches, it is the unexpected multi-colored additions to foliage that I feel is a bonus to the September garden

Lime Glow barberry adds various shades of pink to its cream and green marbled leaves

Lime Glow barberry adds various shades of pink to its cream and green marbled leaves

I was surprised to see Mountain Fire andromeda still showing off mahogany colored new growth


And then there are the tiny succulents on the green roof of this delightful bird feeder that are also turning color.


What’s happening in your garden this month?

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Blanket Flower Beauty

THis stunning (unknown) variety of blanket flower was purchased as a plant. I'd love to find the seed for this!

This stunning Fanfare Blaze blanket flower was purchased as a plant. Love the fluted petals; I’d certainly like to find the seed for this!

Do you buy perennials or grow them from seed? My Mum was a remarkably thrifty – and patient gardener and grew many perennials such as delphiniums from seed. The first year they would get to be respectable sized plants but if they flowered it wasn’t a spectacular show. They would typically take three years to get to that chocolate box image of towering spires of lavender, pink and blue blooms. That was enough to put me off – three years seemed much too long to wait!

So when I was given seeds for the perennial blanket flower (Gaillardia) from international plant breeder Benary I was initially rather underwhelmed. Their saving grace was that these perennials are drought tolerant and deer resistant and the bold colors would work with my color scheme so I decided to give them a go. I started the seeds indoors under grow lights in February of this year and by early spring they were large enough to prick out into individual 4″ plants. (My Stumpdust dibber was the perfect tool for transplanting).

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

Dibbers make easy work of seed sowing. The ones from Stumpdust are individually hand crafted made from salvaged wood

I really wasn’t expecting them to do much this year so used the sturdy 4″ plants to edge a raised bed of basil in my vegetable garden, planting both out at the beginning of June.

The 4" transplants quickly grew to large flowering sized plants in 10 weeks

The 4″ transplants quickly grew to large flowering sized plants in 10 weeks

Wow did they GROW! Each plant quickly formed a compact mound at least 12″ wide  and bloomed in such profusion that they became a colorful highlight in the garden just six months after starting them from seed. In fact the plants are so big I may be able to divide them next spring.

Arizona Sun is perhaps the best known variety

Arizona Sun is perhaps the best known variety

The two varieties I grew were the popular Arizona Sun with its distinctive rays of red and yellow petals and the softer Arizona Apricot; golden yellow petals deepening to warm apricot at the center.

Apricot Sun - for those that prefer their blanket flowers without red

Arizona Apricot – for those that prefer their blanket flowers without red

There are lots of other colorful varieties and seed is readily available from many vendors including  Swallowtail Garden Seeds, Burpee, Park Seed

If you prefer to grow the native blanketflowers looks for common blanket flower (Gaillardia aristata) which is a perennial that attracts native bees as well as butterflies. You can buy that wildflower seed here. Alternatively the annual, native Indian blanket (Gaillardia pulchella) may self-seed in ideal conditions. Available here

Design Ideas

Use in a drought tolerant border with lavender, sage and succulents. Perfect either in your landscape or even for a parking strip


Parking strip planting – Portland, OR

Use in containers – they bloom for months without a break! Although I did deadhead spent blooms during the peak summer period, the seed heads themselves are attractive. These newer varieties lend themselves well to mixed containers, being more compact thus ‘hiding’ the foliage with flowers.

Celebration is a vibrant shade or orange-red that looks stunning with this variegted mirror plant (Coprosma repens) and a golden elderberry (Sambucus 'Lemony Lace')

Celebration is a vibrant shade of orange-red that looks stunning with this variegated mirror plant (Coprosma repens) and a golden elderberry (Sambucus ‘Lemony Lace’)

Cultural Conditions

  • Hardy in zones 3-8
  • Full sun
  • Water; average-low. Drought tolerant once established
  • Soil; well drained soil is essential. Sandy or average loam is ideal. Avoid non-amended clay.
  • Deer resistant (and said to be rabbit resistant – I’ll let you know!!)
I'm watching you......

I’m watching you……

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More New Plants: More New Favorites!

Color, texture, form, movement, interaction with light - all are assessed when growing new plants

Color, texture, form, movement as well as interaction with light, deer, rabbits and overall health – all are assessed when trialing plants

Between testing plants for growers and having the opportunity to grow new introductions in my landscape or containers for photo shoots I consider myself incredibly fortunate. The sense of anticipation never gets old; I am always excited to see what might work well in my deer resistant, drought tolerant garden or what may be the perfect addition to a plant palette for my landscape design clients.

I also take the opportunity to report back to the nurseries and growers that have sent the samples, reporting on hardiness, any disease issues, growth habit etc – even if they don’t specifically ask me to. It’s one way I can help YOU get better information. For example Proven Winners has recently updated several listings after our discussions – kudos to them.

Photographer Laurie Black shooting for a future article in Country Gardens magazine

Photographer Laurie Black shooting for a future article in Country Gardens magazine. Only GREAT plants make it into these designs!

The other way I try to help home gardeners is by writing blog posts on what I consider to be the best of the best. I recently wrote a post on my Fine Foliage blog (co-authored with Christina Salwitz) New Introductions – New Favorites, that you will definitely want to check out. It focuses on plants that have exceptional foliage and includes stunning flowering shrubs, groundcovers and perennials. I also shared my excitement previously over the new crapemyrtles from Baileys Nurseries. They have grown really well in my garden this summer so now the test will be our winter weather.

In this post I will focus on new introductions that are specifically grown for their flowers.

