Sunset Inspiration

I’ll often ask clients what their color preferences are for container garden plantings or as a palette for a new garden border. It can often be hard for them to articulate, however, and ends up being a series of Q & A – reds? Yes. Oranges?  Not sure.  Blues? Maybe. I find that I need to offer a new vocabulary and as always Nature provides.

I was looking for ideas for a color scheme for an area of my own garden. I had the warm cedar siding of the little guest cabin which formed a pleasing association with the peeling cinnamon colored bark of the  paper bark maple (Acer griseum). On a whim (and because I had them!), I also added orange crocosmia around the tree at which point I began to see a theme emerging of warm, somewhat mellow tones.


The emerging purple cones on this Skylands spruce offers some serious eye candy!

Next I added a golden ‘Skylands’ oriental spruce (Picea orientalis ‘Skylands’),  rich yellow ‘Zagreb’ tickseed (Coreopsis verticillata ‘Zagreb’) and dozens of yellow daffodils. As I planted ‘Crème brulee’ coral bells (Heuchera) in the cabin’s window box and adjacent container I was finally able to put a name to my color scheme; sunset.



Layers of color between the spirea, azalea and dark leafed barberry capture the essence of a glorious sunset.

Using a Nature inspired theme releases me from the frustration of having to decide if I prefer orange or red. It frees me up to select shades from deep burgundy to burnt orange, adding in softer highlights or more vibrant fiery shades as I choose.  It’s also proving to be lots of fun as I combined ‘Double play Big Bang’ spirea (Spiraea japonica ‘Tracy’) with a fabulous deciduous mollis azalea (Rhododendron x kosteranum) whose coral flowers perfectly echoed the color of the new growth on the spirea.

Plant late season perennials close to oriental poppies to disguise the fading foliage.

Looking to mid-summer I have mass planted black eyed Susan’s (Rudbeckia  ‘Goldsturm’)  thanks to the generosity of friends and intend to add a swathe of blousy red oriental poppies (Papaver orientalis sp.) nearby for an explosion of color later this month. As summer transitions to fall I’ll keep the color story going with the tall switch grass ‘Shenandoah’ (Panicum v. ‘Shenandoah’). This whispering  grass may start out olive green but quickly matures to rich burgundy blades which dance in the slightest summer breeze. I still have more plants to add  as well as  a small fountain using a 2’ tall ceramic brown ‘teapot’ which will be placed by the cabin porch.

Incorporating non-plant material such as containers, pathways or even the cabin is a way to add solidity to an otherwise seasonally changing picture. These elements can anchor the color theme and become a reference point around which other ethereal stars are showcased.

Your interpretation of ‘sunset’ may be different from mine and feature shades of pink, purple and midnight blue. The good news is that it doesn’t matter!  This is just a vocabulary to help guide you visually at the nurseries.

The chances are that if your color scheme is inspired by Nature – it will be fabulous. Surely we are simply students of Art seeking to learn and to share?

PS. If you’d like to read about the adventure of moving the cabin into this border you can do so here.



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Spirea – the poor man’s shrub no more.

Fabulous airy texture and bright foliage are just two outstanding traits of spirea 'Ogon'. Photo credit;

One thing’s for sure – there’s no room for snobbery when it comes to gardening.

Before moving to this house 2 ½ years ago I used to smile politely when clients mentioned they had a deer problem and gave my all-knowing benevolent nod while saying “Ah yes, deer will eat anything if they are hungry enough you know…..”. I swear if anyone says that to me any more I’ll scream! Yes I do know – and I apologize to all those whom I have insulted with this inane platitude in the past. I still say the only reliable thing about deer is that they read the price tags, but I now have a much better appreciation of the problems they cause and a vested interest in researching plants which have been proven, at least here in the Pacific Northwest as ‘seldom damaged’ by deer.

Any shrubs ignored by deer are worthy of a second look by me

One group of shrubs which I never really appreciated before were spirea. In England the old variety ‘Anthony Waterer’ (Spiraea x bumalda ‘Anthony Waterer’) was so overused that I lost interest in it. Yet moving here I noticed three huge, well established bushes thriving in my deer prone garden; reason enough to take a fresh look at the options. Here are a few of my favorites which are all reliably deer resistant, take full sun or partial shade and are ridiculously easy care.



