November Work: Cutting Down the Meadows

Last week, I performed what has become for me a ‘rite of November’: cutting down the meadows at our cottage on Lake Muskoka, a few hours north of Toronto. I have to admit, it isn’t my favourite chore of the year, though I acknowledge I don’t actually have a lot of “chores” up there, given the naturalistic way I garden. But it’s definitely the most labour-intensive – amidst the least pleasant weather conditions of autumn, as it usually turns out. This year it was blowing a gale as I assembled my wardrobe and tools:  hedge shears, rake, cart, bundling cloth and ropes, rubber boots, extra layers under my waterproof jacket and fleece band to keep my ears warm. I started out with the big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), the tallest of my prairie grasses, at 7 feet with its turkey-foot flowers. Considering it’s growing in shallow soil atop the ancient rock of the Canadian Precambrian shield, rather than the deep loam of the tallgrass prairie where its roots can extend far down, I think it’s rather happy at the cottage, and I took a selfie of us together before I chopped off its head!

Janet Davis-Lake Muskoka-Big bluestem in the meadow

Since my meadows and beds likely measure only about 1600 square feet or so, it’s not a lot to hand-cut with the hedge shears. People wonder why I don’t use a string trimmer, but I find that holding the weight of a trimmer just above ground is harder on my back than bending over and chopping the stems manually. I understand you can buy a harness for the trimmer, so that might be an improvement – but there’s something hypnotically satisfying about working with the shears.

Shears-cutting big bluestem-Lake Muskoka

As I work, I rake and pile the stems into windrows near the cart where I’ll eventually pack them up into bundles to carry by hand up the hill behind the cottage to a place out of sight where they can break down.

Cottage meadow-Lake Muskoka-November 15

If I don’t cut the meadows, the heavy snows of winter will soon bend down the grasses and forb stems, but the thatch that accumulates makes it less attractive for self-seeding wildflowers and daffodils emerging in spring. So if I want the scene below in mid-summer, it pays to prepare for it by cutting old growth.

Cottage meadow-Lake Muskoka-July 31st

And if I leave the switch grass (Panicum virgatum) standing after it turns colour in fall….

Switch grass-October-Lake Muskoka-fall colour

…. it will look like this in May.

Switch grass-May 15-Lake Muskoka-uncut

So I remove all the above ground growth in November.

Switch grass-November 15-Lake Muskoka-after cutting

And if I’m travelling during this late autumn window (as we have on a few occasions), the daffodils will still come up in the meadow the following spring, but it’s a bit of a struggle.

May 15-Big bluestem-Lake Muskoka-uncut-daffodils

In short, if I want this…..

Cottage bed & Orienpet Lily-July 31-Lake Muskoka

…I have to do this.

Cottage bed-November 15-Lake Muskoka

And if I want this…..

View of path-Lake Muskoka-July 31

….I have to do this.

View of path-Lake Muskoka-November15

I could hold off on the cutting until late winter or very early spring, when the ground is still frozen (as I do in my city meadow), but timing doesn’t always work that well up here and a fast thaw means I’m cutting on mucky soil. And since most of the seed-eating birds have flown south and those that remain seem adept at picking up seed from the ground, I’m happy to clear out this…..

Path through meadow-Lake Muskoka-November15

…. in order to enjoy this next summer.

Path through meadow-Lake Muskoka-July15

Beyond the chores of this month, I love the varied browns of November. I’ve even blogged about Beguiling Brown in the Garden. And I enjoy inspecting all the seedheads as the plants complete their life cycles. Plants like showy goldenrod (Solidago speciosa), its white panicled seedheads shown below alongside the charcoal autumn foliage of false indigo (Baptisia australis). (Incidentally, though these plants flower at the opposite ends of summer, they’re among the best for bumble bee foraging.)

Seedheads-Solidago speciosa & Baptisia australis-November

Here is the candelabra-like seedhead of culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum) with the ubiquitous button-like seedheads of wild beebalm (Monarda fistulosa).

Seedheads-Veronicastrum virginicum & Monarda fistulosa-November

Those seedheads above, of course, are proof that the attractive summer flowers, shown below, attracted the pollination services of the appropriate wild bees.

