Making Room for Color and Creativity in the Garden

Transform an overgrown, unused property into an exuberant garden full of color and fun

Fine Gardening - Issue 192
Orange adds vitality. To bring energy and personality to an area, use a vibrant color. It perks up any area, and if you can’t find plants that will work, turn to art and hardscape to do the trick. Photo:

It was happy chance when a current client said, “We have a new neighbor, Kim, with a great energy about her who needs garden help.” A short walk later we were knocking on her front door. Our meeting quickly blossomed into an invigorating garden collaboration and friendship.

With an unapologetic appreciation for color, and an ability to maximize every nook and cranny and penchant for fun, Kim has energy, personality, and positivity that are clearly reflected in her exuberant garden. But her garden wasn’t always that way. The front yard was dominated by a thicket of dense bamboo and overgrown camellia. One side yard—narrow, dark, and plagued with drainage problems—was a utilitarian pass-through, while the other lacked cohesiveness with its awkward unused spaces. The backyard, deprived of privacy, was a patchy sloped lawn surrounded by a newly erected, dark, chain-link fence to keep Kim’s dogs in. What started as a consultation turned into a whirlwind of activity that touched every corner of the garden.

Illustration: Elara Tanguy

A front yard should never stop looking good

Our first goal was to transform a large 15-foot-wide by 30-foot-long overgrown and mostly evergreen bed along the front of the house into an inviting garden full of texture and color throughout every season. After hours of grunt work, which included digging up the 15-foot-tall bamboo with its network of snaking roots and removing the overgrown camellia, we were left with a blank canvas with full sun exposure. Drawing inspiration from the newly installed, metal-framed, chartreuse, polycarbonate gate, we decided to play with what I call “sunset hues” of plums, rust reds, oranges, and gold. Evergreen ‘Burgundy Wine’ heavenly bamboo (Nandina domestica* ‘Burgundy Wine’, Zones 6–10) anchors the planting, while variegated purple moor grass adds airy texture and movement (photo, above). I also added a mix of grasses, flowering trees, perennials, evergreen shrubs, and ground covers to provide year-round color and curb appeal.

*See invasive alert below.

A new color combo makes a space bright but calm

Inviting, not overgrown. The front of the house was once cluttered with bamboo and overgrown shrubs. Now it is host to an array of plants that provide year-round interest without overwhelming the space. Photo:

Through the chartreuse side gate, the once dark, damp, and underused side yard now sparkles with color and texture. Previously, during heavy rains, water flowing from the slope above would collect on the cracked concrete path along the side of the house. We addressed the water issues with the addition of a seat-height, gentle, S-shaped, dry-stack stone wall extending the length of the space. This new wall allowed us to capture the excess water by adding drainage behind the wall as well as in front of it. The new wall also created an opportunity for tiered planting.

Trees set the tone. ‘Autumn Moon’ full moon maple (Acer shirasawanum ‘Autumn Moon’, Zones 5–8) and ‘Sherwood Flame’ Japanese maple (Acer palmatum ‘Sherwood Flame’, Zones 5–8) set the color palette for the area. Photo:

The color pairing of chartreuse and burgundy used throughout originated from the ‘Autumn Moon’ full moon maple and ‘Sherwood Flame’ Japanese maple planted on the upper side of the wall. Under the filtered canopy of the maples, shade-loving plants rich in various textures and shapes play up the contrasting chartreuse wine shades. A new paver patio extending the length of the side garden, with a table for two just outside the kitchen door, makes this once dark side yard an ideal spot for coffee and contemplation. This is Kim’s favorite spot in the garden.

Adding a small seating area makes it the perfect spot for morning coffee. Photo:

Past a second gate, large galvanized troughs brim with edible treasures including cherry tomatoes, herbs, raspberries, and espaliered apples. This is a favorite place for Kim to entertain her grandchildren while teaching them secretly where food comes from. Roses, dahlias, and climbing vines provide bountiful opportunities to gather cut flowers for dinner parties and family gatherings.

