BLOG 2018-08-07T14:30:42+00:00
Hydrangea Care
blue hydrangea flower image from Mahoney's Garden Center

Hydrangeas are a well-loved favorite in traditional gardens, and when they are in full bloom, they can be completely spectacular!  If you grow Hydrangeas, you probably know that they have particular needs.  Here is our quick guide to Hydrangea care and pruning, which for some varieties is actually a September maintenance task.  These steps can help keep Hydrangeas healthy and encourage a spectacular show next year!

There are many kinds of Hydrangeas.  If you frequent gardens or nurseries, you have probably noticed a great range of flower and leaf types.  Knowing what kind of Hydrangea you have is crucial to knowing how to care for it.  The main categories go as follows:

Old-Wood Bloomers:

Endless Summer bigleaf hydrangeas in shades of pink, purple, and blue

Old-wood blooming Hydrangeas flower on buds formed the preceding Fall:

Bigleaf Hydrangeas – Native to Japan, Includes Mophead, Lacecap, and most color hybrids

Oakleaf Hydrangea – Native to North America, varieties range in size and flower color

Climbing Hydrangea – While no longer technically a Hydrangea, the Climbing Hydrangea, native to Asia, is a popular addition to shade gardens, and requires similar maintenance.

New-Wood Bloomers:

Oakleaf hydrangeas form a beautiful backdrop in this shady garden by J.Montgomery Designs

New-wood-blooming plants bloom on buds created the same Spring:

Smooth Hydrangeas – Native to North America, includes garden favorite ‘Annabelle’

Panicle Hydrangeas – Native to Asia, new hybrids include ‘Limelight’ and ‘Fire Light’


So why all this talk about Spring and Fall?  This time of year, we are concerned with pruning old-wood-blooming Hydrangeas, as they are already in the process of setting flower buds for next year.  As Mophead and Lacecap Hydrangea flowers fade, now is the ideal time to cut them back and to fertilize your plants for healthy new bud formation.

Old lacecap hydrangea flower is held up to show node where pruning cut should be made

Cut old flowers just above a node where leaves attach to the stem and visible buds are forming.  If you want to maintain the size of your Hydrangeas, cut back branches to the length you would like, without removing more than 1/3rd of the plant, always ending just above a node.  The buds at these nodes will be next year’s flowers and leaves, so this is the only time you should make these cuts.  Late pruning is one of the main reasons for Hydrangeas failing to bloom, as all the potential for flowers actually gets cut off!  In winter, when the plant is without leaves, you can determine if there are branches you want to remove for the health of the plant.

bigleaf hydrangea stem showing new buds at node

What if your Hydrangea is one of the new-wood bloomers?  If you’re still enjoying the show from your drying Hydrangea flowers, feel free to leave them- some of the pinks and reds can be very seasonal and lovely in the Autumn garden.  If you’d prefer to remove flowers, you can do so without ceremony.  You’ll be cutting them back hard in a few months, once they have lost their leaves.  When that time comes, prune branches to just above a bud, at least 1 foot above the ground for an established plant, and remove any damaged branches or congested growth.  For now you can relax and enjoy your Autumn Hydrangea show!

White Annabelle Hydrangea stands elegantly by a wooden gate

Regardless of your Hydrangea type, Autumn is also a good time to fertilize.  Use a specialized fertilizer for acid-loving plants, in the amount suggested by the brand, in Fall and Spring to maintain optimum health and performance.

Very blue bigleaf hydrangea flowers benefit from acidic soil amendment

For many people, Hydrangeas are associated with that beautiful shade of blue.  The other maintenance task that many Bigleaf Hydrangea growers engage in this time of year is keeping their blue Hydrangeas blue.  You may have experienced this color change if a blue Hydrangea you bought went through when the soil it was planted in wasn’t highly acidic… it turned purple, then splotchy pink… a whole variety of colors you hadn’t planned for!  Here in the Bay Area, our soil is not highly acidic, so in order to keep your blues blue, it’s best to add an acidic soil amendment, such as aluminum sulfate or ammonium sulfate, to the soil as new buds are starting to form.  While these products used in the right concentrations do not do much environmental damage, ammonium sulfate is safer for aquatic animals and is less harmful to the skin and eyes.  Many nurseries also offer organic options, which are certainly sustainable but with slightly softer results.

