The Art of Layering

IMG_0486Both Christina and I design container gardens as part of our businesses. We love what we do and we do something different every time! I was asked once if I ever got stuck for ideas and to be honest I never have. You see even if I find myself reaching for a few of my favorite plants (again) I know I’ll combine them in new ways. But there’s another design layer to consider; the context.

You see the container design is not an isolated entity but rather is part of a larger scene. Whether on a front porch or set within a vast garden, we have the opportunity to establish a relationship between the container garden and its surroundings.

That really came home to me as I watched noted photographer David Perry at a photo shoot in my garden recently. I had been asked to design ten containers for a national magazine that will be published next summer. To appeal to a wide readership I intentionally used a fun mix of colors, plant palettes and styles. Color schemes ran from sleek black and silver to hot pink, blue and lime – something for everyone.

But for them to be shown at their best, we needed to find suitable backdrops for each of the containers to be photographed. This is where I saw David really work his magic. He knew just how to place each pot to transform it from a humble collection of plants into the focal point of a beautiful painting. It was all about context.

Now of course I can’t show you those designs yet but I can share this one with you that I created afterwards.

Taking my cues from the plants in the container I looked for a backdrop that would echo the key foliage colors; yellow, pink-coral, grey-blue and a hint of burgundy-purple. Yet I needed to be sure that the garden setting wasn’t a distraction.

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My initial idea was to set the container on a pathway with a froth of feathery Arkansas blue star (Amsonia hubrechtii) behind to really show off the dark stems of the Scallywag holly (Ilex x meserveae ‘Scallywag’).  The bright lemon groundcover is the annual Lemon licorice plant (Helichrysum petiolare) which despite being mid-October is still going strong. The color and texture contrast worked well. Yet I knew it could be better so I took a step back. (Thank you David for reminding me I can move!)

IMG_0482This seemed to work better. The overall scene is more complex but the inclusion of the big mossy boulder on the left provided a great counterpoint to the fluffy foliage and now the container was set within the context of a frame rather than just being in the foreground. But what about the bigger picture? This time I zoomed out and moved slightly to the right

IMG_0486Now we are back to the opening photograph and you can see the context of the container within the garden and the beautiful layering of foliage colors and textures from front to back. The purple smoke bush (Cotinus x ‘Grace’) echoes the purple, blue and pink tones within the shallow pot, while the golden locust tree (Robinia pseudoacacia ‘Frisia’) shimmering in the distance, the feathery Arkansas blue star and the Lemon licorice plant all play off the the similarly colored foliage  tucked into the container.

Experiment with your container placement at home. Look for great foliage in your garden to provide context for your design. As you enjoy our blog you’ll see this principle at work over and over – now you know the secret.

Plants used

Scallywag holly, Fire Alarm Heuchera, Blue Star juniper, variegated ivy, variegated hebe, Olivia St. Johns wort (berries), Rheingold arborvitae (the small, mounding goldenconifer behind the berries)

Cultural conditions i.e. how not to kill it

This combination will take full sun and is mostly winter hardy. (In milder areas of Seattle the hebe will remain evergreen  although I expect I’m a bit too cold in Duvall). The list. John’s wort will lose its leaves, and eventually its berries too but it will grow back next year. I have spring bulbs tucked underneath which will add color in the meantime. Just be sure the potting soil drains well and that the drainage holes on the pot aren’t blocked (unless you want a water feature).

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6 thoughts on “The Art of Layering

  1. Lee@A Guide to Northeastern Gardening

    This is a beautiful combination of plants and I love the fact that the majority of them are winter hardy and evergreen. Even the heuchera will stay through most of the winter and add nice color along with the mixture of golds and blues. P.S. I am also a designer and I have been so blown away by your website that I have become a follower and just ordered your book which I am really looking forward to.

    1. Karen Chapman Post author

      We just LOVE it when we get people as excited as we are about great foliage combinations! Thanks for ordering our book – we’d love to know which combo is your favorite

  2. Pingback: Dear Santa; our Foliage Wish List | Fine Foliage

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