GGW Design Lines: Big And Bold

– Posted in: Garden Design

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Structure, to me, is all important in garden making. Without it, a garden usually looks wimpy, mushy, and kind of inconsequential. There are exceptions, of course, but I’m just saying. Anyhow, I like using manufactured items from time to time, but feel as if the basic bones of a garden should come from its plants. So I work leaf by leaf, and build my garden vignettes by assembling dramatic juxtapositions of foliage. With color I’m conservative, often creating monochromatic yet kaliedoscopic effects by exploring all the subtleties and variations of a single color in a given space. But with leaves, I go all out.

banana shapes-1No pairing is too wild or outre for me, which I guess is what lead me inevitably to using big bold leaves that either are tropical or look as if they should be.  How could I resist placing this banana amid all these other intriguing but way more delicate looking shapes and textures? The design challenge, for me, stems from gardening in the sun. In this part of the world it’s hard to find great perennials or shrubs with big, splashy foliage. Oh there are a multitude of shapes and textures, but not of size. And I want those dramatic size variations working to help carry a few spots right over the top. To do that, I rely on tropicals, tender perennials, and a few true annuals.

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Sept 22.09 250There are all kinds of ways to use them. Some go in a prominent spot and serve as focal points. I like the way this cordyline looks like a burgundy burst of fireworks against the hydrangea and its friends. Others, like the cannas,  I tuck at various intervals into a border, to add a sense of repetition and tie the garden together. The big bold shapes attract attention, couple exceedingly well, I think, with more common perennials, and best of all help make a garden that gets better and better as the season progresses, rather than one that goes steadily downhill after the splendor of spring and early summer.

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My epicenter of garden fun is my patio where each year I stage a free-for-all, and just cluster loads of pots stuffed with any leaf that looks cool, then arrange them to create pleasing pairings, triads, or whatever strikes my fancy. I mkake color echoes, group leaves of sime ilar shape but wildly different size, or just go for contrast to the max. Since they are in pots, I can rearrange to my heart’s content, and eventually I get it looking the way I want. I always throw a few flowers into the mix, but really it’s the leaves that carry the day. Playing with pots on my patio has taught me a lot about making combinations, and I’ve used those lessons to enhance beds and borders no matter what kinds of plants may be in the ground.

Sept 22.09 223My infatuation with big and bold began innocently enough more than a decade ago, when on a whim I purchased a canna. Several, in fact. We plonked them into our mixed border and were wowed from the get-go.  I never looked back and today have loads of cannas, castor beans, bananas, elephant ears, brugmansias… the list goes on and on. And I never tire of the sheer exuberance they bring to the garden. Now I reseve special areas for my favorites, and when they get yanked in fall, tulips or other bulbs go in the hole my tender treasures left behind. And so begins a new year. By the way, these big leaves, like those of the elephant ears, make stellar backgrounds against which you can display more finely wrought plants.

More prosaically, big bold leafy lunks can be put to work filling in the future home of a small, just-planted perennial or shrub while you wait for it to fill out; it can go in where a plant went dormant for summer ( I often plop big bold guys in pots directly into the border atop a dormant bleeding heart or over a peony–which I often cut down in late July -by then their foliage is usually atrocious anyway). There’s only one danger in doiung so–that you’ll realize maybe you shouldn’t bother with plants whose fleeting beauty is limited to a small fraction of the garden season.

Steve Silk

Steve Silk

Steve Silk

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Joseph Tychonievich October 23, 2009, 8:28 am

I love big and bold too, and your images are gorgeous, but I have to disagree with your final sentence — of COURSE we should bother with plants with fleeting beauty. Old fashioned, fleetingly beautiful plants (peony, iris, etc) seem to be becoming unpopular, but I think the very fact that their beauty is brief makes them all the more lovely. And who wants a garden what looks the same all year? Change over the seasons keeps a garden dynamic and alive.

Couldn’t agree with you more about change unfolding over the course of a season in the garden. And I have my share of relatively ephemeral contributors to the overall garden, but they have, for the most part, become background players. I just don’t pay as much attention to nurturing and encouraging them as I once did.–Steve

Cameron(Defining Your Home Garden) October 23, 2009, 9:03 am

Your big and bold vignettes are beautiful and I am envious!

With scorching all day full summer sun, deer, rabbits and humidity, my garden suffers from small-leaf syndrome! I am starting to create pockets where I can keep the soil moist enough for tropicals and am growing a few canna, ginger, brugmansia and colocasia. What I’d give to grow hydrangeas! (My garden is 4 years old so it needs to mature.)

Great photos and advice!

Thanks Cameron! whats the problem with hydrangeas? I’d think you’d have a breeze growing them. Their big leaves and moundy shapes are good, even without flowers if you ask me.-Steve

our friend Ben October 23, 2009, 12:37 pm

Gee, Steve, how did I know this post would be from you?! Great photos, and I’m with you all the way. One bold plant (or, say, three) can anchor a world of smaller stuff only we plant fanatics would ever notice, making our gardens more accessible to our friends and families…

I never thought of it that way Elly, but you’re right-it kind of makes two gardens -one of bold swaths rewarded by a quick, kind of transitory look and, surrounding it, another more detailed world awaits those who care to explore it. Maybe gardens can have something for everyone.–Steve

Debra Lee Baldwin October 23, 2009, 3:15 pm

Hi, Steve — My SoCA garden had so much fine-textured foliage, it just looked like a salad (through the camera lens) until someone gave me pups of Agave americana ‘Marginata’. I used them as focal points for vignettes, and now my garden has large living sculptures that repeat throughout. They’re spiky, but so lovely. I agree: Go for the bold!

Oh yeah. Debra Lee–I love those agaves too, and its a real effort to grow those things in my part of th eworld, But, I perservere since they are such fabulous focal points.

BTW-I LOVED your wabi-sabi post. Just great!

Mr. McGregor's Daughter October 24, 2009, 11:38 am

You don’t need coffee to wake up if you breakfast on your patio. That’s a fantastic arrangement of textures and colors.
I’m not a big fan of tropicals because I don’t have the space to get them through the winter, so I’ll have to remember to get some Castorbeans for next year to avoid little-leaf syndrome.

Oh, I still drink the coffee, MMD. Guess it adds some extra sizzle to the scene, or at least to my appreciation of it. have fun with the castor beans! S

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