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Modern NW Natural Landscape Design

Modern Low Maintenance Landscape Design

After shot of modern Portland area backyard landscape design.

Freshly installed Landscape Design in a Day. Emily says, “Carol got my desire for simplicity and my style both with the plant material and the hardscapes.”

My new client Emily contacted me with two problems.  One – she needed a landscape design for her new home that would be pleasing and fit her space and her style.  She wanted to enjoy being outdoors in her small backyard in the summer.  She knew she didn’t want lawn and she wanted entertaining space.  She had a small terrace outside the kitchen door which is certainly big enough for a cuppa coffee, but it didn’t feel naturalistic and certainly wasn’t big enough to entertain.

Two – no matter what sort of landscape design we did she would need regular landscape maintenance.  In addition to finishing school, she spends a significant amount of time in France with family.  Lots of people say they need low maintenance.  Emily really needed low maintenance and a professional gardener who would not trim her Japanese maples into lollypops in her absence.

Previous landscaping was overrun with weeds before Landscape Design in a Day added a modern touch.

Spring of 2016 Emily’s new landscape was overrun with weeds.

When she called me late spring of 2016 her landscape was completely overrun with weeds, and her plants (recently planted fall of 2015) were struggling.   Emily is an affectionado of minimalist design. Her ultra modern Westmoreland home is designed for renting out the bottom floor and she has a tenant. Emily loves ferns and Japanese maples. She prefers green leaves to the overly colorful variegated designer plants. She loves a woodsy naturalistic style for her plantings but wanted a minimalist modern style for any hardscaping.

Tough Environment for plants – Dry Shade

Three huge maple trees in neighboring landscapes created deep to dappled shade.  In summer they took all the water and in winter they buried the landscape in pounds of wet mucky leaves.   Fall clean up with Oregon Bigleaf maple starts in December.  It is not the romantic vision of a person wearing a light sweater whistling and raking up dry pretty leaves. You’re wearing rain gear and using a shovel lifting up pounds and pounds of wet muck.   Many plants would simply rot and die.  I would need to carefully select plants that can survive being buried by such a deluge of leaves. This was a tough environment for plantings.

Dziedzic acer-japonicum-aconitifolium Japanese maple chosen for modern landscape design in Portland.

Emily loves Japanese maples. We selected Acer Aconitifolium ‘Full Moon’ Japanese maple for her shaded backyard.

Design Decisions

On our design day we focused on the backyard. She had one window on the second floor (the kitchen window) and I selected a special Japanese maple, two king-size ferns and some small evergreen shrubs to see in winter. The Japanese maple has both a hot spring leaf color and strong red fall color.  It was a lovely if obvious choice.   Her downstairs tenant had an egress window so I kept the plantings low to keep all the available light.

Privacy Plantings

To create privacy between properties we used three small evergreen trees with tiny leaves to contrast with the Oregon Bigleaf maple.  The rest of the plants were selected for summer interest because they would not be seen in the winter from the house.

Materials create the style

Modern landscape design using pavers.

Brian of D & J Landscape Contractors placing HydraPressed concrete slabs for woodland modern garden.

When I am designing a modern landscape, materials are everything.  The new modern landscape design, which is actually not all that new anymore, can become a cliché of itself.  Straight line paths without proportional balance look uninviting and cold. We used a warm gray HydraPressed concrete slab that is the epitome of modern style and will last forever if properly installed. We created two patio spaces and connected them with wide paths.  It looks like one space with plants flowing in between. This is a lot of hardscape for a backyard so you might think it would look harsh. Plantings will cover every square inch of soil and create such a lush and full complement so that the patios are fully integrated visually.  It’s a balancing act between hardscape and planted space.  Another help toward a serene and simple look is the lack of lawn.  Lawn, patio and plantings in such a narrow landscape wood tend to create a busy feeling and of course lawn would not thrive in such a shaded woodsy environment.

100 shades of green

It was important to honor Emily’s love of green leafed plants but in order to achieve the lushness needed to integrate the design, I had to find a way to provide a variety of textures (leaf shape, sheen, shade of green, habit of plant branches, etc.).   My ideal for Emily’s garden is that you could take a picture of it with black-and-white film and it would still look incredibly beautiful because of the contrasting textures and varying shades of green.

Japanese maple was used in modern landscape design.

Japanese maple – Acer Palmatum ‘Shindeshojo’

Because Emily loves Japanese maples she will have a succession of seasonal color changes to entertain her from spring to fall. The plantings we used are fairly low water once mature but it would be difficult to establish the plantings without irrigation because the huge Oregon Bigleaf maples roots will steal water from the new plants. With Emily’s school schedule and traveling, an irrigation system was necessary for long-term success.  No one wants to saddle their tenant with the job of hand watering the landscape.

