Harmony in the Garden Blog

Danger in the garden – The Formidable Four

There’s something alluring about beautiful plants that have a bite to them.

While I don’t go out of my way to design gardens that will intentionally impale or poison people, I also don’t go out of my way to avoid plants that might have potential for pain.

Just like lots of people I know, sometimes the most fascinating characters have a prickly side to them.  All you have to do is pay attention to the warning signs, and adjust your behavior when you think things might get a little dicey.


Please join me and the rest of the us at the Garden Designers Roundtable  to discuss this month’s topic: Danger Gardens.

If you were to look at my portfolio, you’d see that my gardens typically consist of blend of California natives, grasses, perennials, and succulents.  Dig a little deeper, though, and you’ll see that woven throughout are plants that can hurt.

It’s not because I’m a sadistic designer, but because 1) plants with thorns and poison will keep our ravenous deer away, and 2) these plants have such awesome characteristics that it’s worth overlooking their edgier side.

I like to call them my Formidable Four.

1.  Bougainvillea

                    What I see                                                                             What others see

Yes, it’s true that bougainvilleas have thorns that could pierce armor.

But the flowers!!  Surely you can forgive this plant a few thorns for flowers that bloom for no less than 6 months at a time here in the temperate Bay Area.

So how can you use them in the landscape?

Bougainvilleas are perfect for scrambling up a trellis, seductively draping over rooftops, fences and any other structure that could use a little softening.

This is ‘Purple Queen’ in my own garden where it grows in a narrow 2-foot wide bed.

To avoid unwanted wounds when walking by, I keep it tightly pruned while growing up the trellis.  I then let it flare out and do its thing the closer it gets to the roof.

An added bonus is that it also softens the corner of my house, taking the eye off my less-than-gorgeous built in barbecue.

2.    Pyracantha

                    What I see                                                                             What others see

Like the bougainvillea above, the pyracantha has its fair share of skin-puncturing thorns.

In fact, I have one friend who confided that the yearly pruning of her pyracantha bush is the cause of a guaranteed spousal argument.

So how can you use them in the landscape?

 Let’s not forget that besides their gorgeous fall berries (in colors of garnet, red, or orange) the pyracantha shrub is covered in tiny white flowers in the early spring.
This is one in my side yard that I have trained to grow up a trellis.
As is the case with most side yards, space is tight and the last thing you want to do is scrape your arms when walking by a prickly shrub like this.
Just let the canes grow long enough and attach them to a trellis and voila!  Problem solved!
Besides offering much needed food for fall-foraging birds and squirrels, when trained along a fence the pyracantha offers stunning inside-out beauty.

What a show this old shrub of mine puts on for my daughter!

For years, she’s enjoyed lying in the comfort of her bed while watching robins, waxwings, and colorful finches gorge themselves on berries.

3.    Agaves

                    What I see                                                                             What others see

Okay, so these are actually pretty dangerous.

And they pup like crazy, soon creeping into your neighbor’s garden or pushing up through the asphalt.

These beauties definitely need to be carefully sited in the landscape, as well as carefully tended  to make sure they stay within bounds.  But with their stunning colors and year-round structure they provide, aren’t they worth the trouble?  I think so.

So how can you use them in the landscape?

One way to appreciate the beautiful colors and structure of agaves, while simultaneous keeping them within check, is to plant them in containers.
And why not take it one step further and place the container within the garden bed. There’s no rule that says containers have to remain firmly planted on the patio.  A container nestled within a garden bed can add much needed interest and height.
When using large agaves in the garden, it may seem obvious to plant them far away from the edge of the pathway, but time and time again I see them planted waaaay too close for comfort.

This garden, designed by Frank Mitzel and Randy Laurie, perfectly demonstrates the careful thought given not only to their placement but to neighboring plants as well.

4.    Euphorbia

                    What I see                                                                             What others see

Available in a rainbow of colors, shapes and sizes, euphorbias have a highly irritating sap that runs throughout their stems.

While some people aren’t bothered by this sap, many are – resulting in painful blisters and rashes, and even blindness.

These beauties are the epitome of hidden danger!

So how can you use them in the landscape?

Well, first and foremost it’s critical to remember to always wear gloves when handling any part of euphorbias.
AND safety glasses!
And ideally you should wear long sleeves as well, but today’s high-maintenance model was too warm and refused to change her clothes.  Hmmm.
Some varieties of euphorbia, like this e. myrsinites or the smaller e. ‘Diamond Frost’ are ideal for draping over the sides of window boxes or other containers.
And because of their smaller size, they need much less pruning, therefore reducing your risk for rashes.
One of my favorite varieties, e. ceratocarpa, is a stately beauty with acid-yellow blooms that provide color for months and months at a time.
For those of you who are still worried about the sap, in my experience this variety seems to be the least toxic.  I prune mine to the ground in late September and always manage to get a fair amount of sap on my skin with zero negative effects.  A few of my gardening friends have confirmed this as well.
Don’t the blooms look fantastic next to the deep garnet from ‘The Prince’ rose?  And speaking of roses – why is it that no one picks on them for having the potential to puncture?
So the next time you’re thinking about a plant and someone says “oh no, you can’t plant that!” don’t be so quick to judge.
Think about all the positive qualities it might have and how you can best use it in your garden.  Go ahead – take a walk on the wild side!
Thanks for stopping by!  And don’t forget to stop by the other members of the Roundtable today, to read their thoughts on Danger Gardens:
Rebecca Sweet

Rebecca Sweet

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