The Smile Factor


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Whether you consider your personal garden style to be elegant, romantic, contemporary or traditional there is always room for a little whimsy – a special garden moment to make you smile. It doesn’t have to be large or extravagant and in fact some of the best are those that are discovered while strolling through the garden rather than something that screams ‘look at me’ from your living room!

Here are a few ideas from my own garden as well as several I have visited.

Highlight unique forms

A weathered bird house tucked into the gnarly remains of an old maple tree

A weathered bird house tucked into the gnarly remains of an old maple tree

This big leaf maple tree had been a focal point in the garden border: originally a towering, bleached silhouette it is now just a snag after a recent windstorm brought down the last branch with a ker-THUMP! Yet I still find this a fascinating sculptural element – just look at all the contorted growth on the trunk. To encourage other garden visitors to slow down and appreciate this I tucked a weathered birdhouse into the snag; he looks as surprised as our guests upon being discovered!

Bringing life back to a dead shrub

Bringing life back to a dead rhododendron shrub

This large rhododendron died many years ago yet its skeletal form is still beautiful. The previous owner had painted it silver but that makeover has long since faded and tufts of lichen now dress up the coral-like structure. This shrub framework seemed like a lovely spot to hang my charming bird feeder with its succulent roof. A thoughtful friend gave this to me at Christmas and I had been looking for the somewhere to showcase it effectively. We see this every day through our kitchen window where it adds an unexpected splash of color to an otherwise drab spot in the garden. Looks like I need to fill it up again….

Child’s Play

Created by Katie Pond

Created by Katie Pond – when she was still Katie Chapman

Lovingly nicknamed ‘Charles’ after a certain Royal personage, this creature was crafted in a high school art class by my daughter  many years ago. Showing signs of wear and tear, this only adds to the humor; I mean how good would you look after scrambling out of a rotted tree stump?



Spied on a recent garden tour in Pasadena this wonderful dinosaur is doing his best to get your attention! Whether warning against the step or the prickly plant I’m not sure but he did make me stop to take his photograph.

Cact - cus by Debra Lee Baldiwn made me giggle

Cact – cus by Debra Lee Baldwin made me giggle

Of course we’re all children at heart aren’t we? Debra Lee Baldwin may be a few years out of kindergarten but that didn’t stop her adding wonderful googly eyes to this cactus creation in her San Diego garden.

Hidden in Plain View

A brick pathway to read while you walk

A brick pathway to read while you walk

Have you noticed how many bricks have names embossed on them? Love these ideas

Perfect post-topper

Perfect post-topper

Likewise paving stones can be an opportunity to add some personality – or family history

a celebration path

A celebration path


Add Interest to Bare Walls

Cluster small pieces together for greater impact

Cluster small pieces together for greater impact

Whimsical terracotta faces on a stucco wall will soon be surrounded by this clinging vine –  a fun discovery as I strolled along this shaded path and such a variety of expressions

Look up!

An easy project

An easy project

Hanging from a cedar branch one would not expect to see shards of cobalt blue glass wrapped in copper wire – yet their casual placement was perfect in its simplicity.

Unintentional humor?


Hmm. Armed by whom or by what?

Strange the things that catch your eye – and make you laugh. Great placement either way!

Does your garden make you giggle?

Three Blind Mice by ee-i-ee-i-o

Three Blind Mice by ee-i-ee-i-o


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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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A Garden Wedding; bouquets of love


Katie wore an antique locket which had originally belonged to her great grandmother. Inside she had tucked a tiny photograph of her Nana and Granddad so they could be close to her on her special day.

I can barely put a bunch of flowers in a vase let alone make a boutonniere or bouquet so to say I was nervous about doing the flowers for our daughters wedding was an understatement! Thankfully friends came through and showered us with love, flowers and foliage – you can read about all the wonderful Seeds of Love here if you missed it.

Many of you emailed me and asked to see the finished results (we were still waiting for the official photographs when I first posted). So as promised here they are.

Setting the Scene

The service was focused around an existing garden arbor which was dressed up with a swag of flowers and greenery wired onto grapevine . Cut flowers were inserted into florists tubes filled with water before being tucked into the swag. (Much more difficult than it sounds, especially when it was raining at the time!)

SE6A5402 We hung Mason jars of simple garden flowers and foliage from each arch and allowed trailing ribbons to flutter in the breeze. All the flowers were either from our garden or donated by wonderful friends and neighbors.

SE6A5399 The whole effect was beautiful and created a perfect frame.


The aisle was lined with six big logs, each decorated with a jar of flowers and polished stones.


Picture perfect and ready for the bride and groom.


Table Settings



Katie thought of every detail from the colorful pompoms and flags decorating the tent, to burlap and butcher paper runners and layers of greenery cut from our woods. Vases of  flowers brought the garden to the table.

Since succulents were one of the themes, Katie and Evan propagated, planted and decorated dozens of cuttings as party favors. They were glad to get their kitchen table back I’m sure!


They even included details on how to care for them on the reverse of the little flags!


In the Garden

Carrying through the succulent theme I tried to include tender and hardy cultivars in all of the container gardens.



The Little Details

The boutonnieres were made from lambs ears (Stachys byzantina), hypericum berries and the tiniest of white flowers bound together with jute, while Katie chose a soft coral dahlia for her hair.

SE6A5476 FB8A4722

The bouquets

And finally the bouquets themselves – beautiful works of art thanks to our friend Marcia. The perfect blend of casual country garden and chic elegance. Each design was unique yet complemented the others.


Katie and Marcia worked together to select the flowers for her special bouquet which included succulents, dahlias, roses and cosmos.




