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Pruning Nandina easily for Portland residential landscapes

Pruning Nandina easily, the perfect low maintenance plant, for Portland residential landscapes

Low Maintenance Shrub (Nandina) for Portland Residential Landscape DesignI promised I would follow up from my last blog about Nandina domestica – Heavenly Bamboo and how seriously low maintenance they are.  I’ll give you my easy pruning trick for Nandina and you’ll be all set to use this shrub, a low maintenance year round beauty, in your Portland landscape.

What’s the problem with shearing Nandina?

If it’s so easy to prune why do we see so many sad looking Nandina out there? People try to prune them like a boxwood hedge.  Boxwoods have a typical shrubs’ woody structure and little tiny leaves.  They can be sheared and look pretty good.  Nandina are a multiple cane plant with a compound leaf composed of many oval shaped leaves.  The best way to ruin their appearance is to shear them into little round balls or squares.

Ugly Nandina in Portland Landscape Need Pruning TipRestore leggy sparse leafed Nandina plants

These photos illustrate embarrassing ugly examples of Nandina out there in commercial and residential landscapes.  These sad plants at my local bank have not been pruned at all.  If yours look this bad, hold off on tossing them.

Portland Landscape Designer's example of poor pruning techniqueWe could correct these ugly leggy Nandinas’ appearance in one year by applying the pruning technique I have illustrated here.  These Nandina domestica ‘Gulfstream’ could look amazing with regular irrigation and pruning once every year or two.

My drawing “Fix Leggy Nandina” illustrates restoring a Nandina that has developed leggy bare canes (or stems if you like).  It has no foliage at the base of the plant.

The Cool Trick to Pruning Nandina

The simplest pruning technique is to cut 1/3rd of the canes to the ground and call it done.  This technique will get you a much better plant once the new canes sprout. I control the height by selecting the tallest canes to remove.

You can take your easy pruning a step farther and select another 1/3rd of the canes and cut them at different heights.  If you only have 3 canes to work with it would look like my “Fix Leggy Nandinas” illustration and in one year it would have a new cane with leaves on it sprouting from the ground and the stem you cut back would have new stem and leaves above where you made the cut.

When to Prune Nandina

You can prune nandina any time of year here in the Pacific Northwest.  I like to remove canes to use for holiday table decoration in the winter but only from a robust plant with lots of canes.  I  prefer to do restorative pruning (such as in my illustration “Fix Leggy Nandina”) as early as March or as late as May.

How to Prune Dwarf Nandina

The technique is mostly the same, but dwarf varieties like ‘Firepower’ need almost no pruning to contain height and if they get enough sun, they rarely get leggy.  The plant can get too wide so I like to thin a few canes out at the bottom (or up to 1/3rd of my canes) every year to keep the plant from ever getting too wide. This allows the little plant to continue serving as a colorful year round foundation plant for the long term in your landscape.     Here is a good video to illustrate pruning the dwarf varieties.

 

 

Read my previous blog about Nandina “Colorful Four Season Plant”

Ornamental Grass in the Landscape

Ornamental Grass in the Landscape – Bad Grass Good Grass

Xeriscape Planting Landscape Design in a Day

Good grass like Pennisetum Alocuroides ‘Little Bunny’ – Dwarf Fountain Grass is drought tolerant along with Stepable Thymus Pracox ‘Elfin Pink’,  a nearly flat Thyme groundcover.

Designers love to use ornamental grasses to add structure and seasonal interest. They have instant appeal and we designers are suckers for plants that soften pathways and make a dramatic statement.  They are a staple in modern landscape style. However, grasses have a bad reputation.

Hate Weeding?

I’ve had to reassure more than one new client the grasses I use don’t spread or reseed. My years of experience with plants means I’m slow to use the untested new plants, including grasses.  I’ve seen too many new industry introductions (plants) that looked like a good thing turn into thugs after a few years in a garden. Most of my clients say they dislike weeding over all outdoor chores so I shun plants with potential for adding weeding to the maintenance list.

Researching New Plant Material

Edited Salvia-Raspberry-Delight-Bouteloua-Blonde-Ambition-web

Salvia ‘Raspberry Delight’ with Good Grass Bouteloua Gracilis ‘Blonde Ambition’ Photo credit High Country Gardens

I’m writing this blog during my winter break when I research new plants and prepare for another busy year designing Portland gardens. I confess to being a teeny bit bored with my tried and true grasses.

