Making a Photo

– Posted in: Garden Design, Garden Photography

It is not just unfair to most of my fellow garden bloggers that I get to work in my garden on January 17, the real agony is that I write about it.  I hear of frigid temps out there beyond California.

The shrub border that runs along my driveway ends by my office with 6 wonderful California native Manzanita shrubs (Arctostaphyllos densiflora).  I want to keep them under 6 feet so plenty of light gets into my meadow garden beyond, and this was the first year I pruned them.


A properly pruned manzanita reveals the sinewy mahogany bark but in my shrub border the limbing up left a visual gap where my low lavender hedge ends.  The photographer in me decided to try adding some urns as focal points.  The professional photographer in me decided to make this a lesson in making a photo.  So I must clean up the scene:


Adding fresh mulch, sweeping, and wetting all surfaces is a time honored trick in garden photography.  I often carry a few bags of mulch to shoots just in case.  This is not really a case of the camera lying but rather the gardener sprucing things up.  Most of the time our gardens are not posing for photos but whenever you think they are ready it is a simple matter to rake and sweep before even beginning.  I find the time spent sweeping a garden before a shoot invaluable to studying angles and contemplating what the garden is truly about.

Now let’s make a photo.  I want to draw attention to the border and away from the empty space.


The height of the three urns make a nice compliment to the lavender hedge and give the border a more finished look.  Note to self:  I need to add some fresh decomposed granite to the path at the end of the driveway in front of the Weeping Katsura; and if I am going to leave that Meyer lemon in that spot I need to be repotted to match the urns.  Even now in January I am planning for photos later.  Hmmm, I wonder if I should plant those urns with something ?


These purple foliage Phormium ‘Berkeley Red’ might be just the thing to pick up the color of the manzanita bark.  And I have learned my lesson about Phormiums planted in the ground – they become immovable monsters.  Much more elegant in containers anyway.


Might look nice later in the summer.  Ya’ think?

But I am certainly not ready to plant the urns now.  One big reason I used these urns to begin with was to see them with the urn shaped flowers of the manzanita.


In a couple weeks they will be in full bloom, their spent blossoms littering the ground like snow.  I think I got to this little project done just in time.

Saxon Holt
Saxon Holt is the owner of, a garden picture resource for photographs, on-line workshops, and garden photography stories. An award winning photojournalist and Fellow of The Garden Writers Association with more than 25 garden books, he lives and gardens in Northern California. PhotoBotanic - Garden Photography online at
Saxon Holt

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Jeff January 18, 2009, 8:02 am

Thanks for the inspiration, Saxon. I have an Arbutus unedo ‘compacta’ which is a little too ‘compacta’ right now – I’ve been reticent to touch it, since it’s supposedly marginally hardy here in zone 7, but it’s been in place for almost ten years, and I think it could benefit from just the kind of pruning you did to open up your manzanitas.

Jeff – I have seen several ‘Unedo’s that look better from pruning. Prune from the main trunk, don’t shear. A wonderful compliment to them once they are limbed up and opened are grasses – Saxon

Lisa at Greenbow January 18, 2009, 9:26 am

Not fair! You are having too much fun in your garden while mine is frozen stiff. You have brought to mind that I could be planning on what to do first when the big thaw comes. I love to go around and fluff the mulch before someone comes to visit. It makes the garden look like it is so well tended. tee hee.

You have done quite well with your empty space. I am overwintering one of those purple foliage phormiums this winter. It is doing quite well considering my house’s low humidity,low light conditions.

Hey Lisa – I think I opened a can of worm when I fluffed my garden for the photo demonstration. I only worked on the area shown leaving 2/3 of the border looking crappy. Oh well, the weather is nice . . . I think I will spend the day in the garden . . . Oh? you say your garden is frozen ? (Sorry, not meant to rub it in. In fact, on one very important level, our weather is lousy – driest January on record. Scary.) – Saxon

Yvonne January 18, 2009, 2:40 pm

That’s a very attractive idea – those Phormiums in the containers. And ya know what: even though my garden is entirely snowed under right now, I’m not the least bit jealous. I need the winter months to recover from summer (I have 10 acres and lots of gardens). Plus I enjoy the snow-shoeing.