Romantic sprays of white flowers on the Renaissance spirea.

Renaissance spirea (Spiraea x vanhouttei ‘Renaissance’). This graceful, deciduous shrub features a massive display of pure white flowers and colorful orange-red fall color and offers improved disease resistance over older varieties. 5-6’ tall and wide, this is a flower arrangers favorite. Water regularly. Zones 3-7

Think ahead to later seasons - spirea 'Ogon' promises a colorful display. Photo credit;




For fabulous foliage my favorite has to be ‘Mellow yellow’ spirea, also known as ‘Ogon’(S. thunbergii ‘Ogon’). The feathery foliage is reminiscent of the finely dissected bluebeard (Caryopteris) leaf except this is a bright shade of yellow-gold. Even if it didn’t bloom I would love it but the white flowers which dot its arching stems in April and May add an appealing freshness. Left to their own devices these shrubs become soft billowing bushes 5’ tall and wide. I have planted the dark leaved ‘Midnight wine’ Weigela in front for contrast, with a swathe of evergreen Rhododendrons off to one side. I am already thinking of other parts of the garden to add a cluster to. Hardy in zones 5-8.


I love the vibrant color of the new growth on 'Double Play Big Bang' spirea

Double Play® Big Bang Spirea (Spiraea japonica ‘Tracy’) –I have a group of these planted near my paperbark maple (Acer griseum) where the peeling cinnamon tree bark plays off the warm sunset tones of the spirea. The spirea foliage opens golden with orange overtones and shows rosy new growth before turning a fresh shade of summer green which acts as a foil to the tufty pink flowers. This variety offers the largest flowers of all and should be a butterfly magnet this summer.  2-3’ tall and wide and is hardy in zones 4-9.


'Limemound has it all - compact habit, bright foliage and blooms to attract bees and butterflies. Photo credit;

For those who insist on a chartreuse variety of every plant then I suggest spirea ‘Limemound’. (Spiraea x bumalda ‘Monhub’). The foliage opens yellow and softens to lime green before turning orange in fall. A good filler shrub for the mixed border where a compact 3’ dome is needed. Zones 3-9

My garden should have wheels according to my husband, who invariably has the task of heaving huge trees, shrubs and pots “just a few inches to the left”. On one such recent occasion, after hauling a 4’ “heap of twigs” from one side of the path to the other, I discovered several rooted cuttings left behind. I dug them up and planted them in an area of nasty, clay soil by the stream – and the cuttings have taken! (My husband is hoping they can live happily there as he’ll have to don waders if they need moving again). As far as I can tell this “heap of twigs” is just Japanese spirea (Spiraea japonica) with no particular claim to royal heritage. I include it simply to make the point that although of humble birth and lacking the jazzy colors or supersized flowers of others mentioned here, this really is a first class shrub.


Spirea – tolerant of most soil conditions, dozens of named cultivars and varieties all of which are ignored by deer and rabbits, easily propagated (i.e. free plants if you want them), foliage in shades of green, lime, orange, and dusky purple, flowers in white or pink, beloved by bees, butterflies and even hummingbirds and ranging in height from 1’ to 6’ tall –  I’m sure you have room for a few. No garden snobs here!



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Planting for Butterflies

Welcome butterflies into your garden. Photo credit and thanks;

Is our garden something we really own or a piece of this earth which has been entrusted to us? Are we caretakers rather than landowners who by association have the responsibility – and honor – of nurturing all that grows in and on it?

I’m no philosopher and this is not intended to be a post about environmental awareness although that is something which I personally take very seriously. I simply want to remind us all not to take our gardens, fragile ecosystems and their natural beauty for granted.