With these simple maintenance tips, you can keep your Hydrangeas looking fantastic!  When planting hydrangeas here in the East Bay, keep in mind that they require a lot of water in the full sun, so you may consider growing them in partial shade, in containers, or in a focal spot where you plan to invest more water in your landscape.  Sustainability and enjoyment of your favorite plants can go hand-in-hand.  Loving your garden is everything!

September 11th, 2018|Planting|
Structures in the Landscape
ornamental pergola shade structure and gate create poolside elegance

In nearly every garden style, constructed elements play a role in defining space for an inviting outdoor experience.  Gates and trellises, pergolas and cabanas- landscape structures have the power to transform a garden. The variety of styles gives infinite possibility to these elements, allowing a landscape’s unique character to shine through in the structure’s design.  At J. Montgomery Designs, each of our custom structures is a unique feature in the landscape.

a low picket gate creates a sense of entry in a side yard with beautiful plantings beyond

Gateways define entrances and create the sense of distinction between two areas of the landscape.  They can be low in profile, as simple as a gap left between two walls, or high in profile to create a portal from one space to another.  For a really transformative effect, a gateway with an overhead element might be in order.  Overhead elements, such as arbors, give a third dimension to garden ‘rooms’.   In traditional European gardens, a white-washed gate trellis might support a climbing rose or other vine, with a strong support and cross-beams to create a ceiling-like effect.  In traditional Chinese gardens, a moon-gate might offer an exquisite round portal into the landscape, and in the modern garden, natural wood might form a simple arch to frame the sky as one passes underneath.

Classical gate with latticework and overhead trellis provides privacy and interest in the garden

Pergolas and awnings offer a similar ceiling-like feel.  Even a simple pergola, with a lattice or cross-beams open to the elements, can transform a dull landscape or unused corner into a garden ‘room’ that beckons to be enjoyed.  In addition to the enhanced comfort of well-defined space, a pergola provides shade and a support for vining plants or landscape lighting.

Detail of curved white arbor against blue sky

 A seating area under an arbor can be a wonderful place to spend time during our long California summers.  If the space is going to be enjoyed during the wetter months, a waterproof covering is of course in order.  This doesn’t have to be complex!  The beautiful and functional retractable awning has become a welcome addition to many pergola structures.  With this design, you can enjoy your outdoor ‘room’ even when the weather isn’t perfect.

Outdoor kitchen under a white contemporary pergola with brick post accents

If a more protected outdoor space is what you’re looking for, a gazebo, pavilion, or cabana may be ideal for your landscape.  Gazebos and pavilions, with complete roofs but open sides, are an elegant solution for dining or sitting areas.  Again, the sky is the limit when it comes to style!  Eight-sided gazebos traditionally have a tendency towards Japanese or Victorian styles, however they can also be rustic or Sonoma-style depending on material and level of decoration.

rustic small pergola creates a garden retreat in a large landscape bordering hilly open space

A rustic pavilion creates an aesthetic focal point and an inviting destination in this J. Montgomery designed landscape bordering Northern California open space.


The pavilion has become an increasingly popular structure in the landscape.  Whether designed in a classic or modern style, they can add elegance and function to any outdoor living space.  Some of our favorites have been those we styled to match the existing house – painted and shingled to appear part of the original construction, these structures create a seamless flow indoors to out.

A roof extension pergola creates a seamless flow between the architecture of the house and the surrounding landscape

This pergola roof extension is seamless with the original architecture of the house, enhancing the rustic elegance of the patio and dining area for year-round enjoyment.

Cabanas, with walls as well as ceiling, offer the ultimate protection from the elements and can house cozy furniture and entertainment centers.

interior of a cabana by J. Montgomery designs with entertainment center, hearth, and couches

The interior of this cabana houses kitchen and dining areas, an entertainment center, hearth, and inviting seating.  Separate from the main house, it offers a luxurious retreat, even in the winter months,

Our Design Process
Design sketch showing a gazebo by a natural pool, drawn by the designers of J. Montgomery studios

Here at our studio, many landscape structures start out as conceptual drawings, allowing us to envision the structures on site before we tackle the details.

CAD-drawn construction detail for a gazebo roof

Conceptual drawings take on fully buildable structural details in AutoCAD Computer Drafting Software before their construction on site.  Our studio offers construction details for ready-to-build custom landscape elements of all kinds.