Backyards should be private but useful

A perfect place for a patio. Adding some privacy to the backyard meant that it became a spot for relaxing while the grandkids play on the grass. Photo:

With the sloping backyard designated as the kid- and dog-friendly zone, it was clear that whatever we chose to plant there needed to be tough. Replicating the same materials used in the dry-stack stone wall in the side yard, we carved a low arching wall into the upper edge of the slope to create a flat space and to define one side of a new paver patio just outside Kim’s bedroom. The other side transitioned into a swath of flat lawn for play.

Kim was on board with my suggestion to turn the lower portion of the slope into a rain garden after learning that water would run down the back property line during heavy rains. Along the rear property line, in front of the new black chain-link fence for the dogs, we added a mix of shrubs, trees, and grasses. The mix of plant heights and foliage textures helps to hide the fence and add privacy.

Solving drainage problems can be beautiful. All the water ran to the back of the property, where moisture-loving plants now thrive. Photo:

Entertaining areas require exuberance

Around the corner to the opposite side yard sits a new “she shed” as the heart of the space. It provided the perfect opportunity to divide the area into two distinct rooms. The addition of container plantings that double as low walls and define the space led to the transformation of one side of the shed into an umbrella-covered seating area for social gatherings. On the opposite side, a table and chairs atop a low deck anchor a space for quiet dining next to a new pond in what was once an empty corner. The shed’s bright orange trim provided the inspiration for the citrus-themed color palette throughout the entire side garden.

Sheds can do more than hold tools. The shed divides the property in half, with the lively orange entertaining area on one side and the quiet area with a small pond on the other. Photo:

Colors such as chartreuse and orange are naturally eye-catching in a garden. They’re perfect for shady areas that need a spot of brightness or, as in the case of Kim’s entertainment portion of the garden, for sections that are meant for lively social gatherings. However, it’s important to balance these vibrant colors with plenty of calming shades of green in order to avoid a color riot. Each space has its purpose in the garden, be it relaxation or fun, and color has a major impact on how one feels when one is in that space. I love that Kim wasn’t afraid to use color; it’s a direct reflection of her outgoing, generous personality.

Take advantage of the quiet corner. Between the bright orange entertaining area and the play area in the backyard is the perfect spot for a pond. Photo:

As we approach the exit to the street, one last treat awaits to the left of the third translucent gate, this one orange (see photo, top). In an homage to Kim’s sense of whimsy and fun, a pair of oversize ceramic snails snack on a bed of shade-loving plants. It’s a perfect send-off after making a full circle through her garden. Once overgrown and tired, the garden is now a refuge for rest and contemplation, gathering, and plain old fun.


Key Players

Here are some of the important plants that add interest to various parts of this garden.


1. Variegated purple moor grass

Molinia caerulea subsp. caerulea ‘Variegata’

Zones: 3–9

Size: 12 to 18 inches tall and wide

Conditions: Full sun to partial shade; moist, well-drained soil

Native range: Europe and Asia

A small clumping grass with green and creamy white variegated foliage. Tall, narrow, golden flowerheads emerge in summer and last well into fall, adding an airy, wispy texture.


2. ‘Genii’ hardy fuchsia

Fuchsia ‘Genii’

Zones: 7–9

Size: 2 to 3 feet tall and 1 to 2 feet wide

Conditions: Partial to full shade; moist, well-drained soil

Native range: Hybrid

The perfect plant to brighten a shady corner. Chartreuse, frost-hardy foliage is decorated with magenta- and purple-petaled flowers from summer to fall.


3. ‘Spotty Dotty’ mayapple

Podophyllum ‘Spotty Dotty’

Zones: 6–9

Size: 12 to 18 inches tall and wide

Conditions: Partial to full shade; well-drained soil

Native range: Hybrid of North American species

Prized for its bold, palmately lobed leaf that emerges chartreuse with burgundy spots in spring and transitions to kelly green with lighter spots in fall.

Photo: Richie Steffen

4. Sunset fern

Dryopteris lepidopoda

Zones: 6–9

Size: 1 foot tall and 2 feet wide

Conditions: Partial to full shade; well-drained soil

Native range: Asia

An evergreen fern that delights year-round. New fronds emerge in melon shades of honeydew and cantaloupe in spring and mature to a deep olive green in summer.

*Invasive alert: Heavenly bamboo (Nandina domestica)

This plant is considered invasive in AL, FL, GA, MO, and SC.

Please visit for more information.

Courtney Olander is a garden designer in Seattle.

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