Rain Garden Interpretation

A stunning garden is much more than the sum of its parts.  What often separates an average garden from an awe-inspiring one is synergy; where one plant or feature is more beautifully contrasted or complemented by another increasing each other’s effect, and where there is cohesiveness and yet also enough distinction from one corner of the garden to another to entice you through it.  The fun and challenging part about attempting to create synergy is that there is no one equation to use that will deliver the same results with every garden.  Each landscape is unique and comes with its own character.

One way you can make any garden more dynamic and increase a plant’s effect though is to take into account how it will interact with nature.  Even a slight breeze will make the leaves of the Quaking Aspen perform their frantic dance, or sway the bottlebrush flowers of Fountain Grass.  A snow-laden landscape will draw out the bright red stems of the Red Osier Dogwood and accentuate the tiered branching of the Deodar Cedar.  A setting sun can bring many plants into splendor, even fading perennials such as Globe Thistle or Maiden Grass are revived when back-lit.   Rain drops can be caught in plants and hardscapes to add a shimmering quality through the garden even after the clouds have left.  Since rain is so abundant here in the Northwest I thought it would be great to have some plants in my yard that have the added quality of placing water on display.

For the most part I’ve wanted to stay away from planting anything shorter-lived than a perennial (3 years) in my garden but I couldn’t pass up planting a few Candy Mountain Foxglove (Digitalis ‘Candy Mountain’).  This is the first Foxglove to have flowers that point skyward.  I’ve been amazed at the huge amount of flowers I have on one this year and the strength of the stem; even when the flowers are full of water the plant shows no sign of flopping.

Candy Mountain Foxglove in rain

Foxglove Candy Mountain

Hostas can also be great plants for holding water.  Below is Hosta ‘Deep Blue Sea’ which is a slow-growing, but rewarding, selection.  The large, cupped leaves of ‘Abiqua Drinking Gourd’ make it another great Hosta variety for holding water, as you might infer from its name.

Deep Blue Sea Hosta and rain

And then there’s the dependable upright Sedums.  They are adaptable, easy-growing plants and their season of interest lasts almost all year.  I especially enjoy the look of ‘Autumn Joy’ and ‘Autumn Fire’ right before they bloom, when their flower buds are most prominent.  They too have some foliage that will hold the rain.

Autumn Fire Sedum and rain

The emerging foliage of Fern-Leaf Bleeding Heart (Dicentra ‘King of Hearts’) will often wear the rain in perfectly rounded beads, though a little harder to see from a distance.

Fern-leaf bleeding heart foliage

Another plant that displays water in a similar fashion is Columbine (Aquilegia sp.).  Water will often bead up right where the leaf meets the petiole or get caught in the emerging foliage.  Variegated Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum falcatum ‘Variegatum’) is another undeniably likeable plant that keeps the rain around for show.

Polygonatum odoratum 'Variegatum' and rain

The Lenten Roses (Helleborus hybrids shown here) are also more beautiful and jewel-like after a rain.

Peppermint Ice Hellebore flower in rain

Golden Lotus Hellebore flower in rain

Peppermint Ice Hellebore flower

Lady’s Mantle (Alchemilla mollis) is an obvious choice for showcasing rain.

Alchemilla with rain

Water will also pool up in the throats of our native Monkey Flower (Mimulus guttatas).

Monkey flower

Here’s a wider shot of my front yard’s “rain garden” where a few of these above-mentioned plants reside.

Front shade border

My front border in spring, on the north side of our house. From here you can see Helleborus ‘Golden Lotus’, Dicentra ‘King of Hearts’, Brunnera ‘Jack Frost’, Hosta ‘Abiqua Drinking Gourd’, Hosta ‘June’, Polygonatum falcatum ‘Variegatum’, Hakonechloa ‘All Gold’, Tsuga heterophylla ‘Thorsen’s Weeping’, and more.

What are some of your favorite plant-nature interactions?


