The Smile Factor


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Whether you consider your personal garden style to be elegant, romantic, contemporary or traditional there is always room for a little whimsy – a special garden moment to make you smile. It doesn’t have to be large or extravagant and in fact some of the best are those that are discovered while strolling through the garden rather than something that screams ‘look at me’ from your living room!

Here are a few ideas from my own garden as well as several I have visited.

Highlight unique forms

A weathered bird house tucked into the gnarly remains of an old maple tree

A weathered bird house tucked into the gnarly remains of an old maple tree

This big leaf maple tree had been a focal point in the garden border: originally a towering, bleached silhouette it is now just a snag after a recent windstorm brought down the last branch with a ker-THUMP! Yet I still find this a fascinating sculptural element – just look at all the contorted growth on the trunk. To encourage other garden visitors to slow down and appreciate this I tucked a weathered birdhouse into the snag; he looks as surprised as our guests upon being discovered!

Bringing life back to a dead shrub

Bringing life back to a dead rhododendron shrub

This large rhododendron died many years ago yet its skeletal form is still beautiful. The previous owner had painted it silver but that makeover has long since faded and tufts of lichen now dress up the coral-like structure. This shrub framework seemed like a lovely spot to hang my charming bird feeder with its succulent roof. A thoughtful friend gave this to me at Christmas and I had been looking for the somewhere to showcase it effectively. We see this every day through our kitchen window where it adds an unexpected splash of color to an otherwise drab spot in the garden. Looks like I need to fill it up again….

Child’s Play

Created by Katie Pond

Created by Katie Pond – when she was still Katie Chapman

Lovingly nicknamed ‘Charles’ after a certain Royal personage, this creature was crafted in a high school art class by my daughter  many years ago. Showing signs of wear and tear, this only adds to the humor; I mean how good would you look after scrambling out of a rotted tree stump?



Spied on a recent garden tour in Pasadena this wonderful dinosaur is doing his best to get your attention! Whether warning against the step or the prickly plant I’m not sure but he did make me stop to take his photograph.

Cact - cus by Debra Lee Baldiwn made me giggle

Cact – cus by Debra Lee Baldwin made me giggle

Of course we’re all children at heart aren’t we? Debra Lee Baldwin may be a few years out of kindergarten but that didn’t stop her adding wonderful googly eyes to this cactus creation in her San Diego garden.

Hidden in Plain View

A brick pathway to read while you walk

A brick pathway to read while you walk

Have you noticed how many bricks have names embossed on them? Love these ideas

Perfect post-topper

Perfect post-topper

Likewise paving stones can be an opportunity to add some personality – or family history

a celebration path

A celebration path


Add Interest to Bare Walls

Cluster small pieces together for greater impact

Cluster small pieces together for greater impact

Whimsical terracotta faces on a stucco wall will soon be surrounded by this clinging vine –  a fun discovery as I strolled along this shaded path and such a variety of expressions

Look up!

An easy project

An easy project

Hanging from a cedar branch one would not expect to see shards of cobalt blue glass wrapped in copper wire – yet their casual placement was perfect in its simplicity.

Unintentional humor?


Hmm. Armed by whom or by what?

Strange the things that catch your eye – and make you laugh. Great placement either way!

Does your garden make you giggle?

Three Blind Mice by ee-i-ee-i-o

Three Blind Mice by ee-i-ee-i-o


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The Rougher Side of Beautiful


Good landscape design isn’t just about the pretty stuff.

As you browse Pinterest boards, Houzz ideabooks, garden design books, websites and magazines I’m  sure you are drawn to the dreamy images of a rambling rose adorning a weathered arbor, the quaint sitting nook, complete with vintage tea table set for two,  or the perfectly proportioned patio and pergola that inspires you to do something similar in your own garden  – not the overhead power lines, weedy driveway or soggy lawn. Yet most landscape designers have to address these issues before we can get you to ‘beautiful’ and our own gardens are no exception.

