By Kristie Hildebrandt.
According to our May guest speaker, Karen Chapman, “If you love plants, have a good sense of humor and enjoy meeting fellow gardening enthusiasts, we are meant to meet! Gardening should be FUN and that’s what I’m all about; learn while you laugh, and never take yourself—or your garden—too seriously.”
There’s no question that Karen practices what she preaches. Extremely energetic and with great confidence about her subject, she enthusiastically takes her listeners on a journey. As a roadmap, she lays out basic, yet detailed, steps for taking containers and gardens from predictable and mundane to something that can be quite exceptional.
Having refined the art of sophisticated container gardening over the years, and with the success of Karen’s first book, Fine Foliage, she became more interested and focused on broader landscape design and in applying her experience to create elegant and functional outdoor living spaces.
Karen asks, “How do you shop at a grocery market?” Most of us make a list of what it is we wish to purchase, but we don’t do this when shopping for our gardens. We should! Since flowers come and go while foliage endures, our garden shopping list should focus on plant selections based on foliage. The how-to manual for putting this approach into practice is Karen’s new book (co-authored with Christina Salwitz), Gardening with Foliage First. Along with that shopping list, Karen uses a thin plastic tablecloth on which she has drawn pot diameters and keeps it in her purse so that when she makes that (inevitable) nursery detour, she’s prepared!
There are three basic steps to set us on the right path for an exceptional garden. First, find your “spotlight.” The plant’s color cues in the seasonal foliage; shape and form (upright, mounding, prostrate, trailing); leaf texture (bold, fine, soft, smooth, spiky, bumpy); bark; stems; veins; and, yes, even large, ugly thorns. Use spotlights for your inspiration and as a springboard for the composition. Examples given were Painted Echeveria (with attractive shades of green laced with raspberry) and Canna Tropicanna (which draws attention to its reds, oranges, and golds). Keep in mind that the spotlight may not be a plant at all; consider having other natural or man-made objects take center stage.
Second, add the highlights. Once you have that inspiration plant, sculpture, or pot, identify the colors that stand out and decide what will accent it best. Go lighter or go darker, but try to stay in the same color family. Keep it simple at first by using a few plants and a basic palette. Later, experiment with bolder combinations. Possible pairings are Agave ovatifolia Frosty Blue with a yummy caramel container or Aloe saponaria contrasted against a sandstone path.
Finally, showtime! How do you want to fill out the scene and create the “big picture”? Once you’ve chosen your spotlight/inspiration and selected the highlights, try to add some contrast. Perhaps something suggested by one of the other plants or simply a wild card that adds a punch, a twist, or a huge surprise. Suggested combinations might be rich burgundy combined with steel blue and then a smashing, shimmering silver (as seen on the Gardening with Foliage First book cover), or Melianthus major, Begonia boliviensis “Bonfire,” and Echeveria elegans.
Keep your container or garden interesting while bearing in mind the backdrop and where it is your creation will reside. A pot on your front porch, flower boxes under a window, a container or sculpture you’re integrating into the garden, a fountain, or a vignette of newer plants in front of an already existing landscape will complete a scene. And don’t forget…Gardening should be FUN!