Tag Archives: tropical

Plant Emergencies

When disaster strikes - look for FOLIAGE!

When disaster strikes – look for FOLIAGE!

It’s that time of year when both Christina and I need to be prepared for an impromptu container photo shoot. It used to take us totally by surprise when an editor called on short notice  and had this wild notion that our pots “were bound to be fabulous” but we are a little more proactive these days in having pots that could quickly be touched up and ready for their magazine close up.

That’s not to say that we are immune to plant emergencies – far from it. I am currently trying to keep over a dozen container grown shrubs looking great for a shoot in a few weeks – and just discovered that the drip hose was no longer dripping. Then there was that bold mango New Guinea impatiens that I thought would look great mingling with the iridescent purple heart (Setcresea)  only to discover two very fat slugs snuggled up and snoozing – doubtless with a stomach ache from overeating. My two plants were nothing but shreds with a telltale silvery sheen.

So what are our ‘go to’ plants for a fast makeover? Flowers are unlikely to look established enough when you have a real time crunch so of course we cruise the foliage section of the nurseries; annuals, perennials, indoor plants, shrubs and grasses. I typically need something that looks big NOW – here’s what’s on my shopping list.

Serious sizzle factor from an oak leaf croton

Serious sizzle factor from an oak leaf croton

Oak leaf croton

Big, bold and colorful – just what I need to replace that New Guinea impatiens. Strokes of red, orange, gold and green will work with many of my color schemes. These are easy to find in a 4″ or gallon size and even the 4″ plant will look grown up and ready for action.

Carolyn Whorton caladium - reminds me of a strawberry milkshake!

Carolyn Whorton caladium – reminds me of a strawberry milkshake!


Still in the indoor plant section these are a great choice if you need to rescue a shade pot. Typically some variation of red, white and green the large heart shaped leaves don’t look like an afterthought but rather the inspiration for the whole design.

The green striped foliage is a dracaena that definitely earns a place in my 'go to' list

The green striped foliage is a dracaena that definitely earns a place in my ‘go to’ list

Variegated dracaena

One last tropical-esqu option, this bold striped dracaena is stunning in a shade container and thrives where little esle seems to. When your key plant keels over and dies, this will save the day. Again it is usually available in 4″ or 6″

This beefsteak plant is as reliable as it is colorful

This beefsteak plant is as reliable as it is colorful

Beefsteak plant

Coleus can be relied on for a strong blast of color but it can be hard to find a good looking one later in the season. They are often pot bound by this point and whereas they will quickly recover once they are in your container, when time is of the essence, tomorrow is just too late!

I have found that the look-alike beefsteak plant (Perilla ‘Magilla’) is a great alternative. I can usually find it in both 4″ and 6″ sizes and it always seems to be well branched, full and healthy. I’ve only used it in shade designs but may see just how sun tolerant it is this year.


The perfect rose for a container

The perfect rose for a container


Fat rosettes of Echeveria and Aeonium are perfect for gap filling  and come in black, blue, lilac, green and multi-colored varieties so you’re bound to find something that works. It always surprises me how small the roots are for even a  large plant but that works in our favor when you’re trying to squish something that looks ‘big’ into a small space.

Ascot Rainbow euphorbia. Photo courtesy Skagit Gardens

Ascot Rainbow euphorbia. Photo courtesy Skagit Gardens


Lots of color options here too and they may be just what you need to rescue a sun container with a bald spot.

Jack Frost to the rescue

Jack Frost to the rescue

Bugbane (Brunnera varieties)

I especially like Hadspen Cream and Jack Frost but whichever you choose the large leaves will quickly disguise any shortcomings in a shade pot. These are my current favorite perennial for summer shade containers

One of the many varieties of periwinkle available

One of the many varieties of periwinkle available


If your trailer has stopped trailing and you need a replacement fast don’t bother with the annuals – go straight to the groundcover section. Periwinkle (Vinca) is usually available nice and long and can be either variegated or plain green. Beach strawberry (Fragaria) is another great option with baby plants hanging off long threadlike stems that tumble over the edge of a container.

Of course there are many more; coral bells (Heuchera), dwarf conifers, fluffy grasses, dwarf barberries, variegated abelia have all made it into my pots at one time or another. In fact I’ll usually shop my garden first – and then hit the nurseries.

What do you do in a plant emergency?

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Sizzling Grape Jelly Carpet of Foliage

Tradescantia zebrina, the lovely purple and silver dominant foliage in this shot is the eye-catching plant carpeting the floor of the hothouse display at the Denver Botanic Garden. But, what REALLY caught my eye was how the contrast and interplay of the four dominant foliage plants in the display all weave together making a tropical patchwork quilt with a distinctly grape flavor of clear grape jelly.
Denver Botanic Garden Tropical House Of course your eye goes straight to the BIG leaf plant in the center, (no tag that I could find) but, now look at how many other textures fill out this frame. The fern and the other beautiful leaf with silver banding (no tag that I could find). This lesson is really about the layers of the textures though, the grape jelly is just because of that yummy color!

