Tag Archives: Part Shade

Great Shrubs for Busy Gardeners



A tranquil spot to sit and enjoy the garden. Hough residence, Woodinville, WA

Let’s be honest; few of us want to spend all our free time working in the garden no matter how much we enjoy being outside. I’m never asked to design a ‘high maintenance garden’, nor asked for recommendations of plants that need endless pampering or pruning. Most homeowners request a low maintenance, easy care and drought tolerant palette that looks good year round; a tall order but not impossible.

My starting point is to focus on building a framework of shrubs that have outstanding foliage, are suited to the soil, water and light conditions and need minimal trimming, feeding or fussing. I will typically use a ratio of 2:1 evergreen:deciduous to get a balance of seasonal interest, color and texture and I will often seek out dwarf cultivars of traditional favorites such as Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica) as they are less likely to outgrow their allotted space in smaller gardens.


A colorful combination of evergreen conifers and deciduous shrubs in my own garden that provides stunning foliage, seasonal flowers . These are all low maintenance, drought tolerant AND deer resistant !


Traits to look for

  • Fabulous foliage
  • Disease resistance
  • Little or no pruning needed
  • Doesn’t outgrow its allotted space
  • Suited to your light, water and soil conditions

I recently shared with you some of my favorite ‘go to’ conifers so this post will focus on broadleaf shrubs.

Heavenly bamboo (Nandina domestica varieties)

Unlike the better known canes of true bamboo, this evergreen shrub is well behaved and is of no interest to your pet panda.


Gulf Stream  heavenly bamboo frames a rustic pot to create a simple focal point. Tan residence, Seattle, WA

With outstanding foliage in shades of green, red, coral, orange, lime and/or gold, white summer flowers and clusters of red winter berries plus the ability to grow in full sun or partial shade this immediately meets my criteria for seasonal interest and bold color.

However, not all named varieties are equally beautiful or easy care in my experience. The  species (i.e. not a named variety but just listed as Nandina domestica)  tends to be leggy, with unattractive bare knees and spindly top growth that needs pruning in an attempt to create a fuller, bushier shrub. Far better to choose a named variety such as Gulf Stream whose reliable 3′ x 3′ cushion-type shape never exposes its ankles let alone knees. Moon Bay is also excellent in this regard if slightly larger.


Firepower heavenly bamboo in its winter color, used in a container

If you prefer a slightly bolder leaf consider FirePower which still has more of a ground hugging habit. Where a more upright form is needed I have found Moyer’s Red to be one of the best and use it in container designs for height, layering lower plants in front. For the more color adventurous among you check out the exciting varieties of Nandina in the Sunset Western Garden Collection including Lemon Lime which is perfect for those who prefer not to have red foliage.

No pruning necessary, drought tolerant once established and easy care.

Little Henry Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica ‘Little Henry’)


Fall foliage on Little Henry

This unassuming deciduous shrub deserves a place in your garden in partial shade or full sun. Far from being fussy, Virginia sweetspire will thrive in sticky wet clay yet is drought tolerant once established, needs no pruning and is typically ignored by deer (although they may do a quick taste test).

Little Henry grows just 2-3′ tall and wide, spreading by suckering but not to the point of being invasive. In spring the mound of bright green foliage is transformed by the abundant racemes of pendulous white flowers. These are lightly fragrant and attract bees and butterflies.

The fall color is a fiery red and the leaves may stay on the shrub for much of the winter if the weather is mild.

I have used this as a low hedge  flanking a path, as an alternative to hydrangeas for foundation planting where deer are a problem or in my own garden on seasonal stream banks to help stabilize the slope.  Here they thrive in the terrible clay soil that is alternately seasonally saturated or dry as a bone.

Wintercreeper (Euonymus fortunei)

Super busy and thrifty? Then you’ll like these!

Wintercreeper offers a colorful, evergreen option for full sun or partial shade. Give it an occasional chop to keep it low or allow it to scramble and meander informally for additional height. Wintercreeper can usually be found both in a gallon (6″) and 4″ pot and is one of the cheapest shrubs you’ll find, often costing as little as $3 for the 4″ size.


Emerald ‘n’ Gold adds an attractive evergreen border to a profusion of summer flowering perennials. Design by Karen Steeb, Woodinville, WA

The two most popular varieties are the gold/green ‘Emerald ‘n’ Gold’ and the green/white variegated ‘Emerald Gaiety’. Both take on a rosy hue in cold weather.

Emerald ‘n’ Gold shown above is a cheap substitute for Kaleidoscope abelia and is more reliably evergreen in my garden.

Try the green and white variegated Emerald Gaiety to edge a border of your favorite PG hydrangeas such as Quick Fire or Firelight. The large white panicles of these hydrangeas take on a rosy blush as the season progresses making this a really stunning and easy combination for the garden or large container.

