Archives for September 2011

Black Leaves

Plants with leaves a color other than green-exotic.  I have never counted the numbers of plant species in my yard, but every one of them has green leaves. In my green world, a red/black or purple/black leaved plant would most surely be exotic. That exotic quality attracts attention. The numbers of urban properties featuring a Bloodgood Japanese maple somewhere in the landscape is an indication of the attraction of black.  Central to the color composition of these four containers of mine several years ago pivoted around purple oxalis triangularis and purple threadleaf alternanthera.  The purple black oxalis in the center pair of rectangular planters has the best black color of any black leaved plant I know.  It is not muddy.  The black/red alternanthera is not bad either.  But critical to the appearance of that black has to do with the choice of company.  Gartenmeister fuchsia has black/green leaves.  Variegated licorice provides startling contrast. These plantings are all about good company.

Black calocasia has plenty going for it.  The very large wavy leaves are a standout.  Its willingness to grow is only limited by the size of the container in which it is grown.  For me, the difficulty is finding suitable companion plants.  As a general rule, once I start a container planting with other than green leaves, I need the companionship of some other than green-leaved cast members to make the entire picture work.  Inky fingers coleus is a favorite. The black leaves are outlined in the most outrageously electric kelly green.  In this container, the color black is the dominant element.  The contrast of leaf size is swell.  A small dash of lime licorice, which in this instance reads as green tinged yellow, is just enough to keep all that big black from looking gloomy.

Black sweet potato vine is a beautiful color and texture, provided you plan for the cascade. This is a good ratio of plant to pot.  Pots completely smothered in black sweet potato vine have that Cousin It look.   In this planting, I knew the green leaves of the white petunias would never be a part of the big picture.  Petunias bloom so heavily one can ignore the size, shape and color of the foliage.  The double, or hose in hose datura has green foliage, but it is very dark green.  Moody, this planting.  Moving off moody, it has balance.  Black can be dominant, or fade away.  Container plantings are all about partnerships, relationships.  Like any other partnership or relationship, things can be difficult.  Most of what I do as a gardener is weed, and mediate. 

The leaves of Persian Shield are a color complex of purple, green and black. A dark foliaged dahlia harmonizes.  The lavender flowers contrast in such a way to assign depth to this discussion of black. 

The canna Australia is a better black than Calocasia black.  I attribute this to the substance of the leaf.  Calocasia leaves are very thin; they transmit light.  That transmitted light dirties the color.  Canna leaves are very thick; these leaves are emphatically black.  Opaque-not transluscent.  The representation of color is strong and dramatic.  The edges of the leaves of the coleus Arizona Sunset repeat that wine red black in a different texture and dimension.  The Misty Lilac wave petunia skirt lights up the night life going on above.

This planting of Persian Shield, pink New Guineas, peach petunias, and variegated licorice is from my yard a few years ago.  The variegated licorice picks up the cool green of the Persian shield.  A little intermediary peach petunia action and some hot pink New Guinea flowers feature the iridescent quality of those featured black leaves.  

Moses in the Cradle is a common name for a black variegated Wandering Jew-I think.  I have always known this plant to be a tradescantia, but some literature indicates otherwise.  That said, this black foliaged trailing tropical is amazingly tolerant of cold, sun, shade,-whatever weather comes its way.  Planted in early spring with Italian cypress, yellow dahlias, annual phlox, this planter still looks good in August.  Imagine this planter without that frothy skirt of Moses-boring at best.  On the outs, at worst. 


Hibiscus Red Shield is a red/black foliaged plant that will grow to astonshing proportions over the course of one season.  Not surprisingly, the flowers are insignificant.  Note that I underplanted it with a red coleus with lime edges, and lime licorice.  Green leaves underneath would have put out the fire.  Mix the variegated plants with more variegated plants.  Should you decide to go for black, chose your chorus accordingly.

Sunday Opinion: Making It Work

I have a new client-a daughter of an old client.  She is a young person, with children.  She has a fairly large property in a really nice neighborhood; she has lived there 6 years.  They have ripped out some things.  They installed a really nicely done terrace in the back-that took a big chunk of their landscape budget.  Now what?  Lacking a clear idea of where she might want to see in this landscape and garden in 10 years, she is circling, waiting, and wringing her hands.  Finally, she calls; I am glad she did. 

I plan to provide her with a schematic plan.  A different sort of schematic plan.  When I was her age, I had loads of energy-energy to burn.  I feel quite certain that she has that same level of energy-I will suggest that she use it.  There are so many things that young people can do for themselves to make a landscape come to life.  She is passionately involved in everything about her life.  My plan is to siphon off a little of that passion in furtherance of a great landscape.  She has enough energy to power a Volt-it just needs a little direction.  What makes a young gardener put their foot down on the accelerator?  A plan that makes her feel that a beautiful landscape is within her grasp.  A plan that enchants her such that she cannot wait to get out there and make it work.

The plan also needs to address the issue of success.  Nothing is more disappointing than a great plan that once implemented, does poorly, or dies.  I was garden obsessed such that the dying and the dead did deter me in the least.  This is partly my personality, but I did not have kids to raise.  The people that I know with children are very busy people.  My evenings were my own-I could dig a drainage trench, or dig rocks into a garden-I had nothing calling me after dinner beyond my own exhaustion.  For her, I would design with a time table in mind.  Prepare this ground, go shopping for plants.  Take the plants out of the trunk, and plant them.  If she cannot swear she will water until she is blue in the face, I will teach her about how to lay soaker hoses, and tell her where to go to buy them.  Then, and only then, go to the next spot.

