Archive for May 2010

My Blue Heaven

May 29, 2010
Chanticleer Garden, meconopsis, Himalayan blue poppy

Meconopsis, the most beautifully blue flower of all. And no, it doesn't grow in my garden.

Maybe it’s because I have blue eyes, but long before I became a gardener, my favorite color was blue. Cobalt blue, robin’s egg blue, sea or sky blue – it didn’t matter, as long as the basic color was blue.

These days I make my living designing and photographing gardens, and although my own tastes have expanded to other colors, I’m often asked to include blues in the landscapes I design. Several years ago, after reading an article in The Garden Letter on reds in the garden, I was inspired to walk through my yard, notebook in hand. To my surprise, I discovered that my old subconscious affinity for blue has resulted in having more than twenty plants with blue flowers, blue foliage, or a combination of the two. Here are some of my favorites.

Early bloomers include Scilla siberica (Siberian squall), which for me appears with ‘Tete-a-Tete’ daffodils and Mertensia virginica (Virginia bluebells). I grow them under a huge beech tree in a bed of vinca that disguises their dying foliage.

Scilla siberica

A clump of Scilla siberica in my garden.

Then comes Amsonia tabernaemontana, the blue star flower. Its blooms are a mixture of a very dark blue and a lighter blue as they start to open, changing to sky blue completely. In the fall, this perennial’s foliage turns a lovely golden yellow and lasts until frost.

Amsonia taebermontana 'Blue Ice'

Amsonia 'Blue Ice' shines in both the spring and fall.

Amsonia blooms about the same time as Iris siberica ‘Caesar’s Brother,’ a lush, velvet blue.

Iris siberica 'Caesar's Brother'

Siberian iris has fleeting but intense, deep blue blooms

More gray-blue than pure blue are stalwarts like some of the smaller ornamental grasses, like Festuca ‘Elijah Blue,’ whose steely color and fine texture contrast well with plants like peonies and Iris pallida ‘Variegata.’

Peony, Festuca 'Elijah Blue'

Festuca 'Elijah Blue' has blue-gray foliage, which appears more green than blue in this photograph.

Hosta ‘Halcyon,’ one of the classic blue hostas, serves the same function, and when grown in the right amount of shade, its leaves can look almost purely silver-blue.

Hosta Halcyon

Blue-gray leaves of Hosta 'Halcyon' on the front hill of my garden.

Some of my favorite blues (aside from the gorgeous Meconopsis at the top of this post), however, are found in the clematis family. The two large-flowered blue varieties I’ve grown for the longest time include ‘General Sigorsky’ (although recently the deer seem to have developed a taste for it), shown here on my rickety wooden arbor.

Clematis 'General Sigorsky'

This general deserves a blue ribbon.

My other blue clematis is ‘H.F. Young,’ which I’ve also planted successfully for clients with similar penchants for blue flowers (and fewer deer).

Clematis H.F. Young

A close-up peek at 'H.F. Young'

I’m done for today. You probably have your own favorites – let’s hear about them, and post some photos on your own blog so I can check them out!

The Lens Versus the Eye: HDR and Garden Photography

May 22, 2010

When I design gardens, I think a lot about views of the garden from inside the house. When I photograph gardens, I don’t often shoot from the inside out, so to speak, but those kinds of images can be magical. (For stunning examples of what I’m talking about, see A Clearing in the Woods: Creating Contemporary Gardens, by one of my photography teachers, the incomparable Roger Foley.)

One problem that you face if you want to photograph a room and the view from its windows is exposure. The eye can see a much larger range of tones from very bright to very dark than a camera lens is capable of recording. So recently photographers have discovered HDR (high dynamic range) imaging, which involves taking multiple images at different exposures and combining them using a software program such as Photoshop or Photomatix. Sometimes the results can look a little funky if you’re not careful. In other situations the final result is much better than what you could get with a single exposure.

As a garden photographer, this isn’t an approach you can often use successfully in all-outdoor settings unless there is Absolutely No Wind At All, since you usually need about five exposures and any movement of trees or plants will screw the whole process up. Last October, however, in a photography workshop at Chanticleer Garden, I found myself with a situation in which I could try an HDR approach, so I did. Below are two images – the first one processed as a single image in Lightroom and then Photoshop; to produce the second one, five images were processed in Photomatix.

