Archive for the ‘planting’ Category

I love the internet, I really do.  Seriously, I rely on it for all sorts of things.  None of this is new information for you, savvy reader, but here’s something that drives me absolutely bananas (you know it’s serious because I don’t even like bananas!)

Here’s a screen shot of Helleborus ‘Onyx odyssey’ from an internet image search: Helleborus 'Onyx Odyssey' screenshot

The majority of the photos above are a black or slatey near black color.  From a collection like that, the black-flower-hopeful would expect that this plant was a true black or at least so ridiculously dark flowering that it didn’t matter.

I recognize that cameras and monitors vary in their abilities to accurately represent color, I have no issue there.  My issue is more of an honor-code type thing.  Below are some photos I took of this same cultivar in my old apartment patio:

Helleborous 'onyx oddysea' 2Helleborous 'onyx oddysea' FLHelleborous 'Onyx Odyssea' in sun

I find it important to photograph plants and flowers in the shade and the sun, and with different kinds of backgrounds and other things in the shot like ambiguous planty backgrounds and also my own hand.  The camera automatically makes adjustments depending on what is in the picture – and then if I were to adjust the color in Photoshop, there are algorithms that make assumptions about what the color was supposed to be.

For my design work, the internet serves as a great starting point and a place to see as many different images of the same plant as I possibly can.  However, I’ve learned to mentally visualize colors of plants and flowers from web searches, and also to take into account the quality of the photos and the lighting.

I try to grow as many different plants as I can at home (more on that later) so that I can have the best possible understanding of a plant’s color and habit.  I keep an extensive collection of photos that I’ve personally taken so I can track the same plant under as many light and growing conditions as possible, and so that I have a mind’s eye recollection of each plant.

My complaint, if you can really call it that, is that clients can find color-adjusted and completely unrealistic photos online, and expect that their plants will look just like that.  Plants are amazing, gorgeous, living things…. but they’re not always the supermodels (also usually photoshopped) that some catalogs would have us believe.  Every once in a while, they become mere mortals like the rest of us.  Beautiful in their own right, but not exactly as depicted.

So please – don’t be taken in by a great photo.  Check them all.  Consider before you fall in love if you’re enamored with the image or the plant itself.  We all deserve to be loved for who we are, sans photoshop.

0-not used Helleborous 'onyx oddysea' ftf 1gal 4yr old



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While I was away neglecting my modern web-presence-building duties, I enjoyed working on a particularly wonderful little project…. a Bed and Breakfast in Italy!  I have never been to Italy, but when my good friend and talented architect Glenda Flaim showed me her work on Casa Incantata, I asked if I could take a stab at the planting design which had yet to be finalized.  Neither of us had any idea what would happen.  Come on, what do I know about plants in Italy?!  Niente.  The way we worked around that, and got the garden done was a genuinely collaborative effort involving Glenda, the Owners, their gardener, some dutch visitors, and me:

First, Glenda sent me a photo of the site with notes (in green) on her thoughts for the planting:


We chatted about the decisions on the photo – why the hedge, what is the lawn for, stuff like that.  I studied snapshots of the building and tried to imagine what it would be like to be there in person.  Glenda mentioned that the house  had just won a national award for sustainable architecture, and was photographed soon after I started noodling with the design of the garden on paper.  You can see pre-garden professional architectural photos here and here.  She sent me a computer drafted file of the site and I gathered photos of plants that came to mind.

I started the planting design in June 2012:

120619 Flaim House Italy pltg concept001I mapped out the planting design in areas with palettes.  The areas got names:  there was “lawn”, “spicy”, “meadow”, and “hedge”.  I wrote a description of how each of these areas would be different from each other, what forms and colors I was trying to emphasize, and what colors I wanted to avoid entirely.  I wrote out how these plants would change with the seasons and the desired effects.  With lists of plants and their written intentions, the memos were translated into Italian and back into English through Glenda.

The Owners and their gardener started looking for the plants and sent word back what was available and not, and we figured out plants that might work instead.  More memos handling spacing and layout were translated back and forth, plant research was done on both continents.  Plants were purchased and installed as they were found; this took a few seasons to finish.  Some were purchased in Italy, some shipped from the U.S., and the last, elusive bulb was a gift from some visitors from Holland who learned of the missing bulb in discussions of the garden during their stay.

Over the last 2 years, I’ve gotten a couple of photos a season so I could see how the garden was doing.  They had wasted no time getting plants in the ground.  Later that same year (fall 2012), the lawn (Hernaria glabra) which also extended between the pavers, was getting its start:


By the following Spring (2013) it had filled-in very nicely!


