Landscaping in Flagstaff using Foliage & Winter-Interest Plants

Posted on February 28, 2011

Foliage & Year-Round Interest Garden Plan

Foliage & Year-Round Interest Garden Plan

I recently completed a design for a backyard in Ponderosa Trails that emphasizes foliage over flowers, and year-round interest over a fabulous but short-lived summer display. While it can be easier to focus on what plants do well during the height of summer, with July typically being our peak month in Flagstaff, my clients wanted a backyard landscape that would provide them visual interest and year-round greenery. Though we don’t have a large palette of plant options suited to this task here in Flagstaff, there are some surprisingly great choices including evergreen trees, shrubs, ornamental grasses, vines and perennials. In this case the final plant list included:


  • Vanderwolf Pyramid Limber Pine - Pinus flexilus ‘Vanderwolf’s Pyramid.’ A pyramidal evergreen tree maturing to about 20′ high x 12′ wide with striking blue-green needles and graceful character. Although not a factor for this yard, it is surprisingly resilient and will take wind as well as dry conditions and thin, poor soils. My clients just had to have it in their yard!
  • Bloodgood Japanese Maple - Acer palmatum var. atropurpureum ‘Bloodgood.’ A small deciduous tree about 8′ high and wide with gorgeous burgundy-red foliage. We should all be so lucky to have a spot in our yard for a Japanese Maple — but they do require a protected location out of wind and intense sun, preferring dappled shade. Mature Ponderosa Pines can make good overstory partners.


  • Dwarf Globe Blue Spruce - Picea pungens ‘Globosa.’ Nearly indistinguishable from Montgomery Spruce, this is a dwarf, rounded, compact form of Colorado Spruce with beautiful silvery blue foliage. Height and spread are about 5 feet. It takes sun to filtered shade.
  • Winter Gem Boxwood - Buxus microphylla japonica ‘Winter Gem.’ Although I used them liberally in Virginia, this is probably the only Boxwood I have spec’d in Flagstaff! If kept in at least filtered shade and out of the wind, it can do surprisingly well here. Petite at 3 feet high and wide, it is a broadleaf evergreen with lustrous green leaves and a real treat to see here in our harsh high-desert environment. A great year-round, dense, low backdrop or hedge shrub.
  • Isanti Dogwood - Cornus stolonifera ‘Isanti.’ Many clients ask for the shrub with the “red sticks” in winter and this is it! Isanti is my favorite of the Redtwig Dogwoods because of its size at 4′ high and wide. Cardinal and Bailey generally are too large for the home landscape nearing 8 feet.
  • Compact Oregon Grape Holly - Mahonia aquifolium compacta. This small broadleaf evergreen is used all over Flagstaff and for good reason. It is probably the most resilient and versatile broadleaf evergreen in our area and it does look like a holly. It has yellow flower clusters in spring followed by grape-like blue fruit in summer, with red-bronze to purplish winter foliage. It probably does best in a protected, shady location but can also thrive in sun and surprisingly even take some wind. The compact variety is only 30″ high and wide, with the regular species about twice this size.

Ornamental Grasses

  • Variegated Maiden Grass - Miscanthus sinensis ‘Variegatus.’ I love this grass and spec it quite often as it is one of the few ornamental grasses that will take some shade. It is about 3′ wide and 4′ high, with wide, bright green blades having creamy yellow stripes. Silvery seed plumes grace the grass later in the season, providing true year-round interest.
  • Karl Foerster Feather Reed Grass - Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster.’ Another Flagstaff favorite known for its year-round interest and striking upright form. Karl Foerster is 18″ wide by 4′ high and has green blades with tall reddish-bronze plumes in early summer, persisting in winter as they fade to buff color. Sun to filtered shade.
  • Sapphire Blue Avena Grass - Helictotrichon sempervirens ‘Sapphire.’ Blue Avena and Elijah Blue Fescue Grass have always been favorites of mine for their rich, blue foliage clumps which provide excellent contrast in the garden. They have light buff seed spikes that persist into winter and are versatile enough to be used singly or in groups, naturalistically or in architectural rows and arcs. Blue Fescue is quite small at 8″ wide and high, while Blue Avena is about 2′ high and wide. They both prefer sun and will do well against warm walls and near sidewalk strips.