Chanticleer Garden, HDR, landscape photography, Photomatix

This shot was processed as a single image in Lightroom and Photoshop.

Chanticleer Garden, HDR, landscape photography

Five exposures were combined in Photomatix to produce this image.

The single-shot image has more “punch” to it, but some of the areas seen through the veranda openings verge on being blown out, even though I lowered their exposure as much as possible in Lightroom and Photoshop. The HDR image is more muted, overall, but both the “outdoor” views and the indoor furnishings are  more evenly exposed. What my mind’s eye remembers is more like the HDR image, but I welcome comments and feedback as to which photo you prefer.

Related posts: Chanticleer in the Spring

Plants Made for the Shade

May 15, 2010

My garden is about eighty percent shady. This despite the fact that my back yard has a southern exposure. Shade happens when you live in a neighborhood of huge mature oaks and beeches, and your neighbor to the rear has about 15 of them in her back yard. So when I became an avid gardener, I quickly learned to look for and use planting combinations that work well in non-sunny sites.

Japanese painted fern, Athryium nipponicum 'Pictum', skimmia

A Japanese painted fern nestles between Skimmia and vinca next to a stone pillar in my front yard

This combination caught my eye the other morning as I headed down my front steps to fetch the morning paper.  The front yard faces north and slopes steeply. The Skimmia japonica I planted in 2001 has spread to act as a groundcover of sorts (the ONLY site where I have seen it be so successful!) and is encroaching on my Japanese painted ferns (Athyrium nipponicum ‘Pictum’). Every year I debate moving the ferns but I love their delicacy and the color and textural contrast they provide between the skimmia and the vinca.

This fern is versatile and sophisticated. Here it is in Sally Boasberg’s shade garden in DC, paired with astilbe underneath a dissected Japanese maple.

Athyrium niponicum 'Pictum,' astilbe, shade, plant combinations

Here the painted fern's fronds contrast beautifully with the darker green leaves of the astilbe.

Another favorite combination from my own garden is variegated Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum odoratum ‘Variegatum’) with Northern maidenhair fern (Adiantum pedatum). They are both much tougher than they appear; the Solomon’s seal is a favorite choice of mine for dry shade. Although you need to be patient, over time a single quart-sized plant will made a sizeable clump, not unlike hellebores.

Solomon's seal, maidenhair fern, shade plant combinations

Variegated Solomon's seal arches over whorled maidenhair fern foliage.

Speaking of hellebores, they are at the top of my go-to list for shade groundcovers. Drought-tolerant, deer-resistant, self seeding (but slowly), they provide flowers at a time of year when almost nothing else except the earliest bulbs are awake. Here is a clump from Brookside Gardens (in Wheaton, MD), combined with epimediums blooming in early spring. Pure magic.

Hellebores, epimedium, shade plant combinations

Dainty epimedium blooms are set off nicely against a hellebore's coarser foliage in an early spring vignette at Brookside Gardens in Wheaton, MD

I can hear the colorists whispering restlessly in the background. OK, here’s a shot of screaming color that will brighten any shade garden. Although I show it alone (and apologize for the quality of the photo, as the colors are hard to capture accurately), Spigelia marilandica (Indian pink) plays nicely with more boldy-foliaged plants and some of the larger ferns, such as Christmas fern. It will grow in sun OR shade. Mine are in filtered shade and have self-seeded a bit over the years. They are a little late to emerge in spring, so be patient and don’t give up on them if you don’t see the foliage emerging right away. Great for hummingbirds!

Spigelia marilandica, Indian pink

The blooms of Spigelia marilandica, even in shade, are a vivid red and chartreuse.

I’ll close with one of my absolutely favorite shade plants – variegated Hakone grass (Hackonechloa macra ‘Aurea’). It is slow to establish but once it’s happy, it will spread almost indefinitely. I like mine planted with a blue-hued hosta or two, comme ca.

Hosta Halcyon, Hakonechloa macra 'Aurea'

Variegated Hakone grass brightens up a shady corner of my yard near Hosta 'Halcyon'

I’ve only begun to scratch the shady surface of my yard (and others’). I could – and will – do posts solely on my favorite hostas and hydrangeas. In the meantime, I would love to hear from any of you about your experiences with these or other shady beauties.