The other plants were coming along too:


By that Summer, you could see the different zones expressing themselves:

photo 5 photo 1

And just last month, I got another update:

2014 June

It is challenging to know how a garden will look when you’re designing it, and there were many anxious moments when I knew they were investing in my advice and I could only hope that the Owners would like the results.  I’m not sure it is possible to tell if the image in my head matches what the garden will become.  I can’t know ahead of time if the Owners will like what the garden will become, and yet it is dependent on them and everyone who takes care of it to continue to support the design’s intention as the garden is maintained.

I am finally able to share (two years later) how things are going here in this post.   I can also share that the owners are very happy with their garden, and conveyed to me this sentiment:

 Il giardino che ho sempre sognato!!!

(The garden I have always dreamed about!!!)

I couldn’t have asked for more.

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Hello there!  I’ve been away from this blog far too long.  Things have been quite busy with a whole mess of life and work changes.

The big news is that I moved into a new place.  I’m in the very beginning stages of designing the garden here, and wanted to share with you some of the challenges I am facing and what I’m doing to make this place as useful and responsive to my needs as possible.  This could take me a while, but I’m game if you are:

For starters, the previous occupants planted thorny Bougainvillea next to the gate to one of the side yards.  You have to squeeze by it and hope there aren’t any bad guys lurking behind it to get into the rear yard.  Don’t catch your sleeve on the sickly, not even fragrant, and incredibly thorny patio tree rose on the left as you go:

1 hiding places

If you look behind the Bougainvillea, you’ll see a very typical fence which blocks visibility into the back yard (hello again, bad guys!).  A friend commented to me that it seemed wrong to block views into what will hopefully become a beautiful side yard.  I have to agree!  Visibility issues aside, what you can’t see is that this opaque fence is nailed to the once charming original fence:

2 hidden fence

Way cuter, right?!  yep, I thought so too.  and next is that side yard that will eventually become beautiful.  Here, what you can’t see are all the weed seeds that germinated the moment I moved in keeping me busy indefinitely:

3 bare side yard


If you follow the side yard, you come to the back where there’s some lovely painted concrete in reggae colors with teensy tiny meaningless lawns and very old, well established Photinia (one of my least favorite shrubs EVER!).  How snazzy is that bit of solid fencing there?  I love how it gracefully blocks the view of the neighbor’s solid wall.  Equally enjoyable is the brick cap on the concrete retaining walls.  No lack of design consideration here:

5 tiny lawns 4 bad concrete

Which brings me to the shed.  I love love love the shed.  It has holes in the roof and sides from what appear to be buckshot so that rain drips directly on the shelf and is rotting the framing.  I have no idea what that railing is for, nor why there’s a flagpole footing in front of the little railing surrounded platform.  I call it the pulpit.  The pulpit’s days are numbered; same goes for the flagpole footing and little concrete pad in front of it.

7 shed

In the front is an unreasonable amount of purple Lantana and this thing, probably Yucca elephantipes.  It will get way too big for that little retaining wall and will break it and start all kinds of trouble in the next couple of years if I don’t remove it.  Sorry, Yucca, you gotta go.

6 the thang

The good thing is that when I go to the shed and look out past the festive reggae concrete, Photinias, and strange tiny lawns, I can enjoy sunsets every night.

8 view

Here’s to resolving the design issues and playing in the yard!


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(c) Jennifer de GraafIn my professional practice and in conversations outside the office, I avoid using common names for plants like the plague.  It is common practice to put both scientific name and common name on a plant list, and this is so that the contractor can verify that the plant they think you’re talking about is the one they’ve gotten for the project.  Why would a contractor not be able to use scientific name and require common names as well?!  As far as I can tell, the only confusion that might occur would happen when a plant has been re-classified by the trade to have a different name.  For example, Ligularia changed to Farfugium years ago, but most people know it as “Leopard Plant” (regardless of the cultivar or absence of spots).  Sadly, I suspect that the real reason we put common names on plant lists is because contractors don’t recognize or know all the plants we might use belonging to those scientific names and they appreciate the extra hint.  Residential clients often find scientific names too technical and feel more comfortable with the common names, but using common names can be very mis-leading as you’ll see in the last few photos.

