From Coast to Coast – Travel Snapshots

Laguna Beach area - one of many pristine coves

Laguna Beach area – one of many pristine coves

It’s been an exciting few weeks visiting North Carolina and then southern California. Both trips were work-related but of course there is always time for a little garden sight seeing! Here is a roundup of a few of my favorite travel snapshots together with a selection from a bonus garden visit to a remarkable local designer, who gardens like she will live forever!

East Coast Charm

Cool hues and cool combination. Design by Jay Sifford

Cool hues and cool combination. Design by Jay Sifford

I was so thrilled to have the opportunity to photograph the personal garden of designer Jay Sifford (Sifford Garden Designs) for a new book I am writing for Timber Press on inspirational deer-resistant gardens (more on that another time!) While I’m going to keep those images offline for now, I can show you this delightful combination taken in one of his clients gardens. It’s a perfect example of designing with foliage – I love the way he has given each finely textured blue conifer its personal space by interjecting the swathe of purple fringeflower (Loropetalum chinensis ‘Red Chocolate’). The juxtaposition of a weeping conifer (Tolleson’s Blue Weeping juniper (Juniperus scopulorum ‘Tolleson’s Blue Weeping’)) and a prostrate form (Grey Owl juniper (Juniperus virginiana ‘Grey Owl’)) , yet the textural similarity – stunning. Notice how the blue tones within the purple foliage are emphasized also.

While I was in town Jay took us to the Biltmore Estate in Asheville – what a treat!

Biltmore House, a French renaissance style extravaganza built 1889-1895 by the Vanderbilt family

Biltmore House, a French renaissance style extravaganza, built between 1889-1895 by the Vanderbilt family

There was no denying the remarkable attention to every detail from gargoyles to decorative downspouts.

I was totally captivated by these windows....

I was totally captivated by these windows….

We toured the house before exploring the gardens. Intense heat and brilliant sunshine meant photography was a challenge but I still managed a few souvenir photos.

Remarkable color echos between bricks, planters and foliage

Remarkable color echos between bricks, planters and foliage.

Short of scrambling under this peony to see if there was a tag there was no way to identify the variety of this luscious peony.

Short of scrambling under this peony to see if there was a tag there was no way to identify the variety.

I did however scramble underneath this Japanese maple - because I just HAD to!!

I did however scramble underneath this Japanese maple – because I just HAD to!!

West Coast Wow Factor

When I was invited to speak at the San Diego Horticultural Society and Laguna Beach Garden Club earlier this month, I could almost feel the sand between my toes! The chance to meet old friends, make new ones, share my passion for designing with foliage AND visit this beautiful area again had me packing my flip-flops and camera in short order.

In between these two speaking engagements Andy and I found a delightful Air BnB in San Juan Capistrano to use as home base for a couple of days. Everywhere was within walking distance  – and everywhere we looked there were colorful gardens.

A pollinator garden surrounded this old adobe house

A vibrant pollinator garden surrounded this old adobe house tucked away in the Los Rios district – the oldest neighborhood in California

When the plants match the patio furnishings: serendipity or careful design?

When the plants match the patio furnishings: serendipity or careful design?

Trumpet vine tumbling over a picket fence

Trumpet vine (Campsis radicans) tumbling over a picket fence.

The Mission of San Juan Capistrano is at the heart of the town and an absolute ‘must see’ if you are in the area. The history, architecture, gardens – and yes the swallows all made this a highlight of our stay.


One of many cooling fountains in the Mission gardens

Summer perfection

Summer perfection

Closer to Home

I was thrilled to receive an invitation to visit retired WA designer Vi Kono a few days after my return home. I photographed Vi’s Redmond garden for my latest book Gardening with Foliage First. One of those scenes was even featured by Garden Design magazine recently. Since then, Vi and her husband Don have moved to a rural property in Duvall. While waiting for building permits to be granted she has done what any gardener would do – start on the landscape! Vi has a nursery’s worth of potted plants ‘waiting’ for gardens to be created around her future home, but meanwhile has created a delightful woodland stroll garden filled with all manner of shade loving perennials. Once again bright sunshine thwarted my attempts to do the garden justice but I was mostly content simply to wander and experience this new haven.

