Plant Whimsy

I always want the gardens I design to reflect the homeowners taste and personality. There are many ways to do this such as carrying through a key color from the interior decorating scheme or including signature art pieces in the landscape. However sometimes you can have fun with the plants themselves.

This Under The Sea  garden designed  the Los Angeles arboretum is a perfect example. By combining the unique metal sculptures created by local artist James B. Marshall with evocative plant forms, this underwater fantasy garden captures the imagination of visitors young and old.


Setting the scene

Cogs, chains and gears combine to create this outstanding collection of sea creatures that include seahorses, an octopus, turtle and dolphin. Such ingenuity! Marine chain such as might be used for anchors is used as an edge for the border reinforcing the aquatic theme.

This sea turtle is 25″ wide; 24″ long; 10″ high and weighs about 75lbs. It is a clever composition of  transmission gears, tractor track and steering lever while  the head is a truck trailer hitch.

Love the mouth on this turtle - watch out!

Love the mouth on this turtle – watch out!


Note the curling tentacles - this octopus is on the move

Note the curling tentacles – this octopus is on the move

Skipper the dolphin is 55″ in length, 46″ in height, 17″ in width and weighs about 50 lbs


A smiling dolphin leaps past the octopus and fish

Contact the artist directly if you are interesting purchasing any of his pieces or commissioning something special

Plant selection

We may not all be able to grow these plants (too wet, too cold…) but we can still recreate this look if we understand what to look for. The idea is to seek out plants whose color, shape and texture suggests coral or seaweed.

Coral-like cushions

Coral-like cushions and waving ‘seaweed’ in watery hues

Cacti and succulents have been used to great effect in this design but most of these would only be suitable for an annual display in colder climates. What else could be used to represent coral or seaweed? Here are a few ideas.

The spurge (Euphorbia) family offers many possibilities. Fen’s Ruby (Euphorbia cyparissias ‘Fen’s Ruby’) forms a feathery cushion of finely textured semi-evergreen foliage that opens burgundy and matures to green. Chartreuse flowers add to the display in spring, Be warned that this plant can be a thug – check to see if it is invasive in your area before you let it loose. This may be best for a container display.

Fens Ruby spurge can be invasive

Fens Ruby spurge can be invasive – you have been warned!

Donkey tail spurge (Euphorbia myrsinites) is  stiffer, more blue, has gorgeous succulent foliage and is not quite so thuggish as its cousin Fens Ruby although is also listed as an invasive species in some states.

Donkey tail spurge

Donkey tail spurge planted with golden Angelina stonecrop

For a similar look to Fen’s Ruby without the concern of skin irritation common to the spurge family or its invasive tendencies consider Blue Haze stonecrop (Sedum reflexum ‘Blue Spruce’)

Blue Spruce stonecrop. Photo credit; Monrovia

Blue Spruce stonecrop. Photo credit; Monrovia

This cold hardy succulent (USDA zones 3-11) is typically evergreen, drought tolerant and tough!

Certain varieties of hebe may also work for cushion forms e.g. Red Edge and there are lots more cold hardy sedums to investigate.

Now for some of the truly unique plants that have been used to represent splays of coral or broad seaweed forms. Do leave me a comment if you can identify these!



Can't you just feel the current in the water as you look at this?

Can’t you just feel the current in the water as you look at this?

So what can we cold climate gardeners use? One suggestion is to look for fasciated forms of everyday plants; either those that just happen occasionally on a single stem within the plant or genetic forms that have mutated and been propagated to select for that feature. Fasciated stems are produced due to abnormal activity in the growing tip of the plant. Often an abnormal number of flowers are produced on affected stems; something I noticed on one of my Paprika yarrow plants this summer.

Ferns with fasciated tips often have names such as ‘monstrosa’ and ‘cristata’ and are highly collectable plants. Look out for crested hart’s tongue fern for example. There are also some fasciated conifers such as the crested Japanese cedar (Cryptomeria jap0nica ‘Cristata’). These would all be excellent candidates for a seascape.

