You’ve Got It Covered: 8 Plants to Protect from Frost

Hebe 'Amy'

Hebe ‘Amy’

The first frost of autumn snuck up on Seattle this year. It came almost a week earlier than usual and came in hard. This morning, my outdoor thermometer read 26 degrees at eight o’clock. I was thankful I’d covered my more tender plants. But if you haven’t covered yours, it’s still not too late to do it.

Many of the most common yard plants you don’t need to cover. Throwbacks from the ’70s like lilacs, escallonia, rhododendrons, camellias, abelias, azaleas, barberries, euonymous don’t need protection, but some of the more tropical looking, trendier shrubs that are happier in Zone 8B to Zone 9 do. Here’s a gallery of 8 shrubs that are worth growing in Seattle but usually need protection from frost, especially in the outlying areas. (The city is a bit warmer.) You may have planted one of these because you, like me, were enchanted by their gorgeous foliage and/or beautiful blossoms or you simply inherited them when you bought your house. Keep in mind, these are different from cannas, dahlias, salvias, bananas, phormiums, tetrapanax, melianthus and other tender plants that just need mulch around their roots rather than coverage overhead. And that’s really all you need to do to protect these plants: just throw an old sheet or some other lightweight, preferably light-colored material, not plastic, over the top of the plant, then if needed, weigh down a few corners with clothes pins. All tucked in. Just don’t forget to remove the sheets when the nighttime lows warm up to 33 degrees or above after a few days.

Cistus crispus 'Sunset'

Cistus crispus ‘Sunset.’ Photo from the OSU Plant Database.

Ceanothus 'El Dorado.' Courtesy of OSU Plant Database

Ceanothus ‘El Dorado.’ Courtesy of OSU Plant Database

Lavandula stoechas

Lavandula stoechas

Rosmarinus 'Tuscan Blue'

Rosmarinus ‘Tuscan Blue’

Choisya 'Aztec Pearl'

Choisya ‘Aztec Pearl’

Fatsia japonica. Photo from OSU Plant Database.

Fatsia japonica. Photo from OSU Plant Database.

Aucuba Japonica 'Mr. Goldstrike'

Aucuba japonica ‘Mr. Golstrike,’ also ‘Gold Dust’ and ‘Picturata’

Oklahoma Redbud: Under Appreciated, Overly Special


A Kwanzan Cherry tree, Oklahoma Redbud tree, and Bronze New Zealand Flax

Most gardeners are familiar with the Eastern Redbud, Cercis canadensis, with its stunning magenta flowers that bloom on bare wood in early spring. It has some interesting relatives like Cercis canadensis ‘Forest Pansy’ and ‘Merlot’ with their purplish leaves, ‘Little Woody’ with its dwarf form and crinkly foliage, ‘Hearts of Gold’ with its yellow leaves, and the weeping ‘Covey’ that’s also known as ‘Lavender Twist.’ It seems there’s a redbud out there for each person’s taste.

One growing misconception I’ve come across in Seattle is that this tree likes to bake in full, hot sun. It’s true that the Eastern Redbud is a tough native from the lower Midwest, hardy down to Zone 5, but I’ve found that most Eastern Redbuds appreciate a little afternoon shade. This can sometimes be limiting if you want a compact tree for a parking strip or city backyard.

Enter Cercis canadensis var. texensis ‘Oklahoma.’ This redbud still gets gorgeous magenta flowers on bare branches in spring and like other Eastern Redbuds, its form is on the smaller side, but unlike other Eastern Redbuds, ‘Oklahoma’ has highly glossy, highly rounded leaves that are a beaming green. This coating must give the tree its extra toughness, because I’ve grown two of these lovely trees in hot sun and they haven’t missed a beat. One still grows on a parking strip where I watered rarely in summer. It never wilted or lost older foliage. The other grows beside my driveway, in the sunniest location of my yard. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve watered these trees during their first spring and summers on hot days. But once it’s established, ‘Oklahoma’ takes care of itself. It needs pruning rarely, growing in a tight, almost lollipop kind of shape, and is very disease-resistant. Plus, the fall color is stunning! A bright yellow that pairs well with Viburnum plicatum var. tomentosum ‘Mariesii’ or Rhus typhina ‘Tiger Eyes,’ or Itea virginica. It doesn’t like wet soil but it loves the rain we have in Seattle. If you have a well-draining area in your yard, try planting this under appreciated tree. It deserves to be in the spotlight.