Tough, cheap, healthy and easy to find in the nurseries.

Fine Line buckthorn (Rhamnus frangula ‘Fine Line’)


The tall feathery foliage on the far right is a Fine Line buckthorn; great contrast with bolder, spikier forms. Design by Loree Bohl, Portland, OR.

A feathery, vertical accent that is easy care and deer resistant. Buckthorn is incredibly versatile and will take full sun or part shade, wet soil or dry.

In autumn the rich green leaves of Fine Line turn golden yellow, falling to reveal the spotted stems that continue to add winter interest to the garden or container.

This non-invasive deciduous shrub can be used as an exclamation point in the border, as a hedge or for seasonal screening as it will grow to 5′ tall but just 2-3′ wide. If an errant branch flops just chop it off; no fancy pruning needed.

Northern Bush honeysuckle (Diervilla lonicera)


I discovered this quite by accident when the bronze foliage caught may eye as I scanned the nursery displays one spring.  On closer inspection I realized that I had had one of these bushes in my garden all along but didn’t know what it was! The northern bush honeysuckle is native to most of the NE United States and Canada but appears to be a relative newcomer to western gardens. The best foliage color is in full sun but this will also take part shade (where my original shrub was lurking).


With fragrant yellow flowers that attract birds, butterflies and birds, amazing red fall color and an ability to thrive in poor soil this deserves a closer look. With its rather lax habit and 3′ x 3′ size I feel it works best in woodland gardens or as a filler for larger borders.

A few more to consider

Spirea certainly make the cut as easy care. You can read more about this group here. Likewise I personally love barberries for their many colors and supreme deer resistance. However they are invasive in some states so not suitable for everyone. I’ve shown you a few of my favorites before. (Just do a search for barberries if you’d like to re-read a few posts).

Then there are shrubs that I love but can’t consider them suitable for the really busy gardener as they do require some upkeep. However, ‘work’ means different things to different people so if you don’t mind chopping down a shrub in spring or cutting out some dead bits then you may well feel these merit the time and effort. I certainly do in my own garden!

Smoke bushes; they need coppicing in spring to look their best

Ninebarks; they need thinning to keep in bounds although the dwarf variety Little Devil may be better in that regard

Weigela; stunning foliage and flowers but typically have some dieback after winter which has to be cut out. Or maybe it is just me?!

Abelia; I have  a hedge of the tall glossy abelia as well as several shorter Kaleidoscope shrubs but all have winter dieback to some degree that needs to be pruned out in spring

What is your favorite shrub for the busy gardener?

Leave us a comment below or on our Facebook page. We’d love to know!

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Stylish Early Fall Shade Garden

One of the most common complaints that I hear from design clients about their gardens is that they feel defeated about what to do in the shade garden. After spending time and energy trying plants that were too water needy, can’t tolerate being moist, disease prone or simply needing more light than they realized, it absolutely can be frustrating, not to mention expensive.
So, when I mention some of the great shade standards such as hosta, they scrunch their face up and reply with a response that usually describes their boredom and lack of enthusiasm for these seemingly “pedestrian” options. However, when we begin to talk about the exquisite varieties that they can plant and which plant pairings can go with them such as conifers and grasses, there is a distinct change of expression and excitement like a little kid who can’t wait for Christmas.
Here are a few early fall shade garden examples of just such options this week from the spectacular garden called PowellsWood in Federal Way, Washington. Much of this garden resides under mature fir trees with superb plant pairings that absolutely shine in the shade.
Stylish Early Fall Shade GardensStylish Early Fall Shade GardenThese chalky blue hosta (‘Hadspen Blue’) or ‘Halcyon’ are the perfect counterpoint under the chartreuse color of the Japanese maple. Layered together with one of the MOST unique new hosta available called ‘Praying Hands’ with its upright dark green, wavy foliage featuring fine white edge details, it is one of my favorite vignettes in the entire garden.
At the back of this captivating foliage combination, the tips of a hemlock shrub, ‘Gentsch White’ glow in a soft and misty white detail. It will grow up and have even more prominence standing up over this combination in the future.
Stylish Early Fall Shade GardenSplendid Chinese wild ginger spreads out elegantly in the shade of this palm tree garden paired with Astelia ‘Westland’ that sports a subtle bronze stripe. The spiky upright habit of the Astelia is perfectly suited in size and lacy texture of the Japanese ‘Tassel’ fern while billowy grasses thrive partial shade in the background to compliment them.
There is no need to be frustrated and disenchanted with your shade garden plants. These photos in a spectacular shade garden illustrate how common types of plants in uncommon forms, paired with new options you may never have considered, can give you stylish options. Ask your local independent garden center to provide new and unique plants that will inspire you to try combinations that excite and delight you in your shade garden