On a recent garden tour in Portland I came across this fasciated form of a spurge which I believe to be gopher spurge Euphorbia rigida.

Fasciation - a funky accident of nature

Fasciation – a funky accident of nature

Note how only one stem was affected.

The finishing touches


To complete the scene I noticed a number of volcanic rocks used throughout the ‘sea bed’ and lava rock used as a mulch. There was also a few special specimen type plants, included for their unusual color or shape.

Now it’s your turn

Have I got you thinking? Next time you’re looking at plant images or walking through the nursery perhaps you’ll see a sea creature waiting to be discovered! Be sure to post photos on my Facebook page or leave me comments below. Imagination starts now………………………

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Finding Focus


I knew something was wrong; it was that little niggle in the back of my mind that prompted me to stop what I was doing and call Mum’s doctor. Sure enough Mum had just been admitted to hospital for the second time in a few weeks.

That was late September and from that point on my life became a surreal blur of hospitals, medical jargon and an emotional roller coaster that is impossible to describe in words but many of you sadly will understand all too well.

Mum passed away on October 27th as I sat by her bedside and held her hand. Barely allowing myself time to grasp the reality of what had just happened I went into full ‘organization’ mode, planning the funeral, completing the mountains of legal paperwork and clearing my childhood home for sale. With support from amazing neighbors, friends and my family I managed to get through it all and made it back home just before Thanksgiving.

Rock cairns are often used to mark the pathway along a journey

Rock cairns are often used to mark the pathway along a journey

I’m a list maker at heart and so far I was checking off the various ‘to do’ items at a good pace. The plan was that I’d take a few days to recover then get straight back to work, writing blog posts, designing gardens and more. You may have noticed that hasn’t gone so well; my last blog post was over two months ago and whereas I have continued to draw up designs it is taking me three times as long as I struggle to focus. Imagine yourself swimming through molasses (aka treacle) – that’s what my head feels like. I thought it was just me but now realize that this is a very common form of ’emotional jet lag’ associated with grief.

It’s the little things that throw me; looking at a purse full of coins and not having a clue what they are, forgetting the PIN for my debit card that has been the same for 20 years, turning up for a medical appointment – exactly one day late, going to buy Christmas cards for the family and realizing with a jolt that there is another whole section of cards that I won’t be shopping from any more…. and being convinced there are more cards for Mom, Mum and Mother this year than ever before.

A carved 'eye' in the top river rock focuses our attention

A carved ‘eye’ in the top river rock focuses our attention

So this short post is both apology and explanation as well as a promise to myself and readers that I will find my focus again shortly. I have some wonderful garden design ideas to share with you as well as some inspiring ‘before and after’ images from my own work. I’ll have ideas for every size of garden, budget and style and will continue to seek out the best of the new plants that hit the nurseries.

Meanwhile I’m going to focus on gratitude;  for treasured memories of those no longer with us, for friends and family near and far, for dog snuggles, for the blessing of a garden I can call my own.

Thank you to a group of precious friends who commissioned artist Like DeLatour to make this cairn for me, and had it installed in my garden for when I returned.

Thank you to a group of special friends who commissioned artist Luke DeLatour to make this beautiful cairn for me, and had it installed in my garden for when I returned. Your thoughtfulness and support means the world to me.

Wishing you all peace in your hearts, even where there may be sadness. Tomorrow is a new day.

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Captivating Ideas from a Petite Garden


I wrote a post recently for my other blog Fine Foliage (co-authored with Christina Salwitz) called The Ones That Got Away. You see Christina and I are on the final countdown for our new book with Timber Press (due out 9/2016) and scrambling to get as many mouth watering ideas photographed and written up as possible, but the reality is that not every garden we visit, or every picture from every garden will make it into the final text.

This post resulted from a visit a delightful garden filled to bursting with so many good ‘take home’ ideas. The garden itself was not large in size yet it was filled with an abundance of eye catching details that made every nook and cranny a veritable treasure hunt. You would think that having so many focal points and vignettes would make the garden seem busy but the homeowners eye for color kept things in check while never compromising the fun factor.