I watched a film while I was in England recently which discussed the decline of the British hedgerows and the negative impact that  had on agriculture as habitat for beneficial insects had been removed. Mass crop spraying then became common  which only  exacerbated the situation by killing off not only the ‘bad bugs’ but also the dwindling bee population together with other  beneficials who given time could have preyed on the insects causing crop damage. All in the effort to make fields larger so the big machinery could harvest more efficiently. How often do our ‘good ideas’ turn out to be not quite so good after all?

Photo credit;

I hope I never become complacent about butterflies. They bring magic and movement to the summer garden as nothing else can, flitting daintily from one flower to another as though dancing on tip toes. From the tiny spring azure with its periwinkle wings to the dramatic yellow and black Western swallowtail, I love them all. How can we not be in awe of such beauty?

Yet there are far fewer butterflies today than there used to be as a result of pesticide misuse and removal of natural habitat for both larvae and adults. By simply planting a few flowering trees, shrubs and perennials to provide  food for these creatures we can do our own small part to redress the balance and be rewarded tenfold by their presence.

I love the silvery foliage of the 'Lochinch' butterfly bush as much as the delicate flowers

Butterfly bush (Buddleia sp.) is considered the caviar on the butterfly buffet table and is a favorite of the swallowtail butterflies. I particularly like ‘Lochinch’ with its clusters of fragrant, lavender flowers each dotted with an orange eye on a beautiful felted silvery bush 8-10’ tall and wide. I grew mine in a container before transplanting it to the garden where it can now stretch out. Since hummingbirds also love it I have planted a mass of the scarlet Crocosmia ‘Lucifer’ to one side to provide a veritable feast for these visitors. Now I just need a comfy bench (and my camera) to enjoy the show!

Ice chip’ is a new, compact variety which at 2’ tall can even be grown as a groundcover. Although covered in short white floral spikes all summer this variety has proven sterile – good news for those who live in areas where the species Buddleia davidii is on the noxious weed list.

‘Miss Molly’ takes the color spectrum to new heights with its vibrant magenta blooms creating a 5’ siren for all butterflies and hummingbirds. Other sterile varieties include ‘Asian moon’, the ‘Flutterby’ series (Ball Horticultural), ‘Lo and behold’ (Proven Winners).

'Sutherland gold' elderberry will shine like a beacon in the garden

Elderberries (Sambucus sp) grow wild in many areas of North America and England. I recall gathering the berries with my Granddad as a child which he then sold at the local greengrocer’s. I don’t think I was ever told, however, that they were being sold to make wine! The clusters of flowers are a valuable food source for butterflies and other wildlife in the forest but there are some truly outstanding ornamental cultivars which deserve a place in our gardens. ‘Sutherland gold’ is one which will light up the border in sun or part shade.    Conical clusters of creamy yellow flowers in mid spring are followed by glossy, bright red fruits while deeply cut, bronze juvenile leaves turn a bright golden yellow as the season progresses.

Two darker leaved varieties are ‘Black beauty’ and ‘Black lace’, the latter having more finely dissected foliage but both equally dramatic. The sprays of fragrant, frothy pink flowers draw butterflies and bees like magnets. The really good news is that the deer don’t like them! How many more excuses do you need to pick one up from the nursery? Elderberries can be left to grow into large shrubs or cut down (coppiced) to keep smaller as desired.

Coneflowers attract many butterflies including the Monarch. Photo credit; Wickipedia

Coneflowers (Echinacea) bloom in mid-late summer and are a favorite of the red admiral  butterflies. These old fashioned perennials are easy to grow, drought tolerant and deer resistant. They provide cut flowers for the home, nectar for the butterflies and seed heads or the birds. That’s great value from one $5 plant. In shades from pastels to flashy neon you’ll certainly find one to suit your color scheme.

Which is more colorful - the 'Dallas red' lantana or the butterfly? Photo credit; Great

Depending upon where you live, Lantana may be available for the garden as a hardy bush or a summer annual. In appearance they resemble Verbena (they belong to the same Family) with numerous heads of clustered, vividly colored flowers.  I use them a lot in hanging baskets and especially like the variety ‘Dallas Red’ which has bi-colored blooms in red and yellow. Lantana thrive in hot, arid conditions.


