Brown’s Not So Bad

– Posted in: Garden Design

Windowbox in brown Feb 3 08

Text and photographs ©Nancy J. Ondra 2008

Wreath with robin’s nest April 05The point of this month’s Garden Blogger’s Design Workshop is to indulge in some sumptuous color at a time when many of us don’t have much to celebrate in our outdoor gardens. But when you consider that browns are such a big part of our surroudings for a good four to five months every year, it’s easy to see that being able to find beauty in brown can be an invaluable coping technique. Without the distraction of “ooh, pretty colors!”, it’s much easier to notice more subtle details, such as contrasting forms and textures. Enjoying winter browns also provides an excellent excuse for holding off on garden cleanup. For instance, I was pleasantly surprised to see how well the blooms of ‘Profusion Cherry’ zinnia held up post-frost, long after they lost their rich pinkness.

Zinnia Cherry Profusion after frost Oct 22 06

Quercus dentata with Panicum ‘Dallas Blues’ and Rudbeckia fulgida Feb 3 08The lingering stalks of warm-season ornamental grasses and perennial seedheads are a great place to start when trying to embrace winter brownness. At left is one of my favorite vignettes all year long. The fence and bluebird box provide permanent structure, while the Rudbeckia fulgida var. fulgida in the front adds rich green foliage, bright blooms, and long-lasting seedheads as the seasons change. In the middle is ‘Dallas Blues’ switch grass (Panicum virgatum), which is a beauty in leaf, in bloom, and in skeletal form as well. At the back is Japanese emperor oak (Quercus dentata), which holds its dried leaves well into spring. That used to annoy me, and I’d pick them off individually. But now, the tree is way too big for that to be practical, so I gradually learned to tolerate them, and now I’m *almost* sorry to see them go when the tree decides to sprout anew.

Around the corner from the oak is another lesson in my self-study course of Brown Appreciation. It was my first attempt in creating a border based on contasting plant and flower forms, rather than on color, and the summer and fall effect exceeded my expectations. Its beauty in winter, though, which I hadn’t even thought about at planning time, was an absolute revelation. Granted, on clear, bright winter days, it looks very much like a bunch of crispy, dead stalks. But in the softer light of misty mornings and dreary afternoons, the range of bleach-blonds to tans to coppers and near-blacks makes an almost eerie echo of the summer lushness.

TDF border 3 late November 06

TDF border morning late Nov 06 

Once you start appreciating the subtle beauties of browns, it’s a short step to tolerating them, if not positively enjoying them, during the growing season too. A while back, I wrote Brown-y Points, about some of my favorite brown-leaved plants, but I’ll mention them here again, because I think they’re neat. Below left, the rich brown of Haloragis erecta ‘Wellington Bronze’ with paler Carex buchananii; below right, ‘Sweet Caroline Bronze’ sweet potato vine (Ipomoea batatas) with Carex ‘Toffee Twist’ and the tan seedheads of ‘Gold Mound’ spirea. See, when you use brown foliage in a combination, you can claim it as a color echo for the dead bits of its partners, so it actually reduces garden maintenance chores. (Yeah, right, Nan.)

Haloragis ‘Wellington Bronze’ with Carex buchananii Sept 9 05Ipomoea ‘Sweet Caroline Bronze’ with Carex ‘Toffee Twist’ Echinacea Spiraea mid August 05

The newer heucheras also offer some out-of-the-ordinary colors, several of which can fall into the brown category. A lot depends on the amount of light they get, and the time of year, of course, but many of these have some pinkish tones too. Brown and blue definitely isn’t a combination I’d create on purpose, but – in this instance, anyway – there was enough pink in both Heuchera villosa ‘Caramel’ and Geranium Rozanne to create an interesting pairing.

Heuchera villosa ‘Caramel’ with Geranium Rozanne late July 05

Still not sure how you feel about summer browns? Consider trying a few in a pot first. That way, you can move them around to experiment with different combinations or hide them if non-gardening company is coming. (Why do you have that pot of dead plants sitting there, anyway?) Or, consider a self-propelled color swatch. I tried this one, though I must admit that it wasn’t a particularly helpful design tool, because it looked lovely with pretty much anything, anywhere, anytime.

