Sometimes we need to be thrown a challenge to discover something new. This week I received sample of several trees, shrubs and perennials to try in my fall container designs. They were sent to me by Qualitree, a grower in British Columbia after they read my recent article on Great Conifers for Fall Containers. When I say 'several' I mean lots. And lots. Beautiful conifers, colorful heathers, three lavender grown as standards, a tray of golden rosemary and more.
I set all the boxes down and stood back to admire these unexpected treasures, my mind already whirring as to combinations, color schemes and containers selection when I realized something. Almost every plant had a fine texture. From the needle-like foliage of yew, lavender and rosemary, and the tiny scale-like leaves of heathers to the feathery sprays of 'Ellwoodii' false cypress (Chamaecyparis lawsoniana 'Ellwoodii'). All beautiful but also very similar so how was I going to do these great plants justice, test their winter hardiness and still create exciting combinations? By doing what I teach others to do – looking at the details.
Nuances of color were the key. I began to look closer (a camera helps to focus one's attention) and noticed that 'Empire' false cypress (Chamaecyparis lawsoniana 'Empire) had a subtle golden yellow variegation. The soft 'Snow White' Port Orchard cedar (Chamaecyparis lawsoniana 'Snow White') was a pretty blue-green which still retained a whisper of the creamy white spring growth. In contrast the rich green toned 'DeGroot's Spire' arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis 'DeGroot's Spire) was taking on its winter blush of burgundy while one of my favorites 'Forever Goldie' which I introduced you to recently was shining in the most vivid gold with just a hint of orange that will deepen as the temperatures drop.
Some color differences are easier to spot. Silvery white cushion bush (Calocephalus brownii 'Silversand') is stunning and although only an annual its network of striking wiry stems can be enjoyed until a hard frost.
Heathers can be tricky to use in mixed container designs since once the flowering is over their foliage isn't terribly exciting. Since most cultivars have a relatively short bloom time this can be especially problematic and the very reason I look for those with colorful foliage. However, I'm excited to try these new Bud Bloomers from Qualitree. They don't set seed which means that they flower for much longer. I'll let you know how I get on but as I consider their use I'm still mindful of the foliage color which ranges from very dark green to gold.
Consider leaf shape
So I began to experiment. I combined needle foliage with splayed fans, scales with feathers, lighter tones with dark, stiffly upright forms with looser shapes and was pleasantly surprised at the outcome.
The results were tapestries which were both interesting and soothing in their simplicity. It was almost like creating miniature landscapes.
Blend with partners
I did add a few broader leaved plants such as 'Goshiki' false holly (Osmanthus heterophyllus 'Goshiki') since its green and gold foliage blended so well.
I also tucked in a few pansies here and there to repeat the color of the heathers in case they didn't flower as long as I hoped! Some of the more complex designs even have spring bulbs tucked away. (Well I can't be too restrained can I?!)
The bottom line is that you can create beautiful designs with very similar textures. It's all about the details. Challenge yourself.