Marin Master Gardeners
University of California
Marin Master Gardeners

Marin IJ Articles

The textures and colors of a coral reef can inspire gardeners

April 30, 2011
Barbara J. Euser

RECENTLY I WAS snorkeling in an area called the Japanese Garden: a shallow reef in the Hollandes Cays of the San Blas Islands of Panama. As I swam slowly over the rich tapestry of hard and soft corals, I thought about why it might be called a garden and what it has in common with the gardens we create around our homes.

I realized that my vision of a garden had been too restricted, too homogeneous. The incredible variety of textures, forms, heights, colors and movement in this underwater garden was much more complex than anything I had imagined placing in juxtaposition in my own garden at home.

I began to think about Mediterranean garden plants that might perform the same functions in a domestic garden in Marin.

Hard, domed coral heads, both reddish-brown and yellow, could be rocks in a garden landscape. Large rocks provide a sense of rest or repose when surrounded by the energy of growing plants. Slabs of yellow or red sandstone would create a different impression than boulders of chunky,
gray granite.

Other corals were hard but had many serrated edges. In a domestic garden, the equivalent effect could be created using horizontal evergreens such as junipers. The variations of color in the underwater aquatic garden were extremely noticeable. In the garden, yellow-tipped junipers can be used in conjunction with dark-green or bluish evergreens to enhance the color scheme.

Underwater, soft corals, some with a few arms and others with more complex branches, waft back and forth in the current. In a garden, grasses can perform this function as they move gently and gracefully in the breeze. Color and texture are of key importance: tall grasses such as bronze fountain grass will contrast with upright, straw-colored grasses or with
rounded mounds of blue fescue.

Corals attain different heights and gardens can be thought of as growing in layers. Low, stiff-branched corals reminded me of perennial ground covers such as cotoneaster, or for color contrast, a low-growing maroon barberry. In the medium height level, the garden might include prostrate rosemary or lavender. A taller level might include upright Tuscan rosemary or grevillea.

Bamboo is another plant that would fit into this amalgam of colors and textures, but in the garden it must be treated with care. Running varieties of bamboo can overtake an area; clumping varieties are more suitable for garden planting. Using a variety of heights, colors and textures, an entire garden could be planted with different species of bamboo.

In addition to the many shades of yellow, brown, bronze and rust of coral in the underwater garden, bright flashes of color are provided by tropical fish, such as yellow butterfly fish and blue and purple parrotfish.

In the above-ground garden, flowers provide these colorful accents. In traditional Japanese gardens, the majority of color is provided by the leaves of shrubs and trees, whether bronze, yellow or varying shades of green. Flowers are used to provide occasional bright flashes of pink, red, white or blue. Some of my favorite bright flowers are fuschia-colored bougainvillea, pink valerian and yellow daylilies. Easy annuals include pansies, petunias, marigolds and zinnias. The possibilities of adding colorful flowers of any height, annual or perennial, to the garden are nearly endless.

The underwater Japanese coral garden was completely natural, unplanned by any garden designer. However, the colors, textures, different heights and forms all worked perfectly together.

Perhaps in my own garden planning, I have been too cautious, too wary of introducing contrasting colors and heights, different textures and shapes. I will undoubtedly proceed slowly, making gradual changes in my garden. But I will take into account the lessons I learned about gardening while snorkeling in Panama.

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