Taking my own photos of plants is a huge benefit to me as a designer.  Not only do I have the physical action of taking and naming photos to help my brain keep the connection, but I also follow some practices that help me understand the plants better for when I am designing with them in mind.  Here are a couple of the things I do:

Photo taking: When I am in a garden or at a nursery, I take a picture of the plant, leaf, flower (or whatever) first, then the plant tag.  Plant, tag, plant, tag, plant, tag.  With my trusty old digital camera, I can smash 300+ photos on one memory card at a time, and I have two memory cards.  Once the plant photos are labelled with the correct scientific name, I delete the images of the plant tag.  I also (usually in my own garden) take photos from different angles – a close-up of a low-growing plant from ground-level tells you nothing about what it would look like from above.  A great example of this is this gorgeous specimen of Hellebore ‘Pink Marble’ I saw at the Annie’s Annuals 2012 Summer Garden Party last weekend:

(c) Jennifer de Graaf

Cute, huh?  I am glad this person walked by at the right moment, because you can see how the plant relates to an upright person, and understand that I am sitting on the ground to take this.  Now see how different it looks from above, the way you would see it in a garden (without sitting on the ground):

(c) Jennifer de Graaf

Image file naming:  I have a naming convention for the photos, too:  Scientific name, then descriptive abbreviations (from my own list), followed by the abbreviation for the grower or source of the plant.  For example, photos of this little Bletilla I got at Plant Delights Nursery last year are labeled “Bletilla 15in FL pdn” and Bletilla ‘Murasaki Shikibu 15in FO pdn” (15in = 15 inches tall, FL = flower, FO = Form, pdn = Plant Delights Nursery):

(c) Jennifer de Graaf

(c) Jennifer de Graaf

See how different the close up and the form photo look in color?!  I’ll take several photos of my plants because the way the camera processes color can vary a lot from image to image and depends on lighting, context, and where on the subject the camera focused.  Because of this, I include other things in the picture when I can.   I also use these images for inspiration for plant combinations in the future and keep copies of images in a separate “combos” folder for just that purpose.  Here’s a shot of the same Bletilla but with Asplenum bulbiferum (a.k.a. “Mother Fern”, but you didn’t hear that common name from me) in the background:

(c) Jennifer de Graaf

Be Specific!  I’ve already explained how I label my images, but here’s a lesson from a purchase two weeks ago that I hope illustrates the need to use the whole name including the species even when it seems obvious.  Take these two Violas:

They look pretty similar.  Both are Violas (Pansies are Violas too), both from the same grower.  The big difference seems to be the name “Pansy” or “Viola” on the tag, and you might ignore this since that information is a common name thing, not scientific.  The cultivar name is similar too, ‘Apricot Antique Shades’ vs. ‘Antique Shades’. I could swear I see some of the same flowers in both photos, just turned upside down and enlarged on the Pansy tag (which is complete baloney as you’ll see below).  Now, flip those over and read carefully:

Check that out!  The Pansy’s scientific name is Viola wittrockiana ‘Antique Shades’ and the other Viola’s name is Viola cornuta ‘Apricot Antique Shades.  What neither of these tags tells you is how very different these two plants are in real life.  The Pansy has much more orange and yellow in real life, and the smaller Viola is far pinker overall.  The photo at the top of this post shows these little dudes the day I brought them home, and below I will leave you with a photo of them together in my patio while I was planting things.  Thanks so much for reading, and HAPPY SPRING!

(c) Jennifer de Graaf

So the lesson here is to not rely on catalog photos for your garden planning, take your own.  Light, color, and real life differences are not always evident on plant tags or in catalogs.  Designer beware!

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(c) Jennifer de GraafI went to Filoli AGAIN!  I know, I know, I don’t put up any new posts for practically a year, then I go to Filoli yet again, and start a fourth post on how awesome it is.  Pretty lame, but I have a new friend (and an observation about the nursery industry) because of this particular trip.

Filoli is awesome and the people watching (really, people overhearing) can’t be beat.  Best line of the day came from an elderly gentleman to his wife  near the parking lot: “would you like me to carry your bag?”.   There were some ladies settled on a bench behind the main house talking about something that sounded very personal. I also enjoyed the murmurings of tour groups as they responded to their tour guide’s proclamations, and a few occasions where people were clearly seeing something new to them (a double flowered daffodil confounded one woman who wondered aloud if it was really three flowers that had grown together).  One visitor was wearing a pretty lavender scarf that was perfectly in tune with this planting of bulbs behind offices (near the gift shop).

