Take our Jigsaw Challenge!

Old Fashioned smoke bush - what would YOU combine this with?

Old Fashioned smoke bush – what would YOU combine this with?

Do you like puzzles? I love the thrill of clicking that final piece into place to complete the picture. Yet it often takes many attempts of trial and error, substituting first one then another candidate, (admittedly even trying for force the occasional piece into place, convinced it must be right)  before I achieve success.

Christina and I had the honor of presenting a talk to the Northwest Horticultural Society last week and the title of our presentation was Dynamic Duo – the foliage edition where we showed what two very distinct personalities can come up with! We gave each other a series of key plants and challenged one another to see what other foliage plants we would pair it with to create a perfect picture. Well judging by the wonderful comments we are continuing to receive the audience had lots of fun -but so did we! There’s nothing quite like being challenged to stretch yourself and consider the myriad of possibilities. Unlike jigsaw puzzles there are many ways to create a stunning combination if you know what clues to look for. Not everything will work but it is so much fun to find the plants that look stunning together and reflect your unique style.

I thought you might enjoy seeing a couple of our completed puzzles and then it will be YOUR turn if you dare to take the challenge!

Challenge 1 –  Orange Rocket barberry (Berberis thunbergii ‘Orange Rocket’)


The clue – rich rosy foliage on bright red stems

Option 1

Design credit; Mitch Evans

Design credit; Mitch Evans

Neither of us can take credit for this remarkable spring combination – it is the work of designer Mitch Evans, Redmond, WA

The jigsaw pieces

1. Itoh peony (bronze leaf)

2. Blue Nest spruce (Picea mariana ‘Ericoides’) in the foreground

Whey they fit together so well

The emerging peony foliage is a striking bronze color and brings out the smoky tones in the barberry leaf as well as drawing our attention to the stems of the spruce which might otherwise go unnoticed. Additionally each leaf is a different shape giving great textural contrast.

The overall picture has a strong, masculine and contemporary feel with its unusual color scheme

Light conditions; full sun

Option 2

barberry collage CSChristina took a flirtatious approach! In fact we both had lots of fun with our collage approach to designing with foliage  – no boundaries to hold us back!

The jigsaw pieces

Clockwise from 12 o’clock

1. Rue (Ruta graveolens) ;this can be a serious skin irritant, especially in warm weather

2. Ivory Coast bromeliad

3. Big Red Judy coleus – or as Christina would call it “The trucker-chick of the coleus world”

4. Cirrus dusty miller (Senecio cineraria ‘Cirrus’)

Why they fit together so well

Soft and velvety, sharp and spiky – this combo is a textural extravaganza. Each leaf shape varies in size and shape yet the repetition of red tones between three of the pieces brings a sense of unity. Likewise the silvery dusty miller and soft green rue play off the colors in the tropical looking bromeliad which is definitely the star of this combo with its wildly striped leaves. (The magenta flower of  ‘Fireworks’ globe amaranth is ‘photo-bombing’ and has nothing to do with the bromeliad other than getting in the way, although it does lend a fun punch!)

Light conditions; Full morning sun with some afternoon protection

Challenge 2 – James Stirling hebe (Hebe ochracea ‘James Stirling)


The clue

Olive green, conifer-like foliage. (The funny thing is that neither of us liked this until we started using it!)

Option 1

hebe collage

Design by Christina

A classic case of  throwing leftovers in a pot and being surprised that the results actually work. Yes sometimes it  does pay to see if those unusual pieces do in fact fit together.

The jigsaw pieces

Smaller photo

1. Needle-like silver foliage of the Icicles licorice plant (Helichrysum thianschanicum ‘Icicles’)

,2. Silver Dollar hellebore (Helleborus ‘Silver Dollar); larger blue toned foliage with dusky pink flower

Larger photo

3. Golden sweet flag (Acorus gramineus ‘Ogon’); yellow grass

4. Rainbow leucothoe (Leucothoe fontanesiana ‘Rainbow’); variegated leaf

5. Blue Star juniper (Juniperus squamata ‘Blue Star); blue conifer

Why they fit together so well

Adding bright yellow to the drab olive green hebe immediately brightens things up. Three plants bring in silvery-blue tones yet each has a different texture both in leaf shape and feel; the dual aspects of ‘texture’. Finally the variegated leucothoe adds a little sparkle with creamy white, while the soft greens tie into the hebe and rich burgundy introduces a new color to play with.

This is a step away from the more typical color schemes  – dare to try something different!