It may be stating the obvious, but if you want butterflies you have to accept the presence of a few caterpillars. That in turn may mean lowering your housekeeping standards and accepting a few nibbled leaves. For the life cycle to be complete these beautiful butterflies need to lay eggs on a host plant which will then provide food for the larvae. Not just any old leaf will do, however, as butterfly larvae are very host specific. For example the larvae of the Western tiger swallowtail prefer big-leaf maple, willow, poplar and cottonwood while painted lady butterflies prefer thistle but will also eat nettles, hollyhock and sunflowers.

Our 5 acre garden transitions into meadow and forest on the perimeters. There are large stands of native Pacific willow, alders and cottonwoods all of which support the lifecycle of various butterflies. We are fortunate to have such a large butterfly larvae pantry but it is also a reminder that we all need a little ‘wild side’ in our garden to enjoy its true potential.

We have been given a precious gift, whether our garden is an expansive acreage or a modest patio container. That gift affords us an opportunity to enjoy Nature up close with all its rich scents and vibrant colors and to encourage the fleeting beauty of butterflies by simply including a special plant or two.

Recommended books;

Landscaping for Wildlife in the Pacific Northwest by Russell Link 1999 (University of Washington Press) – an excellent book with information on natural habitat maintenance and enhancement as well as ideas for encouraging wildlife into the garden. I find myself referring to this often.


Useful links with extensive plant lists



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Learn to Play a Duet

Splashes of white on this St. John's wort (Hypericum a. 'Glacier' ) echo the pristine bark of the Himalayan white birch (Betula u. Jacquemontii)

I remember when we first moved to the United States sixteen years ago and suffering acute culture shock as I walked down the cereal aisle at a local store. I mean really – how many different varieties of frosted flakes do we need?!

A trip to the nursery can leave you feeling equally  overwhelmed due to the sheer number of choices, the difference being that of course we do need all those plants don’t we?

With so many plants offered in a rainbow of colors where do you begin? What looks good together? Simply choose one multi-colored plant (the variegation can be in the leaf or flower) and repeat one of those colors in a partner. Mission accomplished. Of course you also need to be sure both plants have similar requirements for sun or shade but you can read that on the tag and most nurseries also stock their plants according to those criteria anyway.

Here are a few easy ideas to get you started, whether you need inspiration for a container design or a garden border.

This humble daylily becomes so much more when paired with ‘Grace’ smoke bush (Cotinus c. ‘Grace‘) to enhance its rosy tones. The subtle yellow variegation within the flower adds sparkle to what might otherwise be a somber scene.

Sometimes a container design can inspire a whole new planting scheme for the garden. Such was the case when I first saw this cool monochromatic combination by my friend and colleague Christina Salwitz. I LOVE this Euphorbia ‘Glacier blue’ underplanted with Hebe ‘Quicksilver’ and have used a mass of both in one of my new borders, anchored by a blue toned  weeping spruce. The narrow creamy white margins on the Euphorbia add just enough light to keep this interesting. Who needs flowers?

Just a few years ago the plant snobs would have declared coleus as old fashioned at best and boring at worst. No more! This is the most exciting plant group for summer with every conceivable color combination and pattern. Stripes, spots and splashes jostle with Jackson Pollock flair while many varieties show off a secondary color on the undersides of each leaf. I could write a whole post just on these fashionistas  and their design potential but I decided to showcase a super simple combination which would be easy to copy. The coleus on the left has a delicate burgundy stripe, a color which has been repeated in its hearty neighbor to the right. So simple yet so striking.

One of my favorite tall grasses is the variegated maiden grass (Miscanthus sinensis ‘Variegatus’). Reaching 4-5′ tall, this fresh green and white fountain adds drama to any garden. Planting the white garden phlox ‘David’ (Phlox paniculata) alongside it added fragrance to the scene as well as a bolder color statement.

Good design doesn’t have to be complicated nor necessitate the purchase of ultra expensive specialty plants. Something as ordinary as a variegated grass or daylily can become a star when playing  a  duet.

For more ideas on designing with variegated plants enjoy this link.