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Heavy Metal in the Shade Garden

You might guess that Team Fine Foliage is NOT talking about heavy metal music. But, just in case this headline threw you off and you were Googling something on an altogether different topic, be warned that the heavy metal we’re referring to here is foliage. 🙂
The classy hues that bronze, copper and silver bring to the garden, unlike screaming heavy metal music, are subtle, rich and diverse. Whether foliage in these tones are used in sun or in shade, there are a million and one design uses. This time we focus on a combination in the shade on a container design that is on the smaller side, sitting on a side table for up-close viewing of the amazing textures represented.
Heavy Metal in the Shade Garden
This bromeliad or Vriesea fosteriana rubra is the anchor plant for the combination giving a backbone of stiff upright foliage for the other more soft and cascading plants to sit around. The nice thing about using a tough plant like this for a tabletop combination is that this shallow dish of plants won’t need a lot of pampering. The other bonus that you get when using this admittedly pricy collectors plant is that it makes a wonderful houseplant at the end of the season if you wish to winter over your investment for next year.
The feature colors here are the metallics, such as bronze, copper and silvery whites, which may seem much too subtle for a spot where there is low light. But, it works when paired with the crisp whites, fresh green as well as rose tones.
Heavy Metal in the Shade GardenThe next layer is the crinkled, texturally abundant Pilea spruceana which is another houseplant used outside in this combination and it worked beautifully! These plants are super easy and gratifying to grow as they also need very little love. Take note of how the metallic tones along with the shades of rose work in perfect unison with the Bromeliad here! Same tones, totally different textures, but the similar needs in the way of light and water.
Heavy Metal in the Shade Garden

This is what happens when you truly look at ALL the varied departments in the nursery for your summer container design choices. Sometimes a combination of colors, forms and textures meet on your cart and work as if you planned it! At least that’s what this designer is claiming if anyone asks. 🙂
Heavy Metal in the ShadeNow to re-enforce with flower color! YES- flowers indeed! Have you seen this one before? It’s one trailing shade, part sun flowering annual that I can’t live without. Its called Mimulus or Monkey Flower and comes in a wide variety of colors that include intense yellow, orange, reds, white and other shades too. This particular cultivar is just one of the “Magic Spring Blossoms Mix” of Mimulus cousins, so be sure to ask for it at your local independent garden center.
The rose color in this particular plant works brilliantly well here! You can also see the wispy Euphorbia ‘Diamond Frost’ here as well as a crisp contrast to the rest of the subtle and muted tones.
Heavy Metal in the Shade Garden

TA-DA!!! You can clearly see how it all came together here with the addition of the very crisp white Lobelia ‘Techno-Heat’ white as well as the leafy green asparagus fern. What do you think? Did I do these plants justice?

Use heavy metal in YOUR garden and let us know what foliage plants YOU chose and how they all work together. Share your images on our Fine Foliage Facebook page.


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Getting FIERCE with Fine Foliage

Getting FIERCE with Fine FoliageSummer is no time to be timid with your landscape design. We only have a short window for this garden magnificence and TEAM Fine Foliage says that you need to GO FOR IT! Whether in container or more large-scale, your garden should be a place that fills you with joy and excitement.
The color bonanza above is a BOLD over-the-top example and obviously not all of us can do this but please, this post BEGS you to imagine your world beyond the typical and everyday plants. Get crazy, think out of the box, try new things!
Getting FIERCE with Fine FoliageOur post is LOADED this week with tropical feeling inspiration to shake you up a bit and get your design juices flowing with ideas that YOU can try. You can take these ideas and translate them from the idea of color schemes, textural ideas, scale, etc. The point is to study what brings you inspiration to try something NEW!
Getting FIERCE with Fine Foliage
Cool colors are your thing? Easy-peasy! This bromeliad sports quite the handsome lavender glow in the pot where a simple variegated ivy snuggles up the base of the plant and acts like an uplight. What could you use in place of this giant collectors plant that might be hardy in your garden?
Getting FIERCE with Fine Foliage
Do you yearn for a feminine esthetic? Citrus colors mixed with pale pink in this scene are not only soft and refined, but BOLD! 
Getting FIERCE with Fine FoliageIf you simply MUST have your geraniums, then why not pair them with euphorbia ‘Fire Sticks’ and Carex ‘Cappuccino’ to mix it up a bit and try something unexpected.

Getting FIERCE with Fine Foliage

The wow factor of these colors together is undeniable. Both subtle AND kind of savage at the same time! Acalypha and dracaena make fine friends in a container that compliments them with so much style!
Getting FIERCE with Fine Foliage
Could this dracaena BE any more well named? ‘Colorama’! Paired here in a captivating graphic combination with ‘Saffron-Spike’ Aphelandra they are a designers dream for inspiring new ideas! I know that your brain is just zooming with ideas isn’t it? This is how we come up with new ideas and plant combinations, we take fantasy and apply it to our own small-scale gardens and containers. What would your foliage plant combo be based on THIS photo?