Flowers-Veronicastrum virginicum & Monarda fistulosa-summer

And the late summer-autumn season has also allowed the various grasses to shine, below, including – apart from the big bluestem – Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) and switch grass (Panicum virgatum).

Big Bluestem & Indian grass-Lake Muskoka

November is the perfect time for dormant seeding native wildflowers, so as I’m chopping the stems, I also do some fast sowing into the meadows, using my boot toe to kick little bare spots into the soil, then grinding some of the seeds just below the surface, while leaving others exposed. I do this with New York ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis), below.

Fall seeding-New York Ironweed-Vernonia-Lake Muskoka

Chopping, raking, piling, carrying. Chopping, raking, piling, carrying. After a good day-and-a-half in blustery wind and intermittent cold rain, I manage to take 8 tied bundles of stems up the back hill to a spot on top of the pile of blast rock that was cleared when we built our home here on this waterbound peninsula 16 years ago. In time, the vegetation will decompose amidst the staghorn sumac pioneers and create a more complex meadow planting here.Compost pile-Lake Muskoka

Finally, as I finish washing out the cart, coiling the garden hoses, cleaning my tools, bringing everything indoors and preparing to drive back to the city in the waning light of the third day, I gather up a handful of the stems I’ve put aside in my cutting. Because apart from enjoying vases filled with summer flowers in July…..

Bouquet-July meadow flowers-Lake Muskoka

….. it feels virtuous, somehow, to accord these plants the same respect in November.

Bouquet-November meadow seedheads-Lake Muskoka

To capture a little of the atmosphere of what it’s like to perform this task in November, I’ve made a short video to enjoy here. (Please excuse the wind – it was impossible to find quiet moments.) The good news? My back and I are still on speaking terms!

 

Ornamental Grasses in Winter

Here we are in January, and the snow is flying outside my office window this morning. I often make fun of those ‘designing your garden for winter’ tips, because the reality in a climate like ours (unlike those beautiful European gardens with picturesque hoar frost ) is that heavy, wet snow or layers of ice from freezing rain tend to demolish the winter architecture of non-woody perennials and ornamental grasses.  I mean, seriously: the photo below is my Toronto back garden after a big snowstorm. No matter how persistent the winter structure of the plants, if nothing can actually be seen, it’s just a notion that doesn’t hold water. (Unless it’s frozen.)

janet-davis-back-garden-in-snow

Speaking of “frozen”, freezing rain or sleet can be not only beautiful, but quite dramatic in its effects in the garden. Below are winter arrangements in containers on my back deck featuring Carex ‘Red Rooster’ and southern magnolia leaves, among other things, on December 22, 2013, the day after Toronto’s historic ice storm. Look how the ice has coated each tawny blade. As beautiful as it was that morning, tinkling in the freezing air, that carex does not have the presence to be a player in the winter garden where I live.

carex-red-rooster-ice

Neither does Mexican feather grass (Nassella tenuissima), though it looked lovely in my front pot at the beginning of winter (left over from my summer arrangement).

nassella-tenuissima-winter

So what ornamental grasses are effective in the winter garden in our climate (Can. Zone 6b, USDA Zone 5), before it gets a 3-foot dump of snow, that is? For that, I like to use Toronto’s wonderful Music Garden as a beautiful illustration of the power of grasses to draw lines and create texture, even in snowy weather.  Look at this combination of ‘Hameln’ fountain grass (Pennisetum alopecuroides), front, with Chinese maiden grass (Miscanthus sinensis) and its feathery plumes in the rear.

music-garden-pennisetum-miscanthus

The low grass lining the curved path is again, ‘Hameln’ fountain grass (Pennisetum alopecuroides) and Chinese maiden grass (Miscanthus sinensis) on the right.

music-garden-pennisetum-miscanthus-winter

Here is ‘Hameln’ fountain grass with echinacea seedheads left to feed winter birds at the Music Garden.

music-garden-pennisetum-echinacea

You can see, below, why fountain grass got its name.