Celebration of Love

There were lots of smiles, plenty of laughter and yes a few happy tears (thank goodness for waterproof mascara). The casual setting encouraged guests to mingle and explore the garden together so that the atmosphere was relaxed and we could enjoy the special day.

Being Mother and Father of the Bride certainly kept us busy as we prepared our home, garden and flowers but looking back we wouldn’t change a thing.




Photographs by Ashley DeLatour, One Thousand Words Photography 

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The Grass with Multiple Personalities


A beauty or a beast? A star or a supporter? You decide.

Considered invasive in many parts of the country Mexican feather grass (Stipa tenuissima syn. Nasella tenuissima) is merely ‘friendly’ in Seattle area gardens. Certainly it self seeds, but it does so politely creating serendipitous plant partnerships that I wish I could claim as my design!

I consider it an invaluable asset to my own garden as it fills many roles.

Four season interest.


Being evergreen this offers winter interest, when many of my other favorite grasses have tucked themselves under a blanket of compost. Whether planted as a drift with other grasses or as a simple monoculture, there is no denying that this wispy grass adds softness to the stark landscape during the colder months of the year.

Oscar worthy as supporting actor


Sometimes bolder plant forms need an ethereal background to showcase their strength. I love the way Mexican feather grass offers a hazy curtain behind my ‘Ascot Rainbow’ spurge (Euphorbia). It keeps the focus on the star with its gauzy texture allowing light to filter through.

Nominee for best actor


With so many great plants in this border (right and at top of post) how can a humble grass be taken seriously as a lead player? By virtue of it being at the very front where it creates a picture frame which in itself is a work of art. Just look how beautifully it sets the scene on this early spring day, enhancing the warm tones of the emerging spirea foliage foliage while leading the eye to the cinnamon colored peeling bark of a young paperbark maple (Acer griseum) in the middle ground and drifts of daffodils beyond.

Perfect for pathways

Guthrie 7

Grasses are wonderful for edging pathways, delicately brushing bare ankles and toes as though walking through a meadow. None are gentler than this grass and its billowing form blurs the boundary between garden border and flagstone pathway with ease.


Wildlife refuge



Tucked away behind the waving strands of grass, a flock of birds jumped and jived around this little fountain for over half an hour! Safe from view (mostly!), they played their game unhindered. I am sure the seeds would be of interest later in the year also.

Extreme contrasts


Want the ultimate plant to contrast with the grass texture and form? What about this prickly pear? You can’t get much more extreme than this!

Cultural information

USDA hardiness; 6-10

Size; 2′ tall and wide as a loose fountain

Light; full sun or light shade

Water; average to dry.


So what is this grass to you? The ultimate invasive thug to be avoided at all costs? If so I’d love to know what you have found as a great substitute?

Or has this chameleon  found a spot in your garden?

Friend or foe? You decide.

For another great design using this grass enjoy this combination featured in my new book Fine Foliage

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Denver Botanic Gardens – a winter surprise


I had the opportunity to visit the Denver Botanic Gardens last week. As I pulled on thermals, several layers of fleece and my thickest socks I began to doubt my sanity! Temperatures were well below zero and I was the only person outside; other visitors were safely ensconced in the tropical steaminess of the orchid house or sipping hot coffee in the café. I wasn’t even too sure what to expect. I mean who has a garden that looks good in January? Certainly in our home gardens we can usually point proudly to a few berried bushes, interesting bark plus maybe a grass or two but the expectation is much greater for a large public garden.

Yet I was not disappointed.


My first stop was the Monet pool.  Studded with dozens of water lilies in summer I had no idea what to expect in these arctic temperatures. The lake was iced cover disguised with a soft layer of snow yet the fountains were breathtaking. As the water continued to bubble up it had formed rippling ice sculptures, each like a miniature glacier, especially with their surreal mint julep glow.


Japanese gardens are known for their restraint and year round beauty. Expertly pruned Japanese maples revealed their intricate branching structure now freed of their delicate foliage. These combined with assorted conifers, again lovingly pruned into open cloud formations and large granite boulders give the impression that this garden would look just as full in high summer as it did that day. Wooden bridges traversed the frozen streams while stone statuary adorned the lakeside. Presiding over it all was an enormous birch tree whose pristine white bark reflected the snow in this monochromatic winter garden.


Perhaps though I was most entranced by the undulating layers of grasses I found throughout the gardens. Crushed gravel pathways were lined by massed plantings of Mexican feather grass (Stipa tenuissima), with color interest added by russet sedges (Carex species). Their billowing shapes softened the low stone walls and added a sense of intimacy, since it was not possible to see beyond them except for tantalizing glimpses. (See top photo)


Giant silver grass (Miscanthus) towered overhead, the bleached foliage rustling dramatically in the slightest breeze. Ice crystals added diamond like sparkle to their feathery plumes. Standing alone, backed by a wall or juxtaposed with the bare, twisted branches of sumac (Rhus ) these were the most dramatic elements of the winter garden to my eyes and were worth my frozen fingers as I moved the tripod yet again trying to capture the perfect shot.


Grasses also played a central role in smaller vignettes and I was particularly struck by a cactus seemingly corralled by Mexican feather grass in one of the drought tolerant gardens. A friend called this combination ‘Ambush’ which perfectly describes how these soft grasses have surrounded the wicked spiny paddles of the prickly pear. No escape!


Was it worth the visit? Absolutely. I came away inspired to continue to develop my own winter vignettes and also to take the time to walk around my garden even on cold days. Certainly I look forward to spring but there is so much to appreciate at this time of year also.


Have you designed for winter?

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