Getting FIERCE with Fine Foliage
HOLY COLOR WHEEL BATMAN! Yes, that is a LOT of color. Clear, true primary colors always work together. But here, the take away is to notice the strong, broad strappy leaves of the bromeliads give a green place for your eye to rest and cool off. So, even though this is based on flowers, it’s a foliage that saves the day!

Getting FIERCE with Fine Foliage
The use of tasty edibles in containers is classy against the off-white stucco, but the DRAMA of the giant lemon colored schefflera in a deep blue pot adds that spark of powerful intensity. Not only that, it beautifully echoes the tile art on the wall too. 

Here is a peek at how I translated a little bit of FIERCE into a container for one of my more adventurous clients this summer.
Getting FIERCE with Fine Foliage

Getting FIERCE with Fine Foliage

Have you got some tough shade but still want to have some intense combinations? Here are the couple of powerful combos that are under the shade of large trees. See? Scale, drama, texture bring this to design fruition with only a few small blooms!
Getting FIERCE with Fine FoliageGetting FIERCE with Fine Foliage
Here is my take on these extraordinary combinations for a shade container for that same courageous client….
Getting FIERCE with Fine Foliage

Now go out there and snap some photos of YOUR FIERCE Fine Foliage designs and share them with us on Facebook!


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High Spirit Foliage Color for the 4th

With the 4th of July fast approaching, Team Fine Foliage is dealing with a 100 year, record-setting heat wave here in our typically mild northwest climate (as I sit in front of the AC writing this post). We have surpassed records made in past hot July and August months so far and there seems to be no end in sight. Most of our time when not working on the NEW BOOK “Foliage First”, has been holding a hose or setting up sprinklers.

Karen Chapman's explosion of fireworks Brit style. :-)

Karen Chapman’s explosion of fireworks Brit style. 🙂

Since the vast majority of us can’t let off fireworks here due to the heat advisory and one half of Team Fine Foliage is British anyway, we can get crazy HERE! 🙂 I thought it was a good time to bring you foliage ideas that are both high energy color and high impact forms. Some spiky shapes that mimic fireworks are interesting and maybe they will give your imagination some ammunition to add some explosive foliage interest to YOUR landscape.

An Acalypha that I snapped in Disneyworld, BOLD!!

An Acalypha that I snapped in Disney World, BOLD!!

Red Castor Bean is a showstopper, but can be a bit hard to find. Those giant red leaves are about 2ft. across.

Red Castor Bean is a showstopper, but can be a bit hard to find. Those giant red leaves are about 2ft. across.

I could have stuck with the good old red, white and blue for this post, but I came across SO many other fun bits of color and detail for you that I gave up on that theme. But, there is always this one that you could do in a cobalt blue pot with red and white New Guinea Impatiens right? Someone make that combo and post it for us on the Fine Foliage page!

Drama with Caladium, never fails!

Drama with Caladium, never fails!

High Spirited Foliage for the 4thRed Mandevilla, red Rex begonia and a red sphere, now THAT is some color for a partially shady nook!

Another unique Acalypha harmonizing with orange, bronze and the lavender toned Asters.

Another unique Acalypha harmonizing with orange, bronze and the lavender toned Asters.

Impatien 'Omeiana' is ALMOST like fireworks in the shade garden!

Impatiens ‘Omeiana’ is ALMOST like fireworks in the shade garden!

A reddish Bromeliad in a patriotic blue pot makes a statement!

A reddish Bromeliad in a patriotic blue pot makes a statement!

Canna makes a wonderful backdrop for airy Gamma Grass like little sparks shooting up from the pot!

Canna makes a wonderful backdrop for airy Gamma Grass like little sparks shooting up from the pot!

Now THIS is a fireworks display!!

Now THIS is a fireworks display!!

There are always blue foliage plants (for the good old Red, White and Blue) that are dramatic and stunning around, sometimes you just have to think out of the box a bit. 🙂

High Spirited Foliage for the 4th

'Silver Swan' euphorbia with 'Quicksilver' Hebe.

‘Silver Swan’ Euphorbia with ‘Quicksilver’ Hebe.



White foliage can be white HOT in sun or in shade!

'Spider Web' Fatsia

‘Spider Web’ Fatsia

Creamy off-white foliage from variegated Cordyline is plenty classy on it's own in a container.

Creamy off-white foliage from variegated Cordyline is plenty classy on its own in a container.

Garden Art, soft Mexican feather grass and one lone canna leaf glowing like a burning ember make for an unexpectedly electric combo of form and colors.

