underplanting: making ‘a tapestry garden,’ with marietta o’byrne

WHEN I TALK ABOUT intermingling several plants to serve as a mixed groundcover, perhaps under trees and shrubs, I often refer to the idea as “making mosaics.” No surprise therefore that a new book called “A Tapestry Garden” caught my attention. I talked to its co-author, Marietta O’Byrne, about ideas for weaving plants together artfully.

Longtime nursery owners and hellebore breeders Marietta and Ernie O’Byrne co-created “A Tapestry Garden: The Art of Weaving Plants in Place.” Their property, Northwest Garden Nursery in Eugene, Oregon, includes their extensive and inspiring tapestry-filled gardens. (Up top: pulmonaria, trillium, epimedium, white-flowered Anemone nemorosa and more.)

Read along as you listen to the July 16, 2018 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

underplanting: making tapestries, with marietta o’byrne


Q. Congratulations on the new book.

A. Thank you for that. I like it. [Laughter.]

Q. Yes, it’s beautiful. Before we start, I will say in the spirit of full disclosure on public radio, that Timber Press, which is your publisher and going to be my publisher next year, too, is one of our sponsors of the show. So, it’s all good.

I was hooked right away on the book for several reasons. First, you start with a quote from one of my favorite writers, May Sarton, so we have her in common. [Laughter.]

A. I had to insist on that. It took quite a bit of persistence to get her whole poem in there, but I did.

Q. Well, I’m glad you persevered and succeeded because I do love her very much. It was interesting to me, even though I’m in the Northeast in Zone 5B and you’re in the Northwest in Zone 7-something …

A. Well, I would say 8 probably, with a few troublesome winters going suddenly into 7 or 6 with an Arctic blast, but not often.

Q. As different as we are geographically, I saw familiar and beloved plants that we have in common, so I loved that kind of point of recognition. Also, because you’re very direct right in the beginning of the book about the fact that this gardening stuff requires effort, doesn’t it? [Laughter.]

A. Yes. Yes. It’s not a low-maintenance garden. If you want low maintenance, you plant vinca as groundcover and never look back.

Q. Never look back and it won’t either, and it will romp all over the place.

A. Right.

Q. How big a property and how much of it is gardened?

A. Well, it’s about 50 acres of farmland, forest, Douglas fir mostly, and meadows, but the garden and greenhouses are about 2-1/2 acres, or the garden is about 2-1/2 acres.

Q. You say, again early in the book, that, “Success in ornamental gardening is creating an illusion.” Tell us what you mean by that?

A. Well, I love the forests, and I love hiking. And I love the meadows and the mountain meadows in spring. It is just, I don’t know, I feel so at home walking through a forest. In a garden, I want that kind of setting that is an illusion of walking in nature, but not quite, because there is an editor there and that’s me. [Laughter.]

Q. Yes, yes. Yes, so it’s a little bit of a contrivance, but there’s that feeling of the place, the natural place, yes?

A. Yes, yes.

Q I agree, and the images in the book which were just … So many of them are so beautiful of the garden, I mean it speaks to that. It brings that to life.

The new book is loaded with pictures of these exceptional plantings with great plants and I call them—when they’re put together, not the vinca that you just mentioned by the mile—but into these underplantings of mixed plants. Like I say mosaics and you say tapestries. You are a master of this. I know probably a lot of it’s guided by intuition at this point, but I wonder if you can maybe try to distill a little advice for us. I don’t know where to begin, but …

A. Yes. If we’re speaking of underplantings, I mean first we start with shrubs, etc. But if we speak of underplantings, they can be aggressive.

Q. Yes.

A. But they have to have an easy root system. For example, Lamium silver Nancy [Lamium maculatum ‘White Nancy’]. I love that, that silver glow. Well, it spreads fast, but you just lift it up. If it’s too far, you don’t want it, you can lift it very easily and re-mulch every year with a compost.

That’s why I mentioned vinca. Once you have vinca, deep-rooted, you’ve got it. You want to get rid of it? You never will.

