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Go for the Gold
updated: Jan 21, 2012, 9:45 AM

By Billy Goodnick

Go for the Gold: Alice Keck Park Memorial Garden in Winter

It's such a treat having a neighbor like Alice living just a few blocks away. Over the holidays, I leashed up Biff the Wonder Spaniel and took off to visit our old friend. Anyone who says gardens are boring unless they're bursting with flowers needs to pay attention to what Alice conjures up during the deep dark days of winter.

The pooch and I entered Alice Keck Park Memorial Garden through the upper Garden Street entrance. Although the garden's sole Maidenhair Tree (Ginkgo biloba) was nearly a block away across the park, its dense canopy of brilliant golden leaves almost poked my eyes out.

Ginkgos share some of the same character flaws many of us display: stubbornness and possessiveness. Ginkgos refuse to allow their foliage to flitter away leaf by leaf, like most well adjusted trees I could mention. These primordial characters (they date back to the Permian period, 270 million years ago) cling to their fall foliage like a protective parent dreading the first day of pre- school. Then, suddenly, they accept reality and all the leaves drop in about twelve seconds, or so it seems.

To my designer's eye, there's nothing like the flash of gold to enliven a winter garden. The same goes for the other warm colors: red, orange, and yellow, which

A few paces away, I snapped a textbook shot of this color scheme in action: Deep red Sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua), orange Chinese Pistache (Pistacia chinensis), and yellow Goldenrain Tree (Koelreuteria bipinnata). This color combination is infinitely scalable and can be recreated in a big flowerpot using bedding plants like salvia, calendula, and pansy.

I was trying to catch a close-up of the Ginkgo and thought there was something wrong with my camera's viewfinder. What looked like lens diffractions causing a green color shift turned out to be another plant in the foreground. In what appeared to be a case of "conspiracy to combine warm colors" (Section 13.105.02 in the Horticultural Code) this variegated flower maple (Abutilon pictum) figured it would be okay to mix it up with its neighbor. I get giddy when I see killer combos like this, where plants that have a strong unifying characteristic (in this case, yellow leaves), simultaneously create subtle contrasts conjured by variations in leaf shape. Add in the sparse sprinkling of apricot flowers and I almost had to lie down to regain my composure.

Zooming in, I caught the exquisitely delicate form the flower takes, like a Chihuly-inspired blown glass work of art. Abutilon is fairly easy to grow, as long as it has shelter from hot afternoon sun and gets a moderate amount of water. I've seen them successfully espaliered against a wall or pruned into an open, tree-like form as an attention grabbing focal point. You can see from this example how placing it alongside other plants with yellow foliage reinforces its warmth.

I know, I said Alice could put on a great winter show without the aid of flowers, but if you've got it, flaunt it, baby! Mexican marigold (Tagetes lemonnii) is a lacy, open shrub that, left unrestrained, grows about five feet tall and six to eight feet wide. I think they look horrid when sheared, so give this winter wonder enough real estate to do its thing. Heed this advice and you'll be rewarded with a dazzling display when the rest of your flowering shrubs are tucking themselves in until warmer weather. Even the foliage has a yellow-green cast, making it more striking when paired with dark green Bear's Breech (Acanthus mollis) in the background.

Alice can be a bit of a drama queen, too, as I noticed in the newly refurbished bed at the corner of Santa Barbara and East Micheltorena streets. That same idea of using two plants with both unifying as well as contrasting features is a great way to make a bold statement without descending into chaos.

That's what this flax attack is all about. I guess I don't have to put into words what you can plainly see in the image above. I wasn't able to confirm with Parks and Recreation staff the exact varieties they used, but my best guess would be Phormium ‘Yellow Wave' and P. ‘Black Adder'. (My plant ID ace in the hole is Randy Baldwin at San Marcos Growers , a regular reader of this column who gently corrects me when I go astray.) I'm also liking how the electrically red Dwarf Bottlebrush (Callistemon ‘Little John') punches up the tableau.

Now lean forward and scroll down.

Cool, huh?

I have a bunch more great images, but let's close up shop with this. Thanks to the magic of a telephoto lens, the seemingly monstrous flower stalks of Fox Tail Agave (Agave attenuata) form a solid frame for the Golden Torch Aloe (Aloe arborescens ‘Lutea') flowers poking through. These two ridiculously easy-to-grow plants fit seamlessly into any Mediterranean, contemporary, or eclectic style garden. They need no irrigation after the first couple of years and are pretty much pest-free.

Gonna run. I'll be speaking at the Northwest Flower and Garden Show in Seattle in two weeks (I'm sooooooo stoked!) and won't have time to post from the road, so expect to see a reprint of a moldy oldie. I promise it will be hand picked by me and expertly restored to its original showroom finish.

Later, skaters…

PS: My residential design class, Through the Green Gate and Into the Garden [http://sbcc.augusoft.net/index.cfm? method=ClassInfo.ClassInformation&int_class_id=7796&int_category_id=0&int_sub_ca tegory_id=0&int_catalog_id=0] kicks off the winter semester at 6 PM, Monday, January 23, at the Wake Center on Turnpike. Free on-line registration.


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