Garden Style. Is It regional? Is it personal? Should we care?

Trees from all over the world thrive in our climate.
Trees from all over the world thrive in our climate.

Our gardens.

One of the things that forever fascinates me is the aesthetic of gardening around the world. And more specifically regions of our country. Of course climate and soil has a huge influence- as well as the availability of landscape and garden plants. So, what is a regional style? And is it static? Or as I propose it morphs with time. To be perfectly honest the majority of PNW regional style relies on plants native far,  far away from this region. Those Red Maples lining every street and brilliant with fall color? Those are imports from eastern North America. Seldom do you ever see our predominant Acer macrophyllum (Big Leaf Maple)  planted on purpose and it doesn’t even make it to the official street tree list. For the most part our brilliant fall color is an illusion of imports. The local broadleaved trees that are native are decidedly muted in their fall tones. I am proud to say that there has been a great effort to plant more of our native trees- along freeways, green spaces and parks, Ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa), Oregon White Oak (Quercus garryana ) Douglas firs and Madrone are doing duty in the toughest places. We should by all means encourage this – perfect climate adaptation and familiarity. We should be proud of our natives.

A Palm, A Birch,  A Fir

Our climate is ammenable to a HUGE compendium of plants that we can grow. Does that mean that we should? Palms are one example that polarizes people almost immediately. Trachycarpus does fantastic here. But die hard north western aesthetes cannot abide a landscape of firs and palms. I know some landscape architects that don’t even think palms should be planted on the west coast anywhere north of Santa Barbara. Harsh. And conversely, to be perfectly honest I am always stupefied by Birch trees planted in Southern California  and coastal California in general.   Not to mention they require regular superfluous water- they do have white (ish) bark but they look absolutely fried in the aridity and lack of vernalization (winter cold). To me they are completely out of place- leave them in Vermont and Minneapolis. And don’t even talk to me about  being climatatically appropriate. Easterners bent on recreating that fantasy out west has led to this surprisingly climate inapropriate landscape. Lack of available water may extinct this fantasy style.  I’m not immune to preconceived ideas, If that makes me a hypocrite, I will join the ranks.

In defense of Palms.

Palms in the northwest though if you have to be a stickler are no more foreign to me than Hydrangeas, Viburnum davidii and Crape Myrtles. All from far, far away. But rhododendrons of which there are three native to the PNW- accompanies Trachycarpus in its native range in the Himalayan foothills . As do pine and firs. So in an argument they are perfectly appropriate in our climate. This requires us to stretch our vision of regional garden style. And to the horror of many traditionalists the availability of  plants from all over the world. has had a PROFOUND influence on our garden style. Thinking global has infiltrated here perhaps more than any other region in the world, save for the UK.. Globalization is here and gardeners are growing EVERYTHING they can get their hands on. For the past 25 years this has given birth to a whole new and rapidly evolving style. We think nothing of Agaves, Bananas and Hostas all mixed together.

Drilling down to the details

This influx of all plants has had a real influence and it is far from diluting our sense of regional style it is specifically enhancing it. It shows us that we have a climate that is specific and plants follow suit. You might be surprised to learn that ‘Summer Chocolate’ Albizia (Mimosa) does not grow in Puget Sound. Lack of summer heat combined with inability to establish before winter seems to be the culprit. In the  heat of Western Oregon, they thrive, mine even sets seed. Conversely, the mild almost zone 9 areas adjacent to the Sound see plants thriving that do not in our slightly more continental climate. The more complicated our gardens become, the more detail we discover about our climate. This can be one catalyst for driving our style. Details, details details.

Uniform style vs. individual

I’m dating myself here, but when I was a child in the 1970’s – a little fella I first notices the PNW Style.  It was an orgy of flowers in spring and then the slow tan burn of summer. The typical “yard” had a pink dogwood, yellow Alyssum, white Iberis, lego blue Lithodora,  Red rhododendrons, pink or orange deciduous azaleas and  raw hamburger coral colored Camellias. It has always reminded me of Toys R Us- this all or nothing spring color orgy. The advent of the summer perennial border as well as a fun nod towards tropical effects pulled many gardens out of the floral spring spasm. Now a new and practical aesthetic is gaining hold. At Xera we call it ‘Climate Adapted Plants for Pacific Northwest Gardeners’.  We can’t ignore climate change and this past hottest summer of all may have given us a glimpse into the future. Heat sucks the life out of gardens and we’re finding that many traditional plants simply could not handle the nearly 30 days above 90ºF and peak temperatures near 105ºF. Gardeners are taking stock. We are happy to search for new plants for these circumstances. West coast native plants are no less exhilarating than the newest plant from China. We are spoiled for choice of natives such as Manzanitas, Ceanothus, Epilobiums just to name a few. Climate change may be the next and most important driving force in our garden style. Luckily, gardeners in Portland are an amazing lot. They will and have grown nearly everything and they embrace new with open arms. I’m confident that as the climate begins to shift they will adapt with knowledge and gusto.

Me, me, me, me

The most exciting aspect to garden style for me is when it is an individual representation of a gardeners dream. EVERY gardener has a slightly different vision and its wonderful to see talented people bringing that to fruition. You may be a Horthead, or a fashionista or even just sentimental but your vision in the garden is what shines through. Great garden designers are contributing too and its fun for us to see passionate people who have been gripped by a certain style. It makes us hunt harder for new plants. Its a lot of fun.

The Weather:

As of October 21st we are on track to have one of the mildest Octobers in Portland history. Only ONE day in 21 has had an over night low lower than the average and the high temperatures are just as balmy. I’ll be watching the weather closely and giving updates on my blog, frequently, if anything changes. So far I see nothing in the next 3 weeks that requires mention. But you never know.

Winter flowering shrub for hummingbirds.
Winter flowering shrub for hummingbirds.


Garden Style. Is It regional? Is it personal? Should we care?