Tag Archives: perennials

Favorite Fall Foliage – Arkansas bluestar

IMG_6674

A large planting of Arkansas blue star beginning its fall display

There are some plants I just can’t get enough of – and top of that list is the perennial Arkansas bluestar (Amsonia hubrichtii). While many herbaceous perennials are selected for their flowers, this beauty is invariably chosen for its outstanding feathery foliage that transitions from bright emerald green to shades of orange, gold and copper in fall. For the flower-loving folks, yes this does indeed have blue flowers in spring but even a glance at these photos will quickly convince you that it really is all about the autumnal foliage display.

How to use it

Even one plant can be a star in a container.

IMG_8489

Mingling with other late season foliage stars, the bluestar adds height, texture and color

I added a group of seven one-gallon plants to the far end of our ‘island border’, a key display border viewed from many vantage points within our large garden, from the patio and from most windows of the home.  As is typical, the perennials took three years to look significant – you need vision in the early days! I nestled these feathery beauties against a large mossy boulder to play off the texture.

IMG_8562

Color companions I enjoy the most are silver and purple, both of which work equally well with the summer or fall display.

To give you ideas from other gardens, here is an example from the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden where it mingles with golden sneezeweed (Helenium sp.).

IMG_6181

At Walter’s Gardens, the nursery that grows perennials for Proven Winners, I spotted it offering feathering companionship and powder-blue flowers to spring blooming peonies and poppies in the test garden.

IMG_1928

Of course I am not known for my minimalist approach so you won’t be surprised to hear that when I had a new raised bed to plant by our patio I decided to fill it with over 50 Arkansas bluestar! The design idea was to create a transition from the more ornamental plantings besides the patio to the distant summer meadow and woodland beyond.

IMG_6682

Anticipating the fall foliage color, we used steel to form the arc at the rear of this bed, knowing its weathered, rusted surface would look visually exciting with the autumnal display.

This is only year two for this bed but I’m already thrilled with how it is evolving. I also know I’m going to be out taking photos each day as the colors change!

Why you should grow it

IMG_0017

Arkansas blue star is reliably drought tolerant in my non-irrigated garden. This summer we didn’t have any measurable rain for three months and our temperatures were frequently in the 90’s with almost a week closer to 100′, yet I didn’t water the Arkansas bluestar in the island border even once and it still looks fabulous. I did water the newer plants by the patio a total of three times as after two months without rain a few plants were showing signs of stress. That may be due to them being in a raised planted rather than in the ground, or due to them being less well established. Next year will tell. Certainty they have started their fall display earlier but I don’t mind that at all!

IMG_0268

They are also both rabbit and deer resistant – YAY!!

More combination ideas

Our new book Gardening with Foliage First has several fabulous design ideas. Check out  Golden Threads (p285) and  Aquascapes (p140). The latter uses a different variety of this perennial called Halfway to Arkansas, but the effect is identical.

IMG_6787

Golden Threads – full design and planting details in our book!

Cultural details

USDA: 5-8

Size: 2 feet tall and wide (but tends to splay outwards to a bit wider than this)

Soil: average, well drained.

Site: Full sun

Water: minimal once established

How are you using this perennial? Share your ideas with us in the comments below or on our Facebook page.

Local Botanical Gardens Yield Inspiration

IMG_4915

The only limitation is your imagination – scene from a waterwise design at Bellevue Botanical Garden

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.

First Impressions

IMG_4857

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…

IMG_4858

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

IMG_4859

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

IMG_4867

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

IMG_4872

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.

Luscious Layers with Foliage First

We have earned the right to whine a bit about our weather here in the Seattle area lately with record-setting rains the likes of which have not been seen since records were kept in this area. The gardens are all in quite a state of shock and disorientation, so when I went to look back at this date last year, it was quite amazing to fathom the variance!
Hostas and Saxifrage are Luscious Layers with Foliage FirstI found this shot in last years file for this same week in 2016 photographed in an amazing garden called PowellsWood. This garden is very close to my heart as they spoil me SO much as a designer and a photographer. But, also because it’s an exquisite gem of a garden.

Just look at those layers of hosta fern, grass and ‘Variegata’ saxifrage in full blooming glory for spring! So what’s the design recipe here? Add one white variegated hosta, one solid blue hosta, and marbled golden saxifrage WITH the graceful show of spring flowers. Following those saxifrage blooms will be the hosta flowers and now you have a recipe that Team Fine Foliage and Foliage First would say is a BIG winner for demonstrating how to have luscious layers in the shade garden this year. The ferns and grass are bonus elements!

With some luck and possibly a drought we may be slightly less damp in July than we are today. But, I still have to shave the moss on my legs this week! 😉

Is it time for you to tackle that less-than-stellar shade garden? You’ll get lots more ideas for plant combinations that put Foliage First in our two books.

If you enjoyed this post be sure to sign up to receive our leafy news direct to your inbox!