pennisetum-hameln-music-garden-winter

This very upright grass is ‘Karl Foerster’ feather grass (Calamagrostis acutiflora) in winter.

calamagrostis-karl-foerster-music-garden-winter2

Here is ‘Karl Foerster’ feather grass with Toronto’s city skyline behind.

calamagrostis-karl-foerster-winter-music-garden

Though Northern sea oats (Chasmanthium latifolium) doesn’t have quite the presence of some of the bigger grasses, it still manages to stay intact through early winter.

music-garden-chasmanthium-s

For more wintry grasses, let’s head on over to the Toronto Botanical Garden in late December or January. Here is a stand of switch grass (Panicum virgatum) in the spectacular Piet Oudolf-designed entry border.  This native grass is a very good choice for a winter garden, and popular with the birds in autumn as well.

toronto-botanical-oudolf-border-panicum-winter

These are the neat hummocks of grey moor grass (Sesleria nitida) under a fresh snowfall. (I changed this from S. autumnalis, when I discovered the planting plan.)

sesleria-nitida-snow

Japanese hakone grass (Hakonechloa macra) is often hiding under the snow, but makes a bronze-gold splash in early winter.

hakonechloa-macra-winter-snow

Similarly, blue fescue (Festuca glauca ‘Blue Glow’) is rather small to make a big impression in winter, but it offers texture in the first part at any rate.

festuca-glauca-blue-glow-winter

And our native little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) looks lovely with a light dusting of snow, but gets lost as the snow deepens.

schizachyrium-scoparium-little-bluestem-winter

This is Korean feather grass (Calamagrosis brachytricha), which does persist fairly well through a few snows.

calamagrostis-brachytricha-korean-feather-grass-winter

After freezing rain, you can often find ice crystals in the flowers of grasses like Korean feather grass.

calamagrostis-brachytricha-korean-feather-grass-ice

Chinese maiden grass (Miscanthus sinensis) is a dependable winter fixture at the TBG….

miscanthus-sinensis-winter

….. and its big plume flowers look lovely with snow.

miscanthus-sinensis-flowers-snow

I love the way the narrow leaves of Miscanthus ‘Morning Light’ curl in winter. This is March – not bad for 3 full months of the toughest season.

miscanthus-morning-light-winter

It’s a good idea to leave ornamental grasses through winter, providing another element of beauty for this long, desolate season. I like to time cutting them down in late winter or early spring, when the ground is still frozen, so I can walk freely around some of the bigger stands.  This was April 28th one year at the cottage – and I find a pair of shears does the trick.

cutting-ornamental-grasses-spring

Or, if you’re feeling brave, you could always follow the example of this gardener at the Music Garden, seen using a chainsaw to cut down the big grasses on April 23rd of the same year.

music-garden-chainsaw-cutting-ornamental-grasses

That’s a starter kit, anyway. This weekend, I’m heading up to our cottage on Lake Muskoka. The lake should be well on its way to freezing over and, depending on how much snow has fallen, I may glimpse a few flowers of switch grass poking out.  Stay warm!

panicum-virgatum-muskoka-winter-snow

 

Silver Belles

A little holiday song, for those who’ve stuck it out through my Twelve Months of Colour blogs in 2016:

Silver belles, silver belles,
It’s Christmas time in the city.

Ding-a-ling?? No, they don’t ring,

My “Silver Belles” just look pretty.

Row 1:‘Pictum’ Japanese painted fern (Athyrium niponicum); ‘King’s Ransom’ Siberian bugloss (Brunnera macrophylla); ‘Miss Wilmott’s Ghost’ giant sea holly (Eryngium giganteum); Agave parryi; Row 2: Hosta ‘Ultramarine‘; ‘Bascour Zilver’ hens-and-chicks (Sempervivum tectorum); ‘Blue Glow’ fescue (Festuca glauca); Heuchera ‘Rave On’; Row 3: ‘Montgomery’ blue spruce (Picea glauca); ‘Silver Carpet’ lamb’s-ear (Stachys byzantina); ‘Blue Star’ juniper (Juniperus squamata); ‘Sapphire Skies’ yucca (Y.rostrata)