Detail of a cabana roof showing shingled roof, white decorative posts, and nano windows

Nothing compares to seeing our landscape structures come to life!

Here at J. Montgomery Designs, landscape structures feature in nearly every landscape we create.  Whether your outdoor space needs a redesign or a simple lift, we are happy to help you create the yard of your dreams.  Visit our online portfolio or contact our Alamo studio for consultation.


September 5th, 2018|Design|
La Vie En Rose
pink roses in a formal garden

As Landscape Architects, the plants we incorporate into our designed spaces are as integral to the experience as our built structures.  We love many plants for their beauty, durability, and long-term performance in the garden, and of course we share our clients’ favorites, among them the most beloved rose.  Throughout recorded history, few plants have received the same attention as the rose, the star of formal gardens and cottage gardens, and a symbol of love and beauty nearly worldwide.  But roses have earned a mixed reputation when it comes to ease of growing.  If you are new to growing roses or have had challenges in the past, here are some tips to maintain your roses to set them up for success!

Choosing Roses
'Just Joey' peach-colored tea rose in full bloom

Finding the right rose for you is definitely a matter of the heart.  But there are a few things to know going in.  Roses have been domesticated for so long that there are literally thousands of varieties, with different habits, growth patterns, and needs.  So knowing what you are getting will help you get the right rose for your spot.  For a helpful guide to roses available in the Bay Area and beyond, see this fantastic list from UC Davis Foundation Plant Services.

Hot pink rose in full bloom

Bush (Shrub) Roses

Many of the classic favorites fall into this category.  Bush varieties can range from a couple of feet in height to more than 10 feet, so be sure and check the label!  In addition, there are differing qualities in these hybrids based on what you want in a rose- will you be cutting them for vases?  Or is a long bloom season the most important quality?  How about intensity of scent?  Deciding these factors can help narrow down your choices just a little.

Bush rose in J.Montgomery Studio Garden


“Everybody wants a box of chocolates, and a long-stem rose”  -Leonard Cohen

If you love to have cut flowers in the house, long-stem roses may be the way to go.  These plants have been bred specifically to flower on strong, upright stems.  They do tend to be taller and narrower as well, so if you need a plant for a tight spot this may be a good option.

Potted Rose Tree Standard 'Summer Night' available from

Tree Roses

It would be a stretch to classify even the tallest of rose varieties as a real tree, but when you go to a nursery you hear this term tossed around a lot.  ‘Tree’ roses come in countless varieties, but have one thing in common- they have been grafted, or attached during their early growth, to a strong upright rose-cane ‘trunk’ and a hardy rootstock, to mimic the shape of a tree.  The term ‘Standard’ can also apply to roses and other plants that take on this form.  If grafting seems weird, know this- almost all cultivated roses in America have grafted rootstock, even if they are not ‘trees’.  This is because a rootstock immune to certain diseases can keep roses healthy in the long-term.

Pink rose climbing a traditional white lattice arbor

Climbing Roses

As the name suggests, climbing roses need to do just that.  Don’t believe that you can keep them in bush form just by trimming.  Climbing roses have got to climb… and they will just keep trying!  But is there anything better on a trellis or bower than a spectacular climbing rose?

White groundcover roses border a garden gate

Groundcover Roses

Again, we state the obvious… these roses cover a lot of ground.  A great way to have roses if you don’t have a lot of vertical space, groundcover roses usually range from 1 to 3 feet in height are also popular for hedging and soil retaining on hillsides.  Without the same pruning needs as bush roses, they are a low-maintenance solution.  Not to mention, they are tough as nails!

Wild Rose Rosa Californica species

Wild Roses

The sweet plants from which all roses originate, the wild roses, are a category unto themselves.  Like all native plants these roses have specialized to different habitats, so introducing them to the garden means finding a spot similar to what they’re used to in the wild.  Wood roses, for example, actually prefer some shade, while nearly every other rose wants full sun.  They also tend towards smaller flowers with open centers, but are no less lovely than their fancy cousins.  They may be a good option if you do have a shadier yard.

Wild roses and some cultivars also bear spectacular fall fruit!  Known as ‘hips’, these can be very showy in the autumn garden or in flower arrangements, and can also be used as an herbal supplement high in Vitamin C!