Put Favorite Plants in Frequented Places

X Fatshedera lizei 'Annemieke'

X Fatshedera lizei ‘Annemieke’

If there’s one bit of advice I can give to somewhat experienced DIY gardeners (in which I mean folks who are already familiar with the Right Plant, Right Place concept and utilizing shrubs for structure), it’s to plant your favorite plants near the areas of your yard that you frequent. For instance, the point at which you park your car every night would be a good spot, or where you enter your home (at the front door, side door, back, wherever). We often don’t think about these highly used points because we’re distracted by the task of coming home from somewhere or leaving to get somewhere. But these are the places you see the most in your yard and therefore, what grows there, or doesn’t, can make you momentarily happy, or depressed.

As a designer, I always make sure these spaces are well covered in terms of plants that make my clients happy. And I’ve tried to live this philosophy as well. I’ve put an Edgeworthia chrysantha in a container by my patio door (so I can see it in winter through the window and smell it when I step out) and putting a Callicarpa bodinieri ‘Profusion’ on either side of my front door. Its purple berries and purple new foliage cheer me up and draw in visitors.

Of course, you need to take into account whether a plant will be happy in the conditions posed by whatever area you’re addressing. Does it have enough shade or sun? Is it in a frosty patch in winter? Will the dog trample it as it’s running around the corner (as is the case with my Arachniodes simplicor ‘Variegata’)? A few years ago, I transplanted one of my most favorite plants from the back of my yard to a shallow border by my side door and driveway. I love X Fatshedera lizei ‘Annemieke’ for its dark green Fatsia-bred leaves that hold bursts of chartreuse and yellow at their centers. It’s a three-colored, variegated plant! And the glossy foliage stays freshly evergreen all-year-round in the Northwest maritime climate. It grows in a floppy vine-like way (hence the Hedera part) but the branches are stiff enough to prop up. It’s also easily shapeable.

I took a chance with this plant because it doesn’t like afternoon sun much and I have some of that in summer. It does get shade after about 3:30pm. It’s just north of a Drymis winteri ‘Pewter’s Pillar,’ which as that grows, will shade the Fatshedera more and more from the hot afternoon. So far, it’s worked out well. The Fatshedera is happy having the fence to lean against and I’m happy to see it when I walk out my side door every day.


Great Plants for Small Gardens

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A cozy Seattle garden

In late June, I created a plantscape for a client with a very small yard, the smallest one I’ve ever worked on. She has a deck and a lovely set of risers dropping down to a tiny flagstone patio. That’s it for the back yard. The yard faces south and west so it’s hot and dry most of the summer. And luckily has nicely draining soil.

Because the borders are at most five feet deep and more often three, I chose trees, shrubs and perennials that I knew would grow either in a tall, narrow manner or in tight mounds. Here are some of the plants I used:

Physocarpus 'Little Devil'

Physocarpus ‘Little Devil’

Physocarpus opulifolius ‘Little Devil’ (also called ‘Donna May’). Most gardeners are familiar with the larger Physocarpus (or Ninebark) cultivars that grow ten to fifteen tall when happy. They’re wonderful shrubs to use because they come in various foliage colors and if you need to screen something fast, Physocarpus will do the job. They’re also super tough plants.

The problem with Physocarpus is they can take over your border. But recently, some smaller cultivars have debuted and they’re very exciting. ‘Amber Jubilee’ has orangey-yellow foliage, ‘Tiny Wine’ is a dwarf bronzy plant. ‘Little Devil’ tops out at about four or five feet and grows almost as wide. It has gorgeous burgundy foliage and light pink to white flowers. In winter, when the leaves drop, it shows off pretty, peeling bark. A great choice when you want a focal point but don’t want to wrestle with a hedge trimmer every year. It’s also hardy down to Zone 2. Full sun.

