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8 Tips for Creating Plant Combos That Are Practical AND Pretty

ARTICLE BY: DARCY DANIELS
Darcy Daniels is a longtime HPSO member, garden designer with Bloomtown® Gardens, and most recently the creator of eGardenGo, a website devoted to helping gardeners unlock the secrets of successful planting combinations. In this post, she dishes 8 tips garnered from 20 years of thinking about combining plants and garden-making.

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I’m quite practical and down-to-earth when it comes to choosing plants for the gardens I make, particularly those I do with clients. I tend to be quite a bit more experimental in my own space, but most of the time, my clients don’t want to take too many risks in terms of plant selections. Typically, that’s why they’ve called on me in the first place—they’ve been trying to solve the puzzle, but keep getting stumped. They’ll create a planting scheme that looks good for a while and then fizzles, often within weeks or months; but even if it takes a year, or several, to peter out, it can be a big disappointment if it’s not what they expected to happen. They’re left wondering, “What went wrong?”

The pragmatic approach I lay out below can keep this from happening to you. For me, it boils to the 8 concepts listed below, many of which I’ve written about on my own blog. I invite you to follow the links below to read my more in-depth take on each of these ideas.

Select for your growing conditions and hardiness zone

Yes, it’s rudimentary, but worth stating. Getting this first bit right is essential, as it’s the foundation on which all else is built. Without a solid footing, the pyramid tumbles.

Does your garden offer ample sunlight, or does it lean on the shadier side? Are there areas that are perpetually moist due to an underground spring or high water table? Is the plant in question hardy in your growing zone? Knowing the answers to questions like these is the first step to selecting plants that are going to thrive in your garden.

Darcy Daniels Garden Designer

At first glance this appears to be a nice enough combination, with its pleasing variation in foliage size and texture. However, upon closer inspection, the combo doesn’t hold up—these two, though perfectly fine choices individually, don’t belong together in the garden. They want different things and would never be happy together for the long haul.

Focus on form and foliage

Flowers are fleeting, but foliage and form endure. By focusing on these lasting aspects, your compositions will be more likely to hold up over the seasons.

What design functions do you want each member to contribute to your overall planting scheme? For example, does each provide one or more features you value, such as an evergreen presence, seasonal interest in the form of bloom, colorful foliage, and/or fragrance?

Darcy Daniels Garden Designer

Do you have an assortment of plant shapes in your palette? Pleasing compositions rely on a variety of plant shapes and textures, arranged in companionable association with each other. For example, the artful selection and thoughtful grouping of a rounded form with a columnar shape, a ground-hugging carpet and a wispy texture that will catch the breeze will result in an agreeable and sculptural arrangement.

Of course, you’ll want to make sure that your scheme isn’t overly static and includes cyclical changes—navigating that delicate balance between all-season structure and the livelier contributions of flower and foliage.

Darcy Daniels Garden Designer

This gardener’s passion for foliage shines through in this lush and lovely garden in her narrow and shady side yard.

Consider maintenance

Be honest with yourself about how much garden maintenance you’ll want to do and of what ilk. Take a hard look and reconcile your maintenance desires with your garden dreams. One way of cutting back on maintenance is to limit the number of different plants you’re growing and making sure you’re employing plenty of repetition in your choices. For plant-lovers like us, this can be a real challenge, but it might be worth the payoff—fewer plants that you’ll need to learn how to take care of, and you’ll be better able to batch your maintenance tasks.

Be open to using common plants

It’s not uncommon to hear gardeners dismissively declare that they dislike this or that plant; accusing it of being pedestrian, old-fashioned, unimaginative, and ubiquitously over-grown. But these common plants are widely grown for good reasons: they’re tough, dependable and easy to grow. And yes, there are definitely lots of instances of them being grown poorly and/or in uninteresting ways.

But I challenge the assertion that these are “bad” plants and suggest instead that they just need the right partner to bring out their best qualities. Like a carefully assembled ensemble cast, a successful planting vignette is a result of the combined effect of the selected individuals, stronger together than each alone. By pairing a common plant with a more engaging partner, a ho-hum plant can be energized, updated and given a modern makeover, and before you know it — voila! You have a plant combo worth growing.