Emily’s comments

Using existing maple tree in modern landscape design.

August of 2016 was too hot to transplant Emily’s favorite maple. The contractor and I redesigned the hardscape layout so we could leave her existing maple undisturbed.

Emily is very happy with the design “I absolutely love the garden and am so excited about it.  It’s wonderful.”

Diversity of Dogwoods Part II

Portland Landscape Designer Appreciates Diversity of Dogwood Trees

Overlook neighborhood has Dogwood 'June Snow' in parking strip - close up of flower.

We recommend this 30′ wide tree for back yard or front yards not parking strips but here it is doing well in a parking strip in Overlook neighborhood of North Portland.

The diversity of dogwoods is well illustrated by these two trees:  Cornus Kousa ‘Summer Gold’ and Cornus Controversa ‘June Snow’.

'Summer Gold' Dogwood in Flower

Bright cream flowers are backed by colorful leaf variegation of ‘Summer Gold’ dogwood. Photo courtesy of Heritage Seedlings

Colorful Summer Privacy Tree for Small Properties – Korean Dogwood ‘Summer Gold’

I love ‘Summer Gold’ partially because it’s so different from other dogwoods.   ‘Summer Gold’ has narrow bright green and gold leaves and an upright narrow shape.  The shape fits into urban settings much better than a round headed typical dogwood.  The foliage will be a delight from spring into fall and this tree is a narrow vase shape perfect to put between your patio and the neighbors to achieve attractive  privacy.

Traditional dogwoods (Cornus Florida and Cornus Kousa) have a wide oval solid green leaf and a  20′ or more wide round canopy.   ‘Summer Gold’ was created by local Crispin Silva who is a delight.  His curiosity and enthusiasm about plants has inspired many people in Portland including me. People here refer to his plants as “Crispin’s Creations”.

Elegant Branch Structure Cornus Controversa ‘June Snow’ Perfect Light Shade Tree

Overlook neighborhood has Dogwood 'June Snow' in parking strip - close up of flower.

The flowers of ‘June Snow’ giant dogwood float above the graceful branches in Overlook neighborhood.

‘June Snow’ can be the single tree in your  small city backyard because she has it all, grace, fall color, and an amazing floral display.

‘June Snow’ Dogwood matures at 30′ tall and spreads to 40′ wide. She has an arching shape and while bigger than typical dogwoods She has the most graceful silhouette even in winter.  I use her to create light shade for medium to medium small landscapes.  Too big for your typical row house back yard that is only 20′ wide, with another ten feet she can be the single beloved tree.  She was introduced by J. Frank Schmidt Company also near Portland, Oregon.

Her branch structure is incredibly graceful and open and for a shade tree she is typically limbed up so it is easy to walk and play under this tree.

Cornus 'June Snow' fall color in NW Portland

The fall color of ‘June Snow’ dogwood at Portland’s Legacy-Emanuel Hospital in The Children’s Garden.

When she flowers in June these flat topped clusters (which often exceed 6 inches) seem to float above the foliage.  The fall color on ‘June Snow’ can compete with any dogwood. The color show starts with orange yellows and moves into intense purple red and purple as fall deepens.  The fruit that develops from the flower clusters are quite tiny and not messy.  The local birds will eat them.

Studying trees is what Portland landscape designers do so we can bring you the best choices.  Ok and we are geeky about plants.   Read more about dogwood trees….. Diversity of Dogwoods Part 1

Cornus Controversa 'June Snow' as a border tree in NW Portland

More beautiful branch structure of ‘June Snow’ Dogwood. This tree used for a border keeps its’ lower branches. (ANLD Garden Tour)

 

 

 

 

Diversity of Dogwoods Part I

Cornus Kousa 'Satomi' at Joy Creek Nursery.

Cornus Kousa ‘Satomi‘ at Joy Creek Nursery.

Diversity of Dogwoods – Part I

Dogwoods are a very large family.  There are twiggy shrub dogwoods whose hot colored stems light up the winter landscape.  There is a dogwood who blooms in March with yellow flowers and makes an edible fruit.  There are semi evergreen dogwoods we are experimenting with here in Portland.  This is the kind of knowledge homeowners need their designers to be up to date on.  When a client asks me for a dogwood I know its the visual and emotional impact of the flowers they are thinking of.  Designers think through the details to find the right variety for the clients size of yard and environment so our clients don’t have to.  Landscapes come in all different sizes and environments and now so do Dogwoods.

Plant designers have been busy improving our old-fashioned dogwood tree into a garden designers dream tree. Our old dogwood varieties have problems that plant designers have been working on for 40 years.