Garden Art, soft Mexican feather grass and one lone canna leaf glowing like a burning ember make for an unexpectedly electric combo of form and colors.

HOLY COW Yankee Doodle look at that BIG BOLD showy foliage in white? :-)

HOLY COW Yankee Doodle look at that BIG BOLD showy foliage in white?

Look at that, it’s time for me to go out and water the landscape, we should talk succulents next time. 🙂

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Vibrant Color, Bold Design

Vibrant Color, Bold Design

Want vibrant colors in cool shady locations? If you’re focusing on the flowers first, it can be hard to come by. But I would defy anyone to try to tell me that it’s not possible to create BOLD and colorful combinations when you begin with foliage in lower light conditions. Though you need to fully understand the particular quality of light or lack of light you have in your situation, you CAN find options for foliage combinations in the shade in both containers and landscapes.

Morning shade has an entirely different light quality than afternoon shade. Dappled light all day is going to be a totally different challenge as would full deep shade. So, watch what your light does at different times of the day, as well as how many hours you have total and that will go a long way to helping you understand what your options are for plant choices. One tip: the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. You would be shocked at how many people don’t think about where the light on their property actually comes from. 🙂

Vibrant Color, Bold Design
(In this combination: Coleus ‘Sedona’, Heuchera ‘Spellbound’, ‘Gartenmeister’ Fuchsia, Oxalis ‘Iron Cross’, Golden Feverfew, Fuchsia ‘Autumnale’, ‘Purple Heart’ Setcresea, Blue Anagalis, Blue ‘Techno Heat’ Lobelia, Violet New Guinea Impatien.)
The combination above sits in a cool location on the north side of the house where it gets bright morning light for a few hours, then a little bit of bright light for a bit right before sundown. It has a cool side that features the mainstay foliage and then a warm side that features the flowers. This container was newly planted not long ago and is just now powering up for the summer color show.

Vibrant Color, Bold Design
Vibrant Color, Bold Design

This portion of the container combination is in bright but very indirect light on the west side of the house where it is blocked by large hedges and trees from the warmth of the afternoon. This triad of foliage is exciting in its level of detail and texture as it stands on the side of other more fine textured foliage. (Rex begonia, Persian Shield, Heuchera ‘Midnight Rose’).

Vibrant Color, Bold Design

This container rests on a mostly shaded, covered patio, although it’s not terribly bright it is very warm and dry. The warmth allows for a little bit of play with certain plants that typically want more sun, so we’re capitalizing on that in less light. Pictured here: Cordyline fruticosa, ‘Black Heart’ Potato Vine, Coleus, Persian Shield, Rex begonia, Euphorbia ‘Diamond Frost’.

Vibrant Color, Bold Design
This foliage based shade combination has few flowers, but boasts some BOLD elements in a dappled light location. High contrast colors and textures, not to mention unusual plant selections make for a fun and architectural container design. This one is also newly planted and will “fluff out” quite a bit as summer progresses. Pictured here: Cordyline fruticosa, African Mask Alocasia, Stachys ‘Bella Grigio’, bright pink Bromeliad, Pink ‘Non-Stop’ Begonia, Golden Pothos.

As you have now witnessed, you CAN have amazing, mouth-watering color and texture from foliage in shade. If you can dream it, you can do it! Think out of the box, try shopping in the houseplant section, ground covers, etc. and for heaven’s sake, get to know your shade conditions first!! Now get out there and do some designing!

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Simple yet Sophisticated

IMG_2855I planted up this little container for a demonstration during my one of my Spring Container Workshops last week. It’s a lesson in balancing abundance and restraint.

Size Matters

The rustic brown clay pot is just 12″ square so the temptation would be to fill it with lots of 4″ plants. Had I done that, however, the overall composition may have looked too busy. Instead I opted to use three gallon (6″) sized plants to really fill out the space with leafy goodness, adding just one 4″ and one 2″ accent plants.


Foliage Stars

The feature plant is the cream/green variegated Angyo Star Fatshedera, one of the Sunset Western Garden Plant Collection beauties. This will need to be staked as it grows taller but I may just let it tumble and mingle to a degree; we’ll see! The glossy leaves suggest a tropical look but I’ve used it here in a more naturalistic design where it’s resemblance to ivy works well.

Playing off the creamy yellow tones I added the grass-like Everillo Carex to introduce fine strappy texture. The bright golden foliage works well with this informal container.

The third ‘big’ plant was Sweet Tea Heucherella, a favorite for its over-sized copper leaves and distinctive purple veins. Spires of fluffy white flowers are a bonus.

Final Details


It was love at first sight when I saw these 4″ pots of Sparks Will Fly begonias; look at those black leaves! The orange flowers echoed the color of the Heucherella foliage and played off the warm sunset color scheme. Perfect to tuck into the corner of the container.