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Gazing Skywards – a fresh look at trees

Breathtaking - cherry trees in bloom are a sure sign of spring. Photo credit ;


There’s something magical about looking up through a leafy canopy. Dappled light adds a luminous quality to foliage, with such backlighting revealing details and colors which might otherwise go unnoticed. Several trees have wonderful downward facing flowers which are partially hidden by the surrounding leaves yet when viewed from below not only are they visible but there is an opportunity to appreciate their delicate beauty more intimately. And who can forget those childhood games of hide-and-seek behind a curtain of weeping willow as the swaying branches moved gently in the breeze?

Planning for such events is another way to add a layer not only of interest to the garden but an opportunity for interaction. There are two ways in which such garden moments can be orchestrated; by sitting or strolling beneath a tree or by looking upwards to a tree situated in an elevated position such as a hillside or raised bed. Here are just a few of my favorites.

The foliage of the golden locust tree glows when backlit. Photo credit; Alyson Ross-Markley

The golden locust tree (Robinia pseudoacacia ‘Frisia’) has become my signature tree. Since moving to the United States in 1996 I have planted at least one in every garden. The primary role of these trees is to add a splash of light to the garden  but I have also planted them in such a way that they either flank a pathway forming a golden allee through which to stroll, or to provide pleasant shade for a sunny patio. The sun always seems to be shining when you look up through the rustling golden canopy and never fails to make me smile. These are big trees, typically reaching 30’-40’ in height and 20-30’ in width so give it room to show off its beauty, although I do gradually limb mine up as needed both for shape and practicality. They are remarkably drought tolerant once established and take full sun or partial shade. The downside is that the branches have thorns although one rarely has a reason to touch them, and they tend to shed their leaves over a prolonged period of time. But what’s a few of minutes sweeping for the months of golden light they provide? Hardy in zones 3-8.

The delicate white flowers of the Japanese snowbell tree can only be appreciated fully from under neath the canopy. Photo credit; JC Raulston Arboretum, North Carolina State University

Japanese snowbell (Styrax japonica) is a perfectly behaved small tree yet is often overlooked. Early spring doesn’t suggest anything exceptional with attractive but otherwise fairly ordinary, mid-green leaves, although they do perch prettily atop the branches like little green butterflies. What makes this tree special are the fragrant white flowers which dangle downwards like hundreds of tiny bells in May and June. Set a bench underneath and sip your iced tree as you enjoy the delicate fragrance and marvel at such hidden treasures. Each bell has a tiny yellow ‘ringer’ which only adds to the enchantment. Japanese snowbell trees slowly grow to 15’ tall and wide and are hardy in zones 5-8. There are several cultivars and varieties which are worth seeking out including ‘Emerald pagoda’ which has larger, dark green leaves and more heavily textured flowers, and ‘Pink chimes’ – a popular, smaller specimen with pink flowers.

At this time of year cherry blossom trees are in full bloom with billowing clouds of pink and white adorning gardens and parklands across many countries. Washington DC received the gift of thousands of cherry trees in 1912 as a token of friendship from the people of Japan with this year  celebrating their 100th anniversary.

The perfect setting for a picnic

The Tidal Basin in the Capitol is planted primarily with Yoshino cherries (Prunus x yedoensis) which create a magical journey beneath their extended branches while snowflake-like petals fall softly all around. Home gardens can create a similar romantic ambience with just a  single specimen such as the well-known ‘Kwanzan’ cherry (Prunus serrulata ‘Kwanzan’) with its double flowers in deep pink or perhaps set a blanket under the broad spreading ‘Mt Fuji’ (Prunus serrulata ‘Mt. Fuji’) for a springtime picnic and enjoy the delicate confetti of petals. As with all cherry trees, do not plant these in close proximity to buildings or driveways as their strong root system can cause significant damage.

You have heard me say many times that I believe a garden should be experienced, not just observed, and that creating such ‘garden moments’ is to create memories which will last a lifetime. As springtime awakens our gardens and our spirits perhaps it is time to seek out the perfect tree which will remind you to pause and gaze skywards.

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