January 2007
Less is More In Garden Design By Nicholas Staddon

It’s a bit counter intuitive for those of us in the business of selling plants to be excited about minimalist gardens, but lately I’ve had my eyes opened to the ever-growing trend of the simple, contemporary garden. Perhaps it’s because more homes are being built with smaller gardens, or maybe it’s because homeowners are looking for an easy-care solution to their outdoor living spaces. Or it could just be a desire for a more water-wise design.

Whatever the reasons, we’re seeing an increase in the number of gardens with a sleek, architectural prominence that has a heavy emphasis on architectural plants that are incorporated into hardscapes of stone, wood and concrete. Water features, sculptures and containers are important in the minimalist garden, and we are seeing more of the modern metal furniture that complements outdoor stainless appliances. Plants are still an important component, of course, and a striking design can actually highlight and dramatize the select plant varieties. As Asian gardens have always illustrated, we are more likely to notice a plant’s stunning attributes when it is not competing against scores of other plants for attention.

Minimalistic Types

Architectural plants. As growers, we are finding more dwarf varieties that are well suited to containers — new types of shrubs and trees with a tidy habit — and dramatic, architectural plants that can be a focal point in the modern garden. Architectural refers to plants that have large leaves, interesting foliage, and a strong and distinctive shape. They are plants that make a bold statement in the landscape and are loved by landscape architects and designers who want plants that fit into a cutting- edge design.

Upright trees. Trees in a minimalist garden tend to have a more upright habit, so they become a structural element. Their canopies are not too large, and there may be several in a row to create a hedge effect.

Simple containers. Containers are a standard in the minimalist garden but not containers overflowing with flowering and trailing plants. The look tends to be a single plant that is neat and tidy (like a topiary or a trimmed boxwood) or upright plants that are chosen for their drama (such as architectural tropicals like phormiums, yuccas, agaves and cordylines).

Tropicals. Phormium, or New Zealand flax, Á look great in the landscape, too. These evergreens have clump-forming foliage and range from 18 inches to 4 ft. high. They’re tough as can be and quite happy in a range of conditions, from tropical to cool and full sun to light shade. There are plenty of new varieties that have been introduced recently, with a wide range of foliage color from reds, deep purples and golden greens.

We are seeing a growing demand for cordylines, which also originated in New Zealand. These tropical-looking plants have sword-like leaves that can reach upwards of 5 ft. long. They make great specimens for the architectural look and do very well in containers.

Yuccas are wonderful for creating a sleek, architectural look. Their tough, sword-shaped leaves, topped by very tall stalks of whitish flower clusters, make a striking silhouette. Much more cold hardy, yuccas are grown all over North America, down to a Zone 4. There are some beautiful, variegated varieties out there that are full of some great colors. Rather than the typical yucca upright shape, its soft leaves cascade from a clumping rosette. Its foliage has a golden center and bold, gray-green edges. Huge spikes up to 4 ft. tall produce very long-lasting flowers. This Western native is used in a hot, dry climate, so it is ideal for a drought-tolerant landscape.

We have seen a significant increase in sales of agaves in the past few years. These succulents have all the characteristics of great architectural plants. They have large clumps of fleshy, strap-shaped leaves that range from twisty and curly to thick and spiky. The twin-flowered Agave geminiflora has a rich green coloring and stiff globular shape. Its leaves are thinner than most agaves — just one-half-inch wide — and have added texture of fine white filaments. With maturity, leaf density reaches in the hundreds, yet continues to produce a precise, tidy form. This agave is somewhat small in stature, just 2 ft. tall and wide, so it is ideal for small gardens and containers.

Other great choices are the Agave desmettiana, which has a gorgeous urn-shaped rosette with a soft appearance. Its blue-green foliage is variegated with bright yellow margins. The Agave guiengola is a thick-leafed variety with pale blue, almost white coloration. It has very striking contrasting spines for great architectural value.

Topiary shapes. While the architectural tropicals are big on the West Coast, the minimalist garden in colder climates features evergreens with a range of blues, grays and silvers. Topiary shapes are very eye catching in the minimalist garden, and some of the latest shapes feature special forms that combine traditional topiary shapes — squares with spirals, poodles and cones — with new, modern designs.

Cooler Climates

Specimen plants. In cold climates, specimen plants with year-round interest work well, such as the Harry Lauder’s Walking Stick (Corylus avellana), with its highly twisted form; the red twig dogwood, with its coral-colored branches; and interstem cherry trees, with exfoliating bark, look super in the minimalist winter garden.

Fruit trees. I’ve seen the demand for espaliers increase tremendously in the past few years. Espalier fruit trees like quince and ornamental pear look great against a stark, painted wall. Pyracantha works well and provides flowers or berries most of the year.

Tidy shrubs. Shrubs that maintain a tidy appearance are suited to the modern garden. The kohuhu (Pittosporum tenuifolium) is a new dwarf variety that stays small and round with very little pruning required. There are a plethora of boxwood varieties that require very little attention with their upright and compact habits.

Be Creative

Of course, there are dozens of other plants with wonderful architectural attributes that your customers might love, such as clumping bamboos, palms, bromeliads, cacti, echium, musa and cycads. I think this is a very exciting trend in gardening, and we’re finding that gardeners of all levels are eager to try new looks, new plant varieties and really experiment and try things they’ve seen in design magazines and at flower and garden shows.

Try making recommendations to your customers and steer them toward some local designers or design books. One book I find riveting is The Minimalist Garden by Christopher Bradley-Hole. Consider store displays with some of these varieties planted in eye-catching containers as focal points. Because architectural plants have a distinctive look, tend to be larger and sometimes more exotic, there is a perceived high value, allowing retailers to get a premium price for these plants. Basically, a trend you’ll want to get behind!

Nicholas Staddon

Nicholas Staddon is director of new plants at Monrovia Growers. He can be reached at (800) 666-9321.


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