Spiraea 'Magic Carpet'

Spiraea ‘Magic Carpet’

Another small shrub I use often for clients (whether they have a large or small garden) is Spiraea ‘Magic Carpet.’ I can not praise this shrub enough. Spiraeas generally are workhorses of the garden. They like full sun, require little pruning, rarely get diseases, and bloom in usually pink or white corymbs that attract butterflies. Plus, in Spring, spiraeas are usually the first shrubs to leaf out and in ‘Magic Carpet”s case, leafs out with new orange growth. The more established leaves are yellow at this time, making for a beautiful contrast. I took this photo in early September. Notice how it’s still held this color combination so late in the season. ‘Magic Carpet’ is handy for any place where you want a low shrub that will grow in a tight mound while adding interest to the landscape.

Buddleia 'Blue Chip'

Buddleia ‘Blue Chip’

Buddleia davidii is now listed as a noxious weed along the West Coast so growers have been creating new sterile varieties and one such variety is ‘Blue Chip’ (also known as Lo and Behold). This is a smaller, more compact version of a regular buddleia but it blooms just as profusely with a light purple color. It too attracts butterflies. And I love that it blooms usually until frost. It just goes and goes. Again, no diseases, needs little pruning (one can cut it back to about a foot every few years if so desired), and doesn’t get leggy or oversized. Loves hot sun. Notice how my client played off its pretty purple color by adding that bold blue gazing ball. It really pops now.

Stewartia pseudocamellia

Stewartia pseudocamellia

One tree I like to plant a lot for clients is Stewartia monadelpha or Stewartia pseudocamellia. I think Stewartias are the most underappreciated trees out there. They can get to about twenty feet after several years but as far as small gardens go, they are the best.

What I like most about them is they grow in a flattish, behaved pattern. They don’t grow out on all sides, they just grow in more of a flattish oval or V shape. Therefore, they’re great for along a fence line or for screening. They can take full sun without missing a beat but also do just fine in part-shade. Mine have always been very drought tolerant. Plus, outside of some dead inner twigs on monadelpha, I’ve barely ever pruned a Stewartia. They get fragrant white flowers in June, then show off their either cinnamon or grayish dappled bark in winter. But the real show stopper is Stewartia’s fall color. It’s a brilliant orange that lasts for weeks!


Ceanothus ‘Dark Star’

I’m a fan of all Ceanothus shrubs that are hardy in the Northwest (and even some that aren’t). One of my all-time favorites is ‘Julia Phelps.’ For this client’s yard though I chose Ceanothus ‘Dark Star’ because of its lower height. There’s a window that we didn’t want to block and ‘Dark Star’ will accommodate this situation by growing wider than tall. It gets to about six feet tall and maybe eight feet wide. In May or June, it blooms in tight dark blue flowers that bees absolutely adore. They will cover it and work their magic. It smells wonderful. ‘Dark Star’ is a bit tender, hardy to Zone 8, but in a warm Seattle garden with well-drained soil it will do just fine over the winter. The only pruning Ceanothus require is the occasional cleaning out of lower dead twigs. But it can be shaped if need be. I like it better left as is, with its wild sprays jutting out. Pairs well with smoke bushes, spiraeas, phormiums, etc. Evergreen.

Loropetalum chinense 'Rubra'

Loropetalum chinense ‘Rubra’

I’d be remiss in talking about smaller shrubs if I didn’t mention Loropetalum. There are several cultivars of Loropetalum but I like Loropetalum chinense ‘Rubra.’

It holds its purple foliage throughout summer the best, I’ve found. (Can you tell I like purple plants?) And pair it with a Spanish lavender or Blue Oat Grass or even that ‘Magic Carpet’ Spiraea and you immediately have a stunning contrast. Loropetalums grow in a cascading mound, getting a bit wider and teeny bit taller every year. To about three feet or so. They’re sort of flopsy but their best quality is the spider-like blossoms (they’re a witch hazel relative) that are hot magenta. Gotta love that.