Vi has a great eye for small details as these few snapshots show.

Hosta' Fire Island' with a golden barberry

Hosta’ Fire Island’ with a golden barberry – love the echo between the red hosta stems and the leaf margins on the barberry.

Drawing attention to the movement in the bark of a tree….


Old-fashioned London’s Pride, snuggled up against woodland trees – love that craggy bark

I was fascinated by this unfurling fern frond….

Ferns are reliably deer resistant - I was fascinated by this unfurling frond

Ferns are reliably deer resistant –  a new challenge for Vi

Glass and metal art pieces were thoughtfully placed throughout the garden, many of which Vi and Don have created themselves.


Looking ahead

The next few weeks are going to be equally busy for me with a trip next week to Spring Meadow Nursery in Michigan (where they grow the ColorChoice shrubs for Proven Winners), and then photographing two MI gardens for my new book.  I’ll be home again for just a couple of days before we head off to the Greek Islands to celebrate our 30th anniversary! (It’s wonderful having a daughter nearby to take care of the house and garden while we go on vacation!!)

So forgive me for taking a vacation from blogging for a while. It’s time for a little romance……


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Using a Signature Color


While the shallow orange container may be the star in this vignette, it gains impact from being framed visually by the similarly colored Rheingold arborvitae in the foreground.

The display gardens from the 2017 Northwest Flower & Garden Show may be dismantled but the memories and design inspiration will feed my creative soul for years to come thanks to photographs .

As I reviewed my images this morning I was struck once again how several designers had used orange as a signature color.

A signature color is a thematic statement, something that is repeated in different ways throughout a space to create a sense of unity. Used too often it can be jarring, using it too little and the intent is lost.


My front garden uses blue as its thematic statement, softened and highlighted by plenty of white or silver foliage and flowers. (Glass art by Jesse Kelly)

In my own 5 acre garden I have two signature colors in different areas: blue and orange. Blue predominates in the front garden as it ties to the color of the front door. I use it in the foliage of blue-toned conifers, blue flowers, gorgeous containers and glass art, all  framed with shades of green, white and silver.

One of two large, glossy orange containers that I use to set the theme in my large island border, echoed by orange blooming crocosmia

In my back garden is the ‘island border’, measuring 150′ x 50′ and anchored at one end by a cabin (just glimpsed in the earlier photograph). A strolling path through this large border invites exploration. Here my signature color is orange, established by bold glossy containers and re-enforced by the emerging foliage of spirea, Flasher daylilies and other details.

Not surprisingly, therefore, I was drawn to several show gardens that also used orange as the signature color.

1. Mochiwa mochiya—Rice Cake, Rice Cake Maker

Garden Creator: Jefferson Sustainable Landscaping


The color orange is artfully placed throughout this display garden to move the eye from front to back and side to side

This remarkable, gold-award winning garden celebrates a fusion of cultures. The scene above highlights the eastern influence with a low dining table, granite spheres and an understated plant selection that focuses on foliage and texture over flowers or a rainbow of colors. The judicious placement of orange containers, cushions and foliage moves the eye through the space.


From the custom color on the grill to slender  containers – orange makes a memorable statement against the charcoal grey

Luxurious appliances and high-end finishes are sure to satisfy the western aesthetic and taste buds! Who wouldn’t want to be the chef in this outdoor kitchen? Vivid orange hues are the perfect counterpoint to matte grey pavers and stonework while also visually connecting the dining experience.

2. Pizzeria | Decumani

Garden Creator: Adam Gorski Landscapes, Inc.


An inexpensive way to use a signature color is with colorful, seasonal annuals such as these primroses

Neapolitan pizza is known for its simplicity, with just a  few, quality ingredients used in its  preparation. Likewise this outdoor ‘pizza garden’ relies on simplicity of materials and restraint in color to create an inviting space reminiscent of an Italian courtyard.

Worried that your signature color of today might not be your signature color of tomorrow? This garden shows you how to be creative with color on a tight budget,

Notice that all the key furniture, containers and cabinets are in neutral tones. The bold color  comes from inexpensive flowers, specifically orange primroses and ranunculus.


Incorporating the annuals into the borders as well as containers strengthens the idea

The same flowers have been tucked under more permanent foliage plants in the border for a sense of unity. These could be replaced by orange begonias in summer and pumpkins in fall.