Q. I see.

A. And, it’s aggressive. So, you have to choose a little bit at the beginning when you start: What is the root system of this groundcover? Can I edit? Can I, if I don’t like it, even take it out, or is this something that’s going to overwhelm me? That’s, I think, to start.

And then we start with seasonal ones. Bulbs like trilliums, lots of trilliums in spring. They don’t look so good when they go over, and you can’t just cut them off, but then there are other plants like epimediums, which I highly recommend, every kind. Very drought-tolerant and beautiful all season long and even in winter.  And other groundcovers that will hide the going-over of the early ones.

Anemone nemorosa, another favorite, all the various colors: blue, pink, white, even green. Beautiful in spring, then they’re finished blooming, and slowly the foliage dies; by July it’s pretty much gone. But there are some dying, not-so-pretty-looking leaves at the edges, but I just take my hand, I just rip it out. Then, it goes underground with its rhizomes, and waits for next spring. It’s easy. [Above, an Anemone nemorosa ‘Bracteata’ sport and epimedium.]

Or, you have, let’s say, an Epimedium grow over it that you’ve shorn in early spring or late winter, and then that hides it. Or I of course, I have big-leaved Chinese mayapples, which hide everything. [Laughter.]

Q. Oh, they’re so wonderful …

A. Oh, I love them.

Q. … in some of the pictures. Podophyllum, yes? Is that what …?

A. Yes. Once they start running, eventually, when you’ve have them for about six, eight, 10 years, then they start multiplying. But you don’t want a leaf somewhere? You pull it out. It’s no big deal.

Q. So that brings up then, you’re talking first about choosing for sequence, and one kind of hiding the gone-by remains of the other, or you do some editing and cleanup yourself to help hide it. So you’re talking about sequence, picking for sequence. And then you just hinted with the mayapples [above] about sort of the boldness. If people don’t know that plant, the Chinese mayapples, I mean they’re really bold.

A. Yes, it is bold.

Q. Our American one is, too, but these are really even bolder, and so what about texture? Is that something else? Do you make these mixed tapestries with texture in mind?

A. It’s very important, texture. For example, I love Pulmonaria. They make a very nice groundcover, too. You choose silver ones, for example, then you can mix those with a silver fern, Athyrium niponicum, the Japanese silver fern, the painted fern.

Q. Yes.

A. You have similar colors, but totally different textures. Your eye just zeros in on that. You can’t walk by there like—saying vinca again.

Q. [Laughter.] Poor, old vinca.

A. You have to look at it, you know?

Q. Yes.

A. It’s just beautiful. Every time I walk by, “Oh, that’s really pretty.”

Q. You know, when you talk about the silver-on-silver example, I think of that as “same but different.” Making a pairing that’s got something in common, but it’s not the same. Do you know what I mean?

A. Yes. You can use the … Oh, what are they called? Not Pulmonaria, but the other … Brunnera!

Q. Yes. [Below, Brunnera and painted fern, with blooming Saxifraga stolonifera ‘Rubra.’]

A. The Brunnera, the Pulmonaria, the silver painted fern—just for an example, a beautiful combination. Stick a few epimediums here or there. And then I sometimes do a golden Hakonechloa at the edges, and that’s fine.

What I also suggest, and I just did that yesterday, so I remember, I bought some beautiful heucheras called ‘Red Lightning.’ They’re bright yellow.

Q. I’ve never seen that.

A. Ooh my gosh, it’s a new one. You can’t walk by it. And I thought, “Ahh, it’d be nice at the edge here.” But I had the silver pulmonarias there and when I put that heuchera in it was just too much; it just didn’t make it. So I moved it and put it somewhere else. A little bit of trial and error.

Sometimes gold and silver or pink and silver go fine. But it’s good to put the pot there, stand back and kind of meditate over it before you plant. Is this something you really like? And the conditions of course, of shade and sun—does this plant do well? That’s another thing you have to consider.

