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The Blue Garden

by Nancy Schramm


I have friends who are so organized that they actually landscape their gardens. It never fails to impress me. Having a nursery with all the work and projects it entails, has meant that almost all of my plants are still in containers. But I dream about having a real garden, and read about gardens planted by others, both famous and not. One well-known garden I've read about many times is a "white garden" created around the turn of the 20th century by Gertrude Jekyll in England. Every plant in this garden has white flowers. It's dramatic and magical, but not as easy as it sounds. For one thing, there are different shades of white (as anyone who's chosen white paint can attest) and a yellow-white can look terrible next to a green-white. For another, plants with white flowers are often less healthy and vigorous than those with other colored flowers. But I still like the concept of a garden with a color theme. So since blue is one of my favorite colors, let's fantasize about planting a blue garden and look at some interesting plants we might include.

Aquilegia (columbine) has always been a favorite of mine. There are many species and hybrids with blue flowered forms on offer. Columbine will grow in full to part sun. The lacy foliage looks like a delicate fern, but then the flowering stalks shoot up with lovely complex flowers. The petals and sepals are often contrasting colors, and most species have spurs that project down and away from the center of the blossom.

Baptisia australis (blue false indigo) is an ideal background shrub since it can get 3-6' tall. This sun-lover has blue green leaves with three leaflets. The flower spikes hold deep blue flowers that are shaped like sweet peas.

Campanula (bellflower) is a genus that offers us hundreds of species and many forms from groundcover to one that can get 6' tall. They will do best with part shade and good drainage. The flowers are usually bell shaped, sometimes star shaped or cupped. Many shades of blue and blue violet are available.

A campanula relative that always fascinates children is Platycodon (balloon flower). The unopened flower buds are inflated and do, indeed look like little balloons. It can get 3' tall and make a nice clump. When established, it can bloom for months if regularly deadheaded.

If you want to include an electric blue in your garden, check out Eryngium amethystinum (sea holly) or E. alpinum, both of which can get about 2 ?' tall. The thistle-shaped flowers are a dramatic silvery blue. These species both have spiny leaves, but there are others with gentler looking leaves. Most sea hollies prefer full sun and moderate water.

Another of my favorite blue flowers is Linum (flax). The plants I'm familiar with are not those grown for the seed or linseed oil, but they are in the same family. Linum perenne and L. narbonense both have tall wiry stems (to 2') arising straight up out of the ground with small leaves and small blue flowers at the top. Give them both full sun and moderate water. The succession of flowers gives them a long bloom period despite each blossom only lasting a day.

The California native, Penstemon heterophyllus is worth the effort to find and grow. This mounding shrub will grow 1-3' tall and becomes covered with blue flowers that blend into purples and pinks. Give it sun and good drainage, and only moderate water for a lovely display from spring through summer.

And while we're talking about California natives, remember how easy it is to grow Sisyrinchium or (blue-eyed grass). This grassy looking plant is an iris relative, and has a simple six-petaled blue flower with a yellow center. It can tolerate heavier soils, sun or part shade, summer water or drought. In it's natural habitat, it is summer dormant, but summer water is not a deathblow to this cheerful naturalizer.

For an overwhelming number of choices take a look at the many species and hybrids of Salvia (sage). Large or medium shrubs, groundcovershere they are. Most sages prefer sun, good drainage, regular or moderate water. The foliage of most is fragrant when bruised, and the flowers are attractive to hummingbirds, butterflies, and bees. Look for one of the books about salvia written by Betsy Clebsch, a local authority, for help in choosing plants that will do well in your garden.

Finally, I have to mention one of my favorite groundcovers, Ajuga (carpet bugle). I have a patch of A. reptans "Catlin's Giant"(named for a friend!) with large purple leaves in cold weather, going greener in the summer. Intense blue flower spikes stand about 8" tall. These plants will take sun or part shade, regular water.

Copyright. Out and About Magazine

           Third generation owner of Carman's Nursery, Nancy Schramm and her husband recently moved the nursery from Los Gatos to Gilroy where they have lived for 24 years. The nursery is known for growing rare and unusual plants including bonsai starters, dwarf conifers, rock garden plants and (of course) less common fruiting plants. Nancy has been a member of the Western Horticultural Society since 2003. She follows in the footsteps of her father Ed Carman, the founder of Carman's Nursery. Ed was one of the charter members of the Western Horticultural Society and also served on the first Board.

Contact Nancy at

Western Horticulture Society
PO Box 166, Mountain View, CA 94042
(650) 948-4614 or (650) 941-6136