Placing an over-sized container, abundantly planted using the signature color at a  corner of the patio is an easy idea to copy.

This is a perfect way to try a new color without long term commitment

3. Mid-Mod-Mad…it’s Cocktail Hour!

Garden Creator: Father Nature Landscapes Inc.


Orange cushions in a variety of fabrics and textures inject a jolt of color onto this bluestone patio

Designer Sue Goetz was the mastermind behind this award-winning display garden. A stunning “less is more” garden with an updated mid-century design, it embraces simplistic plant choices and strong  geometry of hardscaping made popular in the 1950’s and 60’s (and making a big comeback today).

While the orange cushions are the obvious ‘color pop’, this signature color is repeated in many other, more subtle details.


Notice how the cedar trim at the end of this water wall, and the copper spouts all play into the ‘orange’ family

Wood tones also read ‘orange’ in the right setting as can be seen by the cedar on this water wall and the outdoor bar. Rusty metal or weathered copper have a similar understated orange tone.

Orange hair grass (Carex testacea) is used for the meadow planting, the orange-tipped, olive-green blades a perfect choice.


It’s all about the details – orange stools, soft furnishings, decor accents – and the trumpets of the Jetfire narcissus all say ORANGE

While the all yellow Tete a Tete narcissus are the obvious choice for a spring garden display, Sue selected Jet Fire because of its orange trumpet to tie in with the theme. Some additional inexpensive accents such as napkins, place mats and cut flowers complete the scene.

What is your signature color?

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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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A Change in Perspective

It wasn’t so much a patio as an apology. I  mean seriously, what are you supposed to do with an 8′ x 13′-10″ space? Sure you can fit a BBQ on there plus two or three people standing, providing you play doh-si-doh to get in and out of the house. But sitting on a comfy chair? Or eating at a table? Not so much. That was one of the challenges that needed addressing when I met the homeowners of this attractive new construction a few months ago.

BEFORE; a tiny patio and a lot of grass that felt like a 'no go' area

BEFORE; a tiny patio and a lot of grass that felt like a ‘no go’ area

The second challenge was one I threw out to my clients; “why do you need a lawn?” Because the majority of their back garden was thirsty, high maintenance grass with a token border of soil around the edges. Although hesitant to step away from the idea of a traditional back garden which included lawn they trusted me to help them make the most out of their space and if that meant the lawn could go, so be it.

Base map

Finally there was the basic challenge of how to make a small space live large; my favorite type of transformation! The back garden was a rather awkward trapezoid measuring 41′ wide and ranging from just 20′ to 33′ deep. Although there are neighbors to both sides the view beyond the garden is of native trees and shrubs so rather than needing to provide screening along the back fence I could visually incorporate that forest into the homeowners garden.

The Wish List

The existing permeable pavers were re-used and expanded

The existing permeable pavers were re-used and expanded

With any design process I being by establishing the Design Criteria with the homeowners; a wish list that includes everything from function to style and a color scheme that serves as my guide. My clients asked for the following;

• Enlarge the existing patio using permeable pavers (required by HOA) to allow seating for 6 plus a functional BBQ area
• Secondary seating area requested
• Like the idea of incorporating pots
• Would like to incorporate a dry creek bed
• A blend of native and ornamental plants, respecting the forest beyond yet creating a distinct layered garden
• Large architectural foliage and moving grasses were appealing but the plants must be low maintenance

The front of the home has interesting contemporary architectural lines

The front of the home has interesting contemporary architectural lines which offered some design inspiration

• Contemporary PNW feel/design to work with house aesthetic; focus on foliage and texture rather than lots of flowers.
• Colors to be bold rather than pastel e.g. purple, gold, orange, chartreuse, greens including teal
• Needs to look good year round but have seasonal changes

The Design Process


To make the garden feel larger I re-designed the patio by turning it 45′. By taking advantage of the long diagonal lines the garden immediately felt more spacious. Pushing the main patio into the garden (the pavers were removed and re-laid at a 45′ angle) meant I could wrap it with plantings to make it feel more like a destination than the appendage that the builders had originally provided and at 19′ x 18′ there was plenty of room for the BBQ, a large table for 6 or a set of outdoor sofas and chairs with room to spare.

