More Winter Interest

More Winter Interest

This time of year there are lots of blog posts about having multi-season interest, and especially Winter interest, in your garden. I love THIS from The Gardener’s Eden. Beautiful colour, strong contrast, everything you could want to take your mind off the bone shattering cold.

Or from Monrovia’s Top 7 Garden Trends for 2019: subtlety, wistfulness, peace. 

Unfortunately, most of these beautiful scenes depend on sun, snow, or both to really show the virtues.

Unlike the torrential rains, winds and gloom that is the usual lot for us in coastal BC, or coastal PNW (this past week notwithstanding…). 

So here we need to look for plants (or structures or art pieces) that can hold their own not only in the absence of glistening snow and soft winter-low sun, but in the presence of that pounding rain. The flowers of the Pennisetum (above in the Monrovia image) wouldn’t have maintained that lovely mounded shape through the deluge over the first couple days of 2019, but other grasses, like Carex ‘Frosted Curls’ (one of my all-time faves) can still give you the mounded shape, the potential for this frosted effect (real frost) when it happens, without the risk of total loss.

Carex ‘Frosted Curls’–actually frosted.

So assuming you don’t have the acres that for example Anglesey Abbey in Cambridge has…

Cornus stems and Rubus cockburnianus provide interest in the winter months. Credit: Jason Ingram The English Garden

…and that you don’t have California warmth and New England sun, here are my best tips for winter interest: berries and gold foliage.



Clockwise from top left: Pyracantha ‘Flava’; Callicarpa bodinieri ‘Profusion’; Skimmia japonica

The Pyracantha and Skimmia will glow in pretty much any location, partly because they have evergreen foliage to frame the berries. The Callicarpa however is deciduous, and really needs some other evergreen colour to set off even these neon purple berries. The above pic was taken in late Autumn, when the grasses were still vivid. They aren’t now, so be sure to plant something else around your Callicarpa that will still be present at this time of year. Which leads to the next category of winter interest for dour dreary coastal BC:

Gold Foliage

Gold foliage

Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Fernspray Gold’; Choisya ternata ‘Goldfingers’; Acorus gramineus ‘Ogon’

One of the great things about gold foliage is that it serves equally well as background colour and foreground colour.

gold foliage

Hamamelis ‘Diane’ in foreground, Chamaecyparis ‘Fernspray gold’ in the background

Had to borrow this picture of Euonymus japonica ‘Aureomarginata’ since my own has been badly eaten by root weevils.

Honourable Mentions

Everyone should have some creeping sedums in their garden.

creeping sedums

Sedum rupestre ‘Angelina’ and Sedum spurium ‘Fuldaglut’–both put on extra layers of colour when it gets cold.


Hamamelis and Hummers–5 Things

Hummingbirds and Witch-hazel.

Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Diane’

I don’t know how this escaped my notice all these years, but it appears that the hummingbirds LOVE Witch-hazel–Hamamelis. The boys and girls were out there this morning drinking to their hearts’ content.

I scoured Google images for one of a Hummingbird enjoying the nectar of the Hamamelis, without success. And try as I might, I couldn’t get one myself.

So I’m afraid you’ll have to take my word for it–and the word of multitudes of garden writers like Ciscoe Morris in Seattle.

And here are a few other items of interest about the lovely Hamamelis species:

  1. The most commonly noted virtue of the witch-hazel is its fragrance. And indeed, if you’ve smelled ‘Arnold Promise’ or ‘Pallida’, you’d have to agree. But before you buy that ‘Diane’ (above) or ‘Jelena’ you’ll have to choose either colourful flowers or fragrance. ‘Diane’ reputedly has “subtle fragrance”, but it’s too subtle for my nose.  ‘Jelena’ has no fragrance.
  2. The shape of the Hamamelis is also delightful: some like ‘Diane’ and ‘Arnold Promise’ are vase shaped, others much rounder.

    Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Diane’. This pic is from 2015 when I still had a tiny front lawn. (Chafer beetle- and raccoon-assaulted as you can just see on the right upper corner.)

