Sean Knibb's paint box

Landscape designer Sean Knibb works from a simple palette of four dozen plants that offer long blooming periods and year-round interest. Drought tolerant and disease resistant, the selections are "bulletproof," Knibb says. Here's a breakdown of the elements of his modern urban meadow mix, which Knibb offers as part of a design service available at www.knibbmodular.com:

Trees and shrubs

Among his favorites are acacia, beech and varieties of myrtle. Strategically placed, they create focal points and soften the corners of yards and exterior walls, Knibb says. They also provide dappled light. The dwarf Melaleuca incana (gray honey myrtle) "grows really fast, is drought resistant, has bottle-brush flowers and the finest textured tree leaf you can get," Knibb says. "The leaves are so tiny that it looks like little clouds of green."

For shrubs, he uses a dense pittosporum called Silver Sheen, smoky Westringia fruticosa (coast rosemary), flowery white buddleja (butterfly bush) and velvety chartreuse Helichrysum petiolare Limelight (licorice plant).

Succulents

Knibb sees them as part of the backbone of the garden. "Once they get to where they want to be, they are structural, sculptural details that you discover as you look around," he says, "and they are particularly useful and beautiful in containers." He commonly uses variegated and red-edged aloe vera, the colorful Cressula capitella called Campfire, echeveria, blue senecio and trailing burro tail sedum.

Grasses

Eschewing lawns, Knibb works with prairie and ornamental grasses that offer varying degrees of volume. For height, he prefers the Miscanthus genus of towering African perennial grass, the fountain spray of paspalum and muhlenbergia as well as the soft teal color of Andropogon gerardii, better known as big bluestem or turkey foot.

Closer to the ground, he chooses medium-height moor grass, mounding bromus for shagginess and blue grama for its delicate flowers. He often adds plants with the appearance of grass, including miniature sisyrinchium, members of the iris family known as blue-eyed grasses, whose blades are topped with tiny blue blossoms. He deploys easy-care perennial carex, a type of sedge, for grass-like leaves.

Flowers

For eye-level blooms, Knibb likes yellow milkweed that hosts monarch butterflies and has a fluffy seed head. Verbena bonariensis sends up flowers 3 to 4 feet in the air, providing an interesting optical illusion, Knibb says: "When you look at it from afar, it looks like little blue buttons floating in the air."

At knee-level, he uses long-blooming, butterfly-shaped gaura, fortnight lily and banksia, which resembles an ear of corn. Near the ground, heliotrope provides a vanilla fragrance, silver brocade artemisia adds pale gray foliage and the broad, rounded leaves of geum (also known as avens) and scented geranium help form a ground cover with gazania.

Edibles

Along borders, Knibb weaves in parsley, oregano, basil, chives, thyme and other herbs. He also intermingles seasonal fruits and vegetables in beds. Among his favorites: strawberries, tomatoes, artichokes, long beans and collard greens.

-- David A. Keeps

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