But mostly not being too much, let’s say, designer paper-oriented, but put the plants, stand back, look at it, think of it as thriving there. And do you really want to look at this every day, or nah, it’s not quite the right thing? So being a bit meditative and not too impulsive helps.

Q. When you sort of, nuts and bolts-wise… When you’re starting, you were just speaking about something that you had just been planting recently, if you have a new area or an area you’re reworking and it’s kind of open ground, other than the woody layer, the shrubs or trees, do you space things with their eventual width in mind? Their eventual size in mind? Or do you make it tighter than that for faster coverage? Do you have any kind of advice on that?

A. No, I usually go for the patience, but plant things in between that will grow a little taller, like I love lilies. Or the Adiantum venustum, which is a wonderful creeping maidenhair fern. It doesn’t grow very tall. If you have other things like let’s say clumps of epimediums in a 4-inch pot to start with, if you plant in between plants that yes will spread, but are moderate in height, and eventually the epimedium can fight it out with the Adiantum venustum. You know?

Q. [Laughter.]

A. Don’t plant two that are aggressive; then you have to edit more. The lamium, for example—and I only plant the silver one because that’s what I really like—is easy to take out. If you plant that in between, it will seed itself, too. Well, if it overwhelms the other plants, you know, so take some out.

Q. Right. Edit it.

A. Or shear it back, that’s important too after flowering, and take out all the green seedlings. Keep an eye on it. So that’s usually how we go, and a bit of patience. Or spring bulbs. Little scillas, Chionodoxa, little tiny Narcissus, not the big ones, etc.

Q. I’m crazy about Eranthis—you know, the winter aconite [above]. The little winter aconite.

A. Yes, lots of those.

Q. And it comes so early, even again I am zone 5B, quite a bit slower a season and colder season than you. But it comes so early—as soon as the snow melts, within a week. And it can be in early March for me even.

A. Oh it’s in February.

Q. Right. But for us it can be even early April some years, you know, when the snow doesn’t melt. And it’s just so welcoming. And then when it wants to set seed and sow around, which I want it to do, because I think it plants itself better than I know how to plant it. [Laughter.]

A. Yes it does. Yes.

Q. You know, it’s a little yellow and a little tattered and whatever. But what you’re talking about—tucking in these other things—would give a little disguise to that and let it go about its process.

A. Yes. I don’t even see them anymore.

Q. Yes, exactly.

A. There are three plants—snowdrops you can have by the thousands.

Q. Yes.

A. They go over, and the hellebore and other plants grow over it. The one all people shudder at, but I love, is the Ranunculus ficaria ‘Brazen Hussy.’

Q. Yes. We have a friend, Marco Stufano, who started Wave Hill—he loves that plant as well, so we talk about that plant. [Laughter.]

A. Well you know by end of April, it’s gone. It disappears. And it never grows tall. So yes, you don’t want it a rockery, but in a woodland planting, which is in sun in spring, because nothing has leafed out, it’s beautiful, and then all the other plants—the epimediums, of course the mayapples, the brunneras—all that will grow over it, and it’s gone.

Q. Yes.

A. So that’s a lovely spring planter.

Q. So the snowdrops, the Ranunculus ‘Brazen Hussy,’ and the Eranthis, the little winter aconites …

A. Yes, yes.

Q. Yes, yes. Those are great …

A. And hellebores. Hellebores, of course.

Q. Well I want to take some of our time to talk about that in a minute. I just want to ask you a couple of other tactical underplanting questions. It seems to me one of the advantages to this also is, once it all fills in, I feel like … People say to me when they come to visit my garden, which is nowhere near as extensive as yours, but is 30 years old so things have grown in—they say, “How do you take care of all this? How do you weed?”

And I say, “Well, the plants, once they’re knitted together, they keep out a lot of the self-sowns and so forth.” Right?

A. True. Yes, that’s very true. And the weeds I emphasize again and again, yearly composting.

Q. Yes.

A. Because with that soft layer on top, not just does it nourish the plants, but any weed or unwanted groundcover spread to it, is so easy to pull out.