  • Purpleleaf Wintercreeper - Euonymus fortunei ‘Coloratus.’ I have to admit this is not a favorite plant of mine. For some reason I am just not a fan of Euonymus in general, however it does have its place and for this plan I spec’d it for its climbing, vine-like persistent bronze-purple winter foliage which continues the theme of purple foliage plants interspersed with green counterparts. It does need support to climb and in this case will cover a metal trellis backdrop for a sculpture piece, centered on my client’s glass patio doors. It can take sun or shade.
  • Akebia Vine - Akebia sp. Akebia is new to me but appears to be a very promising plant with beautiful flowers. It is a deciduous vine that may remain semi-evergreen in protected locations. It needs support to climb. For this plan it will alternate with the Purpleleaf Wintercreeper to form a lovely vertical foliage mosaic. I would not plant Akebia in exposed, windy or full sun areas in Flagstaff, however.

Perennials & Groundcovers

  • Guacamole Hosta - Hosta ‘Guacamole’ and Blue Giant Hosta - Hosta sieboldiana ‘Elegans.’ There are many varieties of Hosta and my clients wanted a mix of bright green as well as blue. Who doesn’t love their large, tropical-like leaves? For such lush looking foliage, they are surprisingly easy to grow in Flagstaff and will take shade as well as some sun. Because of our dry climate, we usually don’t even have to contend with their common nemesis, the slug. Guacamole is bright yellow-green while Blue Giant is, well, you guessed — blue! Hostas range in size from 1′ to 3′ high and wide.
  • Redleaf Bergenia - Bergenia cordifolia ‘Winterglut.’ I don’t know why I don’t see much of Bergenia or a similar foliage type plant, Plumbago (Cerastostigma plumbaginoides) in Flagstaff. They are both beautiful 12″ high groundcovers with burgundy-red fall foliage that remains in winter as a lovely surprises peaking up through the snow. Plumbago has intense striking blue flowers while Bergenia has pink blossoms atop cabbage like foliage. Both are adaptable to sun and shade. If you haven’t tried these plants you definitely should!
  • Periwinkle - Vinca minor. Many people are familiar with this old standby. It is a 6″ high evergreen groundcover with small, dark green leaves and deep blueish-purplish flowers. It forms a beautiful glossy mass in the summer. I like to use it as a unifying groundcover that can take either sun or shade, although some shade is preferred in Flagstaff. An easy, reliable plant.
  • Turkish Speedwell - Veronica liwanensis and Woolly Creeping Speedwell - Veronica pectinata. I love Veronicas for their resilience, beauty, and evergreen groundcover qualities (not all Speedwells are evergreen but liwanensis and pectinata are, as well as allionii). Heights range from ground-hugging at 1/2″ to more rambling at 18″ depending on the variety. They form dense mats that can handle some foot traffic and can be planted in rock gardens or between stepping stones, as well as in large masses to form soft blankets. Flowers are blue or pink and they need sun. Another must-have if your site offers the right conditions.
  • Dwarf Creeping Thyme - Thymus praecox minus and Mother-of-Thyme - Thymus praecox arcticus. Like the Speedwells, there are numerous varieties of Thymes to choose from. Some are evergreen and they also range in height from 1/2″ to 18″.  Most like sun but some will take shade. Flowers are white or pink. Rock garden, stepping stone or groundcover plant with the added bonus of strong or spicy scents when crushed.

If you’d like to see photographs for these plants, most can be found at, a great online resource. Another great resource for learning about resilient and versatile plants is Lauren Springer’s book, The Undaunted Garden: Planting for Weather Resilient Beauty. Her book has been on my shelf since it was published in 1994 and I have often referred to her “Portraits of Indispensably Undaunted Plants” chapter over the years. (My only frustration has been the realization that many of the plants she recommends cannot be found readily in the trade!) If you’re in to experimenting with plant colors and textures, I’d also recommend my blogpost, “How to Use Color & Texture to Create Your Relaxing Retreat.” It features a landscape design for one of my award-winning Flagstaff projects, recognized by the Arizona Native Plant Society’s Flagstaff Chapter as what other than “Best Use of Color & Texture” in 2009.

2 Responses to “Landscaping in Flagstaff using Foliage & Winter-Interest Plants”

  1. Loren Trager
    Mar 01, 2011

    That yard looks great!

  2. janel
    May 29, 2011

    It turned out great! How are you enjoying it?

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