Re-thinking the lawn


After yet another year of moss overtaking the lawn the decision was made to replace it with gravel. To provide a practical walking surface and as an invitation to explore, a series of large flagstones were added as an informal path leading to the right.

As this path curves away a teal container was added to create a focal point to one side, encouraging both eyes and feet to linger. This is the perfect color match for the blue-toned hostas in the adjacent shady border.



Color play


Orange has been used as a fun, bold accent color throughout the garden but it is in such small doses that it never seems overpowering. Against the weathered fence sits a re-purposed fountain, now planted with succulents and a tiny ceramic bird. Above this are a series of wooden boxes planted with orange Bonfire begonias which thrive in full sun or part shade. These fuchsia-like blooms are magnets for hummingbirds.

A trio of similarly planted boxes stand tall on metal pedestals to the left (see first two photos). This is a great way to add color to an area where tree roots make it impossible to plant yet a large container isn’t called for. Drip irrigation keeps everything watered.

Floral highlights


While this garden has a strong framework of foliage it certainly has flowers too. The vignette above shows the start of the gravel pathway where a simple low water bowl has been added. The orange glass ball makes the initial color splash but also serves to direct attention to the Apricot Twist wallflowers behind it. The glaze of the bowl has shades of teal, navy, purple and cream so adding the scrambling Homestead Purple verbena at the borders edge and climbing double clematis to a trellis is an easy way to bring both contrast and connection.



And if you don’t have the right color pot? Spray paint it! This inexpensive metal container is now the perfect shade behind Orange Rocket barberry and Japanese forest grass.

But wait – there’s more!


You’ll have to wait for our new book to see the vignettes we finally selected! We know you’ll love them and be inspired as we were by the use of color and fun plant combinations.

Thank you sweet Edith for the tour, for making me so welcome in your wonderful oasis – and for the wine that completed the evening.

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Focal Points; Garden Art + Foliage


Whether your style is whimsical, elegant, traditional or contemporary you can find a unique art piece for your garden that let’s your friends and family know that this is your garden. However it is the relationship between the art and the garden that really makes or breaks it. There has to be a reason for that particular piece of art to be placed in that specific location. Both the art and the garden should be enhanced by the association and using foliage is one of the easiest ways to accomplish this.

The Snuggle Factor

The pears above are nestled into the leafy ‘arms’ of ferns, Heuchera and moss. Over time the moss has started to wrap itself around the over-sized fruit such that the lines are blurred between art and garden. The bold color catches our attention but rather than seeming incongruous in this subdued leafy setting it is highlighted by the contrasting textures and shades of green. (From the garden of Tina Dixon, WA)

Hide and Seek

IMG_7454 These funky fish (found lurking in the garden of Mary Palmer, Snohomish, WA) are swimming through a golden ‘seaweed’. Depending on the breeze sometimes you see them – sometimes you don’t. Art doesn’t have to be completely visible to be a focal point. Sometimes a little subtlety is a good thing. This isn’t the sort of focal point that will knock your socks off 1oo yards away but rather a ‘garden moment’ waiting to be discovered as you stroll through the space.

Art Mimicking Foliage


Giant concrete Gunnera leaves have become increasingly popular since iconic artists George and David Lewis started creating them. I’ve seen these in many tints of color and in many settings but what I loved most about the composition above was how natural it looked within its environment.

The sheer size of the leaf grabs our attention and the texture is so realistic that I challenge anyone to walk past without at least being tempted to reach out and touch it!

Within this vignette is a secondary art piece; a small concrete pillar finished in such a way as to suggest antiquity but in reality quite new. Emerging from a cluster of hosta and topped with soft grass this column adds to the drama while again benefiting from the backdrop of foliage to give it a sense of presence.

Winter Vignette


Even in winter foliage can play a vital part in transforming your focal point into a vignette. Notice how in the photograph above (Taken at the Denver Botanical Garden) the bleached grasses frame the imposing sculpture. The art is impressive enough to stand alone but the grasses enhance it. Their soft, rustling blades contrasts with the stark, gold granite – especially poignant on a bitingly cold winter day.

