The softer side of the danger garden

I was in Portland, Oregon a few weekends ago for Hortlandia, the massive spring plant sale event organized by the Hardy Plant Society of Oregon. Once again I had the privilege of staying with my friends Loree and Andrew so I had free rein of the danger garden. In reality, there wasn't that much time because we were busy with Hortlandia and miscellaneous nursery visits, but I did sneak in some exploring.

While the danger garden is primarily known for Loree's love of spiky plants—and the occasional stab or puncture wound ensuing from a close encounter—there's a lot more to experience. Loree is a master at layering contrasting textures: Whenever you see a hard edge, you can be sure that a soft element is nearby to act as a counterbalance.

In this post, I'm focusing on the softer side of the danger garden rather than zeroing in on Loree's agaves and their playmates. Of course I'll throw in the occasional agave photo, but I'll also show plants you might not have expected. How about tulips growing side by side with agaves?

Tulipa hageri 'Little Beauty' contrasting beautifully with the yellow flowers of Euphorbia rigida

'Little Beauty' is a cultivar of a species tulip, Tulipa hageri. In general, species tulips handle our Mediterranean climate better than complex (and less robust) hybrids.

Tulipa hageri 'Little Beauty'

Here are some more intriguing texture combinations in the front garden:

Tiny sempervivums growing vertically out of cracks between moss-covered bricks

Grevillea rivularis and Opuntia

Yucca rostrata in front of Pittosporum divaricatum

Pittosporum divaricatum

Agave parryi 'JC Raulston' growing in a bed of Juniperus conferta 'Blue Pacific' under Arctostaphylos × 'Austin Griffiths'

Agave bracteosa and Juniperus conferta 'Blue Pacific'

 Corokia cotoneaster and Thuja plicata 'Whipcord'

Signature view of the front door

Agave ovatifoliaEuphorbia rigida, and Yucca rostrata 

Agave ovatifolia, Euphorbia rigida

Agave ovatifolia, Euphorbia rigida

Japanese bitter orange (Poncirus trifoliata 'Flying Dragon')

Lethal-looking thorns, yet soft and delicate flowers

Seed capsules on Callistemon ‘Woodlander's Hardy Red’ against a blurred backdrop of Dasylirion wheeleri

Black mondo grass (Ophiopogon planiscapus 'Nigrescens') in a bed of juniper

Euphorbia rigida, Agave 'Baccarat', and Cordyline 'Eletric Flash'

Moving into the back garden now...

Possibly undescribed species of Hechtia next to Tulipa 'Little Princess' in a stock tank against the house off the driveway

The three galvanized dish planters in the back garden have seen various iterations over the years. Here is Loree's post about the current version you see below. The plants in use are Sedum spathulifolium 'Carnea', Calluna vulgaris 'Stockholm', and Hebe ochracea 'James Stirling'.

The choice of colors and textures couldn't be more pleasing

Taller versions of the dish planters hold delicate ferns:

Ferns are a big presence in the shady areas of the back garden. They embody “soft” more than any other plant, which makes them the perfect foil for spikier characters. 

During my visit, there was another plant that looked so soft, it was begging to be touched: the shredded umbrella plant (Syneilesis aconitifolia). 

Looking like a miniature beach umbrella, Syneilesis aconitifolia is covered with downy hairs. Definitely one of the more unusual plants in a garden full of the weird and wonderful.

I can't fully articulate why I took this picture, but I was reminded of a Japanese garden and the qualities I associate with it: tranquility, serenity, harmony

Often I associate a trip or a garden visit with a specific plant that leaves a powerful impression. This time it was epimediums. Also known as barrenworts or fairy wings, epimediums are elegant-looking shade perennials slowly spreading by underground rhizomes. Most species are native to China where they grow in alkaline soils (just what we have in Davis). While they appreciate regular watering, they're able to deal with dry shade once they're established. In spite of their appearance, they're said to be tough enough to handle situations where other plants fail.

I had a very vague idea of what epimediums were but I don't think I'd ever really seen one before. But as soon as I did in Loree's garden, I was smitten:

Epimedium 'Amber Queen'

Epimedium 'Amber Queen'

Epimedium wushanense 'Spiny Form'

It doesn't have the etheral spray of flowers of 'Amber Queen', but look at these leaves!

New leaves emerge a vibrant purple and fade to green. While I'd prefer purple all the time, the green leaves are pretty sweet, too. The spiny leaf margin reminds me of mahonias, which I happen to like a lot. I bought an Epimedium wushanense at Hortlandia, and if it does well, I'll add more epidemiums next year.

A few more leafy photos from the back garden:

The big leaves in the stock tank belong to Podophyllum pleianthum

Fern table (read this post to find out how Loree built it)

New additions...

...waiting to be planted

Rhipsalis (right) having a wild hair day

Ceanothus 'Dark Star' playing off Agave americana

Some agave photos, because—well, just because:

Agave utahensis var. eborispina (or, if you prefer, Agave utahensis var. nevadensis f. eborispina)

Agave glamor shots

A few more cool-looking plants and combos:

Pseudopanax ferox

LEFT: Sophora prostrata 'Little Baby'   RIGHT: Pittosporum patulum

Eryngium venustum and Sedum spathulifolium

Wider view toward the stock tank next to the house

Japanese fiber banana (Musa basjoo)

I'm convinced that no matter how often I go exploring in the danger garden, I'll always find something exciting to focus on!


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  1. Thank you for skipping all the ugly bits! I never would have planted those tulips had the folks at John Scheepers not sent them to me, but they're certainly cheerful. That Rhipsalis (bad hair day), I forgot to move it once Andrew was done working on the SPG and it got too much sun. So sad...

  2. So many wonderful touches, including some like the ferny dish planters I don't remember seeing before. I love the Syneilesis, one of the many plants I wish I could grow here. Your coverage of Loree's species Epimediums seem part of a cosmic message pushing me to try that genus in my garden despite what the Sunset Western Garden Book says about my chances of success. Species tulips are on my list of bulbs to try next year too.

  3. Those ferns in the dish planters are simply fabulous, but then all Loree's pairings are. I marvel at how well all her plants do in far from their optimum conditions. This must be due to her husbandry(!) Thanks for taking us on your visit.

  4. Oh my god, I love this post Gerhard ! Fantastic photos of Lorees garden in spring, and wonderful highlighting of the great plant-centric details. Thumbs up to Loree for this splendidi creation ,and to you for such thoughtful documentation.

  5. A wonderful post. I spent my day working with epimediums and podophyllums and more, but never the number of wonders I got to study here!

  6. Wonderful post of such a inspiring garden. I just love those dish planters!

  7. best use i have ever seen for Tulipa 'little beauty'

  8. Lots of cool plants. The Syneilesis is très photogenic.


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