I was quizzing a couple of my landscape designer buddies about new ornamental grasses.  I discovered they are sticking to the tried and true grasses and not using any new risky plants in their designs either. Here I was thinking they might be experimenting with new plants and that I was getting behind! Nope they are nervous nellies about using an unknown too.  We see what happens when a client buys some new cute plant only to have it take up a forever place all over the property…

Beautiful Bad Grass – Mexican Feather Grass

Edited Mexican Feather Grass

Beautiful bad grass – Mexican Feather Grass Stippa Tenuissima. Photo credit Proven Winners

Designers are concerned about grasses that seed and make weed problems for our clients.  The Mexican Feather (Stippa Tenuissima) Grasses are highly desirable because they are so finely textured the slightest breeze sends them into graceful sway. They are over the top beautiful! They can seed some or a lot and they are the darlings for xeriscape or low water gardens.  This grass is perfect for many dry and hot natural areas in California and (so naturally enough) it is on their noxious weed list.

This Bad Grass is so good in Modern Design

I don’t use Mexican Feather Grass but I have wanted to…they are unique, beautifully blowzy and are a stunner for modern minimalist designs.   I have a local gardener pal who has them in her large Portland modern garden design to fantastic effect. People who are gardeners with a capital G may keep up with weeding out the unwanted grass seedlings. Still, all it would take is a distraction, health problem, or too much over time, and this grass would be seeding into a new planting bed at your property and then your neighbors! Part of hiring an experienced designer is the safety margin we bring to the design process.

Beautiful Good Grass Blue Grama ‘Blonde Ambition’ 

Edited blonde ambition

Bouteloua Gracilis or Blue Grama Grass ‘Blonde Ambition’ moves in the breeze like living art.

Bouteloua Gracilis or Blue Grama Grass ‘Blonde Ambition’ relieves my boredom in a flash and is a great substitute for the wildly popular Mexican Feather Grass. Discovered by David Salman of High Country Gardens, this plant has all the drama of Mexican Feather Grass but won’t seed around.   It’s very dramatic looking with a flower head that juts to one side like an eyebrow.  It’s evergreen and moves beautifully in the breeze so it’s not just a plant, it’s living art.

Low Maintenance

Cut it down in February to two inches tall, scuff the crown of the plant and pull away any loose grass stalks from the crown.  It will thrive in a lighter soil mix with lots of sun.  It prefers no fertilizer, low water and can be fully drought tolerant after established.  To kill Blue Grama Grass, plant it in heavy clay and over water it.  I’m excited about adding this good grass to xeriscaping planting plans in the coming year.

Entry Presence with Winter Red Foliage for Portland Landcapes

Winter Color Sizzle Plant

‘Sizzling Pink’ Chinese Loropetalum is the focal point plant for a Willamette Heights  Landscape Design in a Day client’s entry.

Entry Presence with Winter Red Foliage for Portland Landscapes

Exciting Winter Color Shrub

As a Portland landscape designer I have many clients who want exciting winter color in their landscapes.  When new clients fill in their landscape preference survey they often circle the option for burgundy foliage and add little hearts!   Sadly most burgundy leafed plants are not cold hardy enough here in the Pacific Northwest to look picture perfect in winter.

My Favorite

My favorite choice for dark red or eggplant purple foliage is called Loropetalum chinense var. rubrum or Red Chinese Loropetalum.  Plain Chinese Loropetalum has green foliage and white flowers.   I love the Red Chinese Loropetalum.  It  has amazing thick hot pink fringe flowers in early spring.  The spring foliage emerges burgundy red or dark to medium red pink depending on the variety.   Other varieties are dark red to an eggplant purple through the year.

