Tuesday, April 20, 2010

A Bigger View of a Smaller Garden, Part 1

You might have noticed that my blog photos tend to focus on garden details, without giving much context. I recently read a Bloom Day post that combined detail shots with broader views, and was inspired to reveal a bigger picture, starting with my back garden.

Built three years ago from the bare dirt up, it is just starting to come into its own. Being a designer makes a project like this both rewarding and excruciating; the position of every element can be endlessly agonized over in your own garden. I know a design is a success when any key element would be immediately missed if removed. It works because it works together, and I can't stress enough how important the simple act of placement is, in any kind of design.

The fountain sits in the open area between the bamboo grove and the patio, and can be seen from almost anywhere in the garden; this view is from under the Red Umbrella. The Giant Clumping Timber Bamboo (Bambusa oldhamii) sends out a few new culms each year; I choose which ones stay and thin out older ones as needed. I want a screen, not a wall!

A low-maintenance garden like this isn't a no maintenance garden; I usually have two or three good "editing" sessions a year, when things are moved, removed, thinned or pruned. I'll trade that for weekly mowing, edging and blowing any time.

From the patio you can also see the Kuan Yin statue and the path to the Red Umbrella. This whole corner is about 15' square. Cobble from under my street trees runs throughout the garden; here it rings the sitting area and the fountain.

The plants are mostly compact evergreen shrubs; Nandina 'Firepower' Variegated Boxwood, Coprosma 'Evening Glow,' and Ilex x 'Mondo,' mixed with Berkeley Sedge (Carex divulsa) and Heuchera 'Plum Pudding.' The unifying ground cover is White Start Creeper (Pratia pedunculata).

I save the riot of color for my sunny front garden; the plantings around the patio are peacefully simple and designed to be a fun place for my cats to play; the large tussocks of Berkeley Sedge are accented by variegated boxwood and three taller clumps of Korean Feather Grass (Calamagrostis brachytricha) whose puffy late-summer blooms explain my name for it: Cat-Toy Grass.

Pulling back farther you can see how the combination of three Carolina Cherry Laurel (Prunus caroliniana 'Compacta') standards and two Purple Hopseed (Dodonea viscosa purpurea) shrubs follow the curve of the patio, screening the view of my neighbor's roof.

This is it, my back is against the fence! Raised beds make a Kitchen Garden in this sunny corner; the section that wraps around the windmill is planted with thyme, sage, marjoram and chives.

The south-facing bed is a great spot for a six-variety apple espalier: the fence behind it makes it so easy for the squirrels to reach every one! The poppies and alyssum will get pulled out soon to make room for peppers and basil.

The raised beds were a great way to utilize this corner. The section along the right fence is ~24' long. Other permanent Kitchen Garden residents are rosemary (which seems to be turning into a small tree) a pomegranate in the back corner, pineapple sage in the pot under the windmill and lemon verbena. One day those stepping stones will magically sink into the decomposed granite.

We're way overdo for a pretty close-up! This succulent took on some beautiful tints over winter.

The view from the courtyard; you can see how the Prunus and the Dodonea work together to make a very effective screen with plenty of room underneath to plant. After 3 years I was finally able to skirt the Dodonea up and reveal their developing trunk structure (they were about 3' tall at planting).

A big stack of these simple Holland pavers were already on site, left over from a previous patio. I added half a pallet of mixed colors to liven it up, and had them laid in my favorite diagonal herringbone pattern.

*New* Realized I was missing the view into the courtyard! When I moved in the house had just been remodeled; these two wings had been added, and it was just bare dirt and my poor kitchen window! I was renting at the time, and my landlords graciously allowed me to design the steps, patio and arbor to finish it off. It has become a wonderful transition space from my office and bedroom into the garden.

So that's pretty much the whole garden from end to end: you can see the Kitchen Garden from under the Red Umbrella. I don't spend much time here in the winter; being on the north side of the house it can be cold and damp. But from spring to late fall it's where we live; and every inch is used.

A few more details, like Kuan Yin's serene profile. She's seen me through a lot. Every garden needs a goddess.

Heuchera 'Plum Pudding' is one of my favorites; especially this time of year. It's better for the glowing foliage than the unremarkable flowers,

Carex morrowii 'Ice Dance' is not grown for its bloom, but with the right lighting everyone can be a star!

That same backlighting sets the Azara dentata aglow. Thanks for joining me for a bigger view of my small corner!


  1. How lovely to see the long shots and learn how your garden works for you and your family, Laura. Small gardens can be very enviable, and much more relaxing, than large gardens. Yours looks like a great place to settle in with a book or watch the cats play.

  2. Laura I really enjoy your posts where you show what's happening in your own garden. Any chance I'll be invited back for a visit under the red umbrella this summer?

  3. Laura, it's so great to see the progress of your garden and watch it mature. The way you've illustrated this through close-ups and long-shots really emphasizes the importance of placement and design. Bravo! Can't wait to visit it again!

  4. Laura, you have an amazing gift being able to mix various taxtures of plants and color to give a calming tropical look to your yard. I really love that bamboo! LOVELY!

  5. Your courtyard and kitchen garden is similar to how I see my own garden many years from now! Thanks for the peek in to your lovely garden.

  6. Thanks, everyone! The effect of spring on a garden (and on me) always takes me by surprise, such a lot to see and observe as I watch my vision grow into itself.

    @Pam I was totally thinking of you when I wrote this, knowing you have a young garden too, which is looking so lovely, (see?!)

    @Susan and Rebecca: The Red Umbrella is open for business, let's plan...

    @Janet after 25 years and 7 different gardens, I've discovered the plants I love. It's nice to have them all around me at once!

    @Christina I hope not so many years from now! I was fortunate to be able to do both of my gardens extremely inexpensively, through the kindness of others who offered me time, expertise and materials!

  7. That's all sooo beautiful and peaceful. Thanks for sharing.

  8. The windmill is my favorite part. What a fun little garden!