Yes, we’re finally in December, and as befits the tinsel month in my year-long celebration of monthly colour themes, I’ve pulled together a treasure box filled with pieces of silver (and some nice blue-greys) for your garden. You should know that I’m a big fan of grey, especially mixed with that little dash of brown that tips it into ‘taupe’. In fact, my house is painted that colour, and my deck and fence are stained a darker shade of stone-grey. It is a beautiful background for all plants.

janet-davis-deck-house

If you add a little blue-green to silvery-gray, you get a colour we often describe as “glaucous”. That word has travelled a long way since it was first used by the Greeks, including Homer, as glaukos to mean “gleaming, silvery”. In Latin, it  took on the meaning “bluish-green”, and in the 15h century, the Middle English word glauk meant “bluish-green, gray”.  That fits the color of luscious Tuscan kale, below.

brassica-nero-di-toscana-montreal-botanical-garden

So we’ll look at some lovely plants with glaucous foliage as well.

Shrubs & Trees

Let’s begin with a few trees and shrubs.  Weeping willowleaf pear (Pyrus salicifolia ‘Pendula’) is a pretty little (20 ft – 7 m) tree with silvery-grey foliage. Here it is at Victoria’s Horticulture Centre of the Pacific, underplanted with Allium ‘Purple Sensation’.

pyrus-salicifolia-pendula-horticulture-centre-of-the-pacific

Then we have a true willow, dwarf blue Arctic willow (Salix purpurea ‘Nana’). This is a very hardy, useful shrub, standing about 5 feet (1.5 m) tall and wide, that will lend its soft greyish texture to a variety of applications, including as hedging or a filler.

salix-purpurea-nana

As for conifers, there are lots of blue junipers and silver firs, and of course, blue spruces. For a big silvery tree, perhaps none is as stately as the concolor or white fir (Abies concolor ‘Candicans’).

abies-concolor-candicans

If you want a cool blue-grey spruce at garden level, consider Picea pungens ‘Glauca Procumbens’.

picea-pungens-glauca-procumbens

And I love the look of Juniperus conferta ‘Blue Pacific’, especially as it takes on mauve hues in winter, below, along with Sedum rupestre ‘Angelina’.

juniperus-conferta-blue-pacific

Speaking of winter, there’s even a shrub with silvery fruit that persists into winter: Northern bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica).

myrica-pensylvanica-fruit-northern-bayberry

Though we often think of lavender as perennial, it is actually a sub-shrub. English lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) has greyish-blue foliage, and even the commonly available cultivars like ‘Hidcote’ and ‘Munstead’ will provide a good colour contrast, as they do edging this beautiful potager.

louise-kappus-potager-lavender

But if you want a really silvery, hardy lavender, try ‘Silver Mist’, shown below contrasting with a bronze carex.

lavandula-angustifolia-silver-mist

And if you are in a climate where you can grow the more tender Spanish lavender (Lavandula stoechas), there’s a gorgeous silver-leaved cultivar called ‘Anouk’.

lavandula-stoechas-silver-anouk

Perennials

Who hasn’t seen lamb’s-ears in a perennial border? And who hasn’t questioned whether the plant’s name should be a single lamb or a flock? Kidding aside, using hardy lamb’s-ears (Stachys byzantina)  is one of the easiest ways to inject a note of silver into the garden. Here it is with lady’s mantle (Alchemilla mollis) at Burlington, Ontario’s Royal Botanical Gardens …..

