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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
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.
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
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.
PS: My residential design class, Through the Green Gate and Into the Garden
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.
Billy Goodnick is a nice guy who knows a lot about plants and garden stuff.
Looking for design ideas and cool plants? Subscribe to Billy's e-mail newsletter by dropping him a line at
Comments in order of when they were received | (reverse order)
2012-01-21 09:54 AM
I must go to visit Alice today!
2012-01-21 09:58 AM
thanks for reminding me of 'Little John'. I want to include it in my front yard makeover.
2012-01-21 10:12 AM
I agree, I must visit Alice soon - these pictures are beautiful.....
2012-01-21 12:11 PM
Great shots of the Park!...When I go, I love to take photos of the fauna, it's nice to see your images of how beautiful the flora can be, thanks!
2012-01-21 09:37 PM
beautiful photos, thanks for the reminder to visit Alice Keck Park Park!
2012-01-22 09:40 AM
What an eye you have!
2012-01-22 09:43 AM
Bill, it appears that you are not only the consummate gardener and botanist but a very talented and inspired photographer as well. Thank you for a wonderful pictorial essay on this lovely park.
2012-01-22 11:56 AM
Randy Baldwin didn't let me down. Looks like I batter .500. The light colored flax is indeed Phormium 'Yellow Wave' but the dark one is Phormium 'Rubrum'. The plants in the park were purchased from San Marcos Growers. Can't get a better source than that.
And thanks for all the photo kudos. I shoot about 100 shots each visit, get lucky and find a few I can use.
2012-01-22 12:47 PM
Magnificent! But where is Bif the Wonder Spaniel?
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