Balancing Act


A standout garden can still fit in with the wider landscape

photography by LYNNE HARRISON

IN THE EARLY MONTHS of 2000, we were called in to help with the undeveloped landscape surrounding a contemporary Craftsman-style house on the shores of Puget Sound. The house had natural cedar shingles along with a metal roof and trim in matte black, and so presented a relatively neutral background against which to work. When it came time to consider the garden’s color scheme, this would allow us a great deal of freedom; the only colors we felt would not work well were soft pink and pale yellow.

The potential garden area was relatively small, since the property was bordered on two sides by a beach and wetland. In addition, some land had to be reserved for a septic drain field, and for the driveway and parking spaces. Of the roughly halfacre parcel, the garden could occupy only about a third.

With these constraints in mind, we were asked to create a garden that would have both year-round backbone plantings as well as seasonal interest. The owners wanted an “English” look for the main planting beds, to the extent that wind exposure and full-day sun would allow. We were determined to include numerous evergreen plants as well, because Pacific Northwest winters are long and dreary. Another piece of the puzzle was that those parts of the garden closer to the property lines needed to blend in with the native vegetation. This contrasts with the conditions of most suburban sites, where a fence or hedge can be used to show where the property ends. Here, however, the setting dictated that the separation of garden and “nature” be soft and diffuse rather than hard.


Before planting could begin, we had to resolve several issues related to the site and hardscape. First of all, the site had to be cleared of weeds. The previous landowner had let quite a few noxious plants take hold, and we spent the first year—working amid the contractors—trying to get rid of them. It took a backhoe plus selective use of glyphosate, but eventually we got the upper hand.

Next, we turned to the site’s topography. Here we saw an opportunity both to add visual interest to the billiard-table-flat site and at the same time to solve a potential quality-of-life problem for the owners. If we had left the site totally flat, the headlights of approaching cars would have shone directly into the house. The solution? Bring in new soil to create gently contoured planting mounds, which had the added benefit of mitigating the sightlines created by parked cars. Great care needs to be exercised when mounding soil, however. If the mounds are too steep, too abrupt, or too small, the result can be disastrous. (Just think of how many inappropriate berms you’ve seen.) One way to avoid these pitfalls is to think of the mound as being very old, and that erosion has removed half to two-thirds of what might originally have been there.


Since the driveway had to cross a good portion of the property, we gave a great deal of thought to how it would look. Like it or not, driveways often take up a lot of space, and they need to be as attractive as possible. We drew our inspiration from the nearby beach, with its matrix of colored stones and broken shells.

For the base layer of the roadbed, a relatively inexpensive native basalt gravel was chosen. But because this gravel is a very cold gray, we topdressed it with a mix of two other lighter colored gravels to warm the basalt and echo the colors found on the shore.

ROCKS, MOUNDS, AND A DRIVEWAY Rounded boulders placed along the driveway (opposite) both recall the rocks on the nearby beach-thus providing a link with the landscape-and keep drivers from plowing through the flowerbeds. Above: The subtle mounding of the flowerbeds prevents car headlights from shining into the house and disturbing the occupants.

5 Border Basics: Balancing Act

To keep people from driving into the flowerbeds, we placed rounded, watersmoothed rocks along the driveway in a staggered pattern (both singly and in irregular groupings). In shape and coloration these small boulders recall the ones on the beach, thus providing another visual link with the landscape. The boulders were buried so that only about a third of each was visible—again, to mimic the landscape, where glaciers had done the same thing.

With the surge in popularity of SUVs, even having rocks along the driveway won’t necessarily stop a vehicle from going into a bed. Accordingly, a preponderance of the plants that flank the drive have lighter colored foliage, in the hope that headlights shining on plants such as Brachyglottis ‘Sunshine’, Iris foetidissima ‘Variegata’, Cotoneaster horizontalis ‘Variegatus’, and Helictotrichon sempervirens will call attention to the edge of the driveway. This has been largely successful, but as insurance, we also included plants that would recover quickly from being driven over, such as Nepeta ‘Six Hills Giant” and Gaura lindheimeri ‘Whirling Butterflies’. To provide contrast with all of this lighter foliage, we added drifts of plants such as Bergenia ‘Beethoven” and B. ‘Cabernet’. Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’, and Mahonia nervosa, all of which have dark foliage, either year round or during the winter months.