  3. Hamamelis, according to Cass Turnbull from Plant Amnesty ( highly recommend her pruning videos) is an “untouchable”. You will quickly destroy that desirable branch structure if you are a little too aggressive pruning her. Hamamelis easily suckers, which means you could have a shrubby messy hedge instead of a tree before long. The suckers must be removed and the earlier the better. If they’re only a couple inches tall when you notice them, removing them won’t do the tree any harm at all. On the other hand, if you’ve planted it a bit too close to the walkway or drive, and feel the need to remove some branches for convenience sake, you may end up with not only more suckers, but watersprouts as well. That’s shoots/branches that appear from some random spot on other branches or the trunk, and most often with a different appearance from the rest of the tree. Avoiding watersprouts is a good think. So plant your Hamamelis where it will have room to grow to its full natural size, only ever cut branches when you really have to, and cut whole branches, don’t “heading-cut”.
  4. Fall colour: hard to beat. Nuff said.
  5. Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Diane’ from Oct 2017.

    Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Diane’ from Oct 2017. This isn’t even late day sun; apparently it’s 10:24 am.

Winter Projects Part 1

Winter Projects Part 1

Helleborus Spring Promise ‘Elly’. Spring Promise is a series from Helleborus Gold Collection. Most have a very upright flowering habit.

one of the many newer upright hellebores–stlll can’t find a tag…

Those pictures are from a few years ago. I want to see the garden looking like above, but this is what it looks like now:

Hellebore in winter before pruning. The flowers haven’t started to show yet, but the foliage has no redeeming virtue as it looks now, so it goes.

Pre-winter pruning. This is ‘Mary Lou’; foliage looks good, but scroll down for more…

I’ve written about pruning your Hellebores several times before, so now I just want to amend the suggestions. Specifically, leave the foliage if you don’t need to cut it, and for some, cut the foliage before you think you need to.

Extremely ratty looking Helleborus nigercors

Regardless what the flowers are doing, early winter flowering, late flowering, short or tall, leaves that look like this should have been cut long ago. But it’s winter, and always wet, and I waited until the roofers had finished replacing my roof. In the meantime, the flowers started to grow tall, and making sure yesterday that I got the foliage and spared the flower stalks was a challenge.

And much as I love hellebores, this particular one never looks very beautiful. I may move it and see if it will do better in a little more sun. It’s currently in the shadiest spot possible–not only does the sun never hit that spot even on June 21, but it’s also growing underneath an evergreen shrub.

Helleborus nigercors ‘White Beauty’. Except not very beautiful.

But back to pruning. Below is ‘Elly’. It has no flower buds pushing up yet, and the foliage is actually in great condition. So I’ll leave it for now, and check again in a few weeks time.

Helleborus orientalis ‘Elly’

Helleborus orientalis ‘Mary Lou’

Mary Lou on the other hand is really trying to be seen, so despite the foliage looking quite good (see above), she should have had a haircut weeks ago as well. Can I remember next year to do this before Christmas? And again, carefully sparing the flower stalks while cutting all the leaf petioles–I was down on my knees with my head upside down. Uncomfortable. Fortunately, most of the petioles are green and most of the flower stalks are red.

Post pruning. Ahh, much better.

Before and After

Last week Facebook kindly reminded me of pictures I posted that date nine years earlier. They were pics of my garden.


Various angles of my front yard–click on any for larger image

So I went out that day–fortunately a nice day for taking pictures, unlike every day since–and tried to capture the same angles. I’m not the greatest photographer in the world, and with 9 years of growth I couldn’t even get into all the same spots, but here’s what things look like now.

Looking east from my front porch

There’s a lot I love about my front yard, especially the pond. (Two surviving goldfish are now 5″ long . ♥.) But one of the best aspects of the old garden is that mass of Rudbeckia (Black-eyed Susan). I haven’t been able to foster such a lovely patch since, and I’m not sure why. Still trying.

Looking west from the street.

Why am I not growing dahlias anymore? Surely they’re among the best sources of colour in the late summer-autumn garden.

House next door was torn down and rebuilt. New fence gives a lot more sun to the garden under the cedar trees.