Placing art into a garden does not automatically create a fabulous focal point. Placing it in such away that it relates to its surroundings and then adding either a frame or backdrop of foliage takes a focal point and transforms it into a vignette.

(This is part two in a four part series on focal points. Missed Part 1? Find it again here)

For more ideas on focal points sign up for my design class on Craftsy and save up to 50%; Gorgeous Garden Design; Foliage & Focal Points. 

Read my reviews, interact with other students (several thousand at the last count), ask questions and enjoy the class whenever you choose and as often as you want to.

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Sticks and Stones

Blue and teal shades work so well with the white stones

Blue and teal shades work so well with the white stones. Photo courtesy Alyson Ross Markley

Sculptor Luke DeLatour of Stones and Steel knows a thing or two about rocks which is why we invited him to our Meet the Artist – Become the Artist event recently.

He has created some beautiful sculptures from twisted ribbons of steel into which he incorporates hand selected river rocks and  pebbles – beautiful when fresh from the workshop and possibly even better when rusted to cinnamon tones.

The trick is knowing how and where to place them in the garden to showcase their shape, color and texture. Here are a few examples of my favorite pieces.

For Big Spaces

Sometimes you don’t have a little gap in the garden you have a HUGE gap – such was the case after several shrubs gave up the ghost this winter. Clearly a cute 2′ tall birdbath was not what I needed here but Luke’s ring of stones was perfect. The solid green backdrop of the Hinoki cypress allowed the shape of the sculpture and color of the stones to be clearly seen together with the striking vertical steel poles. The height nestled it in nicely between shrubs yet was tall enough to be a focal point.

Ring of stones

Ring of stones

Perhaps the art I miss most is the cluster of seed heads. They stood 8′ tall and looked just right emerging from our meadow.

Large spaces call for large scale

Large spaces call for large scale. Photo courtesy Alyson Ross Markley

I know Luke is designing some other versions of this including pieces you would set on the ground. Can’t wait to see them!

For smaller spaces

Most homeowners need pieces of a more modest scale so what about these? Luke handpicks each rock  – they are reminiscent of seed pods, especially when set among fading astilbe flowers and grasses in our woodland garden.


One of Luke’s most popular designs was actually a spur of the moment idea – incorporating  pale aqua beach glass into the design. The translucence of the glass works especially well when light is allowed to stream through so think about where best to place these so you can enjoy them.

Layers of pebbles and beach glass - juxtaposition of light and dark, ought and smooth

Layers of pebbles and beach glass. Photo courtesy Alyson Ross Markley

For Kids of all Ages


Photo courtesy Alyson Ross Markley

Who can resist this game of trying to maneuver the pebbles along the wire? A perfect table-side game in the garden

From Sticks to Showcase

While glass artist Jesse and Luke were displaying their art my husband Andy was busy offering woodturning demonstrations in the barn. He showed enthusiastic visitors how he selected each piece of wood, looking for interesting swirls and patterns to create our one of a kind tools, heirloom bouquets, bowls, Holiday ornaments and more. It’s only when you watch him working at the lathe that you truly appreciate the craftsmanship involved.


A partially rotted cherry tree gets a second chance at being beautiful

In fact the response to his work was so overwhelming that he is now offering  three different woodturning classes which are sure to be very popular and is setting up his own business; StumpDust which will launch shortly.

In the meantime you’ll find his sawdust still on this site in our STORE

One of my favorite pieces, this vase was made from a plum tree that had to be taken down in 2008

One of my favorite pieces, this vase was made from a plum tree that had to be taken down in 2008

Whether taking stones, weathered smooth over time by moving water and combining them with other materials to create art or salvaging wood from diseased or fallen trees and creating beautiful yet functional pieces there is something incredibly satisfying about taking natures creation and finding a way to reveal its hidden beauty. That’s what both Luke and Andy have done.

Watch for our Art in the Garden event next year; Earth, Wind & Fire! Be sure you’re signed up for my newsletters to get advance notice.

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