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Success with Crape Myrtle in Portland Landscape Designs

Residential Landscape Design PortlandLandscaping with Crape Myrtle in Portland

I responded to a request for help from clients in Northeast Portland who were concerned their crape myrtle trees planted two years ago were not healthy because they didn’t flower. They had done their research on crape myrtle but unfortunately not from a source familiar with their trees cultural needs or growth patterns here in the Willamette Valley.

Let me knock a few myths out of the way to save you the same unease and help get our crape myrtle trees off to a good start.

  1. Crape myrtle are drought tolerant so don’t ever water them. Not so!

Latest wisdom is to water them deeply with a drip irrigation or soaker hose once every 10 days. Touch the soil with your hands down a few inches to ensure you are not over watering. It should be moist and then as you get closer to the time to water again it should be almost dry. When they have been growing for ten years in your landscape they might become very low water needs.

I like to design plant companions for the crape myrtle that have the same water needs. In this garden I have crape myrtle with Chinese Camellia – Camellia sasanqua ‘Yuletide’ and American Switch grass-Panicum virgatum ‘Shenendoah’. The clients added ground cover sedum.  None of the plants near the tree need to be watered more than once a week ever after except perhaps for their first summer. A splash of hose water once a week is not at all what I am talking about, I am talking about slowly applied water and preferably drip system or soaker hose.

  1. Fertilize if you want a lot of flowers, that’s true for all plants, right? Not so!

First off, nothing is true for all plants. There are plenty of plants that are harmed by fertilizer so tuck that behind your ear for a future conversation. We typically have fertile soil here in the Willamette Valley, so I would never fertilize crape myrtle beyond adding garden compost to the soil once a year as a top dressing. Adding fertilizer will work against your goal of having flowers.A  young crape myrtle in SE Portland landscaping.

  1. You must dead head (pinch off) all the spent flowers. No way!!

If I had to deadhead crape myrtle flowers, it would take a bazillion hours and eventually a ladder.  Nope, you don’t need to deadhead. When your tree is young, and you get a heavy crop of flowers you might want to thin out some flowers to prevent the young branches from breaking.

  1.  Flower timing will depend on our summer temperatures. True.

It’s got to be hot enough and stay warm even at night to kick off the flowering of crape myrtle here in the Willamette Valley. If we have a cool June which we do sometimes, the flowers will be delayed until it’s been warm enough for long enough. For a deeper dig into crape myrtle read what Paul Bonine says in Pacific Horticulture magazine.  He’s my expert! 

Sleep-Creep-Leap

These clients came from California, a climate where plants grow fast. They were not familiar with the saying “Sleep-Creep-Leap” which describes typical plant growth for the first three years.

A  crape myrtle in the late Portland summer. Photo by Carol LindsayOnce roots are well established many plants grow fast and then after many years, they slow their growth. Just to be perverse, some plants grow slowly when young and then after they are a decade old, they grow much faster. It depends on the genetic makeup of each plant as to its growth rate.  Generally, it takes 3 years of root growth in a plant to get to leap.

Patience in our culture is a revolutionary idea. Contact me if you have more questions on your landscaping.

Heuchera

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Plethora of Heuchera leaf color and variegation.

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‘Lime Marmalade’ Heuchera

Dan Himes, Portland’s own plant designer,  of  Terra Nova Nurseries took the old fashioned Coral Bell, a simple cottage garden plant that was beloved for pale spring flowers and created the dramatic colorful leaves of the modern coral bell (Heuchera).  He didn’t stop there.  Over the past 30 years he has given designers a whole new color palette to create with:  leaves of peach, orange, russet, burgundy, amethyst, chartreuse and near black.  Many of the leaves are variegated and create the most amazing patterns.  He has also created many different sizes of plants.  I can use a Heuchera in the mid border with the top of the leaves at 10 inches tall and 24 inch flowers  like ‘Lime Marmalade’ or plants a mere 5 inches tall with 10 inch flowers  like ‘Cherry Cola’.   In  recent years he has also created a diverse selection of flower colors.

'Cherry Cola' Heuchera is great at the edge of a pot.

‘Cherry Cola’  Heuchera is great at the edge of a pot.

 

The original garden coral bell bloomed in pale pink, today I can have flowers in hot brick red, coral, hot pink, near orange (no true orange yet) varying shades of yellow and even shocking chartreuse.  Some varieties are really all about the leaves and the flowers are a very quiet white or cream with stunning dramatic leaf color and variegation, but the newer varieties can have it all, bold dramatic leaves with the perfect hot flower color to accompany them.