Purple Heart was tucked in a corner near the golden grass

Purple Heart was tucked in a corner near the golden grass

Also added but not visible in these photos  is a 2″ pot of Purple Heart wandering Jew (Setcreasea pallida ‘Purple Heart’ syn. Tradescantia pallida ‘Purple Heart’). The iridescent purple leaves picks up the vein color of the Heucherella and adds contrast to the golden grass.

Design Details

By using just five plants (three of them BIG) and by restricting the number of colors (gold, copper-orange and purple-black) this little container lives large. It has a full, lush look thanks to the foliage; no waiting for it to ‘grow in’ before being ready for its close up.

The three main foliage plants are all evergreen so can be kept in the container or transferred to the garden.

This combination will thrive in shade or partial shade all summer with average water.

Ready to shop?


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Garden Designer’s TOP SECRET Plant Picks!

Garden designers REALLY don’t want just anybody to be able to do what we do. We want there to be some mystique, some fascination, some magic to what we create for our clients. But we DO have secret weapons in our design arsenal that ANYONE can try out affordably and dramatically. Ready? FERNS! Yes, you heard us FERNS!

Garden Designers TOP SECRET Plant PicksFerns are often low on the shopping order of excitement for nursery customers and often overlooked because they need to utilized WELL in order for them to shine. And if they aren’t sited or paired up with the right companions, they can be down right boring. However, designers know that ferns can be THE MOST dramatic and showy plants in the entire landscape if you allow them to be the super-stars that they can be.

Garden Designers TOP SECRET Plant PicksWhether you are wanting evergreen or perennial ferns, the design options are incredible and this little secret is one of many in a GOOD garden designers vast arsenal of tricks. Ferns are available for every type of location from full shade to sun, dry shade to moist, from tall to ground cover, from evergreen to perennial and everything in between. And this makes them a valuable plant option for many types of locations.

Garden Designers TOP SECRET Plant Picks

For THE absolute experts in the world of ferns, my go-to professionals are at Fancy Fronds Nursery here in the NW. The amazing ladies who own this nursery know their ferns and can provide you with everything from collectors ferns to the more common.

Garden Designers TOP SECRET Plant Picks

Designers know that a fern can often do what other plants can’t, and that is being able to play a supporting OR a string role in the display at any given time during the season. This spectacular display by designer Riz Reyes  (above) shows the important supporting actor role that ferns are playing when other plants NEED to have a starring role.

Garden Designers TOP SECRET Plant PicksDesigners also know that ferns are not simply one shot wonders in the fluffy summer landscape, they are critical players in the year round landscape. In the shot above, the ‘Autumn Fern’ shows off-color in early fall with a ‘Cappuccino’ Sedge.

Garden Designers TOP SECRET Plant Picks

Another way to think of using ferns to their highest and best purpose is to know that they can be both bold AND delicate depending on how you pair them. In this shot above, the trio of the ‘Maidenhair’ fern with Daphne ‘Summer Ice’ and ‘Mugho’ pine are a texture lovers dream! But, it is in quite a powerful and strong way.

Garden Designers TOP SECRET Plant Picks

In this photo, the delicate new growth in spring has lovely blushing color and comes across as incredibly feminine and lush.

Garden Designers TOP SECRET Plant PicksSometimes the green on green of ferns layered together is an elegant way to fill an area with hardy and showy textures, this is a common trick that designers employ in those hard to plant low-light spots. But, WOW! Who needs more color when you have this ‘Hart’s Tongue’ fern with a carpet of ‘Oak’ fern underneath?!

Garden designers TOP SECRET Plant Picks

Talk about luscious green on green! WOWZA! This ‘Paris’ Polyphylla truly shines as it stands up tall over a bed of ‘Maidenhair’ fern and glossy ginger foliage.


Garden Designers TOP SECRET Plant Picks

Even in a fairly bright spot you have amazing ferny options, such as the leathery, deep green ‘Tassle’ fern.

Garden Designers TOP SECRET Plant Picks

Or use the incredibly beautiful ‘Ghost’ fern as a way to up-light these white allium flowers! This is a vastly under-utilized foliage color in the fern world, there are way too many great ways for this amazingly silver foliage to light up a dark corner or give just the right zing to a darker leaved companion.

Garden Designers TOP SECRET Plant Picks

Used in the foreground of this larger blue-green hosta in the rear, who needs more? The purplish-black stems are an incredibly lovely contrast to the ‘Ghost’ fern’s silver luminescence. But, if you wanted to play up those dark stems even more, pair this combination with the glossy bronze foliage of Beesia (see the photo below for Beesia in action) where it’s heart shaped leaves and white fairy-wand type flowers would bring even more wow-factor to this combination!