Northwest Native Plant Spotlight – Red Twig Dogwood

Some like it wet.  Particularly if you live in the Pacific Northwest.  Here, you wear your raindrops proudly.  Having a soaked shirt is like sporting honorable stripes.  And those rain deflection devices (umbrellas, right?), those are for the tourists and foreigners.  However, put us in a situation with more than a few inches of snow and it’s a winter apocalypse, at least according to the local news stations.  But I digress…

One of the locals perfectly content in the wetness is our native red twig, or red osier, dogwood (Cornus sericea syn. Cornus stolonifera).  This is a relatively common shrub, or small tree, in low to mid elevation moist to wet sites.  However, “common” really only describes its distribution and availability.  Red twig dogwood is an exceptional plant offering year-round appeal, particularly showy in winter when the color of its branches are intensified to a glowing red to maroon.  This coloration is strongest when the plants are in full sun and on the newer growth.

Dogwood bark

In springtime, attractive mid to dark green, veined leaves (similar to other dogwoods) are born and white flower clusters appear shortly thereafter (May in my yard – and technically they are an inflorescence, and more specifically a cyme) which the bees find irresistible.  Sometimes these plants will rebloom sporadically throughout the year.


Cornus sericea foliage and flowers (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The flowers ripen into white berries, which can persist on the plant for quite some time depending on how often the birds come to dine.  Many bird species eat the berries but the regulars in my yard are the robins and cedar waxwings.  I especially appreciate any plant that will draw in the cedar waxwings.

Red Osier Dogwood fall color and white berries

The “googly eye” berries, and stunning fall color, of red twig dogwood

As you can see by the pic above, another outstanding feature of this plant is its red to purple fall color.  In the natural area behind our home there is a grove of mature specimens, which are a little more like small trees than shrubs, and each year I look forward to their fall show, which works wonderfully with the yellow fall color of the nearby pacific ninebark (Physocarpus capitatus) and the evergreen slough sedges (Carex obnupta) at their feet.

I attribute the poor drainage, high water table and light, open shade conditions behind our home to the beautiful mass that’s back there, but red twig dogwood really is an irregularly adaptable plant, able to withstand summer drought for quite some time when established in the right soil, and also content in full sun to shade conditions.  Just keep in mind that, like most other plants, when placed in more sun red twig dogwood will need more moisture and in full shade the flowering and fruiting will diminish and the leaves will grow larger and thinner to capture more light.

Red twig dogwood is also a great plant for the economical gardener, being inexpensive to incorporate into the garden as it grows easily, and quickly, from cuttings.  Also, the epithet stolonifera from the scientific name refers to the stolons with which it can spread and multiply.  New roots/plants can form when these low, horizontal branches come into contact with the soil, allowing them to form thickets.

You also can’t go too wrong on pruning these dogwoods.  They can withstand severe pruning, and since the most vivid winter branch coloring is on new growth, most people prefer to prune them this way.  It’s recommended that you only cut them down to the ground (technically about 4-6 inches from the ground) every 2 to 3 years, but this could depend on how vigorous the plant is.  Now, late winter, is the time to do this, right before the new spring growth comes.  I think the plants look best when pruned this way, as opposed to doing light cutback pruning.  Or you could just remove a few of the oldest main stems down to the base each year, so you aren’t left with a hole in your garden for a season.  I’m okay with waiting for a season, but this is an indispensable plant, filling a niche in the garden.

Red osier dogwood leaf in snow (Cornus sericea syn. Cornus stolonifera)

Great Willow Bark!

There is a magical place that comes alive every winter, not far from Portland.  And, fortunately for any local sightseers it is conveniently located right off of I-5, just southeast of Ridgefield Exit 14.  It’s hard to build mystery and anticipation for your reader when your creative subject line is so telling, but yes, I’m talking about a stand of willow trees.  Not your idea of exciting?  Maybe it takes a certain kind of person to get excited about willows, but this beautiful bark just amazes me, and I’m sure all can appreciate it:

Salix lasiandra bark

Pacific Willow (Salix lasiandra, syn. Salix lucida ssp. lasiandra)

Look how much this tree stands out against the drab backdrop of alders:

Salix lasiandra, syn. Salix lucida ssp. lasiandra

Pacific Willow, disguising as a smokeless flame

As best as I can tell (without being able to examine one up-close, being on private property), these are Pacific Willows (Salix lasiandra), or a type of one.  The bright, yellow-orange stems really helped aid in identification, or supposition, to be accurate.  Since there are around 400 species from the genus Salix, (200+ in cultivation, not counting cultivars), it’s hard to know if you’ve narrowed down that list enough for a definitive answer when trying to identify one, especially since they are cross-fertile plants, often creating hybrids.  I like what OSU’s site has to say about willows:

“As a group, willows are easy to identify – in fact, pussy willows are one of the first trees that many of us learn.  But distinguishing between different types of willows, is a different story.  The reason is that there are so many willows – North America has approximately 90 different types – and that many of the species interbreed, with the offspring having characteristics of both parents.  As a result, most people are satisfied knowing that a tree is a willow, and leave it at that.”