Wild Rose Hips offer fall color
Planting Success

There’s always that one plant that for won’t cooperate, but when it comes to drastically increasing your rose gardening success, there are a few basics that will get you off on the right foot.  In general: full sun, regular water, regular rose-specific fertilizer and seasonal pruning make for happy roses and happy gardeners.


Roses have a habit of letting you know pretty quickly if something is wrong.  This is great as it gives you the opportunity to help!  Plus, they are incredibly responsive to treatment.  Here are some classic rose conditions and what they look like.  Images link to the UC Integrated Pest Management (IPM) website for easy identification and tips on managing plant diseases and pests.

Fungal disease

 Black Spot and Rust are the most common fungal conditions that affect roses, and almost any rose can fall victim to fungal disease.  Certain environmental conditions are more friendly to fungi, and management of these conditions can prevent the growth and spread of fungi.  Avoiding warm and wet conditions is the key to preventing fungal growth, especially avoiding wetting leaves when watering in a warm climate (are your roses getting hit by a lawn sprinkler?  This is the classic situation!).  Bay Area fog is also infamous for creating prime fungal growth conditions, and this is of course harder to manage.  Removing the most-affected leaves and spraying with antifungals will prevent the spread of the disease to other parts of the plant.  To protect neighboring roses, removal of fallen leaves and good pruning practices will create a less fungal environment.

Black spot fungal disease on roses from UC IPM website

Rose Pests

Insects of many species love roses, and can cause a lot of damage if allowed to proliferate.  Rose Bollworm is a common pest in Mediterranean climates.  Its attack of young rosebuds and flowers can have unfortunate results, creating misshapen, hole-filled buds and blooms.  A tiny caterpillar rather than the ‘worm’ that the name suggests, this pest is best controlled by hand-picking or a biological spray such as BT.  Speak with your local nursery about the safest alternatives.

Rose bollworm damage on open flower from UC IPM website

Mites can also damage buds and have the disadvantage of being so small that they can rarely be seen by the naked eye. Buds that won’t open, strangely crinkled young leaves, and a sticky or ‘dusty’ residue on the plant can indicate a mite infestation.  Sooty Mold, or a black residue that can be rubbed off of leaves, is also an indicator and will vanish once the bugs are dealt with.  Mites are best controlled with a mineral-oil based spray, regularly applied, until the signs diminish.  As with Budworm damage, crinkled buds and leaves will not recover, so they can be removed.

Sooty mold on a leaf from UC IPM website

Aphids are the bane of every gardener’s existence, and their damage is similar to that of the mites, however they do have the advantage (to us, at any rate) of being very visible.  Clusters of sesame-seed-sized insects are usually aphids, although they vary greatly in color from black to green to nearly see-through.  Aphids are best controlled with regular spraying and are best dealt with quickly before their populations get out of hand.  A variety of other sucking insects can affect roses, visit this page of the UC IPM website for rose-specific insect identification.

Aphids cluster on the stem of a rose bud, Image from UC IPM website

What are systemics?

Systemic insecticides are a family of insecticide that is absorbed through a plant’s roots, rendering the plant poisonous to any insect that may take a taste.  Sound great?  The one true disadvantage to systemics is that they do kill all insects, even bees and butterflies that pollinate the flowers, and predator insects such as ladybugs and mantises who ingest the poison in the bodies of their prey.  The chemicals present in these insecticides may also affect larger animals that feed on insects, and as they are unsafe for human consumption would be unadvisable for roses used in tea or cooking.  We don’t advise for or against garden chemical use, but feel it is important for all gardeners to know the risks.  If possible to control pests by other means, we encourage more sustainable practices for the good of all.

Pruning Roses
Young rose shoot emerging from last season's clean pruning cut

Pruning is an art form with many schools of thought.  We can offer the basics as far as roses go, and encourage you to read further if you’d like.  The primary goals of pruning are to increase air flow and light accessibility to all parts of the plant, to maintain ideal size and shape, and to remove any damaged areas.  Roses are vigorous plants and benefit from hard yearly pruning during the dormant season.  In warm winter climates where they do not lose all of their leaves, late fall is usually a good time to prune provided the weather is not overly wet.  Opening up the center of a rosebush and pruning to an outward-facing bud is the best way to maximize flowering for a bush or standard rose.  For step-by-step pruning, we like this guide from Fine Gardening Magazine.  Be sure to prune above the graft (usually a visible nub at the base of the plant- see photo below), or your roses may become a surprise new variety next year!