I can selectively frame my photographs to avoid things I’d rather you didn’t see – and have been doing just that for some time! Today I’ll show you a less-than-glamorous two month long project that is almost complete. I’m not going to wait for the borders to be mulched, for the flowers to be in full bloom or the dandelions to go away. This is the reality. Garden design, just like gardening itself, sometimes is just plain down and dirty. Dollars often  have to be spent on things other than pretty plants but the reward is – eventually – worth it.

The Problems

Overhead Utility Lines

SO exciting to see these power lines come down!!

SO exciting to see these power lines come down!!

While not uncommon in rural areas these can pose quite the challenge for delivery trucks, especially when the lines barely make the minimum 12′ height clearance required. In our case we had overhead electricity lines, around which was wrapped our phone line, all neatly tied together by wire (yes you read that correctly) and orange flags. In theory this was to alert drivers – whether to electrocution or decapitation we were never too sure but as decorative prayer flags they were far from attractive, and really detracted from what should have been curb appeal.

Of course we live at the end of a dead-end gravel road so ‘curb appeal’ isn’t really relevant but that does bring me to the next problem…..

Ugly, Weedy Driveway

This is how things looked on the day we moved in; October 2009

This is how things looked on the day we moved in; October 2009

Over the years the  driveway has been altered from a straight 140′ run to the garage, to include a pull-out to facilitate turning vehicles and eventually to a broader sweeping curve that leads away from the house to serve the barn and  greenhouse. In fact today we no longer have a garage so it was important to redirect approaching vehicles to a side parking area.

Meanwhile the weeds had become a regular battle and the definition between the grass, planted borders and gravel driveway had morphed into a mess.

The overall appearance was one of abandonment – the home and garden looked well cared for but the driveway gave the impression of country living at its worst and we weren’t proud of it.

The Front Path was Too Narrow

Originally the concrete path ran from the garage to a recessed entry

Originally the concrete path ran from the garage to a recessed entry – photo taken on move-in day

When the front entry was revised and the door centered the old path didn't connect easily

When the front entry was revised and the new door centered the old path didn’t connect easily. October 2010

When I first sketched our front landscape design in 2009 I knew I wanted to work with crisp rectilinear shapes rather than a traditional sweeping curve. It was one way I could take this 1960s rambler and give it a more contemporary, youthful look as well as being a play off the windows.

With the garage now converted to living space it was time to re-think the front path

With the garage now converted to living space it was time to re-think the front path and pull it away from the house. April 2011

I added Elfin thyme to soften the edges and thought it was a success – briefly. I quickly realized that by offsetting the pavers that way I had made the path  too narrow, exacerbated by the creeping thyme.


Those pavers are heavy and we just couldn’t face re-setting them – but the time had come to do something about it.

The Plan

Removing the Prayer Flags

The utility cables would be buried underground by digging a 2′ wide, 3′ deep trench from the house, under the driveway to the utility pole; 147′ in all. A local electrician would take care of permits, lay conduit, run wires and  revise our meter while the utility companies would take care of disconnecting and reconnecting as needed.

It had to get worse before it got better

It had to get worse before it got better

Meanwhile my friends and colleagues at Berg’s Landscaping would tackle the excavation.

It rained constantly! We had to run a sump pump in this pit so the utility crews could work

It rained constantly! We had to run a sump pump in this pit so the utility crews could work

Sounds straightforward? Try coordinating that many peoples schedules and you’ll quickly realize otherwise! It took almost two months. Local stores reported record sales of wine and chocolate….

Spiffy New Driveway

Could it get any worse? Yes it did....

Could it get any worse? Yes it did…. With the trenching it looked as though we had a major mole infestation! For a while we couldn’t access the front door and now we had orange tape to coordinate with the orange prayer flags

Meanwhile we decided to add concrete curbing to the driveway as a way to make things more orderly and fill in with fresh, compacted gravel over landscape fabric. Other ideas we considered were concrete and asphalt but both would  make this look like a runway due to the sheer size and didn’t really work with the overall aesthetic. Pavers would have been beautiful but cost prohibitive.