Obviously there are so many more ferns than we have room to show off here in one blog post, like the ever-present ‘Sword’ fern that is like a mascot in the NW garden, other than slugs possibly. 🙂 But, even a seemingly pedestrian plant like a ‘Sword’ fern shines with the right plants around it. So, the main take-away this week is that, we designers have this little design secret that may seem to many gardeners like a ho-hum addition to the landscape, but if you know the secret handshake and password, we’re happy to share ideas with you.


Garden Designers TOP SECRET Plant PicksOh! Did we NOT mention the secret password??????? Next week……….

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Winter Survivors and Thrivers

This is a good time to review those winter containers and see what has thrived despite extreme temperature swings, inconsiderate deer and neglect. Let’s face it, January is not the finest hour for most gardens but if we can keep a few containers looking stellar in the ‘off season’ it’s easier to ignore those iffy garden corners.

After several years observation I have found these plants to be reliable performers with little or no winter damage in my zone 6b/7 garden. Although Christina and I only live about 45′ away from one another my garden is much colder and I have to deal with deer so like some of you I have plant envy at times!

So take this foliage selection as a little winter pick-me-up. You can totally justify a trip to the nurseries to find one or more of these – just tell them Team Fine Foliage sent you.

Curly Red drooping fetterbush (Leucothoe axillaris ‘Curly Red’)

IMG_1134Evergreen, leathery twisted and puckered leaves take on rich burgundy tones in cold weather deepening to purple in winter. This dwarf shrub  grows slowly to about 16″ tall and wide as a tidy mound so is perfect for a container but also works well in the landscape, perhaps planted as a mass groundcover or as a compact specimen to accent more delicate foliage.

IMG_8698It makes a stunning contrast with golden conifers such as the Forever Goldie golden arborvitae (Thuja plicata ‘Forever Goldie’) shown above.

IMG_8117In summer the foliage is mostly green, the younger leaves being a lovely fresh shade.

Color ideas

I’m thinking of planting a group in my woodland near a stand of Bowle’s Golden sedge (Carex elata ‘Aurea’), autumn ferns (Drypoteris erythrosora), dwarf green spruce and yellow  cowslips. To one side is a young Rhode Island Red Japanese maple (Acer p. ‘Rhode Island Red’) and the whole group is in the dappled shade of a golden locust tree (Robinia pseudoacacia ‘Frisia’). Mmmm.

Cultivation notes

  • Well drained soil in partial shade, partial sun
  • Deer and rabbit resistant
  • Somewhat drought tolerant when established
  • Hardy in zones 6-9

Blue Star juniper (Juniperus squamata ‘Blue Star’)


The winter color is deeper


I have many different conifers in my garden from towering 60′ Douglas fir to dwarf spruce  with colors from darkest green to bright gold. Each has earned its place and is loved for different reasons but if I could only pick one and it had to be tough as nails, had never shown any winter burn, had great color, didn’t need pruning, was disease resistant, drought tolerant and was ignored by deer the humble Blue Star juniper would be my pick. We featured it on the cover of our book Fine Foliage and we have some breathtaking combinations using this conifer in our next book (still busy writing that one….). It’s inexpensive, easy to find…. Have I convinced you yet?


The foliage is a duskier blue-green in summer

Use this low growing conifer to edge a border, add to a container, soften a stone wall or snuggle up to a large boulder.

Color Ideas

Take a leaf out of our book (pun intended – couldn’t resist) and pair it with Berry Smoothie coral bells for year round color

Let our book inspire you! Blue Star juniper is seen in spring with pink and gold companions

Let our book inspire you! Blue Star juniper is seen here in spring with pink and gold companions

Looks equally fabulous with bold orange and hot red; think dark leaved barberries or weigela in an orange container with black mondo grass….

We have a multi-trunked Himalayan white birch tree (Betula utilis var. ‘Jacquemontii’) underplanted with Blue Star junipers anchoring one end of a large border. ‘We’ (aka my long-suffering husband) has just moved my large orange pot into that area so it is now framed by the blue conifers; those colors really POP.

Cultivation notes

  • Compact 3′ x 3′ mound
  • Evergreen
  • Deer and rabbit resistant
  • Drought tolerant once established
  • Full sun
  • Hardy in zones 4-9

Blondie coral bells (Heuchera ‘Blondie)



Photo courtesy Terra Nova Nurseries Inc.

Some heuchera do better than others depending on where you live – agreed. In fact you may find this post I wrote with breeder Dan Heims of Terra Nova Nurseries Inc. to be helpful in helping you fine-tune your selection.

I have some I consider annuals, some that look terrible in winter but revive so well in spring that I let them stay, others that I consider short term perennials (great for 3 years – maybe 4) and just a few that I have to stand back and admire because they truly exceed my expectations.

