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  • Writer's pictureJulia Watson


Updated: Mar 3, 2021

Trees, shrubs, large perrenials and climbing roses create the bones of this garden.

Bones may be an odd title for a gardening blog post, but if you’re planning a garden, this is important. Bones are the big, permanent parts of the garden like trees and hedges, shrubs and perennials, and yes, even fences, arbors, paths and gates. All that big stuff makes a framework for you to hang things on, so to speak.

The beginning gardener often forgets how important this is. She has some newly cleared space, so she goes down to the local nursery where she falls in love with those racks and racks of pretty flowers. She buys a bunch and takes them home to plant. Plop, plop, plop, into the ground they go. A little water, some snail bait - done! Now all she needs to do is wait a week or so, then breathtaking billows of flowering plants will fill up the space like an inflatable air mattress.

Well, it doesn't work that way, as all you experienced gardeners know. Those cute little potted flowers are called annuals, and they aren't going to get big. For that you need trees, shrubs and perennials. A garden takes time, and those darling little annuals that we all like at the nursery are the last step—they’re not even the frosting on the cake, they're the sprinkles. To make the best garden, start with the big permanent plants. There is no perfect plant, but over the years I've found some shrubs, trees and perennials that I like. The list below is just of few of my favorites - you should explore what's available in your area, and ask questions of experienced gardeners near you.

  • Acanthus. I've had one for years (photo below), so I know the pros and cons. Pro - it's a beautiful, classic shape, the leaves are a glossy green and they stay green all winter. In late spring it sends up big greenish white flower spikes that add vertical interest to your garden. I don't plan to take out my acanthus, in spite of the cons. Con - Acanthus plants get LARGE. Also, they die back once a year at an inconvenient time - early summer. Just when everything else is bustin' out and your garden looks great, you get a big yellowing thing that you have to deal with. But, as we know, real plants aren't perfect.

  • Ceanothus. These are California natives, and there are lots of different kinds. They have bright green leaves and flowers in gorgeous shades of blue.

  • Boxwood. Dependable, evergreen.

  • Privet. The downside here is that they can get too tall, the flowers can set off allergies, and they tend to give rise to seedlings that you don't want. But for me, for one place in my garden, they work well as an evergreen hedge.

  • Osmanthus (aka sweet olive). The small white flowers of this shrub are my all-time favorite fragrance in the garden. Osmanthus is evergreen, easy to grow, non-invasive, and disease-free. In fact, it's pretty close to perfect, at least for a shrub.

  • Nandina (aka heavenly bamboo). Evergreen, slow-growing. I have it in front of a window and I enjoy the pattern of shadows that the leaves make inside the house.

  • Plumbago. This one is frost-tender and dies back in winter, but it's valuable as a summer-blooming shrub.

  • Tree peony. I've had one in my garden for years, despite the fact that San Jose is a bit too warm to be prime peony territory.

  • Climbing roses. Because they need a trellis or arbor or fence to grow on, climbing roses add both a structure and a perennial plant. I have several; one framing a window, two on a pergola and on top of a small enclosed arbor. ‘Cecil Brunner’ and ‘Fourth of July’ are two of my personal favorites. I also love Lady Banksia White with its soft scent of violets.

Clockwise from top left - climbing rose 'Joseph's Coat'; Acanthus; tree peony 'Godaishu': shrubs in a garden, including blue-flowered Plumbago.

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