Unique plant but tricky to site properly

My NW Portland landscape design clients, Dave and Rhonda loved this plant.  It provided a very attractive color echo of their eggplant front door and visually softened the adjacent concrete area. It looked good until January and then for several years the leaves burned and they didn’t grow back in until July!. The love was there but it took too long to recover for an entry focal point plant.   Their plant got sun from 6am in the winter until 1 pm.  They had good drainage and were careful and consistent with watering.  Perversely, I have seen other plants simply glowing in February in the same exact siting.  Can you tell I had a little trouble giving up on that one?  I avoid 6 am winter sun for best outcome.

lorepetalum-from-monrovia

Spring flowers (Photo courtesy of Monrovia)

So why bother with this plant?

It is the wonderful purple red foliage color, the soft arching shape of the branches and the hot colored fringe flowers in spring. Its well worth it if you love purple foliage.    If the plant gets cold east wind in winter, the leaves will burn (desiccate) and it may look terrible until May or June. Year round good looks is all about proper siting and a bit of luck.

Proven Winners variety called Loropetalum 'Jazz Hands'

Proven Winners variety called Loropetalum ‘Jazz Hands’

Twp good choices

These two old  varieties are still easy to find and are what I’m most familiar with:   ‘Sizzling Pink’, which is also called ‘Burgundy’ (cold tolerant to 15 degrees), and   ‘Pippa’s Red’ (hardy to 10 degrees).  ‘Pippa’s Red’ is not as dark a red leaf as ‘Sizzling Pink’. I’m interested in ‘Hines Purpleleaf’, ‘Zhuzhou Fuchsia’ and ‘Jazz Hands’ but wasn’t able to find them to purchase.

There are many new varieties but most were hybridized (designed) for the southern states and are not tested here in the Pacific NW.

I love to drive around Portland and see them thriving.   They saw it, bought it, and just happened to plant it in the right spot!! Whoever they are, they don’t even know its supposed to be a little tricky.  I would be willing to try it in colder areas like Gresham but only where it is 100% protected from east wind.  Even then, I’d consider it an experiment. A whole landscape of plant experiments is called gambling and is not typically the result  we want in a landscape design.  Most of my clients want a sure bet.

New Shrubs Expand Designer’s Palette

Ceanothus G. 'Hearts Desire' Picture from Xera

California Lilac Ceanothus Griseus ‘Hearts Desire’   Picture from Xera Plants

I’m excited about these new plants for Portland gardens.

Many of us are familiar with California Lilac and its blue flowers.  Beloved by bees, including our endangered native bumble bees, it’s  also a host plant for Swallow Tail butterflies.  However, it has its problems in a home landscape.  Many varieties are short lived because they receive summer irrigation along with your other plantings.  They need infrequent or no summer water to be a long term plant.  Most of all keeping them a manageable size is difficult for many gardeners. Ceanothus Griseus ‘Hearts Desire’ is different.  It can handle some summer irrigation and unlike all the other varieties of ground cover type California Lilac, it grows to only 4 inches tall and grows slowly to 24 inches wide.  It is easy to tip prune so can be confined.  These new habits make it a very useful plant for smaller landscapes.  It can take a lot of dry so we can plant it in the xeriscape dry tolerant gardens that have no irrigation or it can receive some summer irrigation.   I see this  plant as a major improvement over old varieties like ‘Anchor Bay’ or ‘Points Rey’.  Xera Plants is growing ‘Hearts Desire’ but expect other growers to jump on the plant wagon soon.  I’d use ‘Hearts Desire’ under limbed up fir trees, on SW facing banks or in “hellstrips”.  I will be trialing this new variety of California Lilac in my xeriscape garden.

Manzanita is a shrub or large tree known for its colorful bark and picturesque windswept shapes on the northern California coast. Here in Portland it’s too wet or too cold for most Manzanitas.  News flash!  Some of the California Manzanita species have been hybridized (designed by humans) into cold hardy evergreen ground covers and shrubs.  I love the leaves and the bark color and will be using these two specific varieties of Manzanita in my designs more frequently.   My favorite is ‘St. Helena’ which grows to 24 inches, and can take irrigation if it must.

Hummingbird sitting on manzanita plant

Hummingbird sitting on Manzanita plant

For success with Manzanita don’t feed the soil with compost or fertilizer at all, not even when doing initial soil preparation.  Work with the existing soil.  It needs to be watered through its first summer and then little to no irrigation is best.  This year (2015) my clients will be instructed to water it through its first winter as well since we are expecting a very dry winter but most years this would not be necessary.  Note: hummingbirds love Manzanita flowers.  Pacific Horticulture Society has an in depth article about Manzanita/Arctostaphlylos for the NW; by our revered plants man Paul Bonine.

