A Tropical Makeover for a Small GardenAn overgrown garden in Portland is simplified and tidied, resulting in a comfortable and calm retreat
An inviting patio outside Lauren Hall-Behrens’ back door is surfaced with concrete pavers. Sleek, comfy couches she designed using black powder-coated aluminum and cushions covered with Sunbrella fabric in canvas coal furnish the space. The arbor-like structure outlines the patio, extending the home’s architecture into the garden.
Hall-Behrens loves the feel of walking among tall plants, and using a mix of contrasting foliage colors and textures. A stone-studded gravel pathway edged in steel leads through columnar Italian cypress, splays of hardy Musa basjoo (Japanese banana), and sweeps of Hakonechloa macra ‘All Gold’.
LEFT: A black-and-green color scheme unifies the plantings. Hall-Behrens repeats colored foliage plants like Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’ (black mondo grass) and Choisya ternata ‘Goldfingers’ for contrast. Layers of evergreen hedging lend coherence to the scene, from the Vaccinium moupinense at the base of the Metapanax delavayi tree (left foreground) to the Euonymus ‘Green Spire’ along the back fence line. RIGHT: Hall-Behrens built pathways of crunchy gravel for permeability and a casual aesthetic. She used the larger 3/4-inch size because it looks “beachy” and stays put better. The steel edging repeats the steel aesthetic elsewhere in the garden, and keeps both gravel and the larger Mexican pebbles in place.
A hedge of Taxus baccata var. fastigiata and clumps of variegated Symphytum x uplandicum ‘Axminster Gold’ (Russian comfrey) flank a hut for garden viewing. Covered, cushioned, and crafted of zinc-coated steel, it was built by a friend, the only structure in the garden that Hall-Behrens didn’t design herself.
LEFT: The rusty-steel fence has perforated panels for transparency, and is softened by plantings of variegated Miscanthus ‘Cosmopolitan’ and M. ‘Cabaret’. “The balance of plants to hardscape is important to me,” says Hall-Behrens. “I want the finished space to feel inviting-with living spaces surrounded by lush plantings.” RIGHT: Woodwardia unigemmata (Oriental chain fern) is a quintessential Hall-Behrens plant, chosen for its large, long, textural fronds, as well as the bronze-red shading of its new growth.
LEFT: Oversized terracotta pots on steel stands, planted with Astelia ‘Red Edge’ and begonias, flank the back steps. RIGHT: The water feature is a Hall-Behrens original, centered around a craggy stone she chose because it reminds her of the scholars’ rocks used in Chinese gardens. A tall, rusty-metal screen with perforated panels serves as backdrop to the black powder-coated pond built of steel.
A matte-black pot holding Tradescantia pallida ‘Purple Heart’ paired with gray-green Melianthus major, outlined in compact hedges of bristly Corokia cotoneaster, fragrant Trachelospermum jasminoides (star jasmine), Pieris ‘Cavatine’, and masses of Oxalis triangularis to echo the purple of the Tradescantia.
Garden designer Lauren Hall-Behrens found herself in the predicament that catches up with most plant lovers. After nearly a decade, her 6,500-square-foot property in northeast Portland had grown dense and overcrowded. “It lacked cohesion, and the plants had grown up to block the light,” says Hall-Behrens, owner of the garden and landscape design studio Lilyvilla Gardens. “So much was going on that it made me anxious.” So she stepped back, looked at the garden as if she was her own client, and launched a major renovation.
The garden’s bones were good—a network of gravel pathways, maturing trees like Italian cypress and ‘Natchez’ crape myrtle, and a hefty stand of Japanese banana (Musa basjoo). But Hall-Behrens had lost track of her original idea of creating a contemporary, Pan-Asian-Tropical-style garden. “I like to use more plants than most modern garden designers do,” she explains of her dilemma.
Hall-Behrens set to work cleaning out the thick, mid-layer of the garden. Then she planted sweeps of texture and color to create a visual link between various planting areas. The repetition of black and green mondo grass, with masses of ‘All Gold’ Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra), unifies the plantings and reduces maintenance. To keep the garden looking lush for much of the year, she emphasized foliage texture over flower. And to keep things tidy, she confined annuals to containers, edged paths and beds in steel to keep gravel and soil in place, used plenty of hardscape, and chose small evergreens that don’t need much pruning. She also created definition with pots and architecture as well as plants.
Layers of hedging, some in unexpected materials like bristly wire netting bush (Corokia cotoneaster), define the garden in all seasons, creating depth and texture as well as delineation. Hall-Behrens punctuates beds with pots, encircling the containers with hedges two or three layers deep. Hedging of various heights encloses both the patio and a hut for garden viewing. The effect is lush, sinuous, and strongly architectural.
With the renovation, Hall-Behrens returned to her garden’s Pan-Asian-Tropical-style roots. This meant sticking more closely to a palette of Asian flora, along with plants from Chile and New Zealand, all well suited to Portland’s mild climate. Her enthusiasm for tropical-looking plants (“I love big foliage, just love it”) and the work of Brazilian landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx inspired the garden’s layout, pattern, and bold foliage, like windmill palm (Trachycarpus fortunei), cannas, bear's breeches (Acanthus mollis), and groves of hardy Japanese bananas. The look is symmetrical without being formal, comfortably eclectic, and modernist without the hard edges. Also following a limited palette, the structural elements of the garden are black, rusty metal, or peacock blue, similar to the arbor-like structure painted to match the home’s trim color. “I’ve always been enamored by steel,” says Hall-Behrens, who uses rusty and perforated versions for edging, fences, and screens.
Hall-Behrens was clear about both her emotional and practical goals for the renovation. “I wanted to feel a sense of calm in the garden, and I wanted to see green when I looked out my windows in the winter.” Now there are plenty of evergreens—boxwood, yew, euonymous, ferns, and mondo grass—to both calm the garden visually, and carry the lushness of summer through all seasons.