(c) Jennifer de Graaf

So – while I was over here near the gift shop, I did a little poking around their plant selections and I just had to buy something that was new to me!  I found a dwarf Wisteria called ‘Kofuji’.  It is supposedly a shrub form wisteria that will stay within 2-3′ ht x sp (height by spread).  I googled it and found very little information on it, but the label was from a wholesale grower, so there’s hope of finding it again.  I am going to stick it in a pot outside my back door and see what happens.  Here’s my new friend:

(c) Jennifer de Graaf

Here’s what I’m getting to:  I’ve had my own garden on my mind lately (as well as those of clients), and have been visiting local nurseries to see what is interesting.  I depend on nurseries to carry a wide variety of plants including the newer introductions so that I can take pictures for my clients (especially of certain plants together!) and test grow stuff in my patio, see how they do, get to know them personally.  I like to think that through this process, I can not only suggest the exact cultivar I would propose for their project, but also have a reasonable expectation of being able to secure that plant when the time comes.  Unfortunately, even though my new Wisteria friend originated at a well known wholesale grower, I had to go all the way across the bay to Filoli to discover it.

Sadly, nurseries have been struggling along with the rest of the design and construction industries for the last few years.  Last year, I noticed that they were under-staffed, under-stocked, and had extended seasonal closures.  This year, what I am noticing is a lack of variety and larger materials.  They’re selling old standbys in smaller sizes and have reduced or eliminated the expense of ordering from a wider number of growers and also are not putting as much effort into creating big displays that I am sure ate up some money for them in the past (but was probably worth it when people were buying!).  They seem to be avoiding the riskiness of bringing in less commonly known plants.  I can’t usually leave a nursery without buying something, but this spring, I’ve been through several – the Wisteria is the first plant I bought this year – which is saying something!

So please – go and show your local nursery some love (not Home Depot).  Buy a small plant or some seeds, let them know you’re still out there.  Your community and your garden will thank you.  Meanwhile, here’s some more of the wonderfulness that is Filoli:

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My poor Dahlia of unknown cultivar (above) died.  My mom gave it to me, she said it would be easy to grow.   I put it in a pot and it grew, then I thought it might like more consistent watering, so I planted it in the ground thinking ‘hey, all plants prefer the ground to pots!’.  Wrong-o.  I have to admit, this is one plant that even I won’t argue is “low maintenance”.

Rot.  I learned how I killed my Dahlia when I went to Flora Grubb Gardens over the weekend to hear a talk given by the gregarious Mike Schelp of The Dahlia Farm (cut flower grower) in Half Moon Bay.  What follows are my notes, posted here to help keep more Dahlias safe from harm:

Climate and lifting:  In colder parts of the country, Dahlias need to be lifted because they are frost tender.  Where frost isn’t a problem, they should still be lifted and divided because their tubers are both incredibly prolific and prone to rot.  They don’t like too much heat, either, so mild coastal climates are really great for them.

Sun Exposure:  Since they’re not keen on very high temperatures, if you live in a warmer area, consider protecting them from full sun (or at least afternoon hot sun).  The color of the flowers can be “bleached out” by strong sun exposure, so if a normally deeply colored cultivar is not living up to your expectations, this might be the culprit (or it could be any number of other things as they can be pretty variable).

Soil:  Dahlias like a light, slightly acidic soil that is well drained (so raised beds, containers, or in a well drained location).  Containers should be at least a 5 gal. size.

Water:  Dahlias like moderate water when they are actively growing, but will rot out easily.  In the container, mine had pretty good drainage, but one wet spring in the ground was enough to kill it.  Mr. Schelp grows his in semi-raised beds for this reason, and he usually does his dividing in January (so they get lifted and divided EVERY year!).  Be aware that if you grow yours in a container, that moisture can collect at the bottom, causing (you guessed it)….rot.

Pests:  They’re susceptible to all the bad bugs and also to mildew.  There was a lively discussion of mildew which I won’t bore you with, but let’s just say it can be a serious problem for some cultivars and any affected leaves should be removed immediately.  The tubers are gopher candy, so he recommends that if you have gophers, plant the tubers in a wire mesh “cage” about 15″ diameter with an un-attached bottom for easy lifting.

Air Circulation:  oh my!  Mildew can be such a problem that he recommends a few things to keep the air flowing.  Pinch off leaves in the bottom 6″ of the plant to allow air to flow at the base.  Take away stems or leaves that make the plant too bushy for air to circulate.  Plant tubers 30 inches apart to keep the air flowing between individual plants.