Rose graft apparent on a potted rosebush

Groundcover roses can be given a good chopping back to 6” above the graft, with any unsightly or tangled branches removed.  Climbing roses benefit greatly from pruning, but their tendency to intertwine with structures makes this a more difficult task.  In general, pruning back to within a couple inches of the main canes is a good way to go.  Follow this guide for more specifics.  If a rose is climbing vertically, prune to an upward-facing bud to encourage good growth habit.  If canes begin to get woody or die, they can be removed entirely.  But if they are impossible to remove due to the structure they are climbing, forget it.  They will soon be covered again with a great show of foliage and flowers.

We hope this guide is helpful to anyone growing roses in their landscape this year or next!  Have no fear when it comes to planting these beauties – the rewards are always great for the work you put in maintaining them.  For more gardening advice and design inspiration, check this blog weekly.  For garden consultation or to learn more about our landscape design and architecture services, contact our studio.  We look forward to hearing from you!

The J. Montgomery Team

August 29th, 2018|Planting|
Celebrated Herbs
Salvia Officinalis botanical plate from Kohler's Medizinal-Pflanzen

Salvia officinalis – Kohler, Medizinal Pflantzen

Herbs are a necessity for every gardener, natural-remedy seeker, or farm-to-table chef, and in Landscape Design we often find ourselves planting herbs, either in their own special garden or incorporated into the landscape.  The herbs we may think of as traditional in Western cooking have a rich history of recognition for their many properties.  While you may think you are familiar with herbs, you may be surprised by the history and uses of a few that have been long celebrated worldwide.  From ancient apothecaries to the modern day, these can grace any garden, including yours!

Print of Monk in a Garden from Strabo's Hortulus
Medieval Herbs

In Ninth-Century Medieval Europe, Carolingian monk Walahfrid Strabo wrote a book about his garden.  In addition to highlighting some of the classic gardening challenges we still face today (soil problems, moles, and weeds, to name a few) Strabo waxes poetic about his favorite herbs, including many of our modern-day favorites, like Sage, Mint, and Fennel.

Original Page from Strabo's Hortulus, Latin, 840 CE

Strabo’s Hortulus (The Little Garden- 840 CE) gives us a window into the early cultivation and uses of these herbs and many others that we may not think of so much.  It’s interesting to note his observations of the plants as they grew, and the many culinary and medicinal ways that they were used.

medieval garden

Medieval Herb Garden – Photo Francois Berraldacci

First on Strabo’s list is an herb present today in most herb cabinets.  Salvia officinalis, or Common Sage.  Latin Salvia comes from the same root as ‘Salvation’ and this plant was truly considered a cure for just about anything!  Native also to the Middle East and quickly introduced for use in Asia, it had a far-spreading reputation.  As a Persian proverb asks, “How can a man grow old who has sage in his garden?” With modern science, it has been shown that Sage actually does have many remarkable medicinal properties, not to mention the fact that it is totally delicious, and a cinch to grow in any sunny spot.  We have to agree with our ancient fellow gardeners that Sage has a place in every garden.

Sage leaves with dewdrops

Salvia officinalis in the J. Montgomery Studio Garden

Another classic favorite, beloved by people worldwide, Mentha, or Mint, has become the most popular traditional herb for flavoring everything from tea to toothpaste.  The oils present in Mints are as useful as they are tasty, for relieving itching from insect bites and soothing digestion.  Mint has been long celebrated worldwide, and many varieties exist. (Strabo even jokes in Hortulus that anyone knowing all the kinds of mint must also know all of the fish in the Indian Ocean!)

mint leaves up close

Mentha – Source Unknown

In Morocco, mint tea is a long-standing cultural phenomenon that is enjoyed many times a day.  Moroccan Mint tea may have become the latest fad on American grocery shelves, but it is far from the real thing, due to (believe it or not) the totally wrong type of mint!  Brewing Mentha spicata var. crispa, the real Moroccan Mint, is the only way to enjoy this beverage as it’s meant to be!  Some Bay Area nurseries sell the plant, or you can grow from seed bought from a reliable source.

