Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Garden Designers Roundtable: Top Landscape Plants

Welcome to this month's Garden Designers Roundtable, where we are talking about the plants that we turn to again and again in our designs. My working palette is pretty vast, but these are the ones special enough to be used in my personal gardens as well.

Easily the most-used small tree in my repertoire is Arbutus 'Marina' a hybrid of our native Madrones. This was the first thing I planted in my last garden, and in four years that small shrub became this shapely specimen, with peeling red trunks, clean evergreen foliage and a long season of bloom. I also use it extensively in the standard form, and would love to see it used more as a street tree.

One of my favorite groundcovers under Arbutus is Elijah Blue Fescue (Festuca glauca). It appreciates a little shade and water to look its best; and makes a wonderful 18" mound of blue that is tough, soft, and looks great year round.

A good companion to blue fescue in a grassy landscape is the lovely Carex testacea. Its blades shift from olive green to coppery orange and back again throughout the year. This one will reseed freely if you don't keep its long flowing seed stems trimmed; you've been warned!

Soft, friendly Coleonema 'Sunset Gold' looks great planted near orange sedge; its golden plumes (and in the spring, small pink flowers) are a bright spot in any garden; it needs sun for best color.

A relatively new addition to my palette is Dianella; I use several varieties, like this Dianella caerulea (Blue Flax Lily). It's wonderful in a pot and happy in those spots that aren't quite sun and not full shade. The little blue flowers on airy stems are charming.

Somewhere in the background of my gardens you might find Dodonea purpurea (Purple Hopseed Bush). I adore the deep burgundy of the leaves in winter, and the graceful shape of the leaves and stems. They tend to be a little shallow-rooted and can tip over in wet/windy weather; firmly staking them until they are past their youth will keep them safe. In time makes an interesting small tree.

I really appreciate plants that look great in winter and early spring, when the rest of the garden is resting. Euphorbias, like this "Helena's Blush" fill the bill nicely. I would use them even more if they didn't smell, well, stinky. Ah well, nobody's perfect!

Except, just maybe, Nandina 'Firepower' a short, large-leafed variety that is simply gorgeous all year round. Happiest in part shade, with just enough sun to bring out the peach, red and copper tones in the leaves. Doesn't need much water, stays compact, with no pests to speak of.

Another contender for little Mr. Perfect is this variety of Pittosporum tenuifolium called "Golf Ball." Naturally neat and compact, looks shiny perfect all year round with little or no pruning. Those black stems and soft green leaves are killer, and if I were to make a small hedge, THIS is what I would use...

...not this. I am not a fan of boxwood usually, but this is my bright, shining exception. I like to dot variegated English Boxwood around a landscape (often zig-zagging along a path at wide intervals). Their leaves have a particularly luminous quality that just lights up the place, especially in shade. It is slow growing, tough, and needs only an occasional pinch (never sheared, thank you) to look great.

And of course, Succulents are like sprinkles for the landscape...bright, colorful, sculptural, undemanding and now available in SO many varieties that the possibilities are endless. They are often that perfect missing color or texture, especially in dry corners.

So now you know my short list...but don't stop here! My fellow Garden Roundtablers are spilling their secrets too, including guest blogger Nan Ondra; such an honor to have her here today. Enjoy!

Nan Ondra : Hayefield : Bucks County, PA
Andrew Keys : Garden Smackdown : Boston, MA
Christina Salwitz : Personal Garden Coach : Renton, WA
Genevieve Schmidt : North Coast Gardening : Arcata, CA
Ivette Soler : The Germinatrix : Los Angeles, CA
Jocelyn Chilvers : The Art Garden : Denver, CO
Lesley Hegarty & Robert Webber : Hegarty Webber Partnership : Bristol, UK
Rebecca Sweet : Gossip In the Garden : Los Altos, CA
Rochelle Greayer : Studio G : Boston, MA
Susan Morrison : Blue Planet Garden Blog : East Bay, CA


  1. Wow, Laura - I can see why you'd often use that Madrone in your designs: such beautiful red stems. The purple hopseed bush looks very interesting too. I wish I could try it here in PA. I *can* grow the variegated boxwood, at least, and I agree: it's a beauty even for those who normally don't care much for boxwoods.

  2. OMG - How many soul sister plant lusters do I have in this group? This palette could EASILY be mine, too - Festuca- check. Coleonema 'Sunset Gold' -check. Dodonea purpurea - check. Euphorbias - check. Nandina firepower - check. Pitt 'Golf Ball' -check.
    We are so cool. Let's form a club! oh, yeah - CHECK!!!


  3. Laura, such lovely choices.
    I'm a bit smitten with the Pitt. Golf Ball which I did not know. The Pitt. flowers are amazing in Uk at moment. Just such a dense display.
    Agree about your plantsmanship!

  4. Laura, you've introduced me to some wonderful plants here! Most of them are no-go in my region, but I'm inspired to look for comparable substitutes. Thanks!

  5. Succulents are like sprinkles -- so true! But I'm most smitten by the madrone hybrid. I just learned that Texas has a native madrone, and how I wish a garden-hardy variety would be hybridized. The native is very site-specific but such a beauty. I love your choices, Laura.

  6. Thanks, everyone! Here is a nice write-up about Arbutus 'Marina' courtesy of San Marcos Growers http://www.smgrowers.com/info/arbmarina.asp

    Thanks again for your kind words, and for saving my place at the Roundtable!

  7. Laura, What a great list of plants. I am especially taken with Coleonema 'Sunset Gold'. I've never seen it before but it looks like it plays well with lots of other plants. Is it soft to the touch? Your photo makes me want to reach out my hand and run it across the tops of the leaves!

  8. Debbie, Coleonema IS soft and friendly and kind of aromatic when you brush it; if it's happy it NEVER looks bad. Looks wonderful with purple-leafed plants especially, but you're right, it plays well with lots of colors...

  9. Terrific list. We definitely share the same taste in plants. I love all of your choices! The only one I've pretty much dropped is the blue fescue. It just poops out too quickly in my hotter inland gardens, so other than an occasional accent in a pot, I've been using Calamagrostis filicifolia as an alternative and keeping a close eye on it to see if it has better staying power.

  10. Susan, good point. I often use fescue as a filler between larger shrubs and perennials, to be popped out when the space fills in. Even in cooler areas it does seem to appreciate some shade; can look quite bleached in full sun.

  11. Hmm....variegated boxwood? I haven't tried that one, always choosing a dwarf pittosporum instead, but am thinking I most definitely need to give it a try! And I share your love of the Arbutus - a fantastic multi-seasonal shrub, isn't it? My daughter even eats the fruit (though its texture is a little sandy for my taste...)

  12. Love that you paid homage to bark. Of all of your plants, I have only grown two-Nandina (which can be iffy in Zone 6) and boxwood which is one of my go-to plants. Check out Varder's Valley...un-pruned it's a fantastic structural low growing evergreen shrub.

  13. Laura, I just saw that veriegated English boxwood the other day in a garden and was so taken with it! I ran up and said, ohmygosh, is this an English boxwood? Confirmed, I promptly fell in love. I'm a fan of your other choices too... I use the ones that do well here, and am drooling jealously over the ones that do not.

  14. I want to use Blue Fescue as a border, then above it...have rows of gold, purple, and white hosta's....what ya'll think??

  15. What a great list of plants! What an amazing job you’ve done on this site! The pictures are absolutely beautiful. You have no idea of how enjoyable seeing the garden is.
    patio deck