Gwennie Sept 19 06

Nancy J. Ondra
Nan gardens on 4 acres in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. In the firm belief that every garden ought to have a pretentious-sounding (or at least pretentious-looking) name, she refers to her home grounds as "Hayefield." There, she experiments with a wide variety of plants and planting styles, from cottage gardens and color-based borders to managed meadows, naturalistic plantings, and veggies--all under the watchful eyes of her two pet alpacas, Daniel and Duncan.
Nancy J. Ondra

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15 comments… add one

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Elly Phillips February 16, 2008, 7:25 am

Another classic post! I, too, had a nest in the grapevine wreath on the front of the house for years, and delighted in it the whole time. Maybe somebody will build another one some year! And that shot of your border is spectacular. As for little Gwennie: awwww….

Thanks, Elly! Yes, it was fun watching the robin raise her family in the wreath. And yeah, aww for my dearly missed little color swatch. I don’t think the new ones will be any more useful, design wise. With alpacas coming in so many different colors, you’d think I’d have ended up with something more exciting than two grays.

carolyn February 16, 2008, 8:17 am

Great post. What a beautiful Sheltie you have as well.

Thanks, Carolyn. She was a cutie.

Frances February 16, 2008, 9:40 am

Your last photo was the sweetest face ever. I love your brown border, Oudolf would no doubt approve. About the oak leaves that hang on, like everything in life it is a matter of perception.
Frances at Faire Garden

You’ve paid me the ultimate compliment, Frances. His books were my inspiration!

wiseacre February 16, 2008, 10:24 am

I’m looking at the garden in terms of brown and white. Right now only a few plants that the deer dislike are showing above the snow. It’s a bleak but beautiful image.

Yes, bleak is a good word. Then the white will disappear, and everything will be mud-brown, which is even less exciting. But then we’ll have green to look forward to.

jodi February 16, 2008, 10:50 am

Shades of Piet Oudolf! Excellent post, Nan; I’ve been thinking a lot about browns since November, and I’m with you to a point, for sure. So much depends on how things stand up to the elements. Your ‘brown border’ is fantastic, but up here on my windy rude hill, things get buffeted by both weather and the wind, and tend to break down over time. That said, because of your books (yup, loving Fallscaping!) and my reading of Oudolf, I’ve been prompted to go out and study parts of the garden, when I can FIND them, and see what IS standing up well against winter; I’ll add more of those plants to beds come spring, because it’s really soothing to look out and see the swatches of monarda, or of asclepias, standing up proudly despite the weather onslaught-du-jour.

Yeah, kinda hard *not* to think about brown. You’ll notice I didn’t get overly enthusiastic about it, but in our climates, we have to learn to live with it for much of the year, and if we can find some beauty in it, all the better. Many of the stalks and seedheads look pretty pathetic now, but maybe it would be interesting for some of us to photograph what we have left in the next week or two and compare notes.

Robin February 16, 2008, 11:50 am

Nan, you make an excellent case for browns in the garden with your lovely photos! Beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder, isn’t it? You prove a valuable lesson too, that those who look for beauty usually find it.
You also prove that those who clean up the garden in the fall not only rob the animals of vital shelter and food, but they rob themselves or winter interest and beauty. Can you tell, I loved this post?!

As a bird lover, you’d know even better than I how important the seeds and shelter are for winter birds. I have trouble spotting the birds in my garden, but I know they’re there from the many little rustling noises they make as they’re rummaging through the remnants of last year’s perennials and grasses. So putting off garden cleanup is not simply laziness – I’m doing my part to protect the environment. Hmmm…I’ll have to try that line on the next person who asks me when I’m going to “clean up the mess.”

Lisa at Greenbow February 16, 2008, 2:03 pm

Your brown borders do look lovely especially in the fog. Very other-worldly. I am afraid that all I could think of when I looked at it was “who is gonna clean up that border this spring”. Whew such a huge expanse. I have such a small area to take care of I would feel daunted if I had the area you have. Perfectly lovely though.