Darcy Daniels Garden Designer

The secret of sauce isn’t the individual plants per se, more so it’s how they all work together. The individual plants in this scene are all quite common and widely grown, but taken all together and with the addition of the red pot as an artful accent, they create an enchanting scene.

Consider the seasons

It’s important to think about how your garden will evolve and change through the seasons. Keep evaluating and tweaking your plant palette until you’re satisfied with the year-round aspect of your design. That doesn’t always mean that it’s a four-season focus, it just means that you’ve made conscious choices. For instance, if you’re planting your front entry garden, looking good year-round will likely be important. If you’re creating a vignette for your “back 40”, or a place that you rarely see in winter, probably not so much.

Darcy Daniels Garden Designer

Fall is hands-down my favorite season—I always try to include plants in my designs that peak in the late season.

The Goodness Ratio

The larger the plant, the higher the bar. Many of us can only fit a few large shrubs and/or small trees into our gardens, so it pays to be choosy and to expect them to deliver one or more these attributes: blooms, fragrance, attractive foliage, fall color and/or interesting bark or stems. Small plants, or plants that share space well, may enjoy a more relaxed standard.

Darcy Daniels Garden Designer

When selecting trees and large shrubs, I’m looking for plants that deliver—nice foliage, pretty flowers, fall color, gorgeous bark—I want it all! Stewartia pseudocamellia is one of my favorite go-to trees.

Consider forever vs. for now

When creating your planting vignettes, make sure to allow ample room for your long-lived, structure-making plants to reach their mature size, even if it means that you have big gaps between them. You can fill those bare spots with more fun-loving, short-lived plants and avoid finding yourself in the unfortunate position of needing to remove choice plants because you don’t have room for them.

Darcy Daniels Garden Designer

I adore abutilons and they’re fantastic, long-flowering fillers, perfect for the in-between spots in newer garden beds. Though I’ve have had very good luck with them returning year after year, some years I lose them to extreme weather. No matter! I will always, always replace them, try out new varieties, and plug them in wherever I need a pretty filler.

Don’t be afraid to make big changes

Repeat after me: “Change is good. Change is fun!”

Cliche, but true nonetheless: change is a constant, especially in gardens. The very nature of gardens ensure that they evolve—plants grow and mature; plants falter and die—though plant lust ensures new plants are chosen to take their place. And we grow as gardeners as well—we become more experienced and our tastes, as well as what we need and desire from our outdoor spaces, evolves with us.

The longer I’ve been gardening, the more courageous and confident I’ve become when it comes to making big, monumental changes to my garden. Recently I’ve had several big plants removed—including some trees that we “inherited” when we moved here—they were bad choices then and they weren’t going to become better choices no matter how long I cogitated on them. So I took the plunge, had them removed, and I couldn’t be happier. I’m going to have a blast reworking this section of garden.

Darcy Daniels Garden Designer

For gardeners, few things are more exciting than an empty garden beds—opportunity awaits in this Bloomtown client garden .

But above all, have fun—while treating the endeavor with due respect, you don’t have to take it too seriously—that’s what will keep you coming back for more, season after season.

Darcy Daniels Garden Designer

For me, the joy of gardening is fueled by the myriad opportunities for continued growth and learning and the pursuit of new ideas, inspirations and connections. Towards that end, I hope you’ll visit eGardenGo and join our growing community of gardeners.


Categories: Expert Advice
Tags: form and foliage, garden design advice, garden designer, northwest garden design, portland garden design, seasonal planting

2 responses to “8 Tips for Creating Plant Combos That Are Practical AND Pretty”

  1. Nancy Sarpola says:

    Looking forward to hearing your talk at the Evening Garden Club!

  2. Donna Westwood says:

    Thank you for these practical and useful tips for both novice and experienced gardeners. The Corvallis Evening Garden Club is fortunate to have you speak to us next week!

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