Bright Lights Yellow African Daisy (Osteospermum)

New for 2017: Bright Lights Yellow Osteospermum from Proven Winners

New for 2017: Bright Lights Yellow Osteospermum from Proven Winners

Vivid golden-yellow daisies all summer, Bright Lights Yellow African Daisy from Proven Winners performed better than expected for me this year. In the past I have found African daisies to be  hit and miss with their floral display but with a rapid succession of blooms this was never without color. As with all African daisies these open fully in the sun, so not ideal for an evening patio pot but fabulous otherwise. Look for this new variety in 2017

Design Ideas

I mixed these with deep purple heliotrope, red-tinged grasses and blue-green foliage in my summer containers.  Milder climates with well drained soil would be able to enjoy these in the landscape I’m sure. (I know my late Mum had several large bushes that she seemed to overwinter with ease in her English maritime climate)

Cultural information

  • Short and compact at 8-12″ tall, spreading to 12″
  • Full sun best (very heat tolerant) but part sun OK also
  • Hardy in zones USDA 9-11, annual elsewhere
  • Needs well drained soil – do not overwater


Maroon Swoon Weigela (Weigela ‘Maroon Swoon’)

Maroon Swoon weigela from Baileys Nurseries

Maroon Swoon weigela from Van Belle Nurseries

I wasn’t sure what to expect from this Maroon Swoon weigela, one of the new Bloomin’ Easy shrubs from Van Belle Nurseries. I usually grow varieties with dark or variegated foliage and clearly this is just green. But it’s a very healthy green and the shrub itself grew quickly from a compact 2g size to a robust 5g size in my garden with minimal care. In fact it is rather squished and voles play perilously close by yet as I type this post it has a remarkable second display of blooms.

Here is the main reason for growing this variety. Maroon Swoon has deep velvety-red flowers with distinct pure white anthers and stigma giving it a polka-dot effect – quite striking and unlike any I have seen before. It really stands out in the garden and is associating well with a smorgasbord of  shrubs, perennials and annuals.

Design Ideas

Play off the white detail of the blooms by growing it near silvery-white foliage or flowers e.g. the tall annual flowering tobacco plant (Nicotiana sylvestris) or a tall green/white variegated grass such as variegated silver grass (Miscanthus sinensis ‘Variegata’).

Or for greater contrast the Lemony Lace elderberry would be beautiful, as the new growth has rosy hues to echo the weigela flowers while the finely dissected lemon-colored foliage would add interest to the weigela shrub even when not in bloom

Cultural information

  • Grows 4-5’h x 2-3′ w according to the grower but mine is already at least 3′ wide so I suspect this may vary with light conditions
  • Happy in full sun or part sun
  • Hardy in USDA zones 4-8
  • Like all weigela this is fairly drought tolerant once established
  • Deer resistant in most gardens……you know how that goes….

Double Play Painted Lady Spirea (Spiraea japonica  Double Play Painted Lady)

Proven Winners does it again with another stellar spirea introduction, one of their Double Play series that will be available in 2017. These shrubs are reliably hardy, drought tolerant once established and both rabbit and deer resistant. What this variety brings that is NEW is an exciting variegated leaf. Each leaf seems to be marked differently giving it a painterly effect with splashes and stripes of yellow and cream on green. That also seems to be helping avoid the rather muddy look all-golden leaved varieties can have by late season; Painted Lady still looks fresh and fun.

The blooms are also a refreshing vivid pink  – welcome after the more typical softer shades of pink spirea that can look washed out in late summer

Design Ideas

Try pairing this with deep purple foliage such as the new Twilight Magic crapemyrtle from Bailey’s Nurseries, one of their First Editions. If you live in an area where this small tree will bloom you will love the echo of the flower color between this and the spirea.

At its base you might try a sweep of the equally drought tolerant ice plant; I recommend Delosperma Jewel of the Desert Opal from Concept Plants. WOW! Your neighbors may start wearing sunglasses.

Delosperma x Jewel of the Desert 'Opal'

Delosperma x Jewel of the Desert Opal

Cultural information (for the spirea)

  • Grows to 3′ tall and wide
  • Full-part sun
  • Hardy to USDA 4-8
  • Drought tolerant once established

Coming Up

Also watch out for a future post on some of the new hibiscus I have been testing including a unique columnar variety. These are so abuse-proof it’s embarrassing. Ridiculously drought tolerant (I forgot about them) and ignored by deer. They deserve decent photographs and the lighting isn’t cooperating today.

Many shrubs need testing for at least two years before I have a sense of its true potential. That is especially the case with hydrangeas but also for anything I receive in a gallon size or smaller. By the time I can offer a review they may have been on the market for a while but I hope you still feel there is value in hearing how something performs in real gardening conditions rather than with an army of horticulturalists hovering and ready to pamper to every whim! If so then you can also look forward to hearing how the Aphrodite sweetshrub  performs. I received it as a tiny cutting but already it is several feet high yet has received no supplemental water or care. The foliage is healthy and I’m looking forward to seeing the blood-red blooms next spring. It is also on the main deer-freeway but hasn’t even been taste-tested. Yet.

I’m also assessing Sparkling Sangria fringe flower  and two varieties of Distlylium; Cinnamon Girl and Linebacker grown by Baileys Nurseries, for hardiness and performance in my amended clay soils in zone 6b/7.

So stay tuned and share the journey with me!


I have not been paid, coerced or bribed with wine to write any of these plant reviews. They are my own opinions, observations and reflections. I share them because I love to share my passion for plants and good design with you.

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