Q. Yes. So hellebores [above], you’re a longtime hellebore specialist and breeder, I think since the early 1990s, yes?

A. Yes.

Q. Yes. So we were just talking about mixed plantings, these tapestries that you make. But do you ever just use hellebores alone, or are they part of the mixed plantings? How do you use them in your gardens?

A. Well, we have one bed, it’s sort of especially since we are a nursery selling hellebores, at the beginning of the garden, which is one thick hellebore bed. There are some Japanese primulas—not Japanese primulas, but Primula … oh, what is it called?

Q. Kisoana or …

A. No, not kisoana. The Jap- … no, it’s not called japonica.

Q. There is a japonica.

A. It goes dormant.

Q. Oh. No, I don’t know which one that would be, probably different there. I do have japonica, but, yes.

A. Ernie is … [Marietta’s husband, above right, is making motions in the background while we speak.]

Q. [Laughter.] Is he coaching?

A. …touching his head for the name of this one. [Laughter.]

Q. Is he coaching from the sidelines?

A. Anyway, some groundcovers, and snowdrops too, that will disappear later.

Q. Yes, so you have this hellebore bed, and that’s really kind of the showcase when people come to the nursery?

A. Right. Then throughout the garden we have hellebores everywhere. And we do go for foliage also. We’ve bred some hellebores from one they called multifidus or hercegovinus, but crossed it with the hybrid and so it’s evergreen. It has the finest foliage. The flowers are nice, but not earth-shaking. But it looks like fern, so it makes a wonderful spotted groundcover. You know, I don’t use it solidly. I use it amongst ferns, I use it amongst pulmonarias, amongst epimediums.

And people have commented they say, “What is that?” They don’t even recognize it’s a hellebore.

So you can play with foliage somewhat in hellebores. Like the yellow ones will have a yellow-tinted foliage, and if you nourish them well, here comes the compost again … [laughter] …

Q. Yes, compost, compost, compost.

A. Yes. The foliage is very nice in the summer.

Q. Now that one that you just talked about, that you’ve used that had the ferny foliage that you bred into some of your hybrids—how hardy are those hybrids then?

A. Oh, they grow in Minnesota.

Q. Oh! Uh-oh.

A. All the hellebores are very, but they go down to Zone 5. They’re all … the hybridus and multifidus is part of it. It’s just that multifidus by itself, the form hercegovinus, is not evergreen. [Above, a multifidus hybrid with silvery leaves.]

Q. O.K.

A. And the flowers are … You don’t even see them. The little tiny green …

Q. O.K., see I didn’t know about the multifidus hybrids, because I only know from … I’ve only grown niger and the hybrids, you know, the ones we used to call orientalis.

A. Yes, yes.

Q. And the foetidus.

A. Yes and that’s not quite as hardy.

Q. Yes the feotidus for me is like it sows itself wherever it wants to. I have big colonies. They move somewhat. The parent plant is short-lived, and then there’s millions of babies, so I’ve always got it, but I don’t exactly have it where I put it. Do you know what I mean?

A. No, yes. It likes it dry or hot.

Q. Oh, well I don’t have that. [Laughter.]

A. We have noticed, too, I mean we have bred for that. There are silver forms of it, very silvery foliage, and I would suggest for anybody to search for those. Anybody wants seed, we have seed, but they are not a very good nursery plant. They tend to die in pots. They get root rot. So you don’t find them often, but they’re easy to grow and minimum of water; the drier the better and the hotter the better. They like that real hot, dry climate.

Q. So we talked just a little bit about stretching the season earlier with sort of the little bulbs and some of the other ephemeral sort of things in these mixed plantings. And with the hellebores they have their early flower show and then they have usually, or many of them have, a nice foliage, groundcover-y kind of show, and some are evergreen.

In the big areas that I have expanses of them, I had the little bulbs and so forth first, and trilliums, things like that, but what I wanted was something late when I just had this big sea of the evergreen foliage, you know? I’ve been sort of fiddling around trying to figure out, O.K. what can I have coming up from amid that here and there? I’ve only come up with two possibilities, you might think they sound terrible, that Ligularia japonica, speaking of things with ferny foliage.

