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I wish I had a pick up truck…

As a garden designer, I feel I should comment on the layouts of the various wonderful gardens on last week’s Georgetown Garden Tour, and indeed, I have much to say. My inner plant nerd, however, has taken my design-training hostage, and instead I am compelled to write about some of the truly beautiful plant combinations on display. These are plantings you can and should try in your own garden!Gwendolyn van PaasschenThe sheer imagination of the planting designs on this year’s tour shone. Take the combination of Coral Bells (Heuchera), a North American native, and ornamental strawberries (Fragaria – probably the cultivar “Lipstick”). This color combination was show stopping, with sprays of miniature light pink blossoms floating delicately above dark pink strawberry flowers. The soft green leaves of the coral bells hovered slightly above the small, dark green leaves of the strawberry plants, ensuring a pleasing contrast when both plants have stopped blooming – one that will persist in winter since both plants, which prefer sun and partial shade, are also evergreen.

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Gwendolyn van Paasschen
Gwendolyn van Paasschen

The ornamental strawberries, which are not grown for their fruit, also looked amazing with a purple leafed heuchera. Heucheras have been intensely hybridized over the past several decades and now come with a broad and shocking variety of colored leaves and names that make my mouth water: “Marmalade”, “Plum Pudding”, “Mocha”, “Tiramisu”, “Berrie Smoothie”. Their leaves range in color from orange to deep purple, silver to mottled everything, and I will confess I find many disconcerting and unappealing beyond their culinary names. I am a devotee, however, of the deep purple leafed varieties, which look fantastic in the garden. Here they were planted to great effect with white roses and the strawberry blossoms but I’ve also seen them with Japanese painted ferns, which have silver leaves accented with purple. This is combination is definitely on the “must plant” list.

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Gwendolyn van Paasschen
Gwendolyn van Paasschen

Allium (Ornamental Onion) is always beautiful and I was pleased to see it planted with another of my favorites, variegated Solomon’s Seal. I loved the color arrangement of the purple and white blossoms and the white and green stripy leaves, but I’m not sure that I wasn’t more enchanted by the combination of this erect stem topped by its spherical umbels, the arching stems of the Solomon’s Seal, and the broad, soft leaves of two different hostas. The backdrop of a Cherry Laurel’s glossy pointed leaves lent not only a dark green foil for the brighter colors but ensured winter structure. The entire planting was an architectural success.

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Gwendolyn van Paasschen
Gwendolyn van Paasschen

Hostas are deer lettuce – or perhaps, mesclun – and therefore, I regularly found them munched to stubs in my old Connecticut garden. I was consequently delighted to see lovely hostas planted throughout the tour, and was especially taken by a large, lime green form that was tucked in a bed of lavender-flowered lamium. Lamium is a wonderful ephemeral ground cover that also comes in a white-flowered variety, and both create a soft variegated carpet in summer. Here, the small soft rosy purple blossoms were a perfect contrast to the relatively huge lime green hosta leaves, and both were set off by the lamium’s small silver and green leaves which caught the dappled sunlight and made this bed shimmer.

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Gwendolyn van Paasschen
Gwendolyn van Paasschen

There was also a wonderfully healthy planting of stinking hellebores. The chartreuse flowers of the hellebores emerged in winter and the brightly colored sepals remain, contrasting beautifully with their narrow, bluish green foliage. They were planted next to toad lilies (tricyrtis), another of my all time favorites. The contrast of the hellebore and tricyrtis foliage will be beautiful all summer as the toad lily has soft green strappy leaves evenly spaced along its long, arching stems, but the real treat will come at the end of summer when the tricyrtis reveals its little mottled orchid-like flowers. Every stem bears a series of flowers, individually tucked into the joining of the leaf to the stem. They are gorgeous moist shade lovers that should be considered mandatory additions to every shade garden.

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Gwendolyn van Paasschen
Gwendolyn van Paasschen

Another real eye catcher for partial shade is Hakone grass (Hakonochloa macra), especially the cultivar “Areola”, which was the Perennial Plant Associations 2009 Perennial Plant of the Year (so there). It’s yellow and green striped leaves are always startling, sometimes too much so, and I always feel it must be used cautiously. In this garden, it was perfectly balanced by a diversity of hosta, ferns, sweet woodruff, and black Mondo grass that blended well together to create a coherent planting -- very elegant and imaginative. Hakone grass likes moist, rich soil and unlike many grasses, does better with some shade, especially in hot climates. It’s also well behaved as it is a slower grower and doesn’t self-sow.

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Gwendolyn van Paasschen
Gwendolyn van Paasschen

Finally, I will single out one little bulb that has charmed me for weeks. It is visible from the street and I have walked by it several times so it was exciting to see it up close. It is the petticoat daffodil (Narcissus bulbicodium – and you should know that bulbicodium is Latin for “wooly bulb”). Most of us think of daffs as relatively large, but there are a whole series of them that are small, perfect for small gardens. The petticoat daff, which grows to a whopping 8 inches, is the only one I can think of that is at once small and very very loud with a bright deep yellow that you wouldn’t miss with a blindfold on. They are great in masses or as accents in small gardens, and are supposedly not difficult to grow in pots for springtime forcing. I am so inspired by the gardens on the tour that I am now ready to purchase everything on this list and more. It is times likes these that I lament my decision to drive a Mini Cooper.