Stachys byzantina with Alchemilla mollis

… and fronting a June border at Vancouver’s Van Dusen Botanical Garden.

stachys-byzantina-van-dusen-botanical-garden

I love the way my pal Marnie White intersperses her lamb’s-ears with pink portulaca.

stachys-byzantina-portulaca-marnie-white-garden

Sea holly has a few beautiful silver forms; this is Eryngium giganteum ‘Miss Willmott’s Ghost’ with liatris and switch grass (Panicum virgatum) at the Toronto Botanical Garden.

eryngium-mrs-willmotts-ghost-liatris-panicum

Siberian bugloss (Brunnera macrophylla) has several cultivars with lovely silvery variegation. This is ‘Jack Frost’.

brunnera-macrophylla-jack-frost

Artemisias are invaluable silver foliage plants. This is Artemisia ludoviciana ‘Silver King’ with liatris.

artemisia-silver-king-liatris-spicata

And this is Artemisia ‘Powis Castle’ creating a silvery pool at the edge of a border.

artemisia-powis-castle

In the fern world, luscious Japanese painted fern (Athyrium niponicum var. pictum) is literally ‘painted’ with silver variegation. The stunning cultivar below is ‘Pewter Lace’.

athyrium-niponicum-pewter-lace

Though they don’t come in pure silver, there are many blue-grey hostas to add texture to a shaded or semi-shaded place. At the Toronto Botanical Garden, I love the juxtaposition of Hosta ‘Blue Angel’ with the silvery-blue glass screen behind it.

hosta-blue-angel-toronto-botanical-garden

Here is an assortment of blue-grey hostas.

1 - Ultramarine; 2 – First Frost; 3 – Fragrant Blue; 4 – Earth Angel; 5 – Paradise Joyce; 6 - Halcyon.

1 – Ultramarine; 2 – First Frost; 3 – Fragrant Blue; 4 – Earth Angel; 5 – Paradise Joyce; 6 – Halcyon.

With their rainbow foliage colour and myriad leaf markings, heucheras have become a plant breeder’s bonanza in the past few decades. Below are ‘Rave On’ (left) and ‘Silver Scrolls’ (right).

heucheras

Euphorbias also offer delectable silver makings. Though it’s borderline-hardy where I garden in Toronto, I do love Euphorbia characias ‘Tasmanian Tiger’.

euphorbia-characias-tasmanian-tiger

The silvery foliage of Scotch thistle (Onopordum acanthium) can be quite stunning, but careful it doesn’t escape – clip those flowers before they go to seed.

onopordum-acanthium-cotton-thistle

Grasses

Blue-grey grasses abound. Here’s  Festuca glauca ‘Blue Glow’ with berried cotoneaster and silvery Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia) behind.

festuca-glauca-blue-glow

This is ‘Heavy Metal’ switch grass (Panicum virgatum) – one of my favourites.

panicum-virgatum-heavy-metal

Little bluestem is a wonderful native prairie grass, and ‘Prairie Blues’ has a more pronounced silvery-blue hue.

schizachyrium-scoparium-prairie-blues

‘Wind Dancer’ love grass (Eragrostis elliotii)  is hardy only to USDA Zone 6, but I’ve seen it used as an annual grass to lovely effect.

eragrostis-elliottii-wind-dancer

Annuals & Tropicals

Montreal Botanical Garden knows how to create wonderful knots and parterres with silvery plants. This is the tender grass Melinis nerviglumis ‘Savannah’ (ruby grass – USDA Zone 8-10) with Angelonia ‘Serena Purple’.

melinis-nerviglumis-savannah-angelonia-serena-purple-montreal-botanical

…. and this is Cerastium ‘Columnae Silberteppich’ with lantana.

cerastium-columnae-silberteppich

Montreal Botanical’s Herb Garden has also used silvery herbs in formal design schemes over the years. The tapestry-like knot garden below features the sages (Salvia officinalis) ‘Berrgarten’ and variegated ‘Icterina’ in the circle, along with hedge germander (Teucrium chamaedrys) with the pink flowers; clipped lavender and santolina are in the background.

montreal-botanical-salvia-officinalis-berrgarten-icterina

Here’s a closer look at santolina or cotton thistle (Santolina chamacyparissus) in flower. Its ease of shearing makes it a prime candidate for parterres and knots, but it is only hardy to USDA Zone 6.

santolina-chamaecyparissus-lavender-cotton

There are several Mediterranean plants that fit our silvery-blue theme.   A tender perennial (USDA Zone 8) with silver foliage that can be used as a drought-tolerant annual is Greek mountain tea (Sideritis syriaca).

