Cool Green Gardens

Foliage Foundations and Gnasty Gnomes (the Gs are silent)

[Author’s note: I’m making this first part up.]

Imagine this late night scene: You’ve finished flossing, folded down the quilt, fluffed the pillows, flipped open F is for Fugitive, felt it fall flat on your face, and flipped off the fluorescent.

That’s their signal. I’m not condoning their behavior, mind you, but as you sail off to The Land of Nod, your garden gnomes begin their nightly escapades. Imagine a job like theirs — standing immobile while the summer sun bakes off your paint, or winter winds whip you with sleet. And what’s with the sprinkler bidet?

So when late night falls and their shift ends, the gnomes need to blow off some steam. Off to the all-night pub, they belly up to the brass foot rail and get down to serious business.

The night isn’t over yet. Stumbling home, their little concrete eyes gleaming, the merry pranksters repeat their pre-dawn ritual: Picking off all the flower buds waiting to open, so the garden never blooms.

The moral of this story: Design your garden as though these mischievous, misanthropic (or is that mis-flor-opic?), buggers live in your garden. Don’t use flowers as the sole visual interest in your garden. Instead, concentrate on creating year-round interest by exploiting your plants’ shapes, density, leaf patterns, and foliage colors, so your garden looks great, flowers or not.

Allow me to share one of the most elegantly sophisticated little corners of landscaping I’ve ever seen. What knocks me out so much is the use of two key visual design principles – harmony (elements with similarities) and contrast (elements with differences). This vignette sits a few blocks from my house, adorning the Sansum Diabetes Research Center in Santa Barbara.

(Back row, left to right) You’re looking at Rhamnus californica (California coffeeberry), Pittosporum tenuifolium ‘Marjorie Channon’ (Marjorie Channon Kohuhu – that always cracks me up), and Geijera parvifolia (Australian willow). In front is another Aussie, Lomandra confertifolia ‘Little Con’ (small mat rush).

From this zoomed out view, note the harmonious interplay of the four plants, all sharing soft, cloudlike forms. Additionally, the willow and Kohuhu have similar shapes – taller than they are wide.

Next, we’ll swing through the composition, moving from left to right.

Too much harmony can get boring, so a little variety needs to be injected: the dark, dull-green, larger leaves of the coffeeberry; the soft, milky tint of Kohuhu smaller leaves; and the strikingly bright, fine texture and linear form of the mat rush. There’s no mistaking where one plant ends and another begins.

In the picture above, notice the similar forms of Kohuhu and willow, and the fact that each is dense and fine textured. The differences in foliage color are less striking than the side-by-side paring with the coffeeberry. And since the willow foliage has a bit of yellow underlying the green, it blends with the warmth of the mat rush foliage.

When we isolate just the Kohuhu and willow, contrast is again the name of the game. Not only do the leaf colors vary significantly, but the individual leaf shapes couldn’t me more different – small and ovoid on the left, and long and narrow on the right Okay, I’m cheating a bit. The tall tree on the skyline is Podocarpus gracilior — Fern pine. The tree is growing across the street, but it gives me one more opportunity to show how visual interest can be created using just foliage and form.

I guess that’s it. Maybe you’ve picked up a few tips for creating interesting plant groupings in your own garden. And don’t think you can’t use flowering plants in the garden – they’re the icing on the cake.

Now I’ve gotta go fluff the book, flip off the fugitive, and floss the gnomes.


A couple of commercial announcements

If you enjoy reading my columns here at the blog, but don’t subscribe to Fine Gardening magazine, you’re missing out. My Design Workshop column debuted in the March/April issue and it’s loaded with tips and tricks you can use in your own garden. I hope you’ll pick up a copy to see what I’m up to. Then subscribe!

Also, I wrote recently about the San Francisco Flower and Garden Show, running from March 23 thru March 27. I’ll be speaking on Thursday, dispensing indispensible design advice, signing copies of Fine Gardening, and regaling you with my rapier-like wit. Come join me.

View Comments


  1. jovifriend 02/28/2011

    Enjoyed the gnomes at the pub! Another relaxing message this planting offered me is that each plant had room to be itself, not pruned, not having a smack-down with branches of the plant next to it - while the whole picture is still lush and green. Thanks for this!

  2. BillyGoodnick 02/28/2011

    Jovifriend: It's amazing how many people overlook that fact that every plant has its own genetic destiny -- they're pre-programmed to grow to a certain size. Ignore that important fact and a garden becomes a battle-ground. Extra work and ugly plants are the result of putting the wrong plant in the wrong place.

    Thanks for popping in.

    BTW: I'm not saying ALL gnomes have a problem with the sauce. Don't want to hear from People For The Ethical Treatment of Gnomes.

  3. Catherine_Dougherty 02/28/2011

    This is hilarious... I love layered green and thanks for posting this!

  4. sheilaschultz 03/01/2011

    Sorry, this has to be short. I'm on my way to the local gnome shop to find a couple new friends... it would just be wrong for one not to have a drinking buddy. Then I need to go to the neighboring spy shop so I can buy the gear that will allow me secretly enjoy their evening romps! BTW, loved the rest of the blog... color, leaf shape, texture, what more is there?

  5. BillyGoodnick 03/01/2011

    Sheila: Did you REALLY juxtapose a sentence containing "this has to be short" with another sentence about gnomes? Don't you know they're very sensitive about being "vertically challenged"? Regardless, I love the idea of a gnome voyeur website! Really, can you imagine a fixed camera pointing day and night at a garden ornament? Even better -- the gnome has 19 children!

    Catherine - happy to have tickled your funny bone and for your appreciation of the simple aesthetic joys that give this landscape architect a thrill.

  6. ArchartInc 09/28/2012

    Hi Billy,

    Thanks for the nice comments about my landscape design at Sansum Diabetes Research Center. I tried to create a calming environment for the patients and staff who use the garden. We completed this job in 2007. I'd like to link this blog to our web site if that's ok with you.

    Cheryl Jensen
    Archart, Inc

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