Practicing What I Preach–Sort Of

One of the things I always talk about when I lecture is the importance of foliage in garden design. Even when I am talking about house plants, foliage is the star–I will often bring 20 or 30 plants to display–and after everyone is done “oohing and aahing,” I will remark that it’s important to notice a couple of things about my display: first, how colorful it is and second, that there are maybe only one or perhaps two at most flowering plants int he whole thing (and if there are, I guarantee you one is a phalaenopsis orchid so that I can talk about proper watering technique–not the “ice cube” method.)


For example, here’s a grouping of plants from my living room. There’s not a flowering plant among them but the grouping is vibrant and colorful. This photo is from last year so it’s changed up a little bit, but it’s still substantially similar–and still no flowers in this low-light area beneath a window.

The same results can be achieved outdoors as well. In fact, when I have the time and energy, I find that it’s almost more fun to create all foliage containers. I have not created anything at all this year–as I type, I am nursing a 3″ scar across the my arm–and I am right handed–that is preventing me from doing anything outside at all, including watering. That’s where the Spoiler comes in handy. But I knew this was coming so I didn’t make this an intensive gardening year. There’s always next year.

For inspiration, however, check out these lovely, mostly foliage containers at Avant Gardens. And then plan for your foliage containers in the future!

Planting for Pollinators


I hope that by the time you read this I will be in a part of the country that’s a little closer to planting time. I am taking a week to visit family in Oklahoma City–if I can get out of the frozen north in between snowstorms, This is what it looked like when I drafted this post. Needless to say, I won’t be planting outside anytime soon!

But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t planting time where you are. And since many of you are at least able to plant something right now, I thought that I would continue my garden planning posts for a bit.

Planting for pollinators is actually a little more involved than you might think. Don’t worry! Anything you can plant–so long as it’s pesticide free– will help them.

But different pollinators have different needs. And if we are talking butterflies, you actually have to plant for two different stages: the larval (caterpillar) stage and the adult butterfly stage. More about this in another post.

Bees are easier but even bees have certain needs. Ideally you want to make homes for ground nesting native bees as well as have a watering spot for them. Again, more in a later post.

Finally, read up on and consider the “unconventional” pollinators. All sorts of flies, beetles and other insects, including ants, are pollinators. As we try to better our gardens, and plant more native plants, let’s try not to accidentally kill some insects that are actually pollinators by using insecticides indescriminently.

Spring Garden Planning

The Connecticut Flower and Garden Show a little over a week ago was a great reminder that thankfully, yes, spring will soon be coming to my frozen climate whether I personally believe it or not. And even though spring does come slowly to Connecticut–and sometimes not at all (something I often talk about when I show photos of my tree peonies. I can guarantee far above normal temperatures on the day that my tree peonies open so that they flame out spectacularly and only last for a single day. They are an over-rated waste of space in my garden–or perhaps it’s my climate), it is still something that has to be planned for in the garden unless you want to be like everyone else and just go rushing off, willy-nilly in the spring to buy the first thing you see at the garden centers.

While there’s something to be said for exuberance at garden centers (I know that I am all too guilty of that one!), at least do it with some sort of thought or plan in mind. What is your overall idea for the garden this year?

Will you be adding more natives?

Are you planting for pollinators?

Maybe you want to grow your own vegetables? Or add a few berry bushes? Or even start more simply with a few herbs (I was describing most of the Mediterranean herbs last weeks as “basically weeds that can grow in rocks.”) They’re not quite that easy–but almost!

Or maybe this is the year you start your own tomatoes/lettuce/peppers/fill in the blank from seed because you just can’t find what you like any other way.

Whatever it is, do go out and start shopping, by all means, but do it with some sense of what you hope to accomplish. You’ll be happier, you’ll have better results in the garden, and maybe you’ll even help some wildlife or pollinators as well. It’s all up to you–that’s what’s great about gardening.

Color Theory Again–Complimentary Colors This Time

This one is a little stranger than it sounds. The best way to think of complimentary colors is to think of “color echoing,” as a synonym. In other words, you choose one color that you like and then “echo” it in the other colors in the garden or the container combination.