Feeding:   This is one place where I did not entirely agree with the presenter.  He is a cut flower grower, so his needs are different from mine.  He uses chemical fertilizers (which kill good microbes in the soil).  I wrote down that he recommends a high Nitrogen fertilizer beginning when the plants start coming up.  That application should be applied, diluted, throughout the season, not at once, and taper off towards the end of the season or the Nitrogen will rot your tubers.  He also switches to a higher Phosphorous fertilizer when the plants are starting to bloom.  I will be experimenting with not doing this, opting instead for an organic approach (coffee grounds, anyone?).  Dahlias are surface feeders, so apply nutrients accordingly, but be careful not to use too much to avoid scorching them chemically.

Propagation:  Dahlias can be propagated by several methods, too many to go into detail here.  So I found someone else who covered this information HERE.  A happy Dahlia tuber can multiply ten fold in one growing season, provided you don’t rot it.  Plant tubers 2-6″ deep, but DO NOT let the “neck” break.  A tuber with a broken neck is toast.

Availability:  Most garden centers sell Dahlias as tubers between winter and spring or as green plants during the summer.  You can find them by mail order between (give or take) December and March, tubers should be back in the ground around April.

Cut flowers:  If you are still brave enough to grow them, you can keep cut flowers for about a week.  I was impressed that his cut flowers are delivered to a local florist no more than two hours after being cut on the farm.  I only wish he had said what florist!  Here’s how you can do it: cut the stem and dip immediately in hot water for about an hour (hot so you could wash your hands in it, but not boil an egg).  Re-cut the stem at least every other day and place in tepid water (doesn’t have to be hot anymore).  Remove browning petals as flowers fade, keep flowers away from produce (ethylene gas from ripening produce speeds the aging of the flowers!).  Keep your flowers in a cool room, away from direct sun.   If you are cutting flowers for general enjoyment in a vase, cut them when the bud has begun to open but the center is still tight – an unopened bud will not open in the vase.  If you are cutting for a specific event, wait until the flowers are at their peak before cutting.  They won’t last as long, but they will be gorgeous.

Still not dissuaded from wanting to grow Dahlias?  Me neither.  This fall I plan to order a Dahlia tuber or two and try again, this time in a bigger pot with better drainage and more understanding.  To find my new green friend, I will attend the 2011 American Dahlia Society show at the Santa Clara Convention Center this August.  Show admission is free to the public on the 20th and 21st.  I will write down the names of the cultivars I like and use the Colorado Dahlia Society’sBig List” to find a supplier for my favorites.

At the end of the discussion, Mr. Schelp added what seemed to be a very personal note.  He asked the audience to give away their extra plants and flowers.  If grown well, you are bound to have extra and sharing is the best way to pass around some good vibes.  He asked that we give our flowers to hospice centers and old folks homes, friends and neighbors.  His voice quavered just enough that I could hear it in the front row, and I believe that this was a very personally meaningful message he was trying to send, so I repeat it here.  I plan to do the same with my new Dahlias and I urge you to do the same.

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In plant materials, sometimes you really do get what you pay for.

The Hellebores’ stay here is nearly at an end. I have enjoyed having these little beauties here since the day I posted about their arrival just over 3 months ago in November 2010.

Since they arrived, they’ve done nothing but amaze me.  Their quality is outstanding, far superior than what was available locally.  These green friends illustrated beautifully that sometimes it is well worth it to pay more for something that on the surface seems like the same thing.

You see, the same week that I received that box of beauties from Fraser’s Thimble Farms, I got a little green myself and drove over to a well regarded retail nursery in the East Bay.  I paid $20. for a single 1 gallon plant of the exact same cultivar.  My client’s plants cost $39. each, not counting shipping and inspection certificates (so actually, they cost quite a bit more than that).  I potted them on arrival because they had been bare-rooted for the trip, and soon they’ll be installed in their new home’s garden.  In the photo below, that scrappy little guy in the front is mine.

Unfortunately, my plant looks exactly as it did the day I got it, where my client’s plants are considerably nicer.   The ones from Fraser’s are known to be about 4 years old.  In conversations with their staff, I learned that Hellebores need to be a few years old before they are mature enough to bloom, so perhaps this is the problem with my little one….OR perhaps the difference is that mine was grown without personal attention at a commercial grower where the ones from Fraser’s were grown with care by a knowledgeable bunch of people.  Either way, it was well worth the extra money for quality plant materials.

I’m looking forward to seeing if mine grows into a nice specimen now that I’m in charge, and to seeing how well the ones going to my clients’ garden will perform over time under the care of his gardener.  I will be very interested to watch them all, even though I’m sad to see these beauties leave my patio.

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