I’d have exactly the same reservations, Lisa, except for my secret weapon: my DR Field and Brush Mower. Same thing I use to mow the meadow. It cuts everything to 4 inches and chops it up into rough mulch. I’d guess it’ll take me 10 minutes max to raze that entire border, with no additional cleanup involved. I still do lots of detailed cleanup in my mixed borders, but these all-perennial plantings are so much simpler to maintain that I’m creating many more of them.

Pam/Digging February 17, 2008, 1:20 am

Delightful photos, every one! Great post. It actually made me hungry for some Hershey’s Kisses we had lying around. Mmmm.

Thanks, Pam. These browns, though, are mostly of the “milk chocolate of dubious quality” sort. For the really good stuff, I recommend Jodi’s post on Chocolate (Plants) for Valentine’s Day.

Layanee February 17, 2008, 4:29 pm

I do like browns in the garden. They are so warm and reassuring but now, give me some color! Thank goodness the spring flower shows are upon us!

Too right, Layanee. I hope you’re planning to post lots of pictures from the shows you attend!

Anna--Flowergardengirl February 18, 2008, 2:11 am

Loved the pics!!! I too love this time of year cause it makes me long for Spring. My browns tend to lend themselves to silvery sages. I guess that’s cause all the Artemesia kinda stays grey. I loved the blending of your browns in the pic you were trying to create that winter garden bliss. You did an excellent job capturing lots of interest. Thank you for a beautiful post.

Hi Anna! Silvery plants don’t much like my wet soil, so I don’t think I have any silver and brown combinations, but I can imagine they would be very striking. Hmmm…maybe I can do something with lamb’s ears, which seem to grow just about anywhere. Thanks for the idea!

Dave February 18, 2008, 11:07 pm

The brown mist pictures are excellent! What really makes those pictures work is the variety of browns in your plants. The different textures and shapes of the plantings give you some good contrasts.

Thanks, Dave. I’ve found that days that look very dreary from indoors are sometimes the best for capturing good garden photos – an excellent reason to get outside and wander around, if one actually needs a reason to do so!

kate February 19, 2008, 1:36 pm

There are so many wonderful shades of brown too … that’s what I like. Rust browns, orange browns, red browns …

I am glad for the various brown colours sticking up from the white of our landscape.

I see you’re an optimist too, Kate. When brown and white are all you have to look at, you make the best of it!

Mr. McGregor's Daughter February 21, 2008, 3:30 pm

Sorry, I just can’t like brown. Which is ironic as a married a Brown. The dog is cute though & I’m a sucker for those big, brown puppy eyes.

How lucky that you were able to get away for some Florida lushness, then! Thanks for the kind words about Gwennie; I was a sucker for her too.

Curtis February 23, 2008, 9:36 am

Another great post.

I like a lot of browns just not the brown of my lawn in the winter. I have said it before but winter is ok because I don’t have to mow. But the ugly brown of the lawn makes me wish I had something to mow now.

You’re so right, Curtis! I hate mowing, but right now it almost sounds good. Certainly better than shoveling snow!

Annie in Austin February 27, 2008, 11:27 am

Your misty brown border photos are quite lovely, Nan, and in Illinois my deciduous borders with grasses, shrubs and perennials mixed together had a similar brown beauty.

But it doesn’t seem to work in the same way down here…there are so many broadleaved evergreens, for one thing – with some of them busily adding fresh new lighter green leaves over the winter months.

Instead of misty light, the winter sun shines intensely through the bare branches of tall deciduous trees, turning the old plants straw color, rather than brown, making me want to clean them up instead of celebrating them.

But a brown robin? Sure hope I get to see one or two of them this spring!

Annie at the Transplantable Rose

I appreciate you sharing your viewpoint, Annie. I have very little experience with broadleaved evergreens – they don’t like my windy, exposed site – but from your description, I can imagine that their fresh growth would indeed make an odd contrast to dead, bleached browns.

I’m very ready to see robins too! I think it’ll be a little while, though. We’re not even going to get above freezing tomorrow!

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