Of course one expects trees and shrubs to put on a foot or so per year in vertical growth, so here’s the little Cryptomeria japonica ‘Cristata’:

Cryptomeria japonica ‘Cristata’. 30″ when I planted it and now about 14′

The previous pics all seem to show a fairly open yard, both old and current, lots of empty spaces, aka “negative spaces”. One of the reasons a lawn can be a good thing is to provide that restful space that creates a foil for the busier, more colourful areas.

Below you’ll see however that the garden is anything but “empty”. In fact it’s far too busy, and I’m planning to remove the red rose (right side pic) and a lot of that croscosmia (light green grassy clump). As I’ve said before, the larger the plant–perennial, shrub or tree–the more value it has to provide. And that red rose (‘William Shakespeare 2000′–a David Austin rose) just doesn’t provide enough value. It sprawls, it’s subject to black spot, the flowers, while stunning on dry days, turns to mush in the rain. I’ll miss the fragrance tho’!


Couldn’t get the same viewpoint because the rose (circled) and the smoke bush were too high to see over.


So this fall I’ll be doing a renovation in the back yard, but come next spring it’ll be time to make some changes here. Seeing these old pics really makes me want to get back to some of the look of the old garden–the rudbeckia, the dahlias, more open space, fewer shrubs (can hardly believe that’s me saying “fewer shrubs”!)

I’ll keep you posted…



A Word About Concrete Patios

I had an inquiry the other day about a concrete patio–I was being asked to build one, which I don’t do. But I did reply with questions she’d want to consider before committing to a design and a contractor.

I’ve googled a bunch of images that illustrate dos and don’ts of concrete patios:

  1. Size

One of your first and most important considerations has to be size.

In some municipalities there will be by-laws restricting the percentage of impervious surface on your property. This will include your house, other buildings including garage, porch, driveway, pool, and any other solid surfaces. In Vancouver for example, all impervious materials can cover a maximum of 60% of the total property area.

What are you going to be using your patio for? If dining with a 6 person patio dining set is in your plans, you’ll need a minimum width/length of  2.5′ for a chair, 2′ for pushing it back and getting in or out, 1.5′ for walking around when the chair is pushed back, x 2 for both sides/ends, and the width/length of the proposed table. For a basic Home Depot type patio set, tables being about 3.5′ x 6′, you’ll need at least 15.5′ x 18′. Just for eating.

Maybe you don’t want a dining set–and in fact, I usually recommend against it, because it takes up a lot of room for a single purpose–maybe you want a conversation set, sectionals, various seating arrangements around a fire pit or water feature that are multi-funtional. (You can still eat from your lap around the fire pit.) Do the same math: you need the full dimensions of the furniture, room for knees and getting by knees–or extended legs, room for getting around the back of seating, if that’s needed or possible. (Sometimes seats/sofas will be up against a fence or retaining wall. Or the seat may in fact be the retaining wall…).

And then, you might want your patio to be divided into different rooms. A bistro table for breakfast at one end, a fire pit with an integrated seating wall at the other, and possibly a water feature or planting pocket in between. Just do the same calculations–and always be a bit generous, you’ll never wish you’d made your patio smaller!

OK, so let’s get on with some images:

2. A plain rectangular concrete pad doesn’t have to be boring

Image credit. This is typical of new construction, especially spec houses.

You’ve all seen this. I had a mini version of it myself, until my sister, nephew and I jack-hammered it out. Mine was much smaller and less functional, this is actually a decent size especially in addition to the previously existing under-portico space. But could it be more boring? Here are some suggestions for improving the plain vanilla rectangle, especially if you already have one that could use sprucing up:

Image credit. Concrete patio with brick soldier course

I love this simple decorative touch. In this case the soldier course matches the brick building, but it doesn’t have to. But as a pretty bold colour, it would at least have to complement the colour of the house. If your house was green clapboard, I probably wouldn’t recommend it, unless you want your house to be known locally as the Christmas House.

There are lots of concrete block alternatives in greys, tans, pinks. In fact, looking again at the bricks in the picture, it looks like they salvaged materials from different sites and mixed them randomly. I love it! They even complement the house next door–how very neighbourly!