Even with all that family competition, these willow trees really stand out from most others that I’ve seen.  Just imagine this below stand of willows planted with large drifts of our native Red-twig Dogwood (Cornus sericea, syn. Cornus stolonifera), shown here in a previous post.  Red-twig, or Red Osier, Dogwoods share very similar cultural requirements (loving themselves a riparian area) and would not only provide striking bark contrast, but they would also work great proportionately as a foreground plant to these willows, only coming up to about half of their height.

Stand of Salix lasiandra

Willow woods

In general, willows are rather susceptible to pests and diseases, and branch breakage can also be a relatively common occurrence (however, they also re-sprout and re-root easily), but they also come with many benefits which I believe easily outweigh the negatives if you have a large, moist to wet, natural area for them.  Native, riparian willows like these can help provide soil/waterway stabilization with their extensive, fibrous root systems, improve shoreline and aquatic habitat by offering food, shelter and shade (the shade helps reduce temperatures in nearby waterways improving the conditions for many fish), improve water quality, grow quickly to establish a natural screen, and lend a relatively fine texture and movement to a landscape.  Also, the early spring flowers not only add interest to the garden, but are also a great early nectar source for our bees.

I wish we had the room for a few of these willows in our yard, but 6,000 square feet is not going to cut it.  Better add a larger yard to the Christmas list…

Northwest Native Plant Spotlight – Vine Maple

Acer circinatum fall color

Vine Maple fall color in full sun

Acer circinatum; it may be a somewhat ubiquitous plant here in the Pacific Northwest but this versatile plant is popular for good reason.  Commonly known as the Vine Maple, it derives its name from its wild, sprawling growth habit when in shaded conditions, and the sinuous, multiple stems it often has.  Some of the most desirable features of this small tree (approximately 15 to 20 feet tall and wide) are its multiple trunks, and its long-lasting parade of colors in the fall, which range from red to yellow and sometimes includes purple.

Vine Maple Flowers

Vine Maple Flowers (Photo credit: wolfnowl)

In early spring Vine Maples sport tiny groups of red and white flowers which develop into attractive red-winged seedpods, or samara, by mid to late spring.  Vine Maples also add some interest to the winter landscape with their unique skeletons and reddish coloring found on the younger branches.

Vine Maples exhibit rather different personalities dependent on the amount of sunlight they receive (boy, can I relate to that).  In more sun, the growth habit will be more upright and dense, and fall color will be stronger, displaying more red and orange hues.  In a shady location growth can be wide, open and sprawling, sometimes even having stems that arch back to the ground which can sprout new growth and roots, creating thickets.  Fall color will be more yellow in this environment, or not noteworthy at all if in deep shade.  I like their traits best in a site that receives just a little afternoon shade, so the leaves have less of a chance of burning, the growth habit is still largely upright and so they still display good fall color.

Acer circinatum fall color in part shade

Vine Maple fall color in part shade, at St. James Church in Vancouver

Thicket of Acer circinatum

Mossy mess of Vine Maples in full shade, creating a thicket

Another thing I really love about vine maples is that you can prune them in many different ways to fill just about any spot in your garden, and they are adaptable, strong growers.  For a taller and more upright habit, completely remove some of the lowest side branches, cutting them off near the trunk, just above the collar; this will also help expose the beautiful base of multiple trunks.  You can also do some cutback pruning on the outer part of the side branches.  This method is recommended if you have one sited close to a structure.  Or you can cut back at the top of the tree which will promote more lateral growth.  Vine Maples can also even be coppiced successfully.