So many choices are exciting to me but can be daunting to a typical home owner.  Twenty different varieties can stop a person in their tracks.

I’m not trying to pick a pretty plant, it would be hard to do as they are all attractive.  I always design for function and select a plant for what I want it to do.  I use ‘Blackberry Crisp’ because the leaves look good even in the winter.  They are perfect for entry pizzazz.   Some Heuchera flower for a long time in summer but have no winter interest so I use those near the patio.

'Blackberry Crisp' Heuchera

‘Blackberry Crisp’ Heuchera

There are many varieties I use for shade and some for near full sun.   I love to use the new 5 to 6 inch tall plants at the edge of containers.  These little guys look great with Spring Heather and Hens & Chicks.   Coral Bell can pull a garden together visually by repeating it along a pathway.  Their shape softens the potentially harsh lines of a modern minimalist garden plan. No matter what your style, old fashioned, naturalistic or modern  they add the dramatic color that every client wants in their landscape.

Dan’s contribution is significant.  There are many plant designers in the world and many of them worship at Dan’s feet.  I was in the Netherlands visiting a famous garden designer and plant designer named Piet O’Doff who designed the 9/11 memorial garden.  After he learned I came from Portland, Oregon he said to me, “why did you come all this way to see me when you live 15 minutes from Dan Himes”?

Heuchera softens the edges of pots beautifully.

Heuchera softens the edges of pots beautifully.

From a designers point of view Dan’s work is very exciting.  His plants give me so many choices  to create the perfect planting plan for my clients.

True confession:  to keep up with Dan Himes, I created a spreadsheet on my  favorite coral bells so I can select them for size, foliage color, flower color,  foliage height, sun exposure and more.  It’s not that easy for me either.

 

Collaborative Landscape Design for Portland Bungalow

Rose City Park neighborhood of Portland, Residential Landscape design for bungalow

The new plantings complement and enhance the house colors, which fulfilled my clients top request.

I recently got this great email from my client Cathy.  She said “Hi Carol,  People stop on a regular basis and ply Greg and I for info on who did the landscape design.  We both often blank on your name but Greg did remember your company name today.  Anyway, the inquiries are frequent enough I feel I should have your business cards on hand to pass out.  So please feel free to send me some.”

Classic NE Portland bungalow in Rose City Park neighborhood needs thoughtful no lawn landscape plan.

Before: Classic NE Portland bungalow needs thoughtful no lawn landscape plan.

Garden designers love to be asked for our cards, especially under these  happy circumstances.

I had created a design for the back yard a few years prior.  Cathy was so pleased with the results she called me back to design the front.  She had a list of priorities for me and at the top was her concern about selecting plant colors to work with the dark plum brown foundation.  Cathy had put a lot of effort into paint color selection for her bungalow including historic research.  The plum brown was a very powerful color and I was excited to work with it.

Rose City Park Portland Oregon bungalow flagstone path

Friends and family and the postal carrier love using the new path to the side door.

Another unusual feature of the house is that it has two front doors.  The family tended to use the side front door and so did the friendly neighborhood mail carrier.  When we made a beautiful stone path to the side front door there was a lot of joking about how much the mail carrier would like his new path.

With me it’s always a collaborative process.  I wanted to add drama to the front walk so when I suggested we offset the front steps Cathy thought about it and vetoed that idea.  So to add interest I brought in boulders, set them back from the walk so there would be room to place interesting plants as companions to the boulders.

Rock garden plants Rose City Park neighborhood of Portland, Oregon

Here is an example of the colors we used to complement the plum brown foundation. Plants include Sedum ‘Fulda Glow’, Lavendar, Gold Leafed Spirea

This made the design even better.   I loved Cathy’s existing rock garden and selected a similar style of plantings around the public sidewalk.  So this helped integrate what was left of the old garden into the new design.  The best thing about the design is how beautiful it makes the house look.

 

Rose City Park neighborhood of Portland, Oregon Xeriscape planting plan for Hellstrip Parking Strip

White Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), Blue Oat Grass (Helictotrichon sempervirens), some sedums and creeping thyme are holding there own in this NE Portland parking strip.

Cathy used my plant broker, Homescaper, to purchase her plants.  He worked closely with Cathy’s contractor, Tellurian Gardens who installed the landscape.  Now my only job is to drive by and deliver a nice stack of business cards and ooh and aah.