Light conditions; this took a surprising amount of sun – place it so that the leucothoe and hellebore get a little dappled shade in the hottest part of the day.

Option 2

My response to the challenge!

My response to the challenge!

The jigsaw pieces

Left to right

1. Golden Ruby salmon berry (Rubus  spectabilis ‘Golden Ruby’)

2. Tropicanna canna

3. Spitfire coleus

Whey they fit together so well

What Christina called ‘olive green’ I think more of ‘dirty mustard’! However I recalled experimenting with a coleus a few years back with a similar color handicap (Orange King)) and discovered this this Spitfire coleus gave a nod to that color while bringing in a refreshing blast of crushed raspberry. Phew!

From there it was easy as I took inspiration from the great combo on the left, photographed in the display gardens at Terra Nova Nurseries Inc. The golden yellow salmon berry adds a highlight (Christina did the same thing with her grass) and the huge  canna leaves take the coleus color to a whole new level. In fact I liked this so much I may try it this summer.

Light conditions; full sun (Spitfire coleus was fabulous in my sun drenched pots)

Your challenge!

Go back to our first photo of the gorgeous Old Fashioned smoke bush (Cotinus x coggygria ‘Old Fashioned’) – isn’t that just leafy-licious?


Blue-green foliage with rosy veins and stems. The new growth is also tinted with warm shades of rose.

What jigsaw pieces would you add and why? Leave us a comment below or on our Facebook page (you can add a photo there too is you like). We can’t wait to hear from you!

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3 thoughts on “Take our Jigsaw Challenge!

  1. Mike Weston

    Anything works (almost) , if you put the right stuff with it. 🙂
    Some things that pop into my head immediately , some with etting the plants grow, some with trimming (barberry & smokebush) :
    ‘Orange Rocket’/Rhus ‘Tiger Eye’/Weigela ‘Fine Wine’
    ‘Orange Rocket’/Tiger Eye’ /Thuja ‘Fire Chief’
    ‘Orange Rocket’/Tiger Eye’ /Panicum ‘Shenandoah’ or P. ‘Haense Hermes’ (short red)
    ‘Orange Rocket’/’Golden Rocket’/ ‘Golden Ruby’ Barberry
    ‘Orange Rocket’/Panicum ‘Dallas Blues’/Thuja ‘Mr. Bowling Ball’
    ‘Orange Rocket’/Sorghastrum ‘Sioux Blue’/’Golden Ruby’
    ‘Orange Rocket’/Miscanthus s. ‘Purpurescens’/Pinus strobus ‘Sea Urchin’
    ‘Orange Rocket’/Calamagrostis ‘El Dorado’/ ‘Golden Ruby’
    STOP 🙂 ‘Orange Rocket has sooo many possibilities.

    Smokebush (if let go) / Acer palmatum ‘Waterfall’/Stephanandra incisa ‘Crispa’ (trimming , if need be, while maple is young)
    Smokebush/ Panicum ‘Dalas Blues’/ Korean Feather Reed Grass ( Calamagrostis a. ssp brachytricha)

    What variety is that Itoh peony? Great color. 🙂 Is that just the new-ish growth, or does it stay dark throughout the season? Do you have any problems with moisture, or wet years, with P.mariana ‘Ericoides’? Ist it more tolerant than P. mariana ‘Nana’? I’ve had that one live for years, but it always seems to struggle, especially in wet years, even when mounded, &/or on a slope. (Rocky, high-elevation sites are where I’ve seen it in the wild.)

    1. Karen Chapman Post author

      OK Mike I am now going to replant my garden – love these ideas!! I like the barberry+ Rhus together although the latter can be a thug – maybe in a huge pot? Like you I enjoy it with various grasses and those steel blues would be beautiful. After reading your ideas I’m wondering if I can get some Thuja Rheingold in with my barberry+ Shenandoah…. Also like the idea of the smokebush with Acer p. ‘Waterfall’ when the smoke bush gets a bit bigger. Mine was next to a firepit filled with succulents (mostly greens and blues) last year and I really liked that too.

      Mitch could not remember the Itoh variety (most unlike him) but it is only the early growth that is bronze – it turns to a nice mid green by summer. he has done well with that spruce for several years now but he has amended the soil well to avoid waterlogging – I doubt I could grow it.

      Thanks for your inpit!

  2. Linda W

    For the hebe James Stirling: Physocarpus Coppertina, Osmanthus Goshiki, Carex testacea, Sedum micranthum Orange Ice and Heuchera Sweet Tea

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