It’s really easy to see how I have done that with this container. I took the white begonia–or the white container, for that matter–and I “echoed” the white ribs in the leaves of the alocasia and the white variagation of the creeping ficus.

It’s a little harder–but not impossible–to do in a garden.Fall Front Yard

This is some perennial begonia, growing out for the cracks in my slate steps. It’s backed by a red Japanese maple–and for some extra color, I have a couple of burgundy mums up there on the top of the slate wall.

New Fall container

Another container, this time with mostly perennials (the monkey grass doesn’t over winter for me but the coral bells have–for 7 years!)

So that should give you some idea of how “color echoing” works. Give it a try!

More Color Theory–Contrasting Color in the Garden

So let’s go back to our old friend the Color Wheel for a second because Contrasting Colors aren’t exactly what they sound like.

They sound like they should almost be colors that clash–but really they’re not. They’re just colors that are opposite each other–or on opposite sides of the Color Wheel.


So red is opposite from green, yellow is opposite from purple (violet on the wheel but not obviously to us gardeners!) and orange is opposite from blue–that makes each of those “contrasting” pairs.

If you’ve ever wondered why that geranium/vinca/spike combination works so well, one of the reasons is that it’s made up of contrasting colors. (There are others, but we won’t discuss them here).

The next time you see a plant combination that you like, take a good look at the colors–perhaps it will have some of these contrasting colors in it. I once decided that most of the “weeds” or wildflowers of summer and fall came in colors of blue and yellow (at least in my region), with some white and an occasional orange thrown in. But it was the contrasting colors of blue and yellow that predominate.


Obviously I like this combination and plant a lot of it myself, even in containers. But notice the torenia (the yellow flower with the purple throat). That’s a study in opposites right there in one flower!

Cone Flower heads

Here’s the combination in perennials–cone flowers with black-eyed susans.

Fall container close-up

For something a little different, here’s a fall container of mums–again, same color palette.


And finally, you can see how nature herself uses this palette within a single bloom of an iris.

I hope this has got you thinking more about color. Next we’ll talk about “complimentary” or color echoing on Friday.

Some More About Color

A week ago I talked about color and how my sense of color has evolved as I have grown and changed as a gardener. I wonder if those of you that have been gardening awhile have found that to be true?

For those of you that are beginning gardeners, this may or may not happen to you. Gardening is a life-long adventure. That’s what makes it so interesting. There’s always something new to learn and always something new to explore.

Sydney Eddison, one of the great gardeners and garden writers, who has written many books on lots of different aspects of gardening, was also an artist. She was especially sensitive to the use of color in the garden. In her “middle years” of gardening, she would change up the color of her patio furniture and even her structures like pergolas to match what she was planting in a given year. She talks about it in her book on container gardening called Gardens to Go.

While I haven’t yet gone to that extreme–and I don’t know that I ever will–I definitely have years when I prefer “hot” colors and years when I prefer “cool” colors. Luckily, because I do garden in containers, I can change it out every year without redoing my entire garden!

What do I mean by “hot” or “cool” colors?

Without making this overly complicated, in color theory there are 3 groups of colors: complimentary, harmonizing and contrasting. You can see this by looking at a Color Wheel (artists are familiar with this tool–gardeners less so.)


Both “hot” colors like reds, oranges and yellows, and “cool” colors like blues, lilacs, pinks and the purple family are in the “complimentary” category. What does that mean? It means they are next to one another on the color wheel. Look at the wheel and you can see that.

What does this look like in a “plant palette?”


Here’s a “hot” colored container using orange and yellow flowers–and leaves.

For a very different look–and a different part of the spectrum but still plants in the “comlimentary” range, try this:

rose & hydrangea

This is a shrub rose and a hydrangea. Pink and red together–it’s not something I would have planted together had I been thinking about it, but it’s worked out incredibly well.

On Monday we’ll talk about–and show–some other examples of color theory. Sometimes pictures speak louder than words!

Garden Re-Imagining

So I have been talking about how I like to use plants as living mulch. This idea is gaining traction with some popular garden design books, most recently the very well received Planting in a Post Wild World.