A. Oh, it’s just that we have slugs and snails here and so … [Laughter.]

Q. Can’t have that.

A. It’s like hostas, I’ve given up on hostas.

Q. You’ve given up, O.K.

A. I’ve given up because Ligularia look very lacy around here from slug bites …

Q. Oh, that’s no good.

A. No, you cut off one leaf and the next one looks just as bad.

Q. Oh, the other thing I sometimes put in is that Angelica, the Korean one, Angelica gigas.

A. The tall one.

Q. Yes, and that kind of erupts in places, but what could I do for later interest to break up [the mass of hellebore foliage] … Do you know what I mean?

A. Oh, yes we do have some that we love, and that’s Arisaema.

Q. Oh, O.K..

A. Especially Arisaema consanguineum silver leaf, you know the center silver leaf. They only come up now—end of June, early July is the time they come up. They have the most beautiful radial kind of foliage, very narrow leaflets, bloom nicely, but the foliage lasts until hard frost, in fall.

Q. Oh, interesting. O.K.

A. We love that because it rises up above everything else.

Q. Exactly, that’s what I’m thinking.

A. For about, oh, I’d say 2-1/2 to even 3 feet, and they multiply well. They make offsets and you can either divide them or wait until you have more clumps. Very nice plant; I love that plant.

Q. O.K.

A. There’s another one, ciliata, but for us that one is too happy.

Q. Oops. [Laughter.]

A. It makes rhizomes. It actually is a rhizomatous Arisaema.  Very nice stripy flowers, but somehow it’s so happy with us that you can pull them out. It’s not hard. I just yank on them if it gets too dense. But it might not be that dense for other people, so that’s a nice one, too.

Q. I just want to ask you a quick hellebore tactical question, a cultural question, they self-sow a lot when established, and when do you move, as an expert, when do you move the babies?

A. Oh, O.K. I don’t move the babies. I don’t let the babies grow.

Q. Oh, if you had babies what would you do, if you were a gardener like me, when would you move them? [Laughter.]

A. Well let me first tell you how not to have babies.

Q. Right, should I bag the seedheads?

A. For us in early May, for you it might be a little earlier, I don’t know. Just before the carpals burst, you can see them, you go around and you cut all the flowering scapes, all the flowering stems.

Q. O.K., so you deadhead.

A. Flowering stems are different from the leaf stems. So you have to angle down there and get all the flower stems and cut them off and throw them away.

Q. O.K.

A. All right, that’s the best.

Q. So prevention.

A. Prevention.

more from marietta o’byrne

enter to win ‘a tapestry garden’

I’LL BUY A COPY of “A Tapestry Garden” by Marietta and Ernie O’Byrne for one lucky reader. All you have to do to enter is comment in the box at the bottom of the page, answering this question:

Do you have favorite groundcovering combinations you wish to share, or do you use masses of a single plant (which one?). (My own answer is all of the above–both mosaics and also solid masses, like Geranium macrorrhizum, for instance.)

No answer, or feeling shy? Just say something like “count me in” and I will, but an answer is evern better. I’ll pick a random winner after entries close at midnight Tuesday, July 24, 2018. Good luck to all; US and Canada only.

prefer the podcast version of the show?

MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its ninth year in March 2018. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play July 16, 2018 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

(Photos except Eranthis from “A Tapestry Garden,” used with permission.)

  1. David McKeown says:

    I like lily of the valley with the lenten rose. Thanks for this topic – it usually isn’t covered. (Pardon the pun!)

  2. Jen says:

    Do count me in…my groundcover skills are not quite up to par yet. That said, even our maillady has been cheerfully teasing me about the overabundance of nasturtium I planted!

  3. Susan says:

    I have masses of iris planted in several beds. Love the flowers but also the deer do not bother them so they are safe. Count me in on the book give away please. Love your podcast!