Acer circinatum pruned

I’m not sure what I think about this, but this shows the flexibility you have when designing with Vine Maples. These two trees are in a fair amount of shade, being under an overhang on the north side of a building. It appears they have received pruning from the bottom up, to highlight the multiple trunks, and also regular cutback pruning on top to restrict height and create a low, wide canopy.

When so much in the natural northwest landscape turns yellow this time of year, if any strong color at all, it’s nice to see a plant that’s not afraid to do its own thing.  Enjoy the show while you still can, those remaining tenacious leaves can’t hold much longer.

Beautiful Bark

Maiden grass & red-twig dogwoods

A warm winter scene: Miscanthus radiating in the light with a colorful backdrop of Red-Twig Dogwoods and Cedar trees.

One of the many benefits of gardening, I believe, is that you can come to develop a deeper sense and appreciation of the subtle beauties of God’s creation.  If you are asked the question what a yard with winter interest looks like and would answer, “one that has evergreens in it”, then keep reading.  Okay, all others keep reading as well… Sure, evergreens go a long way to add structure and dependability to a landscape, but I have become one who really enjoys and appreciates plants that outwardly change with each season.  These plants can heighten intrigue and alter mood from one season to the next.  And there are many plants that have unique offerings this time of year.

So, when planning for added winter interest I say remember the four ‘B’s: bark, bones, berries and blooms.

There are many trees and shrubs waiting to show off their beautiful bark this time of year, now more noticeable as they drop their leafy coverings (and as all those ostentatious annuals and perennials fade).

From top left clockwise: Kelsey’s Dogwood (Cornus sericea ‘Kelseyi’), Japanese Stewartia (Stewartia pseudocamellia), Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis), River Birch clump (Betula nigra) and Paperbark Maple (Acer griseum)

I love the compact size and dense branching of Kelsey’s Dogwood (Cornus sericea ‘Kelseyi’).  They look like little flames in the garden this time of year.  Another one that also really catches my eye is the River Birch (Betula nigra), which I believe is an under-appreciated and under-utilized tree, at least in our area.  Its impact multiplies with its number, the more the better.  The Paperbark Maples (Acer griseum) are truly amazing as well, with their peeling cinnamon-colored bark.  And I must also give special mention to the Stewartia, a great four-season specimen with its unique, mottled bark that comes with age and which is often multi-stemmed.  This tree does best in an organic, well-drained soil and with a little afternoon shade.  This is a slow-growing tree but it really pays off for those who wait.  Another noteworthy, but more common plant, is the Coral Bark Japanese Maple.  ‘Sango Kaku’ is the variety I’ve seen most, but ‘Beni Kawa’ (may also be referred to as ‘Beni Gawa’) is reportedly more sun-tolerant with brighter coral-red bark.  Sounds like a winner to me.

There are also many wonderful native choices for interesting bark that are just as pleasing, or even more so:

From top left clockwise: Red-twig Dogwood (Cornus sericea), Pacific Madrone (Arbutus menziesii), Nehalem Pacific Willow (Salix lasiandra), Pacific Ninebark (Physocarpus capitatus), and Paper Birch (Betula papyrifera)

I love the warm glow the red-twig Dogwoods (Cornus sericea/stolonifera) give our lowland forests this time of year.  Equally captivating are the stands of Nehalem Pacific Willow (Salix lasiandra) and their yellow branches.  Both of these natives will have the best coloring on new growth, and fortunately they both can handle somewhat severe pruning every few years to stimulate such growth (do your research, or ask me for details, before you go hacking away at one though).  Unfortunately, Pacific Madrones (Arbutus menziesii) are on the decline in our area.  They are beautiful broad-leafed evergreen trees that sport striking bark (as you can see above), springtime bell-like flowers and fascinating fall fruit.  A few of these above natives don’t mind some wet feet; the Pacific Ninebark (Physocarpus capitatus) being one that can tolerate some wetness.  There are a couple of them growing behind our house (creating a thicket along with our native swamp rose) and it’s a large shrub I enjoy year-round, with its white late-spring flowers, reddish-brown summer seedheads and yellow fall color.  I also hear it makes a great slope stabilizer with its extensive root system.

Maybe before the end of this season I’ll be able to touch on the other three ‘B’s mentioned above, but no guarantees…  I may have a spring-mindset before it has fully arrived.  I can see those daffodils coming!