This is what that looks like in various parts of my yard where it is already established. Here is my rose garden around my mailbox. The “living mulch” is catmint “Walker’s Low” and golden hops.

This is a raised bed–actually a bed created on top of my driveway and behind a stone wall about 5′ high. The bed is so large that it contains a native dogwood that was planted when the house was built–so 60 years ago. There are numerous other shrubs in there are well, including one of several Japanese maples on the property. While it faces east, because of the dogwood, it is mostly shaded. I am encouraging moss and the ferns that have naturally begun springing up to cover the rest. While it is still in progress, it is progressing quite well and is a lovely, shady oasis.


My “wildlife” garden, which is a mix of native and non-native shrubs and perennials, is also a work in progress. Most of it has filled in nicely and needs no wedding or cultivating each year.


The front corner has never managed to do well, however. It is on the northeast side of the bed–perhaps it’s too shaded by the other parts of the bed, or by overhanging trees. Whatever the reason, I have replanted it several times already. So needless to say, I haven’t managed to get any sort of perennial ground cover in there yet–unless you count the grass!


In fact, as I was on my hands and knees patiently weeding out all the grass before replanting, I overheard a couple walking by. The man remarked to the woman “That’s why perennials are better…” The rest of his comment was lost to me as they continued on. Just as well. Little does he know that annuals have never graced this bed. Perhaps little does he know, period, or he’d see that the entire rest of the bed is perennials, and shrubs.


In any event, here is the result of my weekend planting. Two swamp milkweed, two agastche, two liatris, three black-eyed susans, a mountain mint and a tanacetum (apparently I never learned the rule that everything needs to be planted in 3s!) There’s a dwarf Joe Pye weed yet to come, but a rabbit nibbled it down to a stalk and I have to wait for it to regenerate to “garden” size.

And yes, everything is spaced much closer than the “rules” say they should be on the tag. How else will I ever get my living mulch (and shade this ground so all that dreadful grass doesn’t grow back?)

After all, these are perennials–they can always be divided later–provided this time this corner really does grow!

And also, remembering my post from Monday, these are all pretty much blues, yellows or oranges–good butterfly attracting colors, of course, but also now my “preferred” garden palette. We’ll see how it turns out.

Color Can Be So Subjective

So on Monday I ranted a bit about why I find succulents–and in particular, Gold Sword yuccas (although this could be true for any yucca; it just seems that all we grow here now are the “Gold Sword” variety) completely out of place in Connecticut.

While I’m ranting, let’s take on color, shall we?

And please remember, what I like (or don’t like) doesn’t matter. I’m just posting to get folks thinking about their own ideas about color.

I remember back when I first started gardening with perennials. I think I did what most people do–I chose softer colors of blues, pinks, whites and purples. It’s easy to do. There are lots of plants in that color family and many of them bloom over a long season.

plants for the blank spaces

I still have whole gardens like that. My “hydrangea hedge” is primarily blue and pink–because let’s face it, hydrangeas don’t come in really shocking colors (at least not the ones that do well in my climate, anyway!)


But as I have gotten older I find that I like colors that are a little brighter.
I will often choose colors that are near opposites on the color wheel like yellows and purples. I also love reds and purples together.

Do not, however, ask me to put red and yellow together unless orange is also part of the combination. The red/yellow thing just reminds me too much of McDonald’s.

Habitat Garden in full bloom

In fact, while you’ll find quite a lot of yellow in my garden, I am quite particular about what I will mix it with. I only like it with certain shades of blue or purple–hydrangeas are fine, coneflowers are fine but you’ll never see me mixing it with rhododendrons, for example.

But, as I said, these are my “rules” not anyone else’s. What drives you crazy in the garden?

Wordless Wednesday–Real Plants Instead of Plastic


Less than a week ago I had photos from our local mall of the most dreadful plastic plants.


These are from an atrium of a building in West Hartford center. They never see a hint of natural light–and barely get any artificial light either. I had to touch them to believe they were real.

And most of these are plants that clean the air as well. Beautiful job!