These are neither deer nor rabbit resistant so I am limited in how I can use them but the value of a colorful, evergreen bold leaf is such that I keep a few on hand for my designs. Blondie is one of my current top picks.


The round leaves are a soft ginger in fall (as seen here), getting deeper throughout the winter and rich mahogany in spring. Each leaf is ~ 2″ in diameter so it wont swallow neighboring plants, making it a great container plant.


Blondie has some of the showiest flowers of all the coral bells. Fat spikes of creamy flowers on red stems bloom profusely over many weeks. These make great cut flowers or leave them for the hummingbirds to enjoy.

Color ideas

I can’t give too much away here as we have a five star combo featuring Blondie in our new book! I’ll give you a clue; the colors are deep teal, deep rose and burnt orange……

Cultivation notes

  • I keep this in a corner of my fenced vegetable garden, ready for me to add it to a container as needed. It has done equally well in that semi-landscape setting as it has in pots
  • Partial sun and partial shade are generally recommended but mine was in full sun all summer and never scorched.
  • A smaller, more compact variety than most; mine measures 10-12″ tall and wide after 2.5  years.
  • Evergreen
  • Do not over-water.
  • Hardy in zones 4-9

Winter daphne (Daphne odora ‘Aureo-marginata’)

Photo courtesy of Richie Steffan/Great Plant Picks

Photo courtesy of Richie Steffan/Great Plant Picks

Walk into any nursery in February and get ready to swoon…………it’s the time of year when winter daphne tickles our olfactory senses – or perhaps assaults rather than tickles! Some may find the sweet and spicy fragrance cloying but I love it and have two of these semi-evergreen shrubs near our front door.

Daphne have a reputation of being rather fickle but I haven’t found that to be the case at all. I’ve grown them in containers then transplanted them without a problem. Mine are in morning shade and afternoon sun (the opposite of what many books recommend), I never water them (my soil is moisture retentive but well drained and good quality loam) and the deer have ignored them.

Photo courtesy Richie Steffan/Great Plant Picks

Photo courtesy Richie Steffan/Great Plant Picks

In many areas these daphne are evergreen. In my  garden they can lose up to 75% of their gold and green variegated foliage during an extremely cold snap  but quickly leaf out again and the flowering buds never seem to be affected. I therefore consider them worthy of inclusion here!

Color ideas

Pick up on the pink and white flowers with the addition of hellebores – there are so many to choose from right now.

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Check out the last post Christina wrote on choosing hellebores for their foliage too.

Penny's Pink Hellebore

Penny’s Pink Hellebore

Penny’s Pink foliage would be a fun companion to the daphne, bringing pink and yellow color echoes. I’d soften the duo up a bit with some fine textured grasses such as the variegated moor grass (Molinia caerulea subsp. caerulea ‘Variegata’ ) which would look good even dried and bleached in winter while the very finely variegation of green and soft yellow would be pretty from spring-fall.


Do as I do or do as I say? Up to you! I’ve already told you how mine grows. Here’s the official line;

  • Grows to 4′ tall and 6′ wide
  • Prefers light, open or dappled shade
  • Water occasionally
  • Hardy in zones 7-9

Consider us your enablers – we’ll see you at the nursery!

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Hot White Chic Style for Summer 2014

By now you might have noticed that I have a certain affinity for shade plants. Maybe it’s because I don’t have that much shade in my own yard to play in that it grabs my focus SO much. Maybe it is also because I love the challenge of finding new and different ways to bring light and airiness to dark places.

Spider Web Fatsia container in a shady nook.

Spider Web Fatsia container in a shady nook.

On a recent tour of gardens with 80 other garden bloggers in Portland Oregon, I noticed a hot trend among some of the designers that I took note of in particular. The use of this amazing new Fatsia ‘Spider Web’ or ‘Speckled Fatsia’. It brings a light bit of a tropical feeling to some darker corners. See the link for more details on this amazing and slightly rare plant.

'Yakushimanum' Rhododendron paired with the icy cool 'Spider Web' Fatsia.

‘Yakushimanum’ Rhododendron paired with the icy cool ‘Spider Web’ Fatsia brings a slightly masculine flair.

I was ceaselessly impressed by the drama these leaves could impart to almost any low-light location with the large palmate leaves and the elegant white Chanel-esque presence it brings to what could be a drab vignette.

A more feminine combination with the pink Lacecap Hydrangea.

A more feminine combination with the pink Lacecap Hydrangea.

If you live in a climate where you can’t grow this Fatsia outdoors, I’m told that it makes an exceptional houseplant. However you come to use this elegant and highly fashionable plant, it will serve you well and you just might become one of the many obsessed over designing with Fine Foliage in the shade.

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