Cornus-Kousa 'Satomi' Intense pink flowers. Photo by Randall C. Smith, courtesy of Great Plant Picks

Cornus Kousa ‘Satomi’  Intense pink flowers.  New on the scene, ‘Little Ruby’  is a deeper pink. Photo by Randall C. Smith, courtesy of Great Plant Picks

They are improving drought tolerance, disease resistance (okay not sexy but important!)  and cold hardiness.  They’ve created new shapes that fit better into the urban environment.

What is sexy or desirable are the improvements made to the flowers.  Let’s admit it, where dogwoods are concerned,  we want even pinker flowers.   Everyone wants more color than nature supplies on her own. There are darker shades of more intense pink red.

Cornus Kousa 'Venus' has large dogwood flowers

Cornus Kousa ‘Venus’ has large white flowers which are 6 to 7 inches across.

Spring Flowers

Varieties such as ‘Little Ruby’  showcase the new strong colors.   ‘Little Ruby’ is wider than tall.  She is  plump and round headed and can be used in the landscape as a shrub or small tree.

Another new variety is called ‘Starlight’.  This cross is from our own native Pacific Northwest Dogwood;  the shape is upright and more narrow.  It works for your small yard or as a street tree. There’s a beautiful ‘Starlight’ in the courtyard of the Edith Green federal building in downtown Portland as an example of a tree perfect for urban life.

Cornus Kousa 'Starlight' dogwood

‘Starlight’ dogwood is a cross from our Pacific Northwest native dogwood. The narrow shape is perfect for urban life. Picture from Pat Breen Oregon State University.

 

‘Venus’ features ginormus white flowers which are 6″-7″ across.  Like ‘Starlight’ they produce little to no  fruit unlike the many Korean dogwoods hybridized and sold in the last 15 years.  In fact even Friends of Trees offer messy Korean dogwoods.  I confess I make a TSKK TSKK when I see the huge mess they make on the sidewalks. In the fall they drop a large raspberry colored fruit.  Friends of Trees is a fabulous organization and many clients have been happy to purchase an inexpensive tree and learn how to care for their tree.  I would use the fruitless varieties near walkways and for small yards and save the old fashioned fruiting types for large properties.

‘Hedgerow’s Gold’ brightening up a shady area with Japanese Forest Grass as a ground cover to nicely echo the color.

Bright Summer Foliage

‘Hedgerows Gold’ grown for its gorgeous variegated foliage. This is a very easy shrub to grow, once it is established it can take some benign neglect. Grow it for the foliage first, but the fun fall color and exciting winter twigs makes it a four season plant.

Fall Color

Yellow Fall Color on this Dogwood looks especially bright with the evergreen background.

Many Dogwoods also sport great fall color. The fall color is primarily in sunset shades, reds and yellows, and looks especially fantastic with an evergreen backdrop. On some varieties the color of the leaves turning is only enhanced by the unique twig colors – clear yellow leaves with bright red stems. Beautiful!

Photo courtesy of Pat Breen Oregon State University

Winter Twigs

Some types of dogwoods are known primarily for their winter twig color – most often called Red Twig Dogwoods or Yellow Twig Dogwoods. ‘Midwinter Fire’ is a popular cultivar, but there are a wide variety to choose from.

Deep Shade Plants Tried and True

Deep Shade Plants Tried and True

Garden Design Northwest Portland Fatsia Japonica, 'Spiders Web'

Large leaves of Fatsia Japonica capture the available sunlight efficiently.

How to Select Plants for Shade

Let’s look at a handful of plants.  Most of these plants can take a little sun but my point is, they  can thrive in deep shade which is a difficult  area for many homeowners to select plants for.

Selecting Shade Plants

Tip:  Think about it…big leaves are like big hands. The more surface area the more light the plants can access. Having said that……this is a perfect example of the rule about how there are no steadfast rules. Our native huckleberry, Vaccinium Ovatum has tiny but highly reflective leaves, (such a rule breaker!) and yet it grows very well in a lot of shade.  Sigh…plants are tricky.

Tip:  If you have the luxury of planting your mostly shade tolerant plants where they get good dapples of sun of even morning sun they will often tolerant the shade deepening over the years.  If your shade is very dark now there are some plants that will eventually thrive but they may take many years to fatten up and fill in.  Add one or two very active dogs to this mix and these plants will not survive long enough to do you proud.

Small Trees for Shade

Plant this beautiful Snake Bark Maple under your fir trees….Acer Tegmentosum “Joe Witt”  Manchurian Snake Bark Maple

I have great success with a small tiny leafed evergreen tree called Azara microphylla in deep shade and also partial shade under big fir trees. I saw a tree at an abandoned property in Raleigh Hills where it was providing privacy between neighbors.  It had not been irrigated in at least 3 years and was competing with a Douglas fir tree as it was planted about 8′ off the large trunked tree.  I’ve been a fan every since and use this small tree large shrub in my city landscapes in N. Portland and N.E. Portland often because it provides privacy but doesn’t get too big.  My lousy photo does show the general shape so you can see what a great screen tree it could be.