Two last plants I’ll spotlight, which I don’t have portraits of, are Chamaecyparis nootkatensis ‘Green Arrow’ and Carpinus betulus ‘Frans Fontaine.’ You can see a bit of the ‘Green Arrow’ cedar in the picture at the top of this page. It’s an evergreen that grows in a tight spire but has pendulous branches, making for a Dr. Seuss-like effect. Very cool looking. It only gets about three or four feet wide so if you want something tall but not wide, it’s perfect. It’s also virtually maintenance free and highly drought tolerant.

The ‘Frans Fontaine’ or Columnar Hornbeam is an outstanding deciduous tree that grows in a tight column. Carpinus trees usually have an elegantly spaced scaffolding and this cultivar is no exception. I used this tree to screen out my client’s neighbor’s gas meter. It will grow only to about six feet wide and about 20 feet tall while maintaining its narrow football crown. It likes full sun and if given that, will turn a pretty yellow color in fall.

Other great plants to explore for small gardens are: Weigela ‘Midnight Wine,’ Chamaecyparis ‘Blue Surprise,’ Cistus crispus ‘Sunset,’ and Acer palmatum ‘Sango Kaku.’

The Lake Forest Park Garden Tour, Revisited

My sunny mixed island bed.

My sunny mixed island bed.


Rodgersia in bloom in Michelle LeMoine’s garden.

Every June, the Lake Forest Park garden club organizes a tour of six beautiful gardens in our little town. Lake Forest Park is one of Seattle’s oldest suburbs and features a huge, gorgeous canopy of native trees. Many properties are hidden amidst these trees, sometimes even fully hidden as my house is. So it makes sense that the tour’s called “The Secret Gardens of Lake Forest Park.”

This year, I had the honor and work of opening my garden to the public. It was an exhausting but fun experience. I worked most spare hours in the garden for four and a half months and the result though was gratifying. The pressure to show my garden to the public motivated me to finish the projects I’d been putting off these last couple of years. Though my garden is a young garden as we’ve only been in our house for three years, the garden still looked better than ever with all spaces planted, weeded, mulched and decorated. I could have done even more, but I was just too … darn … tired. Instead, I called it good on the eve of the tour and enjoyed the festivities. I even managed to visit a few other gardens.

I’m always inspired when I see other gardens on a tour. The vision that manifests itself in a garden reflects one’s personality and tastes, so when you visit, you’re peeking inside someone’s soul. You discover what they love, how they live, what’s important to them. The garden of Michelle LeMoine was wonderful with its large-leaved plants and unusual conifers. Carolyn Barden, who I think of as the Grand Dame of LFP gardening, sprinkles her forested garden with whimsy via original works of art and the naming of spaces.

Carolyn Barden's honeysuckle passage.

Carolyn Barden’s honeysuckle passage.

Carolyn lives on the property she grew up on and knows well the history of not only her acreage, but of much of our neighborhood — going all the way back to when folks mostly rode on horses to get around. Vicki Scuri’s hillside garden features a rain garden and lovely meandering paths. Mike Munro, son of Jerry Munro of Munro’s Nursery in Kenmore, WA, had a collection of rare plants, many of which I hadn’t seen before. (Unfortunately, I ran out of photo battery that day.) I also ran out of time and ended up missing the Pederson garden, so if anyone out there has photos, I’d love to include them.

Participating in the tour gave me an appreciation of the work that goes into organizing it. On garden tour day, there’s not just a tour but a huge plant sale in our Town Center. At least a dozen specialty nurseries come. Gardening radio personality Ciscoe Morris broadcasts his show from there. It’s a giant horti festival. My friend Angela and I managed to step into the fray for a bit, shopping for plants, chatting up Ciscoe. At the end of the day, I went to sleep feeling like Miss Garden America, overly showered with attention and satisfied with all of the work I’d done.

The Okarikomi hedge in Vicki Scuri's garden.

The Okarikomi hedge in Vicki Scuri’s garden.