sideritis-syriaca

And Senecio viravira or silver groundsel has textural foliage.

senecio-viravira-silver-groundsel

Isn’t this combination at the Niagara Botanical Gardens beautiful? The big, felted silver leaves of Salvia argentea with Tradescantia spathacea ‘Tricolor’ seem made for each other.

salvia-argentea-tradescantia-spathacea-tricolor-niagara-botanical-garden

Also at Niagara Botanical one summer, I loved this juxtaposition of blue-grey cardoon (Cynara cardunculus) with the cascading silvery Dichondra argentea in the hanging baskets behind.

cynara-cardunculus-dichondra-argentea-niagara-botanical-garden

Speaking of dichondra, here it is at the Toronto Botanical Garden paired with Centaurea gymnocarpa ‘Colchester White’. This, of course, is the work of the TBG’s container wizard Paul Zammit.

dichondra-argentea-centaurea-gymnocarpa-colchester-white-toronto-botanical-garden

Dusty miller (Centaurea cineraria) is an old-fashioned annual that’s easy to source and offers a lovely hit of silver, as with this rich autumn combination of dusty miller and ornamental cabbages.

dusty-miller-senecio-cinerarea

We mustn’t forget the spectacular leaves of the newer Rex begonias like ‘Escargot’, below, many of which have silver markings.

begonia-escargot

There are loads of silvery succulents available, because being silver-grey (reflecting the sun) and being succulent (storing your own water in your leaves) are both adaptations to plants growing in extreme hot and dry environments. I loved this combination of Kalanchoe pumila ‘Quicksilver’ and Senecio serpens at Eye of the Day Garden Center in Carpinteria, California.

kalanchoe-pumila-quicksilver-senecio-serpens-eye-of-the-day

This pairing of blue sticks (Senecio mandraliscae) with Scaevola aemula at the Montreal Botanical Garden was simple, yet dramatic.

scaevola-aemula-senecio-mandraliscae

And the gorgeous container below was in the former Vancouver garden of garden guru Tom Hobbs and Brent Beattie, owners of Vancouver’s Southlands Nursery.  It features Echeveria elegans, salmon-red Sedum rubrotinctum and silvery parrot feather (Tanacetum densum), along with astelia in the centre.

hobbs-echeveria-elegans-tanacetum-densum

Succulents have been used extensively over the years by Paul Zammit at the Toronto Botanical Garden. Check out this silvery monochrome masterpiece.

silver-succulents-toronto-botanical-garden

And finally, this gorgeous windowbox from the TBG, with its luscious mix of silver echeverias, aptenias, kalanchoes, senecios, rhipsalis and more, all enhanced by the dwarf Arctic willow hedging around it.

succulents-toronto-botanical-garden

With that, I finish my monthly 2016 exploration of the garden paintbox. But not to worry!  2017 is a whole new ballgame, and there will be garden colour galore (plus the odd travel journal and personal reminiscence) throughout the coming year.

Beguilingly Brown in the Garden

“Brown in the garden”. Remember my January resolution to blog about every colour for all of 2016? Well, it’s September and I’ve delayed writing about brown as long as I could….

Brown Flowers & Leaves-ThePaintboxGarden

No, “brown in the garden” is not a phrase you often hear, unless it’s wondering what to do with those Japanese maple leaves that are curling up and turning brown in summer (uh-oh).  Or the white pine needles that are turning brown in October (they’re getting ready to fall silly… no evergreen is truly ever-green.)

In the winter, you might notice bronze oak leaves remaining on trees, even through the snowiest and coldest weather.  That is a function of tannins that remain in the leaves once chlorophyll breaks down, protecting and preserving them in the same way an old-fashioned ‘tanner’ would use these substances to turn animal hides into leather.  This tendency to hang onto the twig as a brown leaf after most deciduous trees have lost their leaves is called marcescence.  Beeches, below, also exhibit marcescence, and their winter leaves can be quite fetching in the garden..

beech-leaves

I love this winter combination of columnar beeches (Fagus sylvatica ‘Atropurpurea’) and switch grass (Panicum virgatum) at the Toronto Botanical Garden.