Shrubs for Shade

Fatsia Japonica  (also called Japanese Aralia)  This is beautiful planted as under story to larger trees. It is also my 3 Labrador dog yard plant so very tough and can take a fair amount of morning sun.   It can grow to be a 15′ tall tree although it is rare to see it this way.  It is easy to prune so can be kept as an evergreen shrubs 3 to 6′ tall or can tolerate deep shade, morning sun or even afternoon dapples of strong light.  Tip:  Some shade plants can take quite a bit of sun.  Many will tip burn the first year or two but go on to tolerate a lot more sun than you might think.  Careful watering will make the difference between a guess and a plan.

Aucuba, also called Cast Iron Plant is typically used in deep shade.  It has toxic berries so is not a favorite for back yards with dogs although I have seen many old plants grow into small trees and no ones dog has ever bothered to eat the berries.  Still who wants to take a chance with their little bundle of joy and I do not trust Labradors among other breeds who seem to think everything should go in their mouth.

Native Plants for Shrubbery

Mahonia Nervosa and Vaccinium Ovatum are both shrubs native to the Northwest.  The Mahonia, (also called Oregon Grape) a favorite of hummingbirds, can get a little ratty looking at the end of winter, wait until the hummingbirds have gotten their fill of the flowers and then cut the plant back to about 12″ tall every year.  There won’t be berries for birds if you do this but you can keep the plant front yard attractive.  You won’t get a lot of flowers in deep shade.  I like growing this plant in enough sun to increase flowering for both pollinators and food for birds via the berries.  http://www.greatplantpicks.org/plantlists/view/980

Shade Plant Huckleberry in NW Portland garden with red cushioned stump chairsOur evergreen native Vaccinium, a huckleberry plant will be more shade tolerant if you buy it from Boskey Dell Natives and ask for one that was dug out of deep shade.  I have  self seeded native huckleberry at my home on the Puget Sound in a lot of sun. The truth is the offspring of my plant (little rule breakers) will prefer a sunnier location than if planted in full shade. This is all about natural selection and where your plants seed came from.  When I put it on my plant list I don’t require it come from a shade area and it has worked out quite well for my gardens.  Please note you won’t get much fruit growing this evergreen in deep shade.  My photo is from a tour of the home of Joy Creek Co founder Maurice Horn and his family.  He used the huckleberry shrub as a back drop for a casual sitting area.

Here is a highly textural native fern called Adiantum Aleuticum, Northern Maidenhair Fern. This one has previously escaped my radar. I use a lot of different ferns so nice to have another native one to use.

Ground Cover Plants for Shade

Evergreen plants for shade  – Perennials and Groundcovers

These first two are a little more unusual (unless you are a total plant nerd).  Beesia Deltophylla, I first met this plant at the famous Heronswood Garden in Kingston, Washington. It is slow to bulk up but is such a low maintenance plant. It would be great to have more access to this plant. When I first wrote this blog in 2012 it was hard to find but now I see it regularly at many retail garden stores. It won’t flower well in deep shade but the glossy leaves reflect light and are a huge asset in a deep shade setting.  It will flower in dappled shade and rather nicely.

Begonia grandis flowering in September

Selecting Shade Plants Begonia grandis is very attractive

Begonia Grandis leaves in late spring

Begonia grandis – ok this won’t survive the big rowdy dogs but wow it is a cold hardy evergreen perennial with fabulous leaves.  The flowers are also attractive.  I’m very fond of this plant and have it coming back every year in many gardens.  It rooted into a log just under my floating home and lived for several years until a certain someone thought it was a weed and yanked it.

Geranium macrorrhizum is a groundcover shade plant that may take a while to bulk up in deep shade but it will get there.  The strong smell of cedar in the leaves tends to keep rowdy dogs out of it so the survival rate is strong but it is not a thug and will slowly clump to cover a lot of soil.  It is semi evergreen so you will have some leaves in the winter too.

Shade plant in Irvington neighborhood handles shade and big tree roots too.The best fern for deep shade is our native Sword fern, Polystichum munitum but another option for shade is this non native often called Shield fern.  It will take a lot longer to establish than our good old Sword.   Sword fern can also handle a lot of doggie rowdiness , (even in shade)  if you start with a nice big plant.  I’m feeling unfair to other ferns because I always talk about Sword Fern and how fabulous it is.

We would love to help you with your shady landscape.  Contact us if you are ready for help with your difficult shady and probably muddy back yard.