We also wanted to keep this as a pervious surface taking into account the high water table in this area and our clay soils. Any rain we can get to soak into the land rather than pool or run off is a good thing

The crew from Berg's Landscaping preparing for gravel and easing the grade on the outer edges of the curbing

The crew from Berg’s Landscaping preparing for gravel and easing the grade on the outer edges of the curbing with new soil and grass seed to facilitate mowing


The main challenge was where to stop? Should we run the curbing all the way to the barn for example? To the greenhouse? That certainly would have made everything looks clean and sparkly but it would also have directed the eye – and possibly vehicles, away from the home. One of the aims was to establish public versus private boundaries.

Grascrete acts as a visual endpoint while the curbing indicates parking

Grascrete acts as a visual endpoint while the angled curbing indicates parking

Berg’s had the great idea to create a transition using Grascrete blocks, in this case filled with gravel rather than grass. The blocks suggest an endpoint for visitors yet are easily driven over when we need to.

Refine the Front Path

We marked the new path entry with paint to get a feel for it

We marked the new path entry with paint to get a feel for it

Once again landscape architect John Silvernale helped me out with ideas. He liked my concept of the offset pattern, the journey through the front garden and agreed with me that just one additional 18″ paver  width would solve the problem. However he also suggested making a more substantial ‘landing’ at the front door as well as the point where it meets the driveway.

I sketched the revised design on the computer to help determine placement and materials

I find it helpful to sketch things out on paper (or the computer) as well as visualizing in situ. It helps to assess materials that need to be ordered, final placement in relationship to other elements such as the driveway and tree and also spot any problems. The plan above shows sections of the original path in black, some placement adjustments that I felt were needed (in green) and the expanded landings and path width using new pavers (in red).

It starts to come together!

It starts to come together!

The talented crew from Berg’s lifted the original pavers (I cleaned them first with 30 second cleaner and a stiff scrubbing brush so they would blend more easily with the new bluestone), re-graded and prepared the base then set out the revised path.

The Results


(The propane tank will eventually be moved – it used to be hidden by a stand of bamboo – not a great choice since the septic heads are also in that area!) Notice how our ex-garage doesn’t look like a garage anymore since the driveway sweeps off to the left

For someone who usually only gets excited about  artistic details and cool plant combinations  I have to say I am thrilled with my concrete, gravel and bluestone garden additions! I love the defined boundaries and the clear routes for wheels and feet (and paws). Delivery trucks are delighted too – they automatically look for the overhead cables and are much happier now that they can reverse safely and easily.


The new large path landing gives a clear visual cue to direct visitors to the front door

We still have to finish revising the landscape lighting, mulch borders and finish planting the newly extended front bed. The grass seed needs to grow (if the robins ever stop eating it) and the house is about to be repainted which is why it has several test colors on it! So we are still not quite at beautiful, but life is like that. Sometimes it’s OK to celebrate improvements even when we’re not  ready for the magazine photo shoot.


Love the broad entry from the driveway to the front path.  The grass will fill in the area to the right in time

So here’s to Progress. It was a long, muddy, messy and frustrating journey yet also exciting and rewarding and we are so glad we tackled this less than glamorous project. We’ve come a long way from a dirt track.

Do you need to get down and dirty?


Berg’s Landscaping

American Curb and Edging

NaBr Electric

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Party Time for Hummingbirds!


King Edward VII flowering currant

Zzzzzzzzzzip. Zzzzzzzzzzzzip.

Yes it’s that time of year when hummingbirds can be seen, heard and enjoyed daily as they flit from one flower to the next. Like most gardeners I used to rely on hummingbird feeders to entice them but quickly transitioned to adding flowering plants that provided a natural food source and habitat to support their presence year round.

Typically hummingbirds prefer blooms with tubular flowers  but in my summer garden they regularly feast on more open flowers also e.g. tall verbena (Verbena bonariensis). Likewise although all the literature tells us they prefer red I have seen these diminutive birds slurping on everything from white and purple to pink and orange flowers.

These are the early spring flowering shrubs and perennials currently on the brunch menu at the Chapman’s.

Flowering Currant


Flowering currant is a great addition to a large mixed border, seen here with conifers and spirea


A modern selection  of a native shrub, King Edward VII flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum ‘King Edward VII’), quickly grows to 6′ tall and at least as wide. Although browsed occasionally by deer the damage is rarely noticeable as you can see and the hummingbirds LOVE these flowers!

