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Green Lake's Streetwise Gardener: Shape up your garden with umbels, spikes, and cones

What do you think? Comments Off July 30, 2010 at 2:59PM

There are so many ways to design your garden: around color, bloom time, fragrance, or themes – and here’s the latest: garden-by-shapes.  It’s as simple as painting a color-by-number cowboy, and the only trick you need to learn is how to see your plants’ shapes in growth and flower.

Designers Piet Oudolf and Noel Kingsbury have written several books championing this style, which weaves a naturalistic tapestry as easy on the eye as it is on the cerebral cortex.

A variety of spikes, balls and arches makes for a visual feast, as shown in these pictures:

There, however, some vocabulary that is helpful to learn:  You can choose to play with flower shapes and/or growth patterns; here are some common terms.  Note that irises have spike-shaped flowers, but vase-shaped overall growth.

Flower Shapes:

Globes, balls – rounded; think: pompom (echinops, knautia, eryngium, and nigella)

Spikes – tall vertical spires (ornamental salvia, foxglove, Canterbury bells, hollyhocks, iris)

Umbels – flat-topped ovals, short for the term “umbel lifers” (large sedums, yarrow (achillea), spirea, lace-cap hydrangea)

Whorls – ball-shaped flowers arranged in spiraling clusters on the stem (bee balm (monarda), phlomis)

The spiky sea holly in the author's garden is softened by ethereal pony-tail grass.

Plant Forms:

Globose - round

Vase/Fountain/Arching – like a jet of water going up and out (Iris, many grasses, lilac shrubs, and blueberry shrubs)

Multistemmed – what it says

Cones:- ditto (many conifers)

Standard – single trunk with a ball-like cluster of branches at the top

Upright - growth mainly upright; can be vase-shaped or columnar

Horizontal, Spreading – growth mainly horizontal, often in tiers (Dogwood trees, doublefile viburnum

Columnar, Fastigiate –narrow vertical exclamation points (some forms of yew, hornbeam, serviceberry, gingko and more).

Weeping – Similar to fountain -up in the center, down on the sides.

Try these to see what shapes you have already: 1. squint to fuzzy away the details. leaving the outlines; or 2. take a photo of your garden, lay tracing paper over it and trace over the main contours of the plants.

Putting these together is the fun part.  As with any design project, you can opt for contrast or symmetry.  With plant shapes, keep an eye on the overall picture – many rounded shrubs together can read as a blob, and a garden of all verticals may look like a giant bed of nails.

If you currently have a blob, jazz it up with a cluster of arching Miscanthus grass, or spikes of kniphofia (red-hot-poker), maybe in the corner, or 1/3 of the way into the bed, a bit off center.. (It’s more intriguing than placing an accent smack center stage.)

For contrast, you might match a low flat cotoneaster with some vase-shaped iris.  High Country Gardens even offers a balanced “Spikes and Umbels” combo of salvia and yarrow.

For more subtle symmetrical combinations inviting close inspection, try combining flowers of similar shape.  Here a Green Lake gardener combines several ball-shaped flowers which tie the disparate plants together, while making the viewer look twice to notice the small ways they differ.

This kind of garden design lends a visual unity that pleases people, and, I learned on the June 22 episode of KUOW’s Greendays Garden Panel with Steve Scher, pollinators too.  Apparently, drifts of a single plant type attract more bees and other helpful pollinators than individual sentinels sprinkled through the garden.  It’s just more efficient for the bees to stop at a cluster of salvia than to search here and there for individual plants – they’re likely to pass spotty gardens by.

So take a new look at your garden – and consider shaping it up.

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Read more My Green Lake articles written by Erica Browne Grivas, freelance journalist for hire.

Check out Erica’s blog In the Details for more garden adventures.

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