The main part of the garden, as seen from the house, offers a view of a row of Lombardy poplars (Populus nigra ‘Italica’) on the adjoining property. In order to integrate these strong vertical accents into the garden, we chose columnar plants on a smaller scale. Fagus sylvatica ‘Dawyck Purple’, several Berberis thunbergii ‘Helmond Pillar,” and Cupressus sempervirens ‘Swane’s Golden” were but three chosen for their upright form.

To provide contrast to these vertical forms, we planted three Cornus kousa in the beds that encircle the lawn. With age, the relatively horizontal, tiered branching habit of these trees will provide an effective counterpoint. At a further distance we planted several varieties of pine (one P. sylvestris and three P. parviflora ‘Glauca’), which will provide the same effect in the future.


With three ‘Swane’s Golden” cypresses planted within a relatively small area, it was imperative to use other gold- or yellow-leaved plants to keep the eye from becoming fixed on so strong an accent. Among the larger evergreens we added were Cryptomeriajaponica ‘Sekkansugi’, Ilex xaltaclerensis ‘Gold King” and I. ‘Lawsoniana’, and Picea orientalis ‘Aureospicata’; smaller shrubs included Choisya ternata ‘Sundance’, and Phormium ‘Yellow Wave’. In keeping with our initial thoughts about the garden’s color scheme, we were careful to position most of the yellow foliage away from the house. But rules are meant to be broken, and so we sited one Phormium ‘Yellow Wave” next to the foundation. Plantings that are too safe often lead to boredom, and we hate being bored.

Gravel used to topdress the driveway mimics the color of the shingle on the nearby shore.

Gentle mounding of the beds near the entrance to the house adds topographical interest to the otherwise flat site and helps to keep car headlights from shining into the house.

Carefully placed rounded rocks and plants with light-colored foliage help keep vehicles from driving into the beds.


In each of these groupings, foliage shape, texture, and color play as important a role as floral color.

BELOW LEFT: Euphorbia schillingii, Crocosmia ‘Emily McKenzie” and Bergenia ciliata. Left: Lilium ‘Arabesque’, Aster xfrikartii ‘Monch’, Agastache cana, and Molinia caeruiea ‘Variegata’. Right: Phormium ‘Yellow Wave’, Persicaria amplexicaule ‘Taurus’, and Ilex xaltaclerensis ‘Gold King’.

Several kinds of willow contribute attractive gray foliage and provide a visual link with native willows that flank the garden along the north boundary.


Three specimens of Cornus kousa in the beds that encircle the lawn provide contrast with the vertical trees and shrubs as well as a sense of visual continuity.

Columnar plants such as Berberis thunbergii ‘Helmond’s Pillar” and Fagus sylvatica ‘Dawyck Purple’ echo the vertically of a row of poplars in the adjacent lot.

5 Border Basics: Balancing Act

For smaller perennial accents we used Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’, Hosta ‘Sum & Substance’, and Dicentra spectabilis ‘Gold Heart’, among other plants, to draw the color close to ground level. Euphorbia schillingii also contributed its acid-yellow floral color for months. It’s important to note that, in the Pacific Northwest, we’re able to grow most yellow-foliaged plants in full sun, which is not always the case in parts of the country with hotter summers.


We chose the garden’s other main color group based on our clients” interest in silver, blue, and gray foliage, which had the double advantage of contrasting well with the golden-leaved plants and of echoing the wider landscape, since there were some native willows flanking the garden on the north side.

Going with the willow theme, we planted Salix purpurea ‘Nana” along one leg of the driveway, with the intention of treating it as a cutback shrub. To bridge the gap across the drive, we chose Abies concolor ‘Candicans’. Decades hence, of course, this tree will have grown too large, but by that time the property will have new owners with other interests. This attitude may strike some as cavalier, but there are times when it is fine to use a plant, knowing full well that it will be cut down in the future.

Rosa glauca and the pines mentioned above add to the blue-gray mix and sweep this color further into the garden. Assorted hostas and sedums, among other plants, bring blue foliage color close to the ground; occasionally intermingling them with the yellow-leaved plants adds zing.