Hey Yvonne – As I just noted on Lisa’s comment, I wish our weather were not so “good” so that I would not even have the option of being in the garden. It should be raining in January and has not. In my part of Northern California we should have had 14 inches of our seasonal average (29) by now. So far only 6 inches of rain. – Saxon

Jean January 18, 2009, 3:33 pm

Yum, I love manzanitas. I think the phormiums look really nice. I’ve heard about how hard they are to move so you’re doing the right thing I think. I have a Cordyline australis ‘Red Star’ in a large pot and I love the red spiky accent it gives wherever I need it.

That really is scary about your weather. I know you should be having a dreary wet month right now but aren’t (my in-laws live in Stockton and have been complaining about the same thing). Good luck!

Jean – Thanks for wishes of rain. We hear maybe the end of the week that the pattern will change.
I too have ‘Red Star’ Cordyline in pots that are about six feet tall now. Love the firecracker foliage on a stick. – Saxon

Mary Beth January 18, 2009, 8:45 pm

I know how much my plants love mulch and now you tell me that my camera does too! Much of gardening is tidying up and arranging, isn’t it?

Mary Beth – The fresh mulch in the photo is actually quite a thin amount, as it is on top of a thick mat from last year. All it takes is a wee bit to freshen up the look for photos. – Saxon

Louis Raymond January 18, 2009, 11:37 pm

Hello Saxon: Oh my: gardening in January. I swoon over the enormous palette and year-round appeal of North California gardens. Palm trees AND beech trees. Fuchsias as foundation shrubs. Succulents clambering on pergolas. Sigh.

The flip side is that there’s never a break from beavering in the garden. Or perhaps your break is in the Summer, when it’s just a matter of watering and waiting it out?

Phormiums: for you, indeed, rooted as deep as (I hear) strelitzia. Transplanting either would be as impossible as lifting an old fargesia in Rhode Island. Gardening here in southern New England, hanging on to Zone 7 by fingernails, means that my phormiums and my strelitzia (Mandella’s Gold) are in tubs.

Looking forward to pix of your border in season.

Indeed, I do intend to expand on the photo lessons from my shrub border. Stay tuned as they say…

And you are quite perceptive saying summer is a break from gardening here. By late summer anyway, the earth begins to go dormant and plants begin to shut down. At least the natives. With a bit of watering it is easy, if exhausting, to keep on gardenin’. – Saxon

Cameron(Defining Your Home Garden) January 19, 2009, 9:13 am

I was distracted by your lavender hedge since I grow lavender, too!

I like the use of the pots. As if deer aren’t enough of a problem, the bunnies have learned where to find my garden, too. They fit under the cottage garden fence, so I’m thinking of planting some of flowers in pots tall enough to keep them out of the plants.


Cameron – I hope you saw my “Seeing a Photo” posting in December where the lavender hedge inspired another photo


Gail January 19, 2009, 10:05 am

A very good lesson…There is something lovely about fresh mulch. It looks tidy and neat. Love the pots and repeating them in the garden makes sense to me. (list: more containers in garden). My garden could use the vertical accent that a nicely placed container can bring. gail

Gail – Getting the vertical, repeating accents into the garden is precisely the reason I began my work in the garden the other day, a minor item once the manzanitas were pruned. It became a photographer’s blog posting when I realized it needed to be “cleaned up”. There was already mulch in place. Perhaps I should have titled the post “filling the void” or “urn accents” but it was hard to resist making it “better” once I began to look at the scene. The mind might have seen it lovely with just the urns in place, the photographer can’t trick the mind without the mulch. – Saxon

Stefe January 24, 2009, 8:32 am

I would love to see more about your “shrub border.” I am looking to do the same since I need to “fence” off the neighbors on one side and create privacy from our neighbors on the other side. Our property is LLLLongggg, so this is a large project that needs to get moving. Luckily, I have a winter so that I may plan and rest from all the work in the other 3 seasons! Thanks for sharing the photos!

Stefe – I will certainly be posting more photos and already have cleaned up and mulched the rest of what you did not see in my posting. Winter is great time to visualize your project since you can plan out what parts of the neighbor’s landscape you may want to incorporate, or not, into your own border. Remember no matter what your plant choices, even the evergreen ones will need occasional pruning.


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