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The Seattle Times | Pacific Northwest

Plant Life Valerie Easton

Out From The Shadows

When working in the dark, turn on the light

On a recent nursery browse I overheard a couple of gardeners picking through a table of purple- and brown-leafed plants. One said in an irritated voice, "I've wasted so much money on plants like these. I can't see them in the garden, and keep stepping on them and killing them." Of course I turned to check out the speaker, who was holding up a pot of Heuchera 'Obsidian' as an example of her frustration. No, she wasn't ancient and she wasn't wearing Coke-bottle glasses. She was just articulating what we've come to realize, often to our chagrin. These trendy and beautiful plants with dark foliage and flower can be a challenge to place in the garden.

Several years ago I wrote about a display garden at the Northwest Flower & Garden Show that was composed solely of dark plants. I found the effect to be slightly sinister despite the garden's brunette beauty. I raised the ire of the designer by commenting that the overall effect was dull and depressing, even though the individual plants were often gorgeous, or at least curious.

We can't help but admire the rich coloration of chocolate-toned plants and the shadowy contrasts they bring to the garden. New and tempting dark plants show up in the nursery every week. Ebony hellebores and heucheras, pansies and elderberries are being touted in every magazine from Garden Design to Metropolitan Home. Yet why would we want to deck our gardens out in dark plants in a climate where we endure months of heavy cloud cover followed by days of June gloom?

The most obvious solution, and a very pretty one, is to light up dark plants with a skirting of yellow or gold. A classic combination is glossy black mondo grass poking up out of a sea of yellow lamium or golden 'Angelina' sedum. There's probably a perfect golden pairing for any maroon, brown or black plant you can come up with. It's just that the purple-and-gold thing always reminds me, and I'm sure other UW Huskies, of game-day paraphernalia and attire. I don't want my garden to stir memories of paw-print balloon pants.

So I sought the advice of Marie Lincoln of Chocolate Flower Farm on Whidbey Island, who is busy breeding and selling every plant she can find with a bit of duskiness in its DNA. Whether it's named semi-sweet, bitter, milk chocolate, latte, mocha or cappuccino, Lincoln is growing it. If anyone can make a cottage industry out of dark plants, it'll be Lincoln and her partner, Bill Schlicht, who are transforming an old horse pasture into display gardens that show chocolate-colored plants to best advantage.

"Dark plants are really meant to be an accent," says Lincoln. "They add depth and drama that take the garden to the next level." And it's true her Chocolate-Vanilla Swirl border looks more delicious than funereal. Snowy peonies lighten the mix, and at one end Lincoln has added pink for a Neapolitan effect.

Lincoln is expert at coming up with subtle combinations that enhance dark plants. "You don't have to use only white, yellow or chartreuse with dark," she says. Deep, dark colors come into their own when paired with light and airy plants. Pale, soft-leafed plants like Lobelia tupa, and ornamental grasses like blue oat grass and feather grass are subtle, effective foils for dark plants.

"The range of dark plants is so vast . . . There's quite an elegant palette to work with," says Lincoln. She's interplanted rows of fragrant chocolate cosmos with clumps of lavender, not only for the visual contrast but to produce chocolate-lavender honey. In one long border, stands of daylilies are interspersed with lacy black elderberries. Still to come is an edible chocolate kitchen garden and a border combining shades of blue and dark brown, inspired by an old blue Schwinn bike Lincoln inherited from her mother.

Lincoln's words to plant by: "A touch of dark goes a long way. Also, remember that dark is relative." And a caution: "The more you use dark plants the more possibilities you'll see."

Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer and author of "A Pattern Garden." Her e-mail address is Jacqueline Koch is a writer and photographer based in Seattle.