Moroccan mint tea in glasses with silver pot

Traditional Moroccan Mint Tea – Source Unknown

Mint is also undoubtedly one of the easiest herbs to grow, if anything the difficulty lies in keeping it from taking over!  With underground runners cleverly designed to spread and pop up all over your garden, you may want to consider growing mint in a pot or contained space, or you will forever be removing it from your other herbs and vegetables!

Flower and Herb?
pink rose in full bloom

J. Montgomery Studio Garden

As Landscape Designers, we could talk forever about Roses, the thousands of types both wild and cultivated and how to grow them.  But as we’re talking about roses as an herb, we will focus here on the famous Damask Roses.  Early-developed hybrids of Rosa gallica, Rosa moschata, and Rosa fedtschenkoana, Damask Roses (named after the city of Damascus, Syria) were famous for their incredible fragrance in the Middle East and Asia long before they came to Europe.  But how can a flower be an herb?  The use of rosewater and rose oil for their medicinal properties, and rose extract as a culinary flavoring, place roses among their fellow herbs as a useful as well as a beautiful flower.  No Middle Easternor Traditional Chinese  apothecary would be complete without rose.

Want to grow roses but daunted by the thought?  Next week our blog will feature the care and cultivation of roses in the landscape, as well as some of our favorite varieties that we love to include in our planting designs!  Practice is the key to growing anything, and we look forward to hearing your success stories!


We hope you supplement your herb garden with these beauties, and many others.  Maybe you will end up creating an entire Medieval herb garden! We will be back later this fall with a feature on harvesting fennel seeds and other spices, and home-grown herb and spice recipes.

August 14th, 2018|Harvest, Planting|
Container Planting
Ornamental pots with campanula and petunias in a simple but elegant combination

In the heat of the summer, it’s daunting to take on a large-scale landscape.  But that doesn’t mean you can’t make transformative changes to your outdoor living space during this time!  If you need to create a point of interest, a cooling sense of lush foliage or a splash of color on your patio or in your garden, container plantings are a perfect solution.  The subject of containers is discussed in every garden magazine, with many spectacular examples out there, but we like to think we have a few of our own insights to share!  Here we share some concepts and combinations for elegant summer containers that are sure to enliven your outdoor living.

“Thrill, Fill, Spill?”

If you read garden theory, you know what we’re talking about, if not you may think we are crazy!  But hang on… This catchy idea, first introduced by Better Homes and Gardens in 2010, has surely been used by designers for centuries, though perhaps without the catch-phrase. But what does it mean?

In our interpretation, this cute phrase refers to the idea that there are three points of interest in a dynamic container planting- a tall element, a central body, and a low element.  Interestingly enough, once you start looking, this type of 3-part composition is used in many designed things, from paintings to floral arrangements.  There is clearly something behind it!

Ikebana lines

Ikebana, or Japanese flower arranging, uses a 3-part composition very similar to this concept!

Elements placed in a vase at these three points are naturally in balance.

heuchera, black mondo grass and variegated ajuga in a layered planting composition

The ‘Thrill, Fill, Spill” technique is used in this simple shade planting.  Note the energy of the upright flowers (Heuchera ‘Shanghai’), the full central body of Black Mondo grass (Ophiopogon p. ‘nigrescens’), and the casual elegance of draping Ajuga ‘Burgundy Glow’.  Having these elements in balance is crucial.  Too tall, and the design becomes awkward.  Lacking body, it feels empty and sparse.  Too thin of a ‘spiller’ and the entire arrangement looks unhealthy!  Of course it’s not always necessary to follow this formula, but it does seem to have quite the effect.  Try it out and see what you think.

If The Pot Fits
J. Montgomery Studio door with planted container and fern in antique metal milk jug

In container planting, the vessel you choose can make all the difference.  Containers should always match your personal style.  If you have an eclectic style, you can think outside the box!  Antique stores have endless options for things that make elegant containers for planting… here at the J. Montgomery Studio, we use found objects like the antique milk jug (shown above) as vessels for succulents, ferns, and flowers.  If something doesn’t have a drainage hole, you can create one or use the container as a Cache-pot (French, pronounced cash-poe), by placing a draining pot inside of it.

