It’s surprisingly easy to find wow moments in your own garden, regardless how little or much effort you put into creating combinations, because the luck factor graces beginners and experts alike. When you’re not comparing your gardens to other people’s pretty pictures, you can be more open to the moments that come along without any intention on your part. The key here isn’t doing, it’s seeing. The more time you’re out in your garden, the greater your chances of spotting magic moments, such as the way the sun shining through a dark leaf makes it glow the same shade of red as a nearby bloom.
Spending lots of time in your garden, with a camera within easy reach, lets you catch great light effects for pretty pictures. Above are Tropicanna canna (Canna ‘Phaison’), ‘Black Pearl’ pepper (Capsicum annuum), and ‘Orange Fantasia’ Swiss chard; the thin leaves of cannas and chards are especially lovely with light shining through them. Fluffy seedheads, too, such as those of ironweed (Vernonia), below, have a wonderful way of glowing when backlit by the rising or setting sun.
If you want to have a go at making more wow moments happen, then it’s time to get your hands dirty. It’s not about communing with Google to track down the most intriguing rarities or reading art books to study the finer details of color theory; it’s about plain good gardening. First and foremost, the plants need to be compatible from a practical standpoint. Niceties such as color harmonies and textural contrasts don’t matter if you pair plants that simply aren’t happy to be growing in the spot you chose for them.
Orange coneflowers (Rudbeckia fulgida var. fulgida) and purple coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea – the species, not the fancy hybrids) are utterly ordinary as perennials go, but they’re also dependable and can adapt to a range of soil conditions. Together, in single clumps or in larger drifts, they make a long-lasting show of summer-to-fall bloom and fall-into-winter seedheads.
Healthy, vigorous plants that thrive in the same growing conditions naturally look good together. Besides providing plenty of opportunities for pleasing combinations, a backbone of these dependable performers makes the garden as a whole look good, too.
Orange and purple coneflowers tend to thrive in the same growing conditions that most warm-season grasses like, so it just makes sense to pair them in borders. If you get bored of one coneflower-and-grass pairing, there are plenty of other grassy partners to pick from. Above is ‘Dallas Blues’ switchgrass (Panicum virgatum); below is ‘Cassian’ fountain grass (Pennisetum alopecuroides):
…frost grass or Siberian graybeard (Spodiopogon sibiricus):
… ‘The Blues’ little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) and ‘Dewey Blue’ bitter switch grass (Panicum amarum):
… ‘Rotstrahlbusch’ switch grass (Panicum virgatum):
… ‘Sioux Blue’ Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) and little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium):
… ‘Morning Light’ miscanthus:
… and ‘Karley Rose’ Oriental fountain grass (Pennisetum orientale), plus cool-season ‘Karl Foerster’ feather reed grass (Calamagrostis x acutiflora) and a bit of prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis).
Once you figure out which plants grow well for you, you can think about shuffling them around to experiment with different pairings. At first, the prospect of moving plants can be daunting, but once you get the hang of it, it can be hard to stop yourself from rearranging whole sections of your garden every year. Eventually the thrill will (probably) wear off, but for a while, your previously lush garden may look a little rough again for a while. No matter: You’re learning one of the most important skills involved in creating pretty pictures.
Another “secret” to making pleasing pairings is recognizing that plants can have distinctly different growth habits. That may sound obvious, even to a beginner. What’s not obvious, perhaps, are the ways you can use that knowledge to your advantage and pack a surprising number of plants into even a small space without crowding them.
Recently, a reader asked about a particular combination I’d showed and commented “I’m a little (a lot) confused as to how I create something so full when so much space needs to be given for each plant?” That’s a question I struggled with for many years in my own gardens. My very first perennial garden, a large island bed at my parents’ house, started as a carefully thought-out plan mapped out on graph paper, with each plant allotted the amount of space recommended by the book I was using. The colored circles looked great on the paper, but the reality was a different story: more like a big expanse of mulch dotted with ridiculously tiny plants. What a disappointment.
Eventually, I had to accept that it was possible for books to be wrong. Well, not so much wrong, perhaps; it’s just that a writer can’t possibly know how well you’ve prepared the soil, what size plants you’re starting with, what time of year you’re planting them, how carefully you’re going to tend them, or how the weather is going to affect them. The best any writer can do is give you an idea of how tall and wide each plant usually gets after a few years in “normal” growing conditions (whatever they are).
Out at the entrance to the meadow, where the soil is hard and summer-dry, orange coneflowers (Rudbeckia fulgida var. fulgida) typically reach 18 to 24 inches tall. In the loose, rich soil of a well-prepared border, the same plants can reach 4 feet. (In the shot below, I’d cut the front clumps back by half in early summer but obviously missed the back one.)
I have to find it amusing when people get uptight about references that give ranges for plant sizes, rather than one specific number for all sites and seasons (3 feet shall be the number thou shalt count, and the number of the counting shall be 3 feet; no more, no less). It’s just not that simple.
Sooner or later, you have to accept that there’s a lot of wiggle room when it comes to spacing plants. While measurements may have absolute meanings in the real world, they can be many different things in a garden. You learn that for some plants, “2 to 3 feet wide” means that you literally need to allow them that much room because they’re mounded and leafy close to the soil level (or, because they tend to grow up and then sprawl outward).
Bushy, upright selections of switch grass (Panicum virgatum), such as ‘Shenandoah’ (above), ‘Heavy Metal’, and ‘Rotstrahlbusch’, really do tend to fill a space 2 to 3 feet across.
Other plants may branch out to be 2 to 3 feet across at the top but be narrower at the base, leaving room for you to tuck lower-growing plants around them.