One thing that I found interesting this year is the color variation. This plant (photo above and also the one in the leading photo) grows in full sun and the flowers are an intense, deep pink.


The shrub pictured above is exactly the same variety but the flowers are smaller and a softer hue. This shrub is shaded somewhat by neighboring trees which presumably accounts for the discrepancy. However, it struck me that to extend the duration of available flowers for the hummingbirds it would be a good idea to deliberately plant these in a variety of lighting conditions from partial shade to full sun.

Flowering currant is hardy in zones 6-8 and is drought tolerant once established. There are many named varieties with both pink and white flowers.



I think this variety may be Mrs. Moon

One of the easiest perennials to grow, lungwort (Pulmonaria) has many other common names including soldiers and sailors! This old fashioned favorite is now available with other flower colors from deepest cobalt blue to pure white but I still prefer the traditional coloring that shows both pink and blue flowers as they age. Likewise the foliage typically has silver spots but you can now find varieties with almost entirely silver foliage.

Fashion statement regardless, hummingbirds will squabble loudly over these! Be sure to place them where you can enjoy the show from your armchair or while strolling along a path in spring. The clumps grow quickly and are easy to divide to expand your planting area.

TIP: older varieties are prone to mildew. Shear the entire plant down to 2″ after blooming. It will quickly regrow and the new leaves will remain clean and healthy.

Although recommended for partial shade and moist soil I also have these growing in full sun with no summer irrigation –  and they still thrive!

Andromeda, Lily of the Valley shrub


I first saw these thirty years ago, flourishing in the acidic soils of Scotland and was envious of those gardeners who could enjoy the heady perfume and evergreen foliage. When we moved to the USA in 1996 I was thrilled to discover that Seattle also has acidic soil and so can now grow these in my own garden. The variety above is Mountain Fire (Pieris japonica ‘Mountain Fire’)- one of many to choose from.


New foliage growth is a deep mahogany red, making a striking contrast with the older mid-green leaves. Tough, dependable and deer resistant this has also proven to be surprisingly drought tolerant and yes the hummingbirds love these flowers too – even if they are white!

I also have a young Impish Elf that looks promising with raspberry red flowers and several Little Heath which as a dwarf has much smaller flowers and I grow primarily for its foliage.


Variegated leaves of the compact Little Heath  – love the rosy flush of new spring growth

Winter daphne


These blooms are almost gone – most are faded to a dirty white although still emit a remarkable fragrance. The winter daphne (Daphne odora ‘Aureo-marginata’) has been flowering since early February and as such was one of the first blooms to entice the hummingbirds to visit. Planted adjacent to the lungwort these little birds won’t go hungry as they simple move from one flower to the next!

In harsh winters my daphne can lose a lot of their leaves but the plants quickly recover and are a highlight of the late winter and early spring garden, welcoming visitors of all species with their intoxicating fragrance and pretty variegated leaves.

And for dessert…


A special gift from my daughter last year – found at the Northwest Flower and Garden Show

I’d love to add a few more treats for these wonderful little birds. What do YOU grow for hummingbirds? Leave me a comment here or on Facebook – I always enjoy hearing your ideas.

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When Life Isn’t Fair


July 2013

July 2013

Today I should be writing a blog post about gardening, offering ideas, inspiration and possibly a few laughs along the way (usually at my expense). Today that isn’t going to happen.

Regular readers may recall when we adopted these two fluffy love bugs in July of 2013. While I was in England last October big, blonde Bo was diagnosed with advanced cancer and had to be put to sleep. Yesterday little Mia joined her. We discovered that she too had multiple tumors that were inoperable barely a week ago.

So I no longer need to take two bowls out to the vegetable garden to harvest strawberries or tomatoes.



I no longer have an excuse to stroll through the meadow and explore the wilder reaches of the garden.



I no longer have sticks left all over the grass waiting to wreck unsuspecting mowers

Really, there are plenty of leaves for both of you....

Really, there are plenty of leaves for both of you….