Although we view form and foliage as the most important aspects of designing with plants, we certainly don’t neglect floral color and ephemeral effects. Flowering bulbs play a significant role in unifying the garden, starting in the late winter with Galanthus nivalis and going into spring with Scilla sibirica, Chionodoxa sardensis, Fritillaria meleagris, and blue and white forms of Anemone blanda. All of these bulbs can take an occasional insult from a garden fork or shovel and recover—another important reason for their selection. Some of the bulbs were planted among the crowns of lateremerging perennials, such as Aster x frikartii Monch’.

Filling the border: perennials that will or won’t tolerate overcrowding

We have found that certain plants will tolerate being crowded by lateremerging perennials, thus allowing you to tuck in more plants than space would otherwise permit. Others, however, need enough “elbow room” to reach their full potential. Most of those listed are in the borders described in the text. Note that these observations are based on our experience in the Seattle area.


Corydalis flexuosa (above left)

Dicentra spectabilis (common bleeding heart)

Epimedium spp. (more robust varieties)

Hacquetia epipactis

Hakonechloa macra

Helleborus x hybridus (Lenten rose; above right)

Iris foetidissima ‘Variegata’

Lathyrus vernus (spring vetchling)

Miliuin effusum ‘Aureum’

Omphalodes vema

Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens” (black mondo grass)

Polygonatum x hybridum (hybrid Solomon’s seal)

Polystichum munitum (western sword fern)

Smilacina racemosa (false Solomon’s seal)

Trillium ovatum

Bulbs that will recover from trowel/shovel damage

  • Chionodoxa spp. (glory-of-the-snow)

  • Crocus spp.

  • Eranthis hiemalis (winter aconite)

  • Fritiilaria meleagris

  • Ga/anthus spp. (larger patches only)

  • Muscaris pp. (grape hyacinth)

  • Puschkinia scilloides

The perennials we used to flesh out the beds were chosen for interesting foliage first, followed closely by flower color and length of bloom. Omphalodes cappadocica ‘Cherry Ingram’, Agapanthus ‘Storm Cloud’, and various hardy geraniums add blue flowers at different times of the year. To play off the yellow foliage, we included certain plants with deep, saturated flowers, such as dark violet Salvia ‘Mainacht” and crimson Fuchsia magellanica. These colors also made sense because most pale colors tend to wash out in full sun, even in our northern clime.


Agapanthus spp. (lily-of-the-Nile; above left)

Aster x frikartii

Bergenis spp.

Cimicifuga simplex ‘Brunette’, C. s. ‘Hillside Black Beauty’

Dianthus spp. (pinks)

Diorama putcherrimum

Euphorbia wulfenii

Gaura lindheimerii (above right)

Helleborus argutifolius, H. x sternii

Hosta cvs.

Ornamental grasses (woodland species more tolerant of crowding)

Penstemon spp.

Sedum spp.

Thymus spp. (ornamental thyme)

Evergreen shrubs that can be heavily pruned or cut back

With the exception of some Ilex species and Taxus baccata, the following are hardy only to USDA Zones 7/8

  • Berberis darwinii

  • Choisya ternata (Mexican orange)

  • Elacagnus pungens

  • liex spp. (holly)

  • Lonicera nitida ‘Baggesen’s Gold’

  • Mahonia ‘Charity’, M. nervosa

  • Nandina domestica (sacred bamboo)

  • Osmanthus delavayi

  • Pittosporum tobira

  • Taxus baccata ‘Repandens’

  • Viburnum davidi


Although our clients” desire for an “English” look called for a fair amount of variety in the perennial plantings, certain colors and shapes do recur frequently, leading the eye along. For example, tufted mounds of Molinia caerulea ‘Variegata” are echoed in another bed by Carex testacea. In fact, this repetition of shape and color—independent of the plant’s identity—is the real key to the garden, even though some plants, such as Cornus kousa, do appear more than once.

True, the overall picture would appear more controlled and calm if fewer plants had been used more often, but our clients wanted a garden—not just a landscape. With some good backbone plants and careful placement of shrubs, perennials, and bulbs, a garden like this can succeed admirably. Moreover, it can and will change over time, as trees and shrubs grow and cast deeper shade. This aspect of gardening is always an adventure and one we should all welcome.

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