  4. Nora says:

    I’ve been slowly carpeting my garden with “John Creech” sedum, which makes the most lovely scalloped green base. Sedums in general are so lovely for groundcover because they’re generally easy to “edit”– that is, pull up or replant– and don’t take much maintenance otherwise.

  5. Mary says:

    I do like creeping thymes to fill in spaces that will get some sun. Lithodora “Heavenly blue” is fun and so are the lacy ferns… Oh I could go on and on. I’d love to win a book!

  6. Joseph Perez says:

    Great podcast. Count me in. Part shade masses: Goatsbeard and white astilbe chinensis. Sun masses: Lady’s Mantle. Shade: hay-scented fern. Ground cover: Golden Creeping Jenny, Warning this is rampant in moist areas. Love the low carpet and somewhat foot traffic it can take. thanks

  7. Beth Bechand says:

    Beth says:

    I work full time and always knew that I would not have the time or money to “instantly” fill my large woodland garden with drifts of plants. So… I allowed my sweet woodruff to grow freely (as a living mulch to keep the weeds at bay) while I planted a few perennials in locations that I knew they would like. I made sure to encircle each perennial with layers of newspaper covered with mulch. Most of the perennials have done great and have multiplied nicely over the years. Each year I pull back the sweet woodruff to give the slower growing perennials the room they need to form drifts.

    My woodland garden now has a nice tapestry of colored foliage and interesting textures. My favorite combination is shiny, green European ginger, dark leaf lenten rose, burgundy leaf coral bells, and multicolored Japanese painted fern all clustered under the arching foliage of a yellow leaf bleeding heart surrounded by a green mat of sweet woodruff .

    As the most of these woodland perennials seed in for me, I have been able to repeat these combinations in other locations in the woodland garden. I can’t wait to read the new tapestry garden book!

  8. Erin McClelland says:

    So inspiring, would love to read the book. I am constantly trying to find the right combo of ground cover to survive in my sunexposed, well draining soil….and that survive the deer!

  9. Carole says:

    My favorites are winter aconite, scilla, and snowdrops in spring. For summer there’s pink wild geranium, ferns of all sorts, and yes, vinca!

  10. Ruth Little says:

    This is very timely, a friend saw a recent photo of a section of my garden, and pointed me in the direction of this book. So it’s already on my must read list. Selaginella uncinata with bronze leaves plants like Astilbe Chocolate Shogun is a current favorite.

  11. betty says:

    I use many of the suggested ground covers but for the difficult under cedars in the dry shade I find geranium maccrohizum survives very well, isnt a thug & politely shares space with vinca, flowers with either purple or white flowers, is evergreen in the winter & bounces back after snow. & i like the scent. i would love “A Tapestry Garden: The Art of Weaving Plants in Place.”

  12. Loretta says:

    I need this book. I’m about to plant a hill in front of my house and it would be a tremendous help to my design. Consider me please.

  13. susan says:

    Carex cherokeensis has been called a “workhorse”, and I could not agree more. It is the “sense of place” backdrop, and the frame , for any southeastern US garden that has a play of sun and shade. Thank you Carex cherokeensis , because it wouldn’t be the same without you!
    And, with the Carex, I love Ornithogalum nutans. The Carex obscures the foliage of the star of bethlehem, which begins to die down at the bulb’s flowering. Or you can mow them both just before the bulb flowers. One is a native, and the other an “invasive” exotic. The Ornithogalum was brought to Europe from the Middle East with those returning from the Crusades , and was in England by the 16th century. This genus is believed to be the “lily of the valley” of the Bible.
    What I look so forward to is the way the flowers pop open at exactly 11am , and then makes the perfect up facing foil for the larger flowers of early bearded iris. Did I say “perfect” ?
    The best part is that this combo was here long before I was born, and will be here long after I am gone.

  14. Kari says:

    I am trying to cut down on the amount of grass that needs mowing by killing off sections and replacing with mixed ground covers, so this interview is informative and inspirational. Also, gradually creating a border around the fence surrounding the vegetable garden with creeping sedums edged with wild strawberries and violets to try and create a plant edge that can withstand mowing and need less edging.

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