“Gardens Open Today”: DC Area Gardens to Visit in May

May 8, 2010
Garden Conservancy, Open Days program

The Sessums/Biles garden in Washington DC, one of six private gardens scheduled to be part of the May 22nd Open Days tours. The garden recently won a Perennial Plant Association Merit Award and has been recognized as a Certified Wildlife Habitat by the National Wildlife Federation.

After the horrendous winter we had in my area, we are all ready for spring, and to spend some time in a beautiful garden or two.

On May 22nd (and again on September 25th), you’ll have the opportunity to do just that, courtesy of The Garden Conservancy’s Open Days program here in the DC area. Established in 1989 by Frank Cabot, the distinguished American gardener, The Garden Conservancy’s mission is “to preserve exceptional American gardens for public education and enjoyment.” To date, it has spent nearly $9 million helping over 90 important gardens in the US survive and prosper (most recently, Longue Vue House & Garden in New Orleans and Alcatraz Island in San Francisco).

Across the country, The Conservancy sponsors a series of Open Days in which the owners of special private gardens welcome visitors for a day to learn more about gardens, plants and design. The program is based on England’s National Gardens Scheme. This year, more than 350 private gardens in 22 states will be on display.

For a modest admission fee ($5 per garden), you can visit six gardens in our area on Saturday, May 22nd and another four in September. Neighborhoods on the spring tour are located in Cleveland Park, American University Park, and other parts of the District of Columbia. One  is the well-known shady woodland garden of Sally Boasberg,

Garden Conservancy, Boasberg Garden

The Boasberg garden in early spring.

and another was originally designed by the famed landscape architect Thomas Church.

Thomas Church, Garden Conservancy

A Thomas Church-designed garden scheduled to appear on the May 22nd Open Days tours in Washington DC (photo courtesy of Auclair-Jones family)

Garden Conservancy, Thomas Church

Another view of the Auclair-Jones garden, originally designed by Thomas Church.

Two other interesting gardens on the tour have connections to the design firm where I work. One of them, the Sessums/Biles garden in AU Park, was designed by H. Paul Davis, ASLA, the landscape architect at American University. Installed by our firm , the garden incorporates an imposing array of perennials, native shrubs and small specimen trees into an existing woodland setting. The owner is involved in maintaining the garden, composting plant material, capturing rainwater for re-use, and eschewing irrigation and the use of pesticides except for treating some mature hemlocks with wooly adelgid problems. Recently, the owner and designer received some very exciting news: the garden has received a Merit Award in the 2010 Perennial Plant Association’s Landscape Design Awards competition.

Garden Conservancy, Open Days

The back yard of the Sessums garden, where all plant material is composted and maintenance duties are handled primarily by the owner.

The other DC garden, designed by DCA Landscape Architects and maintained by our company, is an impressive example of dealing with a challenging, steeply sloped site in order to create spaces for entertaining, a spa and fountain, storage, and circulation while providing screening from surrounding properties and a plant palette designed to soften the expansive hardscaping.

Garden Conservancy, Open Days

An ornamental fountain in a northwest Washington DC garden on the May 22nd Open Days schedule. (Photo courtesy of DCA Landscape Architects)

Another garden on the May tour in the Cleveland Park area, designed by the landscape architecture firm of Fritz & Gignoux,  is on Newark Street NW. It incorporates Arts & Crafts elements in the hardscape design (think custom-made stone-faced columns supporting wisteria on the patio, and a whimsical weathervane with a mermaid holding a star). The plantings are lush and cottage-style with a natural feel to them, and a “writer’s cottage” perches on a hill at the rear of the garden, offering beautiful views back towards the house.

Fritz & Gignoux, Garden Conservancy Open Days

The view from the "writer's cottage" in the Cleveland Park garden on the Open Days tour. Photo courtesy of Fritz & Gignoux Landscape Architects.

All of these gardens will enrich the gardening knowledge and provide pleasure for any visitor. For e-mail alerts about the schedule for tour days you can sign up on their website.

Booklets of discounted tickets can be purchased online at in advance; and if you become a member, you will receive a copy of the 2010 Open Days Directory with descriptions and open dates for hundreds of gardens across the country. What are you waiting for? Mark your calendars!

Photos from these gardens are included in my Open Days Tour book, available through See “My Books” for a preview or to order a copy. Thanks!

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