BEFORE; an awkward slope at the far corner needed addressing

BEFORE; an awkward slope at the far corner needed addressing


AFTER; a retaining wall takes care of the grade and becomes extra seating around a secondary patio

AFTER; a retaining wall takes care of the grade and becomes extra seating around a secondary patio

At the far corner of the garden there was an abrupt grade change. To accommodate and take advantage of this I designed a retaining wall that doubles as seating to create a secondary sitting nook. This wall gives a cozy sense of enclosure to the blue chairs and future portable fire pit. Sitting here and looking back down the garden path offers a completely different perspective from that usually enjoyed from the homes interior or main patio.

BEFORE; the shortest part of the garden needed some creative thinking!

BEFORE; the shallowest part of the garden needed some creative thinking!


AFTER; a re-positioned and expanded patio and meandering dry creek bed transformed this spot

AFTER; a re-positioned and expanded patio and meandering dry creek bed transformed this spot

Connecting these two patios is a 3′ wide path that also frames a fountain created from three basalt columns. This feature gives a nod to the natural landscape beyond the garden. The inclusion of rock was important to the design aesthetic and so a number of boulders were incorporated into a dry creek bed of river rock that disappears beyond the fence line as well as used to add dimension throughout the planting beds.

Focal Points

It is important to consider views of the garden when seen from inside the home. Careful placement of containers, specimen plants and the fountain become key focal points around which vignettes were built.

Plant Selection and Final Details

Louie pine will be a year round stunner

Louie pine will be a year round stunner

Although they hired out the construction of the hardscape (patio, walls, creek bed, fountain)  to my talented colleagues at Berg’s Landscaping the homeowners purchased and planted everything themselves, with  a few final things still waiting to be delivered. They are also planning to install lighting in the future; flags mark the spot where wires have been run for the fixtures. They will spotlight the fountain, mark the path and uplight the peeling cinnamon bark of the three paperbark maple trees.

These rustic brown containers were used in my clients previous home and they are currently just marking the areas where new pots will go. When that selection is finalized I’ll be helping them choose the perfect plants for each pot to complete the scene.


The colors of the furniture and soft furnishings are a perfect accent to the foliage colors while their contemporary design  emphasizes the landscape design reliance on strong rectilinear geometry and foliage over organic curves and flowers. The homeowners decided in the end not to add a formal  dining set  but rather to use this space for comfortable outdoor lounge furniture.



I love the juxtaposition of the curvaceous wicker ‘nest’ with the streamlined sofa and chairs; great choice! They even managed to squeeze in a third seating area for a simple bistro set; perfect.


The end result is a versatile  garden that can easily accommodate larger parties or an intimate dinner for two. Every inch is used yet there is a sense of privacy thanks to the layers of foliage and textures which will thrive and grow in the well prepared soil. With four season interest this is a little garden with a big attitude that isn’t afraid to be different.

I’ll let the homeowners have the last word;

“Our backyard is now an inviting space where we can entertain friends or enjoy a quiet morning with a cup of coffee. Even when the weather is less than ideal for being outdoors, the garden provides visual interest and entertainment from inside our home. We love to watch the ever-changing foliage and the wildlife that has been attracted to our garden. It feels like we have added another room to our home. “

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Reclaiming the Garden

When the best looking part of a garden is a dead tree root you know you have a challenge ahead!

When the best looking part of a garden is a dead tree root you know you have a challenge ahead!

I was recently invited to redesign a back garden in Kirkland, WA.

The neighbors mini-barn and home were the only 'view'

The neighbors mini-barn and home were the only ‘view’


To the homeowners the main priority was a need for privacy from neighboring homes yet to me the biggest challenge was function. How would this couple use their new space and how would they get into it?

Before – the challenges


Blinds were kept closed; what was there to look at anyway?

Blinds were kept closed; what was there to look at anyway?

A large lawn took up most of the area with a few struggling trees and shrubs around the perimeter. Far from being inviting it seemed lifeless – not a bird in sight. No birdsong or butterflies. It seemed sterile.

originally the only access into the garden was through this area

Originally the only access into the garden was through this side area

Access to this back garden was through a side kitchen door that took you across a  shaded deck that had seen better days and was clearly in need of replacing, but that whole area seemed more dark and foreboding than bright and inviting. Why venture outside?

