Plant of the week!

Shepherdia argentea

For those who are not familiar with the sights and colors of Minnesota in summer, we will tell you that it is an explosion of Kelly green, including in gardens and landscapes. Perhaps because we spend so many months of the year blanketed in snow and darkness, all anyone wants come spring is green, and nothing but green, in their gardens. While we understand the sentiment, this swath of green quickly becomes flat and monotonous come July, and every landscape starts to look like every other. For those who are looking to start playing with foliage color in the landscape, Shepherdia argentea is a good candidate. Its fine-textured silvery grey-green leaves give the appearance of an olive tree, and offer some much-needed color contrast against brighter greens and coarser textures. Planted in the back of a landscape it offers a sturdy but flowing grey-green screen of height and form. Once established it can survive on its own without supplemental water, and birds appreciate the large shrub for the food it provides. As with many shrubs, be sure and fence it in for the first couple of winters or so, so as to ensure the rabbits don’t make a meal out of it. In any case, we love being able to invite those mellow grey-green tones of a Mediterranean landscape in to a Minnesota one; the color contrast could not be more welcomed.

Form follows perennial

Here’s an English-language-friendly overview of one of the installations of Piet Oudulf. He is perhaps on the farthest end of the spectrum when it comes to designing a landscape where the plants themselves provide the structure and the prevailing form of the installation. While sometimes verging on a bit too weedy for us, his approach has been revolutionary for the simple fact that he’s put the plant, and an exhaustive knowledge of plants and their evolving form across the seasons, back into landscape design and architecture.

The shrub as the unsung landscape hero

Shepherdia argentea

PRAIRIEFORM perenially views landscape design as problem-solving; the components of a landscape are but pieces of a larger, spatial-botanical puzzle. This is, however, generally not how landscape is viewed. The conventional approach is to construct a landscape from disparate pieces, moving from these pieces towards a vague idea of a whole. As a result, the tendency is to gravitate towards deemed “show-stopper” perennials and to ignore the somewhat less glamorous but equally crucial building blocks of the landscape.

Diervilla sessilifolia ‘Butterfly’

The shrub is one such overlooked component. While many a shrub has been played out to the point where someone simply needs to issue an early-retirement notice (i.e. Yews, Arbor vitae, Juniper and all of those other static and itchy ’50s-era shrubs), there exists a wide wide world out there of shrubs of varying colors, textures, and forms that can do wonders for the overall structure of a landscape. For maximum effect – and to avoid the depressing topiary-shrub-hugging-house motif – their placement should be considered within the larger context of the landscape, and mixed in with a host of plants of various heights and forms. In this way, you will be able to begin buidling a true landscape composition, whose form, foliage, and texture will endure across the seasons and through the years.

Form trumps flower


One of the best ways to figure out what plants to use in your garden or landscape is simply to go to your local arboretum one season, take photos and notes of the plants that catch your eye, and then to return each subsequent season to see how the particular plants evolve over time. The benefit of this approach is that you will know what your plant will truly look like once it’s found a fixed spot in your landscape. Sounds exceedingly obvious, but the year-round form and evolution of a plant is rarely one of the criteria people use when figuring out what to use in their landscape.

Too often, we are seduced by close-up photos of brilliant flowers (this recent Arroyo Monthly article a case in point), never to actually see what the overall form of the plant is and what the plant looks like when not in bloom. California Poppies make a wonderful display in spring, but post-bloom, they take on a horrendously ratty look and must be pruned back ad nauseum until the following spring. Nonetheless, PRAIRIEFORM has seen all too many a landscape that consists of little more than perennials that take on a none-too-delightful weedy pose when not in bloom.

PRAIRIEFORM, as the name implies, is interested first and foremost in form – the form of the overall landscape, but also the form of each indvidual plant (such as these Karl Foerster grasses growing in the Zenith Avenue Landscape). We favor plants whose form will provide lasting interest throughout the seasons. Form, texture, and foliage color are the muscles of a landscape, the flowers merely fleeting highlights and accents. Think about how you can use plants with strong form and foliage to provide these muscles, and how the more ephemeral perennials can be tucked in to pop out intermittently as temporary accents but never as the dominant element of the landscape.