‘Fireworks’ goldenrod (Solidago rugosa) branches out to be much wider at the top than at the bottom. That leaves space to add bushier plants around it if you want to create more intricate combinations.
Some plants can measure 2 to 3 feet from stem tip to stem tip but not form a solid clump: instead, they send out long, almost runner-like stems that wind around and up through their bedmates.
Weavers, such as winecups (Callirhoe involucrata) [above], are easy to tuck into already-full borders, because they readily mingle with mounding and upright companions. Some geraniums, including Rozanne (‘Gerwat’), can be mounded if they have space but weavers if they’re tightly planted.
Some plants fill a space 2 to 3 feet across in spring and then go dormant, leaving an empty space that you can fill with other plants for later color. Or, they may be slow starters, such as hostas and warm-season grasses, filling that amount of room but not until mid- or late summer, giving you opportunities to plant bulbs or spring-blooming perennials around them to take advantage of the empty space earlier in the season.
Large-flowered alliums, such as ‘Mount Everest’, tend to produce wide, strappy leaves that fill a lot of space in spring but then die back to leave a big hole by midsummer. Purple moor grass (Molinia caerulea) and blue mist shrubs (Caryopteris) are two great partners for it, because they gradually fill the space as the allium leaves go dormant, and they support the allium’s flower stems too.
The game, then, becomes figuring out how to give each plant enough space to grow freely but not so much that it’s off by itself surrounded by a ring of bare soil or mulch.
To create the mingling-but-not-crowded effect, you have to think through everything you know about the plants you want to combine, make allowances for the different sizes you’re starting with, put them all together, watch what happens, and then figure out what you need to add, move, or remove to make it work better next year.
It would be so much easier if we could come up with some sort of computer simulation to test combinations before we actually plant them, but until that happens, it’s a very slow process of observation, tweaking, more observation, more tweaking, and so on.
At first glance, this may look like one planting, but the irises in the foreground are about 12 feet away from the Arkansas bluestar (Amsonia hubrichtii) on the left, and the arches and the alliums in back are a good 30 to 40 feet away. Creating pictures like this is all a matter of perspective.
There’s another way to achieve a dense, layered look: the way you set up your beds and borders. I remember a time, back in the ’90s, when some designers were telling gardeners that we needed to make our borders much deeper – that 8 feet was a bare minimum, and 10, 12, 14 feet or even more was really the way to go. Fine advice if you’re installing a 200-foot-long border where space and money are no object, but hardly practical for most home landscapes.
If you’re a regular reader here, you might get the impression that I’ve tried my hand at creating mega-borders, but very few of my plantings are more than 6 feet deep. The impression of depth comes from the layout: squares and rectangles with parallel, perpendicular, or diagonal paths, or curved borders with arcing paths in between.
In the spring, it’s easy to see that I have as many paths as I do beds and borders.
Later in the season, if I shoot straight on, it looks like I have many sets of double borders. But when I shoot at an angle, the paths disappear, giving the impression of very deep borders.
The above images show what I call the Arc Borders, the first from a straight-on view (the way I see them from the house) and the second from one end of the grass maintenance path between them. Below, a shot across much of the front garden, with two paths and a post-and-rail fence hidden by plants from this angle.
The squares and rectangles between the foundation border and the borders along the fence are essentially island beds, so I plant them to be seen from all sides. That also gives me a lot more photo opportunities, as I can shoot each plant from many horizontal angles, giving it many different companions without any extra effort and finding all kinds of color echoes that I never expected.
Four views of ‘Axminster Gold’ comfrey (Symphytum x uplandicum) taken just a few minutes apart: a single clump shot from four different angles.
Even a regular border can look much deeper and more densely planted if you stand close to the edge and shoot along it, rather than from a “normal” angle. Zooming in to tighten up the focus helps too.
Above and below is the same set of borders from opposite ends, each from a boring “normal” view and from a zoomed-in end view.
Yet another way to change the look is to change the vertical angle: instead of shooting down from a standing position, you could bend or kneel to shoot straight across, or get down on the ground and shoot upward. (Forget about your dignity when trying to shoot pretty pictures; it’s all about the art.) Shooting down from the top of a ladder, from a raised deck or porch, from a second-story window, or even from a low roof, is another option.
If you shoot Lenten roses (Helleborus x hybridus) when looking down or even straight on, you get a good view of the habit but mostly just the backs or outsides of the flowers. To see their pretty faces, you need to be on the ground, shooting upward.
Shot from a standing position, these first-year ‘Purple Prince’ Orienpet lilies are lovely, but the path is a bit distracting. Getting down to a kneeling position and shooting across them gets rid of the path and gives them a nicer background too.
Crouching down a bit turned the “bleh” view above into a much more pleasing image.
When you shoot straight on, you mostly see the plants; from a slightly raised view, paths become more visible.
An extremely high view gives you an unusual perspective on the design of an area that you normally see from ground level, but it can also be unpleasantly “vertiginous” – that is to say, dizzying.
Shooting from an extreme angle can be interesting for closeups (when shooting up) or overviews (when shooting down), but to my eye, shooting across – at a level 3 to 5 feet above the ground – tends to produce the prettiest pictures of combinations. It’s not an angle that most people see the plants from, which is one reason that copying a pretty picture plant-for-plant may not create the same effect in your own garden. But it is a good argument for adding lots of benches, so you can enjoy your combinations for a pleasing angle.
Whew. If you made it this far, thanks for reading. I think that’s all I have to say about pretty pictures – for a good while, at least.