fagus-sylvatica-atropurpurea

Many warm-season grasses also retain tannins in the leaf and enough structural integrity to stand upright through winter weather. Shown below in snow is switch grass (Panicum virgatum), but you may note this strong winter presence in maiden grass (Miscanthus), feather reed grass (Calamagrostis), fountain grass (Pennisetum) and northern sea oats (Chasmanthium) as well.

panicum-virgatum

Toronto’s Music Garden relies on ornamental grasses to provide much of its interest for the long winter months.

grasses-music-garden

Brown seedheads also have their own charm, and many look beautiful against snow. This is anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum ‘Blue Fortune’) consorting with a grass in winter.

agastache-foeniculum-blue-fortune

Purple coneflower seedheads (Echinacea purpurea) persist very well through winter, and feed hungry birds as well.

echinacea-seedheads

Even in the gardening season, flowers that turn brown add a textural note to plantings.  In my own cottage meadows, I love the September shaving-brush seedheads of New York ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis).

vernonia-noveboracensis-seedheads

These are the seedheads of Phlomis tuberosa ‘Amazone’, with the fading flowers of echinacea. Not surprisingly, this duo is in the Entry Border of the Toronto Botanical Garden – a border designed by Piet Oudolf, whose philosophy is to create a meadow-like tapestry of plants that lend beauty even when out of bloom.

phlomis-tuberosa-amazone-seedheads

And look at these giant alliums, also in the entry border at the TBG. Of course they were beautiful when they were rich violet-purple, but I do love them as brown seedheads consorting with the rest of the plants a few weeks later.

allium-seedheads-toronto-botanical-garden

Speaking of the Toronto Botanical Garden, I spend so much time there, chronicling the changes in the various gardens, but especially in Piet Oudolf’s Entry Border, that I’ve come to appreciate the plants that persist beyond their starring roles. So I’ve made a video to show the function that “brown” fulfills as a substantive colour in autumn and winter, after the colourful flowers have faded. There are many plants shown in these images, but especially good for persistence of seedheads are Liatris, Echinacea, Achillea, Stachys, Astilbe and, of course, all the ornamental grasses. Have a look……

Piet Oudolf also designed the plantings at the High Line, where brown is a colour, too. Below is a pink astilbe in the process of turning bronze, then buff, making it the perfect colour companion for the blackeyed susans.

high-line-astilbe

Lovely as they are in the winter garden, many grasses also have spectacular brown flowers that create lovely colour combinations in the summer garden, too, like this fluffy brown cloud of (Deschampsia caespitosa) with airy sea lavender (Limonium latifolium), also in the border designed by Piet Oudolf.

deschampsia-caespitosa-limonium-latifolium-toronto-botanical-garden

And here it is softening purple coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea) at the Royal Botanical Garden in Burlington, Ontario.  Doesn’t that little cloud of brown add a grace note to that scene?

deschampsia-caespitosa-echinacea-royal-botanical-garden

This is feather reed grass (Calamagrostis acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’) with blue Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia) – demonstrating that blue and (golden) brown make lovely dance partners.

calamagrostis-acutiflora-perovskia-atriplicifolia

Speaking of blue and brown, this is a very good combination:  Amsonia ‘Blue Ice’ with Heuchera ‘Caramel’.

heuchera-amsonia-blue-star

Heucheras, of course, have been bred over the past few decades to produce a fabulous range of colours, many of which veer towards brown. I love the rich tones of ‘Mahogany’, below.

heuchera-mahogany

Even some evergreens can be called brown, like this weird little arborvitae, Thuja occientalis ‘Golden Tuffet’ (which isn’t even dead!)

thuja-occidentalis-golden-tuffet

Many tropical plants seem to exhibit brownish tones. For example, luscious Canna ‘Intrigue’, here with coleus at the Toronto Botanical Garden….

canna-intrigue-toronto-botanical-garden

…. and that strange multi-colored tropical shrub copperleaf (Acalypha wilkesiana), with its patchwork peach & brown leaves. Though you sometimes see this as the cultivar ‘Mosaica’, the reddish-olive-brown shows up in varying degrees in a few forms of that species. ‘Haleakala’ has a completely brown leaf.

