Monday, 5:30 AM: Alarm startles. Snooze button triggered. Closed-mouth, pre-toothbrushed spouse kissed. Dog snuggled. Uber-perky, blown-dry TV team updates weather and traffic. Then the commercials, audio jacked up to aircraft carrier take-off decibels. Somebody’s tempting me to cash in unwanted gold jewelry for “real” paper money.

But I’m in no hurry to give up on gold, especially as a showstopper in the garden I’m designing right now. Gold is a precious commodity in a winter garden, bringing visual warmth and cheer when skies are gray. It’s also what you get when you mix a bit of dark pigment with yellow, so any hues, tints, or shades in the yellow to orange range will have a similar animating effect.

Note: Now before readers living where winter crushes your cannas like a steroid-pumped line-backer accuse me of rubbing Zone 10 salt in your tundra wounds, I’m just doing what Fine Gardening hired me for.  When I started blogging here three years ago, my first article declared my decidedly Left Coast perspective:

“I have no experience with gardens that disappear under yards of snow or are destroyed by woodchucks. My idyllic oasis is the land of palm trees gently swaying on Pacific breezes to the sounds of The Beach Boys.”

End of apologetic digression.

My client has a lot of visiting relatives, especially this time of year, so they need a garden that’s firing on all cylinders all the time. On the northwest edge of the property, visible from the breakfast nook, the ground slopes up, right where the amber winter sunrise casts its first rays. Wouldn’t it be great to create a focal point bed to take advantage of this theatrical lighting effect? I can’t think of a better way to make crispy blueberry waffles and French roast into a special event.

I’ll share where I’m going with my thought process. And since this design is a few years from reaching its intended impact, I’m using photos from my collection.

Mexican Marigold

Mexican marigold
(Tagetes lemmonnii) is a lifesaver, turning on its gilded charm starting in December and hanging on until early spring. The shrub grows about four feet high and spreads to six. PLEEEEEEEASE don’t try to shoehorn it into a narrow strip: It’s a graceful, lacy plant that deserves to grow unfettered. In this picture, you can see a few sprigs of Myers asparagus (Asparagus ‘Myers’). Not quite gold, but the yellowish, upright wands add depth while keeping the color scheme warm. I’m thinking of planting clusters of marigold shrubs and skirting the foreground with asparagus as an accent.

Aloe and agave

To contrast the structural lightness of the marigold and asparagus, while enhancing the golden essence of this composition, I need muscle. Succulents are a mainstay in many SoCal gardens (and what better way to thrill visitors?), so perhaps this killer combo of foxtail agave (Agave attenuata – you’re seeing the giant flower stalks in the foreground), and yellow torch aloe (Aloe arborescens ‘Lutea’) as a counterweight?  The aloe can achieve heights of over eight feet, so this might be a good choice at the back of the bed, while adding bold visual texture.

Brown and yellow flaxes

Every focal point needs a commanding hot spot, but I have to avoid cluttering up the composition with too many elements. Perhaps I’ll work with the two extreme ends of yellow, but unify the design by using two forms of the same genus? Behold New Zealand Flax, which seems to give birth a new cultivar every twenty minutes. I snapped this pairing at a nearby park, where dark, sultry Phormium  ‘Rubrum’ and delicately striped P. ‘Yellow Wave’ add a striking exclamation mark.


I’m still in the brainstorming phase of this plant palette exploration, but I’m liking the concept. Whether you’re hoping to develop a knock-your-socks-off winter tableau, or biding your time until the glacier recedes from your yards, think about going for the gold. The best part is, you don’t have to give up your dear departed Aunt Tilly’s brooch to surround yourself in riches.

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