A recent visit to the Impressionist exhibit at the De Young Museum in Golden Gate Park left me thinking about the similarities between a wonderful canvas and a wonderful garden. Standing in front of a favorite painting, I find my eyes entering the visual field at a focal point, and then wandering on a pleasurable and seemingly random path. Following repeated colors, textures, and lines around the painting, my eyes stop or linger at certain points and return eventually to where I started. This exploration feels ordered and fulfilling, and the end point is conclusive, in the same way that the climax of a piece of music or a good story or play feels complete and resolved.
Something similar happens when I stand in front of a well-designed garden bed or border, and allow my eye to wander through the scene. Colors and textures repeat themselves, drawing me into the space, and there is a rhythm and order to the pathways my eyes follow through the visual field. The difference between a good garden design and a lovely canvas is that the garden is constantly changing. Each week of the year some of these effects will fade as others emerge, because the garden is made up of living plants going through their cycles of weather and season. Ideally as one effect fades, the next replaces it seamlessly, and each has the complexity and satisfaction of a good painting.
In our summer-dry climate, the most challenging time of the year for this transition is late summer, as the soils dry out for good and most of our Mediterranean climate plants end their growing season. Summer is the dormant time in our climate, just as winter is the dormant time in climates with frosty winters. When the garden is dormant, good design shows more than ever. A garden with “good bones” will have some structure and focal points that stay put even when the garden stops growing for the year. A good design also chooses and features a few plants that bloom or look particularly beautiful during the off-season.
Permanent structure and focal points can be provided with plants that have dramatic structure or foliage color. Phormiums and aloes with their spiky shapes are useful for grounding a design, and plants with dramatic foliage colors like red (Loropetalums and Euphorbias) or silver (Artemesias and lavenders) do not cycle out of attention like flowering plants. But what is a garden without flowers? There is a palette of flowering plants that can be relied on to bloom in dry soils in late summer, and many of these are blooming or getting ready to bloom now at GFE.
At GFE, the border by the sidewalk which runs all the way around the garden features Copper Canyon daisy and Lavatera maritima as foundation plants. Both of these large shrubs bloom freely almost year-round and anchor our border. These plants are looking good now, and don’t seem to mind the onset of dry soils. Our border also features plants that come into their own at this time of year. St. Catherine’s Lace is a late summer bloomer from our native plant palette. This shrub features neat grey foliage all year round followed by large flat lacy flowers which are budding now and will bloom until the end of warm weather. Lion’s tail, or Leonotis leonurus is another shrub which is budding now, and we can expect them to be covered with fuzzy orange blossoms soon, and until Halloween.
One of my favorite big flashy flowers for late summer/fall is our own California native, the Matilija poppy. Towering over me, these giant white poppies look like enormous sunny-side up fried eggs. They are blooming now in the California native garden at GFE. Verbena bonariensis is another giant, opening layers of flat topped purple flowers that hand high over other summer flowers like the nearby Shasta daisies on the 7th Avenue sidewalk. These are backed by the big, bright red flowers of the blood-red trumpet vine (Distictis buccinatoria) covering our fence. Smaller perennials that can be relied on to bloom in summer dry soils include the milkweeds, like the Asclepias curassavica blooming now in the drought-tolerant demonstration garden. Milkweeds come in colors varying from reds through oranges and yellow. Nearby the California fuchsia (Zauschneria) is getting ready to wow us with a flood of scarlet long-throated flowers that will get the full attention of our local hummingbirds.
Colorful, full and fresh looking gardens in summer-dry soils are challenging to design, but with the right plant selection, exciting effects can be produced on sturdy healthy plants. Take the time this summer to visit the GFE and see our summer-dry garden showing off.