As I sat on a shady bench, waiting for the perfect light (a photographer spends as much time sitting & waiting as standing & clicking it seems to me), I watched the many visitors meandering through the Bellevue Botanical Garden (BBG). There were couples picnicking on a blanket, young families who were letting the kids run off some steam, professional photo shoots of wedding parties and graduating seniors – and relatively few folks actually looking at the plants. That surprised me, because your local botanical gardens are often the best place to find inspiration for your own garden.
Whether you are looking for design ideas for moist shade, waterwise combinations that can take the heat or lush mixed borders, BBG has it all and a whole lot more.
In fact sometimes there is so much to absorb that it can be hard to spot the ‘take home’ ideas, so I thought I’d show you one especially colorful part of the large perennial border and take a closer look.
Yikes – where do you look first? What does your eye go to? To the bold, bright, variegated leaf in the foreground? The orange flowers at the back? It’s too much to take in all at once and most of us would not be seeking to create this level of complexity in our own borders, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t design lessons here for us.
Let’s move further down the path…
There’s still a lot going on but our frame is a little more manageable now that we have eliminated the border to the right side of the pathway and reduced the dominance of the variegated dogwood shrub in the foreground.
Initial Design Lessons
- Imagine what would this look like without the orange and magenta flowers. Actually pretty darned good because there’s lots of great FOLIAGE (even if you don’t know their names, analyze the colors and shapes). There are oval variegated leaves, big rhubarb-type leaves, dark purple sword-like leaves, round purple-brown leaves, wispy grasses, a golden conifer, some tall silvery-white grasses and plenty of more ordinary green leaves tucked in too. In other words there is a fabulous foliage framework unifying this scene.
- Now imagine what this would look like if all those leaves were green. Not so interesting! The color of the leaves adds drama to the scene and sets the stage for some fun vignettes using color echoes and contrast. To see that in more detail let’s narrow our focus a bit more.
Lessons in Color Repetition & Contrast
This is where things start to get exciting!
- Foliage Framework
In the foreground is fleshy, purple pineapple lily (Eucomis) foliage rising like bold swords and pointing us (very helpful!) upwards towards the similarly colored large, round leaves of a leopard plant (Ligularia ‘Britt-Marie Crawford’). A large ornamental rhubarb leaf ( Rheum palmatum ‘Atrosanguineum’) also jostles for our attention, framing the left of this scene.
Perfect Foliage First design!
- Finishing Touch (the flowers)
Sandwiched between the purple leaves are ribbons of red and white astilbe. The whote froth is needed for contrast and separation, even though the color echo between the purple leaves and red asilbe flowers was well thought out.
And how about the orange lilies in the distance? They repeat the deep orange-yellow blooms just beginning to open on the leopard plant. The blooms on other leopard plant varieties tend to be much more yellow – this one was specifically chosen for its closer connection to orange.
And orange really pops against such dramatic, dark foliage. Excellent contrast.
Lessons in Form
Notice the contrast between the two layers of upward-pointing (vertical) astilbe blooms and the more horizontal plane of the leopard plant leaves. Beyond them the tall lilies add another vertical punctuation point. Incidentally the astilbe blooms will be left as seedheads well into fall so this design element is remarkably long-lived.
Lessons in Details
There’s one final detail beyond the leopard plant – look at the ruby thorns on the stems of a wingthorn rose (Rosa sericea subsp. omeiensis f. pteracantha) and how they repeat the dark notes of the foliage and flowers in this vignette while once again introducing a vertical line. Genius.
So while botanical gardens are indeed a delightful location for your next portrait session, do take time to enjoy the planting combinations and glean ideas for your own garden. The combined genius of so many talented professionals is on your doorstep!
Want more ideas? Well we know of two rather excellent books to get you started…. Also be sure to sign up to our blog posts delivered directly to your inbox.