Callistemon viridiflorus 'Xera Compact' Picture from Xera

Callistemon viridiflorus ‘Xera Compact’ Picture from Xera Plants

Callestemon or Bottle Brush is well known to Californians.  They have many varieties with hot red flowers and they  attract hummingbirds like crazy.  Their loose needles have a tropical feel to them and they can look wild or messy depending on your point of view!  While talking with Greg Shepard at Xera Plants, I got good news about the varieties of this plant that we can grow here in Portland.  A few of these make very attractive  tidy evergreen shrubs.  I’m always looking for soft textured evergreen shrubs with winter good looks that don’t get too big.  Hummingbirds are attracted to all of the Bottle Brush plants but deer are not.  Pretty great huh?

Here are 2 varieties I am most interested in for my clients:

1.  Callistemon Pityoides ‘Corvallis’.  Yes found in Corvallis, Oregon the original plant withstood 20 years of cold and everything an Oregon winter can throw at a plant.  It grows 5’ tall and 3’ wide in ten years.  It can take regular water or can be trained into drought tolerance easily.  It flowers twice in a season with soft yellow bottle brush flowers that remind people of baby ducks.  Deer usually leave it alone unless they are desperate.

2.  Callistemon viridiflorus ‘Xera Compact’ grows to 4 ½’ feet tall.  It is  VERY heavy blooming for 6 weeks.  The flowers are chartreuse and yellow brushes 3 inches long, the leaves are deep green in summer and take on hints of red in winter.

 

 

 

Summer Heather – Perfect for year round color

'Jimmy Dyce'  Picture from Heath & Heather Nursery

‘Jimmy Dyce’ Picture from Heath & Heather Nursery

Summer flowering heather can be easy care.

I used heather at my vacation house because it’s so easy.  I’m only there once a month, have no irrigation and I have hungry deer.  It’s got to be a tough plant to make it!  I’m sorry to say that with heather you need to know what you are doing.  Lots of people buy heather, plant them and they die quickly.  Once you have proper information these plants are low maintenance.  Without knowledge specific to heathers success is tenuous, with a little knowledge this is a very tough drought tolerant winner of a plant in my book.  It has year-round beauty, is great food for bees and it can be the evergreen plant that holds a summer garden together visually through the winter.

Calluna-vulgaris 'Firefly'  Photo from Great Plant Picks

Calluna Vulgaris ‘Firefly’ Photo from Great Plant Picks

Planting Tips:

Heathers need good drainage but if you have clay soil don’t despair.  Heathers planted on a slightly burmed planting bed or low mound do well.  Heathers are perfect for slopes. Watering well the first year is critical.  If heather plants dry out to the point of wilting, even just a little bit, they will die.  There is no rescuing it with water and having it “perk up” as many other plants will do.   When the tiny fine foliage wilts or dries the plant stops taking in water with its roots.  The best time to plant is fall.  A designer pal plants her heathers in pure barkdust.  I’ve done this and had excellent results as long as it was on a slope.  Don’t try this on a flat landscape.

Pruning Tips:

Pruning is important and easy.  The most important year for pruning is the second spring after you have planted the plant.  Prune before new growth starts.  You must trim to just above the previous years wood; trim too much and you will have ugly holes in your plants that may never fill in.  Avoid pruning late in fall or winter.

Calluna 'Varities'

Calluna Varities

Trim too little or not at all and you will have an okay plant for a few years and then it will be ugly with dead wood in the center of the plant.  When this happens we can’t simply cut it back severely which we can do with many plants to fix the problem.  Trimming every year before new growth starts (February or March for Pacific Northwest) will keep your plants attractive long term.

 

Heather at Harstine

Calluna Vulgaris ‘White Lawn’. Sedum ‘Xenox’ and Sedum ‘Voo Doo’ planted with the heather.

 

Summer heather/Calluna Vulgaris is a great plant for hot sun situations.  This summer for the first time ever, I actually had foliage burn.  They got no water for 45 days in record breaking heat, but since these plants have been there for five years, they are now coming back beautifully.