Similar but Different – the art of observation.

A miniature forest? They may all be conifers but with such a wonderful blend of colors and foliage shapes they each have something to offer

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.

The challenge!

'Wilma's Gold' rosemary and 'Silver sand' cushion bush may have very similar textures but the striking color differences makes them fun partners, especially when planted in a lime green container

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.

Explore color

Notice the subtle golden variegation on 'Empire' false cypress

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.

This heather has chartreuse foliage so even when flowering is over it will contrast well

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.

Cerise heather, bright golden yellow 'Forever Goldie' arborvitae, and the gold and green variegated 'Empire' false cypress combine beautifully with the wispy 'Sirocco' pheasant tail grass.


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.


'Goshiki' false holly brings variety to a blend of heathers and conifers

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 couldn't resist adding this pansy - such a perfect color to complement the heather and cushion bush

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.

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  1. Jennifer on October 2, 2012 at 4:38 am

    A challenge always comes with a degree of stress that arises from uncertainty as to how to go about tackling the issue at hand. It also pushes you to be creative in your problem solving. I like your combination of 'Goshiki' false holly, heathers, conifers and pink pansies Karen.

    • Karen Chapman on October 3, 2012 at 7:56 am

      That Osmanthus makes a fabulous companion to so many designs.