The lawn sloped to the back fence - a challenge for the lawnmower but an invitation to me!

The lawn sloped to the back fence – a challenge for the lawnmower but an invitation to me!

There was also a significant slope to the garden which had to be addressed.

After – improved access


New French doors, removal of an old raised deck and creative hardscaping – what a difference


It seemed obvious to me that replacing a large window in the dining room with French doors would greatly improve access into the new garden but also change the dynamic of the entire space – thankfully the homeowners agreed and that pivotal decision was key to transforming this bland area into a true extension of their already beautiful home.

A new circular patio transformed the side garden, especially after the original flagstone was cleaned and re-set

A new circular patio transformed the side garden, especially after the original flagstone was cleaned and re-set

The original approach from the street and kitchen led through a dark tunnel of overgrown trees across an awkward mix of flagstones and worn decking. We removed some trees and limbed up others then repeated the circular theme with a stone patio that connected comfortably to the back garden. With plenty of space for the BBQ and dining as well as colorful containers the entire atmosphere has changed.



The main patio leads off the new French doors. A gravel path leads to the lower fire pit


The lawn took up time, fertilizer, water and money – yet was never used. That has now been replaced with two linked patios surrounded by billowing borders, a privacy hedge and meandering paths.

The main patio is large enough for dining or lounging with friends. Originally planned with a pergola and custom retractable sun shade, this was revised to accommodate a 12′ umbrella that easily adjusts to suit.

Using the grade to create a sitting wall around the fire pit

Using the grade to create a sitting wall around the fire pit

A short curved path and a couple of easy steps takes you to a more intimate circular patio featuring a portable fire pit that doubles as a table for coffee or cocktails. To accommodate the grade, a curved sitting wall was constructed to provide additional seating.

Now you can stroll through the gardens

Now you can stroll through the gardens on gravel paths

Meandering through the garden, a simple gravel path connects these two areas and provides access to both side gardens. This leisurely stroll takes you past fragrant peonies, rustling grasses and colorful shrubs that will soon fill in.

The details

The patio has a border of contrasting cobbles reminiscent of a fine rug

The patio has a border of contrasting cobbles reminiscent of a fine rug

Continuity is important. The tumbled grey cobblestones used for the circular patios were also used as a border on the main patio and the color repeated in the low retaining walls and gravel blend.

Large boulders were added as accents in the borders, connecting the different areas visually and tying into the stonework elsewhere.

The color scheme was taken from the homes interior furnishings with rich reds, purple and gold dominating and with blue as an accent. Plants were selected for colorful foliage primarily but  also for easy care and four season interest.

Several special trees were selected as the homeowners like unique plants. Sculptural conifers and a contorted filbert are just two examples.


Rather than a monoculture of 12′ tall arborvitae for privacy we integrated several standard laurels as well as layering in columnar  Armstrong maples that provided height but didn’t obstruct the paths. In front of these are Quickfire hydrangeas, smoke bushes and other shrubs for color and texture. Neighbors? What neighbors?

Let there be life!

A water feature adds sound and movement to the garden

A water feature adds sound and movement to the garden

We had barely set the first tree in place when a bird flew in and started to sing – a sure measure of success! Adding a bubbling fountain, custom designed by AW Pottery keeps them – and the homeowners entranced.

The results


I’ll let the homeowners have the last word; 

We are amazed at what you designed for our garden and patio. You are truly an artist and gardens are your canvas. How you envisioned our yard to be something that we could have never imagined is truly remarkable. The versatility of how you utilized the overall space and the interesting mixture of colors and textures of varying types of plants, as well as pavers, is beyond anything that we could have dreamt up. You have truly changed our lives.

We appreciate your guidance and patience with us as we worked through decisions that you already knew the best answers to, but you gave us the time and space to catch up after planting little seeds in our heads to ponder. Meeting and working with you has truly enriched our lives and we will be forever grateful.


Is it time to re-think your lawn?


Construction and installation by Berg’s Landscaping, an exceptional team of dedicated professionals whom I am proud to call friends and colleagues.

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