This brick accessory was done at the same time as the patio was poured. If you are doing it after the fact there are a few points to note: the outer edge of the bricks meets the outer edge of the steps. If this were yours and your walkway already met the edge of the steps, you could extend your bricks/blocks to the patio wall edge. For an after-the-fact addition, you’ll have to be creative in making the whole look…whole. Always ask “Does this look like someone didn’t think it through?”

Here’s a Pinterest page with some similar applications. And some…others…I wouldn’t necessarily recommend.

Image credit. One of my faves: an integrated concrete seat.

This integrated seat–which is just a wall and the wooden bench attached to “floating” brackets; they’ll have been installed at the time of pouring–could easily be added to a pre-existing patio. If the patio is fairly old, and thus impossible to match the colour, it might be worthwhile having the new concrete coloured to a significantly different colour, but in the same hue or family. Note that at the top right of the pic the seating wall is positioned on top of the patio surface, whereas top left of the pic it’s located on the grass. Nothing wrong with that in theory, but in practice it makes mowing inconvenient. I’d guess that the fire pit was already installed or gas-plumbed when someone noticed there wouldn’t be knee room. In that case I’d have suggested the concrete addition extend beyond the edge of the seating wall so the mower could mow over the edge. But, small deal.

Image credit. Concrete patio: Raise the grade.

Changing grades is always a cool way to define rooms or areas. This is a much bigger job than the others so far, essentially doing a whole new patio, but with much less prep needed.

Here’s another treatment I really like: diamond-cut an existing patio:


Image credit. Diamond cut concrete patio-repurposed

I somehow imagined it was my own idea when I proposed this for a client:

Plain vanilla concrete pad

The original plan here was to diamond cut large semi-random sized blocks interplanted with Scotch moss with a pergola at the end. Still left lots of room for the kids to play basketball.

The proposed diamond-cut patio top right

Unfortunately we ran out of money, so it was low priority. (The rest of the project you can see here. You’ll need to scroll almost to the bottom of the page.)

I wasn’t able to find the original site for this image, so someone might be requesting its removal–in the meantime, enoy the tumbled glass filling the cut spaces. And of course the expression: “urbanite”

I’m not sure “urbanite” is the right term. I think it refers to recycled concrete, but maybe this is actually concrete from a different site installed here. If so, they’ve done a great job!

And now for something completely different, and certainly not for the financially faint-of-heart:

Image Credit. diamond cut concrete using the motif found in the homeowners indoor carpet!

Please look up the source: Concrete Decor. You’ll be gob-smacked!

Ok, so you’re installing a new concrete patio, but a rectangle is still the most appropriate shape for your needs, and you’re budget-conscious. You still have options:

Image credit Concrete slab with stained, stamped edging

Now the above pic is actually intended for a hot tub, which probably explains why they didn’t worry too much about the “focal point” air conditioner. Stamped concrete is definitely more expensive than regular concrete, but this small amount would not add an awful lot to the final price tag.

3. Beyond the rectangle

This was the picture that inspired this post:

Image Credit Patio with “rock garden”

I actually saved the picture for the raised deck with ferns growing out from underneath. But when I was reviewing my Houzz ideabooks yesterday this other element seemed so much more interesting. Now obviously this isn’t concrete, it’s some kind of natural stone. But it could easily be poured concrete or concrete pavers, with lots of cut outs for the boulders and gravel and assorted little plants.

Here’s something similar, complete with concrete “boulders”:

Image credit. Concrete boulders

And another:

Image Credit by New York Plantings

Again, not concrete, but could be.

4. Simply accessorized

Thanks Landscaping Network, I’ve found many inspiring images as well as useful info on your site. Here’s another

Image Credit Landscaping Network.  Several small modifications take this simple patio to the next level

Note the cutouts for planting pocket (is there another zig-zag below the red flowers?), and the seating wall that goes around the back corner. They could possibly have removed the umbrella stand from this otherwise carefully staged photo!