Denver Botanic Garden Tropical HouseThe four distinct texture just MAKE this combination! Something BIG and bold, something medium-sized, a fine texture addition and a scrumptious color and voila! If you look closely you can even make out a flower that made it into the post too! 😉

What leafy textural combinations have you spotted lately?

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Foliage Explosion!

IMG_4765We love to break the rules – preferably completely blow them out of the water and that is what this container vignette does!

All that talk about varying texture? Well just look at all the spiky foliage in this design; and yet it works!

Who are the rebel-rousers?

In the container there is a hot pink cordyline exploding at the back and a golden yellow bromeliad launching itself from the middle together with a softer but still spiky tufted hair grass (Deschampsia caespitosa ‘Northern Lights’).

But that’s not all. Containers are not viewed in isolation – consider the surroundings when placing them. Here the container is framed by a sunburst of iris foliage at the back and native reeds in front. Far from detracting from the container these actually add to the drama by screaming “Look at ME!”

It works….

…because of the repetition but also because there is balance provided by the trailing bronze sweet potato vine, variegated periwinkle and the tumbling yellow daisies of the creeping zinnia (Sanvitalia procumbens). The two chartreuse green Goldcrest Monterey cypress (Cupressus macrocarpa ‘Goldcrest’) add a solid conical shape to offset all the fluff.

Dare to throw away the book – well apart from FINE FOLIAGE  of course!

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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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Peanut Butter, Glass and WOW!


Antonow’s Blue Honey Bush

Melianthus major ‘Antonow’s Blue’

Once you have inadvertently backed into or brushed up against the Honey Bush, you never forget that Peanut Buttery goodness of fragrance. It’s so intense! Plus, that powdery blue, ultra textured foliage is so tropical and lush in the garden, it can be compared to none other.
Later, if we have some great spring warmth, this plant blooms with burgundy, nectar abundant flowers that the birds adore.
I’m so excited about this particular plant because its a brand new Dan Hinkley introduction by Monrovia and it should be a hardier plant than previous ones that I’ve bought as “annuals” here in my zone 7 climate. Typically, I would have to overwinter them in the garage, so this will be a fun experiment. Monrovia advises that this plant best for zones 7-11.

Monrovia also recommends planting this one a bit deeper for better hardiness, so that should help too. With great drainage and partial to full sun, this plant will get the oomph it needs to build a strong base before winter. In warmer climates, they are saying this new one will be evergreen, whoo-hoo!! Dan Hinkley is THE MAN!

This one can get as tall as 8 feet. In the container that I will use it in this season, it will likely get about half that high, but that is just dandy with me. This Honey Bush is going into a teal pot that stands out over these lovely glass rocks of similar tones. I can’t wait to see it get fat and full!

Now THAT is some “Fine Foliage” all right. 🙂

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Matching the Plant to the Pot

A shallow yellow gold is the perfect vessel to display these succulents.

A shallow yellow container is the perfect vessel to display these succulents.

What’s even better than fabulous foliage? Fabulous foliage in an equally fabulous pot!

We recently had the opportunity to present a fun foliage-focused seminar at Flora Grubb Gardens in San Francisco. Our visit there proved to be one of the highlights of that trip and we spent several hours  taking photographs of the inspirational plant selection and creative displays. (As well as sampling yummy carrot cake and some seriously good coffee).

Soft blue-greens make an elegant monochromatic statement with the aqua containers

Soft blue-greens make an elegant monochromatic statement with the aqua containers

I love anything in blue, from deep cobalt to bright turquoise and have two of these containers in my own garden. Any one of these blue-green succulents above would look right at home in the shimmery blue pots, perhaps with a little silver added for sparkle. Wormwood (Artemisia) perhaps? Or the metallic silver bush (Convolvulus cneorum)? Or even Dichondra ‘Silver Falls’ cascading over the edge? Of course a blend of all three of these succulents would have great contrast in texture and form.


Sometimes all you need is one plant in a pot

Bromeliads are typically grown for their brightly colored flowers but the beauty  shown above is a stunning blend of purple and chartreuse, perfectly showcased in this purple container by Le Beau. Who needs flowers?

This single orange succulent becomes the star in the equally vibrant pot

This single orange succulent becomes the star in the equally vibrant pot

I particularly loved the way the nursery had showcased their extensive selection of succulents with brightly colored containers, finding perfect color partners and bold shapes to highlight their unique foliage colors; the orange bowl above is a great example. These plants all require sharp drainage and similar light conditions and since they are short do best in a shallow table top container where they can really be enjoyed up close.


Such subtle detail – can you see the way this green container is the exact same shade as the foliage? Not only that but now you are looking closely you can appreciate the soft yellow variegation and hint of rosy-red which brushes each leaf tip.

Flora Grubb Gardens specializes in drought tolerant succulents (although there were lots of other great plants too), but this simple design trick can be used to make the most of any plant from an indoor favorite to a Japanese maple.

Given you some ideas?

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Thank you to everyone at Flora Grubb Gardens for making us so welcome and to the our new foliage-loving friends that we met at the seminar!