I do intend that she will lay out, and dig her own beds.  She is perfectly capable.  It may be the most valuable thing I will say to her-that she is capable.  She has a very nice husband who is encouraging her to make some moves.  He clearly knows how to make things, build things, look after things.  Together they will make a great landscape installation team.  Their joint efforts will save them a lot of money. 

There will be lots of places in the plan to play with.  They may decide to grow roses, or invest in peonies. They may switch this plant for that one.  My job is provide them with a foundation they can get behind today, and appreciate many years from now. My big idea here?  There are many ways to make something work. 

My first garden was a God forsaken, utterly neglected 5 acre piece of property.  On the down side, I had just about 25 dollars to devote to the reclamation.  On the upside, I held this property for 15 years-every year I made a dent.  15 years of dents can add up to a transformation.  I am counting on this for her.

There are lots of ways to make things work.  This client-no doubt she has the ingenious gene.  My job is to loosen that rusty valve, and get her to turn the tap on.  This part of the schematic plan is every bit as important as the plan itself. 

I can dream.  I can draw.  I can wave my hands.  I can explain, I can quote-but in the end, the best thing I do is provide a plan for making things work.

At A Glance: Drawings

Loud And Clear

Airy and wispy container plantings are not for everyone.  Furthermore, there are some places that they simply don’t work.  These planter boxes sit on the wall enclosing a parking lot of a restaurant only a median away from a busy four-lane road.  The speed limit is 45mph; the noise is deafening.  In the 2.5 seconds it takes to zip past this wall, there is an impression that will register with even the most garden-deaf driver.  The combination of colors is ebullient, enthusiastic, splashy-friendly.  The boxes are overflowing; the plants all look healthy.  My client takes great care of them-just like she takes care of her restaurant. That message is loud and clear.              

These large Belgian boxes are visual stoppers at the corner of this terrace.  They ask for a robust planting.  Plants with large leaves and substantial size go a long way to capture the eye.  Bananas, calocasias, alocasias, cannas, farfugium, tibouchina grandiflora-there is a long list of tropicals that can easily handle holding down the fort. Vigorously growing plants in bright colors will chime in.  The smaller planting of a lemon tree, and a pastel mix of petunias, though robust,  would be lost without the big backup.       

A solidly robust planting has much to do with the choice of plants.  The three plants comprising this pot have grown together in a shape that is dense and low overall. Just try to get by it without looking.  Chartreuse makes every other color pop all the more; creeping jenny is a vigorous perennial that loves some shade, and will grow in a bog. There is nothing subtle or airy about this planting-this is by design.   

I can say the same for this pot.  It has grown so vigorously that the pot is no longer part of the composition.  Black and red; red and green-these color combinations are dramatic.  The contrast with the off white wicker furniture is all the more dramatic.  This modern furniture is very chunky and overscaled. These two chairs have some planted company that is even larger, and more chunky. The topknot comprised of a dwarf yellow variegated dracaena and a coleus-that look is in no way planned.  Just natural.  

Gartenmeister fuchsia is an upright variety that handles hot weather like a pro. It can grow to a substantial size, and can easily be wintered over.  However, the dark foliage and small tubular dark orange flowers are rather subdued.  A tutu of lime green coleus turns up the heat.  The red geraniums,magenta petunias and lime licorice don’t hurt. This fuchsia is naturally very airy growing; its woody shoots grow every which way. The colues masks all of those wild hairs; these plants grew together densely in a cone shape.  

Big growing plants are accompanied by lot of leaves.  The leaves of the trailing verbena and petunias are barely visible in this picture, but there is no mistaking the coleus and dahlia leaves.  My office is dark, given this window box planting.  Any container design warrants some study.  Do I need this planting to block an untoward view?  Do I want a container to stand out, or integrate into the large landscape? Right now is a very good time to be looking over your container designs; I take notes.    

A very large terra cotta pot with a purple chocolate glaze is home to this monochromatic planting. Black calocasia, a purple black leaved coleus, and moses in the cradle, makes a sizeable statement about volume and texture.  Calocasia ia a very obliging tropical, in that it will grow as big as the container into which it is planted.  This planting is the better part of 8 feet tall.  This discussion of texture anf form-loud and clear.

Cannas and zinnias-they both are big growing and leafy.  A skirt of trailing geraniums and lime licorice add lots of color at the base.  A neighbor standing behind this pot on the sidewalk would not be seen.  Sometimes a blocky and solid planting can organize a space-in this case, it presides over a densely growing square of boxwood.  Solid, dense and visually clear-this is how I would describe this spot in the landscape.

Large leaved caladiums depend on their size and shape to make a statement.  I like how lush a well grown plant looks.  I am leaning towards planting a lot of them next year.  Loud and clear is much about vigor.  I would much rather work to keep a growing fool of a plant in line, than every day have to convince a prima donna of a plant to choose life.  This is a personal preference. Even the subtle and wispy growing plants that I favor are strong growers.  

But back to loud and clear.  On that list of plants that can deliver that for you-big growers, dense growers, robust growers, large leaved plants, large growing plants, brilliantly colored flowers.  Brilliantly colored leaves; leaves with great shape and texture.    It is up to you to put them all together in a way that enchants your eye.