Why It Needs to Drain

terra cotta pots in different style, one showing a drainage hole

Almost every plant requires or at least benefits from a container that drains.  There are a few reasons for this.  Believe it or not, waterlogged plants may be unable to breathe correctly (in other words drown), and may be at higher risk for disease.  Water that runs through organic material (like soil) can harbor bacteria, algae or fungi that will harm the plant if they proliferate in high numbers.  When you provide drainage, you allow the soil to maintain a natural balance and prevent dreaded root rot.  If you have a draining pot inside a Cache-pot, you may occasionally need to remove the pot and drain the water that collects.

Grouping Containers

One of our favorite techniques to enliven a patio corner is a container grouping.  A well-chosen and thoughtfully planted collection of pots can feel like a miniature garden vignette!  Varying sizes and levels can give the collection interest, while cohesive planting (continuing colors or themes) between containers can make them read as a unit.

shade container plantings with light pink flowers and lush ferns

This sweet grouping for shade also creates interest around the tea table in this traditional garden.  Similar pots at three levels make for a complex layered effect, while matching pink, white, and green plantings tie the design together as a whole.

(Double Impatiens (Pink), Dwarf Hosta, Maidenhair fern and Bacopa ‘Gulliver’s White’)


Just as in fashion, color coordination can make for container plantings that wow.  Infinite possibilities surround the world of color in planting… here we offer just a few combinations that we have been really pleased with.  We try to keep it exciting and unusual!  Try them out or borrow a plant idea or two for your own inspiration.

container planting in pink, rust-red and burgundy summer colors for sun

Strawberry Rhubarb Summer

We love dessert!  This luscious combination was inspired by summer colors and looks good enough to eat!  For full to partial sun with regular water:

Pentas lanceolata ‘Light Pink’*

Pennisetum ‘Fireworks’*

Diascia ‘Apple Blossom’

Coleus ‘Wizard Velvet Red’*

Heuchera ‘Fire Chief’

Alyssum ‘Snow Crystal White’

*Note: Pentas and Coleus will not make it through the winter in zones 8 and 9.  Pennisetum ‘Fireworks’ will get large in its second year, and makes for a great ‘Thrill’ plant for next summer’s arrangement!

Shade plantings in terra cotta pots include lime heuchera, blue dianella, and carex grass

Shining in Shade

Nothing brightens up a shady corner like a collection of planted pots.  The bright color and energy in these pots graces the entrance of our Alamo studio for summer.

Ipomaea ‘Margarita’

Heuchera ‘Lime Rickey’

Dianella ‘Cassa Blue’

Hosta ‘Francee’ 

Carex ‘Everest’

Glechoma variegata

black rex begonias, flowering begonias and silver bromeliad in a modern tropical arrangement

Black & White

Who says black and white is boring?  Flowering fibrous and tuberous Begonias are spectacular in shade or partial sun, and Rex Begonias’ incredible leaf patterns never disappoint!  Here our designer pairs her favorite Rex begonia ‘Little Brother Montgomery’ (of course we love this one!) with begoniaMocha Series White.’ In the summer, she also brings her houseplants, including this silver-leaved bromeliad, outside to join in this unusual tropical combination.

Potted begonias also have to come inside for the winter in our zone, but they make lovely houseplants for a bright spot!  Tuberous begonias will die to the ground and can be kept in a dry location through the winter.  Follow this link for tips on overwintering:

We hope these ideas help you spice up your outdoor living space!  If you’re feeling adventurous, head down to your local nursery and try some combinations of your own.  Or if you’re in need of container design for a special place or an event, contact our Design Team for container planting ideas and on-site consultation.

August 8th, 2018|Planting|
Grasses in the Landscape
California grassland glowing in late afternoon sun

Ornamental grasses have stolen our hearts.  The grace and movement of grasses can enliven any garden style, from the most traditional to the most contemporary.  Here in California, the trend towards drought-tolerant and native-style gardening is highlighting the usefulness of grasses in our designed landscapes – their incredible variety of forms and textures make them stunning feature attractions or complements to other landscape plants.  Here are just a few of the grasses we love, and a shout-out to one Grass Guru whose work has made many of these grasses available to us for the landscape.

Native Gems

In the California Bay Area, many of our native ecosystems are dominated by grasses.  While some of these grasses die to the ground in the summer (a trait less desirable in the garden) others really shine throughout the hot months.  The coastal Mendocino Reed Grass is a lovely compact 12 x 18 inches.  With seed ‘tufts’ emerging white and turning gold, it puts on quite the show for a native grass!  We love it in California/Sonoma-style plantings and sunny borders, where it offers variety when mixed in with flowering plants.  Cut back in late winter for vigorous new spring growth.