I no longer have my deer and rabbit alerts, gardening companions, truck dogs, welcoming committee.


Life is different. So I’m not going to try and write  today except to say give your family, friends and pets an extra hug. Because life isn’t always fair.

Mia and I getting to know one another; July 2013

Mia and I getting to know one another; July 2013



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Serenity in Seattle; my favorite display


While most visitors to the 2016 Northwest Flower and Garden Show were jostling for position to photograph the large display gardens, I found myself drawn to the smaller City Living  exhibits. Each designer worked with a 6 x 12 space defined by pavers to represent a high rise apartment balcony. The criteria was that all materials used in the display  could be carried through the home to the exterior. In addition the glass walls of the Skybridge where these exhibits were located should be kept open and the Seattle skyline view incorporated.

Ten designers took the challenge and created lavish displays incorporating edible gardens, lush container plantings and furniture that ranged from rustic to contemporary; something for every taste and style. While each one sparked ideas the exhibit that was my personal favorite was From Sea to Shining Sea, designed by Dee Montpetit of Ma Petite Gardens.  From the dusky purple and silver plant palette to the watery hues of the containers and the innovative use of fence pickets it afforded a wealth of take-home ideas for every gardener.

Create Your Own Style

When selecting containers many homeowners will opt for a matching set, perhaps varying the size while keeping the same shape and color but there are other ways to create an interesting cluster. For example one could stick with the same style (rustic, contemporary or traditional) but vary the color or do as Dee did and select a number of pots that are all  in cool shades of aqua but vary the style and finish.

aqua pots

A stunning selection of ceramic containers from AW Pottery were featured

This is a wonderful way to add some interest into a small space with different textures yet avoid the overall look being too busy. From a rustic finish with  detailed embossing  to a traditional high gloss and smooth finish and an intriguing ribbed detail, these ceramic containers are beautiful independently but become works of art as a composition.

Notice also how Dee used these containers in different ways.


This container cluster has it all; water, tropicals, perennials and fragrant spring bulbs


A shallow rectangular container was used to grow a vine up a woven fence panel for vertical interest, a tall vessel is used as a bubbling fountain, others hold shrubs, perennials, grasses and fragrant spring bulbs to give the illusion of garden borders, creating a sense of intimacy for the sitting nook.


Notice how the deeper brown-grey tones of the container are picked up by the New Zealand flax and wooden fence pickets

Plant Selection

It is important when viewing show gardens to realize that considerable license is taken when combining plants. Shade and sun lovers share space, while drought tolerant and thirsty plants also co-habit for the brief duration of the show. Likewise tropicals and Pacific Northwest natives mingle for a few days. The designer wants to inspire you to look for interesting foliage and flowers, to vary the height, leaf texture and form and to have fun. To that effect Dee used whatever she could find in Seattle in February! The result is a soothing but visually exciting palette in shades of blue-green, dusky purple and silvery white.


Westland astelia has beautiful dusky lavender foliage with silver overtones

Intriguing Details

Does your patio have an unattractive wall that you need to disguise? I love the way Dee addressed this in her display.


The careful placement of a wood framed mirror gives the illusion that this space is larger while also bouncing additional light onto the patio. The reflection even appears to work as ‘art’, bringing color to an otherwise blank space.


On the opposite wall, weathered wooden pickets are tied together with jute , creating an informal trellis on which the evergreen clematis can climb. This mix of materials was a lovely  personal touch, crossing stylistic boundaries to marry rustic with elegant. You could probably use old pallet wood for this project if the length of each board was sufficient.

Lighting is important in any garden and what could be easier than this string of patio lights?


The organic nature of these vine spheres doesn’t compete with the other elements in this small space the way Edison bulbs or dragonfly shaped lights might for example. A hurricane lantern containing a mosaic glass candle added light to the table.

Dee even added frosted beach glass as a mulch to several pots, again in the soft watery shades.


Dee has demonstrated unequivocally that small in size doesn’t mean sacrificing style. Rather it is about expressing your creativity in such a way that it balances your desire for individuality with an eye to scale, proportion, texture and color. Has this given you some ideas for your own garden?


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