acalypha-wilkesiana

I love Cordyline ‘Red Star’, which is the centrepiece of this fabulous urn by the Toronto Botanical Garden’s gifted horticulturist Paul Zammit. Though it often looks more burgundy, here it reads as rich brown, especially with the matching heucheras.

cordyline-red-star-toronto-botanical-garden

Phormiums or New Zealand flax have been a big part of the tropical gardener’s arsenal, and many are bronze- or olive-brown. This is lovely ‘Dusky Chief’.

phormium-dusky-chief

And where would gardeners be with annual sweet potato vine (Ipomoea batatas)? One of the richest is mocha-coloured ‘Sweet Caroline Bronze’, shown below with Pelargonium ‘Indian Dunes’.

ipomoea-batatas-sweet-caroline

There are countless cultivars of the annual foliage plant coleus (Plectranthus scutellarioides), and a few hit the brown jackpot, like ‘Velvet Mocha’ below.

plectranthus-scutellarioides-velvet-mocha

Pineapple lily (Eucomis comosa) ‘Sparkling Burgundy’ has olive-brown foliage that really adds depth to a garden, like the Ladies’ Bed at the New York Botanical Garden.

eucomis

Brown-flowered perennial plants are, admittedly, in short supply (many gardeners likely wondering why you’d even want a brown flower) but there are strange and lovely bearded irises that come in copper and cinnamon shades, like ‘Hot Spice’, below.

iris-x-germanica-hot-spice

And we simply cannot leave a discussion of brown in the plant world without talking about the genus Carex.  Whether it’s Carex testacea, like this fun bronze-headed sculpture in Marietta & Ernie O’Byrne’s Northwest Garden Nursery in Eugene, Oregon……

northwest-garden-nursery-carex-testacea

….. or Carex buchananii in my very own sundeck pots a few years back.

carex-buchananii-in-pots

I loved the way the Toronto Botanical Garden’s Paul Zammit used Carex buchananii in this spectacular run of windowboxes, along with orange calibracoa, the golden grass Hakonechloa macra ‘All Gold’, golden cypress and kitchen herbs.

carex-buchananii-toronto-botanical-garden-planter

And, yes, C. buchananii can be counted on throughout the snows of winter. (Whether it reappears in spring depends on how cold winter got!)

carex-buchananii-toronto-botanical-garden

BUT….. gardeners do not live by plants alone. There are furnishings! And they can be brown & beautiful, like these cool, dark-brown metallic planters at Chanticleer Garden, in Wayne PA.  (Check out the carex inside.)

chanticleer-pyramidal-containers

Speaking of Chanticleer, I loved this rugged brown wood-and-COR-TEN steel bench and pergola in their Tennis Garden – and look how lovely brown furnishings are with brilliant chartreuse foliage.

chanticleer-tennis-garden-pergola-bench

Weathered COR-TEN steel is all the rage these days, being a stable, rusty finish that needs no upkeep. It was used to spectacular effect to make this canoe-like planter at New York’s High Line, holding interesting, moisture-loving plants flanking the garden’s water feature.

high-line-cor-ten-planter

Water features are another way to bring a shot of brown into the garden. Have a look at the drilled ceramic urn fountain, below, which I photographed at Seaside Nursery in Carpinteria, California.

fountain-seaside-gardens-carpenteria

Let me finish up with a few sculptural details in shades of brown. Let’s start with whimsy – and a little Pythagorean creation from Suzann Partridge’s annual Artful Garden show.  Isn’t she sweet?

partridge-brown-garden-sculpture

And then let’s move to elegance: a handsome, rusty obelisk perfectly placed within a flowery border at Northwest Garden Nursery in Eugene.

northwest-garden-nuresry-brown-obelisk

Finally, I’ll sign off with a little farewell to summer: a September bouquet filled with brown prairie seedheads and grasses, from my Lake Muskoka meadow to you. And a reminder to remember that brown is a colour too!

bouquet-brown-september-grasses-seedheads