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Pacific Northwest | April 17, 2005Pacific Northwest MagazineApril 17, home Home delivery

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Sensual, Sensibly
Withey and Price offer 10 indispensables that both excite and endure

Hamamelis 'Primavera'

Camellia sasanqua 'Apple Blossom'

Hakonechloa macra 'All Gold'

BICOASTAL GARDEN designers Glenn Withey and Charles Price took a minute from their job as curators at the E.B. Dunn Historic Garden to handily come up with a list of their 10 indispensable plants. Whether they're breeding hellebores or collaborating with Margaret Roach, editor-in-chief of Martha Stewart Living, on Roach's garden in upstate New York, these two are thinking and talking plants.

Since both men grew up in the Seattle area, and they tend to stay involved with their clients' gardens over many years, they know which plants perform best over time in our climate. As self-described "visual junkies," they're devoted to a garden's more sensual aspects of color, movement, texture and fragrance, ensuring there's nothing boring about their preferred plants.

The first selection highlights their appreciation for seasonal change and their loathing of a static garden. Hamamelis 'Primavera' is a favorite witch hazel for its cheery, bright-yellow flowers and sweet scent in the winter landscape. They use witch hazels as small tree substitutes in urban gardens, making sure to plant them so they're backlit by low beams of winter sunlight.

Ophiopogon planiscapus 'Nigrescens'

Helleborus x hybridus

Asarum europaeum

The second winter-bloomer on the list has glossy evergreen foliage. The shell-pink Camellia sasanqua 'Apple Blossom' is a vigorous, upright grower with large, showy flowers. Sasanquas do well in sun or shade, and the flowers on 'Apple Blossom' fall cleanly off the plant.

'All Gold' is a newer selection of the flowing yellow grass Hakonechloa macra, which does such a fine job of lighting up shady areas. It also thrives in sun when planted in heavier soil and watered regularly. "It's always well-behaved with no bug or disease problems," adds Withey, who advises planting this grass in drifts, rather than one at a time. Blue-leafed hostas are wonderfully contrasting companion plants.

Black mondo grass, Ophiopogon planiscapus 'Nigrescens' is a workhorse planted in nearly every garden they make. Black, narrow, strappy leaves contrast well with arums, snowdrops and Cyclamen coum. The black mondo doesn't mind summer shade and it's very dog proof (well, it survives most dogs) . . .

Also in the deeply-colored camp is the dark-flowered Helleborus x hybridus, which these guys have been instrumental in breeding and popularizing. To keep them from disappearing against bare winter soil, plant these hellebores so the sun shines through their leaves and petals.

Another small beauty is Asarum europaeum, which forms a ground-hugging mat with beautiful rounded evergreen leaves. Withey and Price pair this wild ginger with Pacific Coast iris, Iris foetidissima and small ferns. It does best with some shade and summer water.

Mahonia x media

To add "pow to a landscape dominated by blobby rhododendrons without taking up too much space," the designers chose Mahonia x media (any of the cultivars except 'Cantab' and 'Hope'). Bold, dramatic foliage is the plant's selling point, along with fragrant spikes of yellow blossoms in late fall to mid-winter, followed by blue fruit. Mahonia planted with sword ferns creates a nice echo effect.

Daphne is the shrub most chosen as indispensable; Withey and Price put Daphne odora 'Albo-marginata' on their list for its tantalizing late-winter fragrance. Afternoon shade is a good idea, as is pinching back the growth buds to encourage a dome shape.

I've been surprised that more maples haven't made the indispensable lists; Withey and Price chose Acer palmatum 'Orange Dream' for the intense color of its new foliage, which turns green in summer and then bright again in autumn. "If there's room, we plant multiple maples (not necessarily the same cultivars), to create a grove effect," says Withey.

Their final selection adds an international flavor to the list: a new Irish cultivar of the familiar yew. Taxus baccatta 'Aurea' has golden foliage and is slow-growing and narrowly upright. It is one of the few conifers that take shade, which means it won't object to having a clematis grown over it. "We enjoy using evergreen structure in gardens, especially when people are into 'collecting,' " Withey says. "Using evergreen anchoring plants, in repeats, but not necessarily formally, can help tie an otherwise hodge-podge garden together."

Ouch — but indispensable advice from the experts.

Valerie Easton is a Seattle free-lance writer and contributing editor for Horticulture magazine. Her e-mail address is Paul Schmid is a Seattle Times news artist.

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