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Something Sinister in The Garden

Traditionalists may see it as a sinister plot, but what has been fashionable at dinner parties has snuck into the garden: basic black.

New for this year, the Atrium at Meadowlark Gardens in Vienna has planted a "sinister" garden containing shrubs and flowers with dark foliage and flowers highlighted by silver and pink flushes. Shrubby Black Panther tree peonies; lush, dark purple Gamecock irises; deep red Crimson Butterflies gaura and Ruby Slippers lobelia are only a few of the dark blooms concealed in the sinister garden.

Of course, "there are no true black flowers," Doris Rodriguez, chief horticulturist for the Atrium, is quick to point out. Blooms may be deep red or dark purple, but they are not black. Red or not, dark colors are more of an arboretum trend than a backyard one.

"I have read about it but don't know about anyone who has planted a black garden" said Page Styles, a columnist for The Garden Club of Fairfax's newsletter. Karen O'Meara, a representative for the National Capital Area Federation of Garden Clubs, says she "hasn't seen it a lot." Rodriguez sees the dark garden "as a nursery and botanical garden phenomenon that is going to be trickling down to homeowners." Maybe the environment isn't so unfriendly, though. As Styles put it, "I know people who have all white gardens. So why not have an all black garden?"

Many flowers and shrubs with dark foliage or blooms can be found at local nurseries. A few examples include the ruffly, purple leafed and pink flowered Coral Bells; the thin, purple-black leafed Ebony Knight mondo grass; and the jade leafed, dark blooming Chinese wild ginger.

Beyond basic black, hot tropical colors are an ongoing trend in D.C.-area gardens. "They use a lot of hot colors in the area because the weather is so hot," said Styles. Rodriguez agreed lush tropical colors seem to be a natural complement for area gardens.

Not everyone follows trends, though. "[Most] ladies in the club stick to the traditional," said Marilyn Amodeo, president of the Reston Garden Club. Styles sums matters up saying, "There are just as many choices for color in the garden as recipes for fruitcake in the South."

ALSO GROWING MORE POPULAR, according to O’Meara, is ecologically sensitive gardening: using native plants or practicing “xeriscaping,” a method of gardening where little water is needed. When it comes to native gardening, Brown believes people need to be careful. One reason to use native species is that, theoretically, natives will not escape the garden and invade local forests. Then again, as Brown points out, "Black-eyed Susans are native plants, but they can also be invaders." Another reason many area gardeners favor tropicals is because cold-sensitive tropicals cannot take over local forests.

Edible flower gardens have only a modest following. Many gardeners may not realize when they plant their pansies they have put in a food flower. While Amodeo likes the pansies in her front yard, she admits, "I've never cooked with them." Maybe people won't eat their flower garden pansies or red chard, but many might season their food with the beautiful blue-flowered sage or rosemary.

While people may not be planting food for themselves, a growing number of people are providing food for wildlife by planting habitat gardens. Brown sees "a real push going on to creating backyard habitats." It doesn't hurt that, as Amodeo says, "habitat gardens are a little easier [to take care of]." Though habitat gardening is intended to provide food and shelter equally, gardeners do not have equal love for all creatures. As Brown put it, "Butterflies get the press releases."