Nan K. Chase is co-author, with DeNeice C. Guest, of Drink the Harvest: Making and Preserving Juices, Wines, Meads, Teas, and Cider. She has started collecting boxwood and ferns for her Asheville, N.C., garden.
 

 
 

Green on Green
by Nan K. Chase - posted 06/28/17

This green-on-green landscape has it all: variations in height, shade and texture.


Sometimes we go overboard with color in the garden: carpets of pastel bulbs in spring, big bold patches of orange and red and purple in summer, and then washes of crimson and gold in fall.

If it’s a crime to plant loads of color, then I plead guilty. Color just feels good. Or does it?

The last few years during my morning walks around my neighborhood, I began to notice that my eyes were continually seeking out green-on-green gardens, landscapes that relied on nothing for their beauty other than year-round evergreens and perhaps a lawn area and some especially bright green summer additions.

These islands of green, especially when well maintained and planted in harmonious combinations of shape, size, texture and tone, are so calming to the eye. Winter, spring, summer, fall: A green-on-green garden looks lush and healthy, elegant on any size property.

During my walks, as season followed season, I noted that all of the most appealing green gardens had several specific components:

 

Embrace the shade by planting this classic composition: ferns, moss and hydrangeas.

Composition and Definition
The composition – the mix of plants and their placement – in any green-on-green garden usually falls into one of two categories: uniformity of color and texture for a smooth and ultra-calming feel, or a crazy quilt of contrasting shade and texture (all green, mind you) to create visual stimulation.

On a large lot, particularly one with a large house, the uniform look is undeniably regal. Wide plantings of just a few species create a stunning backdrop for a single specimen tree with a splash of color; say, a Japanese maple set amid an expanse of low pines and ferns.

Even a small yard can have a much grander feel if it contains a mix of plants that draws the eye here and there or strong contrasts, such as a closely-cropped boxwood hedge.

In any case, what I call definition is the practice of separating each plant from its neighbor with a ribbon of space, a little gap where pruning leaves just an inch of air. Plant as many different things as you like, but make sure to keep them looking sharp by defining each one.


This long view of the Virginia plantation Gunston Hall includes a sweep of lawn, billowing boxwood and well-spaced evergreen and deciduous trees – a symphony in green.


Form: Shape and Height
Remember that evergreen plants can range from just a few inches tall, in the case of mosses and sedums and ivies, to hundreds of feet high, such as the largest conifers. In between those extremes, you will find endless variety. As you shop for plants to design a green-on-green garden, be sure to note the estimated mature heights of all plants in order to create fullness and privacy without too much overlapping vegetation.

And keep in mind that some plants are naturally slender, some are low and spreading, while others grow into rounded or conical forms or may even trail over a wall or container. Don’t crowd too many of the same form together, but fit different shapes around each other for maximum depth and finesse.


A shady all-green landscape plan brings the temperature way down, no matter how hot the setting, and the slightly shaggy look makes it easy to relax underneath the boughs.


Color: Tone and Shading
So many greens! Boxwood … consider those shapely branches a standard “medium green.” But green includes so many other shades – from almost white to nearly black, yellow green, blue green, pale creamy green, light clear green, dark green that blends into purple, and on and on.

With so many greens, it’s easy to end up with a muddled look when designing a green garden. Plant only what you really like – preferably in just a few shades – until you decide how plants look together through the seasons. I like sharp contrast, like a bright mid-green hosta next to the dark leaves of rhododendron, or a blue-green hosta next to fresh green ferns.

Think of greens as a fashion statement. The medium green of boxwood is like denim: It goes with everything, from hot chartreuse green to the shadowy underside of Bosnian pine (Pinus leucodermis).


The formal garden at North Carolina’s Tryon Palace is rich with textures and shades of green – from the lightest green hydrangea blossoms, through the green of boxwood, to the darkest green undersides of bay laurel (foreground).


Texture: Mix or Match
Consider a magnolia, a holly tree or a rhododendron; the leaves are glossy and actually reflect a lot of light. Conifers may have a rough, shaggy texture that absorbs light. Ferns are airy and move in the slightest breeze, whereas cacti and yuccas are generally rigid and have fine tendrils or clumps of spines that throw their own delicate shadows and hold winter’s snow in sculptural patterns.

Use texture as a way to extend the green garden, since the same shade of green may actually appear in many different “looks” depending on surface texture.


This streetscape offers shades of green even in late winter, before most trees have leafed out. Various shades of evergreens are punctuated by the bright spots of color of a white pine.


Green Groupings
What to plant? Here are plant groupings that may give you some new ideas. A green-on-green landscape needs strong evergreen structure: height, width, shape, and density or openness of branch structure.

Bowwood can provide much-needed structure in a green-on-green garden. Boxwood can live hundreds of years and survive low winter temperatures.

Boxwood (Buxus spp.) or holly (Ilex spp.): What’s the difference? There are many boxwood cultivars, the same with holly. In some cases they look nearly identical and can function the same way: an evergreen backbone that can be massed and shaped any way you like, or left to grow naturally. An easy way to tell them apart is by leaf arrangement: Boxwood have opposite leaves, while holly have alternate leaves. Boxwood growth is softer; holly more stiff.

Hosta: Made for shade, hostas come in every green imaginable, with a huge variations in leaf size, shape and colors. It can be fun to bring something new into the garden and then watch it take hold.

Ferns: A large planting of ferns can brighten up a dark corner of a green-on-green garden. There is an amazing range of size, shapes and textures. Once established, they fill in quickly.

Conifers: This is a group of plants with endless interest. Look to dwarf conifers that won’t grow out of bounds; some are even small enough to grow in containers.

Cacti and friends: Are deer a problem where you live? They might leave cacti alone, and you can enjoy their phenomenal shapes unfolding all year. As wildflowers, many cactus varieties can withstand freezing temperatures as well as hot beach sand. The same goes for handsome Yucca filamentosa, which is available in both green and variegated forms.

Spineless succulent plants are also available in many shapes and colors, so mix them into the green garden here and there.

Green flowers: Many summer favorites come in green or near-green shades, including roses, gladioli (Gladiolus spp.), Chrysanthemum, daylilies (Hemerocallis spp.), hellebores (Helleborus spp.), bells of Ireland (Moluccella laevis) and Hydrangea.

 

A version of this article appeared in Carolina Gardener Volume 26 Number 6.
Photography courtesy of Rita Randolph, Emily Jenkins Followill, Nan K. Chase, and Phillip Oliver.

 

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