Stairstep plants for cascades of color

One of my favorite spots in our area is Lake Crescent. Standing on the dock of the lodge, I look past the water to the mountains. My eye travels from the first one, to the one behind it, then another layered behind that one. Most distant is the deepest purple, almost a black. The mountains closest are the greenest, with reflected light from both the water and the sky.

As gardeners, we try to

capture the three-dimensional aspect of such a scene. Rather than planting single bushes here and there, we try to have our borders deep enough to hold at least three or four layers of plants.

It's somewhat akin to getting a large gathering together for a family photograph. Most of the time, we have the shortest plants in front and the tallest in the back.

As we work to add depth to our garden, we must read plant labels carefully in order to see a plant's height. We then place it where, in maturity, it will be most visible.

Very few bushes are specimen plants that stand alone, yet often we see a single rhododendron, pieris or nandina on its own or in a soldiers-at-attention line. Since all of them tend to become leggy, we have a one-dimensional planting, with no depth. Most shrubs work best when incorporated into a border.

Picture rhododendrons, pieris or nandina (all about

4 feet high) as the background of a garden border, as a top step, where tall Uncle John is designated to stand in a family photo. Then plant two or three more steps of plants, the shortest step at the front edge of the border. Medium height plants such as euphorbias, ferns, lavenders, astilbes, cranesbill geraniums, artemesias, penstemons and some ornamental grasses can fill in the middle of the border.

In the foreground, where relatives kneel for that photograph, are plants up to 11/2 feet tall, such as pulmonarias, dwarf narcissus, epimediums, geums, ladies' mantle, etc.

By stairstepping the plants in a border, we not only get depth but added textural and seasonal interest. As leaves and stems from bulbs become yellow, they can be hidden somewhat among other plants and don't become such a yellowing eyesore.

After we've worked on the three-dimensional aspect of our border by stairstepping our plantings in order to create a sense of depth, we then can work for a richness of color. An inexpensive color wheel can be an indispensable aid.

The wheel looks like a clock, where hot, warm colors are grouped, from reds, oranges and yellows, to the greens and finally to the cool blues, violet and purples. We can choose harmonious plantings or complementary ones.

Colors that are next to each other are harmonious, hues that soothe and relax us. An example of harmonious would be rosemary, heliotrope and ornamental cabbage, all shades of purple.

Colors that are opposite are complementary - orange and purple, green and red, yellow and blue-violet. These color combinations add vibrancy to our garden, especially in shaded areas. A combination I always love in the summer is around Tootsie's, where crocosmia (orange) and lavender (blue violet) mingle side by side.

Grays, such as artemesias and santolina, work with any arrangement. Dark colors, such as deep purples, fade and become almost invisible unless set against a light background. Whites, unlike dark purples, stand out in a garden.

Texture in a garden is sometimes hard to define, yet extremely important. Perhaps it's easier to understand if we analyze fabrics.

Lace is airy and transparent, delicate to the point it can tear easily. Then there is velvet, a durable fabric, rich in sheen. Upholstery material, in contrast, is nubbed and tightly woven so it can withstand a great deal of wear and tear.

Lacy, soft-textured plants such as astillbe, thyme and some ornamental grasses contrast nicely with coarsely-textured plants like phormiums and sea hollies. Just imagine mahonia, sea holly, irises and Japanese rush planted next to one another. The spiky, rough textures would not invite the eye to linger. Many plants have several textures, such as daphnes with their woody stems and soft blossoms.

Scenes that have depth, color variations and texture become still-lifes in our minds. I also love coming from the east on U.S. Highway 101 near Diamond Point Road where I can see the green of the valley with a backdrop of the layered mountains.

Greens and purples are the palette and rough craggy mountains stand in contrast to soft grassy valleys. As gardeners, we learn from nature and our gardens become transformed.

Bev Hoffman's Sequim Gazette column appears the first Wednesday of each month. She can be reached via e-mail at

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