OYO Design Blog
On Your Own Design (OYO) is a special brand I've created for enthusiastic gardeners, aspiring design DIYers or anyone ready to take their garden to the next level. New articles are posted twice monthly on Sundays. If you'd rather not check back, sign up via the pop-up form and new articles will be delivered straight to your inbox. As a thank you, I'll send you a PDF of my favorite perennials!

If you’ve been to one of my presentations, you may have noticed the gardens are almost always photographed in spring, summer or fall. But that doesn’t mean I ignore winter when I design a garden!

In fact, a garden should honor every season by including at least one plant that captures its unique beauty. In warmer climates, the characteristics I look for in a great winter specimen are berries, blooms or fragrance.

Sweet Box

That’s why I love Sweet Box (Sarcococca ruscifolia). With blooms, berries AND fragrance it’s a winter standout. Sweetly-scented, small white flowers appear in late fall and are followed by shiny blue berries. To top it off, it is low water and evergreen, so it not only looks good year round, but thrives in drought-adapted landscapes.

Now let’s talk design!

Incorporating Sweet Box into your garden is easy. Its evergreen leaves and manageable size (4-6’) make it an excellent foundation plant around the front or back of the house. Be aware that its growth pattern tends to be a little untamed. Sweet Box can develop a few long branches that shoot out in all directions ahead of the pack, so be patient while this plant grows up and expect to do some shaping.

It prefers a spot that is at least partly shady, and makes a gorgeous, evergreen backdrop along a fence in a shade garden. Bonus pick if you like Sweet Box but want something smaller – its little cousin Sarcococca hookeriana makes a great, low mounding ground cover.

But my absolute FAVORITE spot for this workhorse shrub is by the front door. What better way to get a jolt of happiness every time you walk in and out of the house than to admire its delicate flowers and small that heavenly fragrance? Sweet Box is welcome bright spot during the greyest months of the year.

Bonus Plant! Berberis darwinii

If you’ve got more space, consider Darwin’s Barberry. I snapped this photo at the San Francisco Botanical Garden in February, where it really lit up the winter landscape. Visit their site for more photos and information.

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A while back when I told a friend I was thinking of a driving visit to the Northeast, she began to enthusiastically list the gardens I should visit. But the reality is, when I’m on vacay, I don’t necessarily WANT to visit a lot of gardens. This is partly in difference to my husband, who already tolerates a LOT of shoptalk around our house when my gardener friends drop by. Beyond that, a vacation is supposed to be a break from work, even when it is work that you love. So a garden or park has to be pretty special to earn a spot on our itinerary.

A perfect example is Stanley Park, where we spent the day on a recent visit to Vancouver. This park has it all, and one of the things that makes it so special is its diversity.

We started out on the water side, where we admired beautiful views of the bay and city skyline, interspersed with small, scenic beaches.

We started out on the water side, where we admired beautiful views of the bay and city skyline, interspersed with small, scenic beaches.

As we climbed higher, the topography changed to a woodsy scene, but the views over the trees were equally beautiful.

Stopping for lunch at Prospect Point restaurant meant more views…

…complemented by the lush landscaping on the restaurant grounds.

After refreshing ourselves, we headed back via the interior of the park, where a dense canopy shading a dense, fern-dominated undergrowth made us feel we were in a totally different place than the breezy, ocean view trek we’d enjoyed on the way in.

As we got closer to the city, the park changed once again, as we ambled through wide lawns complemented by carefully curated plant beds.

We ended with a stroll around a small lake, which brought us back to the city proper.

So what design lessons did I walk away with?

Landscapes have the ability to feed our senses in numerous ways, whether that way is…

thoughtful and cerebral,

meditative and calming,

or cultivated and curated.

A visit to a place as diverse as Stanley Park reminds me of the power landscapes and gardens have, and while a suburban backyard is a far cry from a world-renounced park, great design reflects the power of nature, no matter how humble the canvas.

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