Image Credit. Hope this picture was taken before landscaping…

Coloured concrete and contrasting white gravel. Two things to consider if you’re thinking of this kind of mixed materials: a. your patio furniture has to have large enough feet that they don’t sink into the gravel, and b. you may find yourself getting a little fed up with having to sweep the gravel back into place all the time. Crushed gravel is better for this than pea gravel, larger better than smaller.

Here’s another similar application, in this case a small front patio:

Image credit. Mixed materials, concrete and gravel

Because they’ve left the level of the gravel lower than the concrete surface, the gravel should stay where it’s put and not need continuous sweeping. But it creates another problem–tripping hazard. Here people will feel the need–even if the need doesn’t really exist–to look down at their feet to make sure they’re not “slipping off the curb”. People’s eyes should be free to scan the landscape or the front door. And then there’s the person with high heels… This is probably the spot for larger (`2-3″) flat Mexican beach pebbles.

…With Cut outs:

Image Credit. Too hard to find the original source; pretty sure this is NOT the original source.

This is easily accomplished before laying the pavers. With poured concrete the cut outs would be framed at the beginning

Image Credit. Again, not concrete, but could be. The art/water feature installation sits above a large reservoir and of course the lighting has to be planned from the beginning.

I wonder why they only installed lighting on three sides?

And yet another:

Image Credit. Another cut out effect. Love the little boxwood hedge. I might have chosen a slightly more mature tree.

5. Some reservations…

Here are some illustrations of less than totally successful simple concrete patio designs, and some reasons to hire a designer not just a contractor:

Image Credit. Stamped concrete with “boulder” edge

This is a cool effect–the “boulder edge”. And the nicely complementing crescent planting bed beside it. But why didn’t they continue the patio under the deck. Admittedly there’s only 11 steps (77″, minus the depth of the deck, probably 10″) of height, but digging down the grade of that turf by another stair height of 7″ would give a ceiling there of 74″, (and that grade change that’s so attractive). Not enough for tall people to comfortably walk around, but definitely room for access. Those windows could be looking out at a nice accessory seating area, or children’s play area. The grass under the deck and stairs will never grow (we’re looking at noon-ish sunlight, almost overhead, so mid-summer, so that is the maximum light it will ever get), so it’s completely wasted space. And with the steps just barely making it onto the edge of the patio, it gives the impression that it’ll slip off any moment. An alternative to extending the patio (Plant nerd alert!) would be to plant low-growing, dry shade loving plants such as Epimedium and Asarum canadensis.

Image Credit. Nice surface but what’s with the shape?

Shape: There should be some logic associated with the choice of shape for your patio. Form follows function: in other words (my translation), if it doesn’t fill some need, it’s hard to justify. This snakey edge just gives the lawn mower more work, and provides little beauty in return.

You can often use shape to define the different “rooms” or functional areas of your patio.

Image Credit. Patio shaped to evoke different rooms.

This patio attempted to do that. You can see that the lounge area is shaped to follow the curvature of the bay window. But the S-curve to the left of that is just gratuitous. Making that space a little planting pocket would make it look more intentional.

Image Credit. Really attractive coloured stamped concrete. And no, maybe not “simple”.

I’m kind of being picky here. I love the colour, the stamp pattern, the edge, the grade change with steps, the fire pit and the seating wall. Just about everything about this I like. But one thing that I’m almost loathe to mention: the secondary circle is too big. (“But you said…” I know, I know.) Assuming that fire pit is about 3.5′-4′ in diameter, it means the radius of the circle is about 10′-ish (and another 1′ for the seating wall). So the people sitting on the seating wall are almost 10′ from the fire. Which is too far. Yes, there’s lot of room for chairs in the space, but not chairs and space between the chairs and the fire, and space between the chairs and more people on the seating wall. So the seating wall is totally useless, and thus, why have it. Much better for the distance from the outer edge of the seating wall to the fire to be 5′, giving a radius of 7′, not 10′.

So Bottom Line:

Think about all the ways you intend to use your patio, and make the finish product meet the needs while avoiding the pitfalls. Simple 🙂

As always, would love to hear comments, concerns, questions.