Calamagrostis foliosa combines with white flowers in Sonoma-style landscape

Tan tufts of Mendocino Reed Grass (Calamagrostis foliosa) combine beautifully with silver and white Cerastium

Juncus rush flowers offer unusual texture in a contemporary landscape design

Juncus (rushes) are another evergreen that offer a range of interesting foliage and flower types.  From stiff upright, to gracefully curving, to the crazy curls of Juncus spiralis, they are anything but boring!  Here foamy flowers of native Juncus patens spill from a pot in our studio display garden.  Unlike its relatives, this rush is accustomed to dry California summers.

Formal Accents

For the formal garden, grasses can be used to accent or ground traditional garden plants, to create a feeling of lushness around the base of roses or to take the place of a hedge for a soft effect.  Fountain Grasses hail from Asia and offer a wealth of different cultivars.  Their fountain-like shape gives them a lush look, particularly in spring and summer.  Drier-looking autumn seed tufts can be removed by a discerning gardener or allowed to develop for a natural look.  Sedges (Carex) tend towards low-growing forms perfect for a formal border.  Check at your local nursery for the range of available varieties.

Fountain grasses in traditional landscape foundation planting with hostas

Fountain Grass (Pennisetum) ‘Hameln’ has a lush green leaf that complements Hostas and other traditional favorites.

Variegated Lomandra 'Platinum Beauty' in combination with blue salvia spires

Lomandra ‘Platinum Beauty’ was mentioned in our May post on new plants– This variegated evergreen is endlessly versatile and combines beautifully with lush greens and these dark purple Salvia for a twist on a classical color scheme.

Contemporary Edge

As far as the contemporary garden is concerned, grasses are the new frontier!  With the range of varieties and visual effects available, stunning results can be achieved with grasses alone.

Blue fescue (Festuca glauca) combined with dark foliage

Festuca glauca (Blue Fescue) is striking on its own or in combinations!  Its color can lend a Southwestern look, or can compliment dark foliage and oxidized metal for a show-stopping modern effect.

Muhlenbergia rigens (Deer Grass) in Sonoma-style landscape planting vignette

For a Sonoma-style garden, grasses can create atmosphere transitioning from traditional to contemporary.  Here the warm colors of Carex testacea (Orange Sedge) combine with the energetic spikes of Muhlenbergia rigens (Deer Grass) and the sweet blooms of Hardy Hibiscus.

Here at our Alamo studio, we are installing a new meadow display garden.  A variety of grasses combine in this landscape, which shines year-round as native and non-native species take turns showing their stuff.  We are excited to bring this new style home to our studio so our clients can get to know the grasses in person.

Grass Guru

Many of the new grasses available for the landscape are the result of the work of horticulturists and naturalists whose appreciation for native grasslands have inspired the cultivation of these grasses. Horticulturist, designer, author and ‘Grass Guru’ John Greenlee is an advocate for grasses in the landscape.  His research and design inspirations have enhanced the sustainability and natural aesthetic of landscaping in California.  Greenlee’s meadow gardens are comprised entirely of grasses, though some include flowering plants that float airily.  Redefining the designed landscape, climate-specific meadows dramatically reduce water use (compared to traditional landscape plantings or lawn) and reconstruct habitat for native birds and animals.  Meadows take skill to design correctly, but in the long-term are a low-maintenance way of taking ornamental grasses to a whole new level.

Meadow garden by John Greenlee of Greenlee and Associates, Northern California

Meadow Garden by John Greenlee, author of ‘The American Meadow Garden’

Photo: John Greenlee

For me, the draw of the meadow has to do with how meadows capture light and movement.  No other group of plants can do what grasses and grass ecologies do. John Greenlee

Backlit Calamagrostis 'Karl Foerster' young flower tufts

We couldn’t agree more that grasses are awesome!  Meadow gardens are an exciting new inspiration, and designing them requires understanding of the long-term changes that take place in a meadow ecosystem.  Not every site is ideal for this type of landscape, but we look forward to the future as we enter the new frontier of grasses in the landscape.

July 30th, 2018|Planting|