Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
New England
January, 2004
Regional Report

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Look to nature for inspiration in combining colors in your garden.

Favorite Plant Combinations

Certain plants -- passionflower comes to mind -- have enough pizzazz to create drama all by themselves, but usually when a garden evokes a "wow" reaction, it's the blending or contrasting of colors or textures that grabs us. Sure, a bed of Apricot Beauty tulips is lovely by itself, but the effect is much more eye-catching when the flowers rise up out of a blue blanket of grape hyacinths (Muscari) or scillas. The contrasting colors and heights of the flowers make this one of my favorite plant combinations.

There are so many ways to approach creating pleasing combinations in the garden. Gardening books, magazines, and garden tours can spark ideas. I rip out magazine photos all the time for my "wish list" file. Trial and error works too. If I find a plant I can't resist, I'll buy it without knowing exactly where it will go. Sometimes I have to move it around a few times until I find just the right place where it can shine on its own or complete a picture.

Nature also provides us with color schemes in a single flower that entice us to replicate them in our gardens. The blue petals of the Himalayan blue poppy (Meconopsis) and the bright yellow of its stamens are a winning combination, and if you look closely at the pistil in the center of the flower, you'll see a pale green color that gives an idea for another color to add to this duo.

Then there are those wonderful, serendipitous combinations for which we can also thank Mother Nature. I moved some forget-me-nots from a friend's garden one year, and soon they were self-sowing everywhere. Now they bloom for weeks in one of my perennial beds, providing a sky blue background for other flowers, and the effect is so pleasing I'm sorry to see them fade.

Ground Covers Create Background
Using low-growing plants in perennial and shrub beds is one easy way to create more dimension and interest, by drawing attention to certain plants or emphasizing color schemes. We've all heard the dictum about keeping short plants in the foreground and tall plants in the back of the border. Yet you can create depth in a bed by using low growers beneath -- and in back of -- taller plants.

When the forget-me-nots go by, lady's mantle (Alchemilla mollis) spreads its mounds of roundish, light green foliage to provide a more subdued background for the bolder, summer flowers to come.

See-Through Plants
Plants with see-through foliage or flowers, such as baby's breath, Verbena bonariensis, coralbells (Heuchera), and love-in-a-mist (Nigella) are more showy when viewed against a background of either a contrasting or complementary color, or when combined with large flower heads or flower clusters, such as peonies or roses. Though the flower stems may be relatively tall, they are so airy that it's fun to locate them near the front of a bed so you can look through them to other flowers beyond. Besides, you wouldn't want to miss the beautiful foliage of some of the coralbells by hiding them behind other plants. You can even create a nice grouping with several different species of coralbells with different foliage colors, never mind the flowers.

Moderating Colors
Whether you're looking for sizzling or muted combinations, beauty is certainly in the eye of the beholder. Some people love red and yellow together but it doesn't do much for me. I love purple and orange, which may leave others cold. But even color combinations that may not work side-by-side can be toned down and blended by using silvery-leaved plants, such as lamb's ears (Stachys byzantina) or artemisias in between. Silver and gray plants have a way of helping everyone get along.

Pale green plants have a similar moderating influence. The flowers of bells of Ireland (Moluccella laevis) and 'Envy' zinnia provide a resting place for the eyes and blend with most anything.

Function Matters, Too
It's not just about beauty, though; some plant combinations aid each other's growth. Some plants do a fine job of propping up other less hale and hearty mates. My late-summer asters fall over at the suggestion of wind, so I've planted them next to sturdy black-eyed susans (Rudbeckia) and yellow Stella D'Oro daylilies, whose foliage stays perkier. Daylilies also make good partners for tulips, daffodils, and other spring bulbs, quickly hiding the fading bulb leaves behind dense foliage.

I can't be without Russian sage (Perovskia) for its tall, late-summer, flower spikes, but the lower stems are on the bare side. Coneflowers (Echinacea) hide them nicely -- pink varieties for a subtle blend, white for more contrast.

Much has been written about companion planting in the vegetable garden, and I'm intrigued by the notion that flavors could be enhanced or ruined by nearby plants. I used to lay out my beds carefully to keep the onions away from the peas, and so on. But I have less time to fret about it now, so I locate plants according to their cultural needs (tomatoes help shade greens), where members of the same family grew the year before (plants in the tomato family shouldn't be planted in the same spot), and with an eye for design (beets make attractive edging plants around the cabbage bed). I still always plant basil and tomatoes near each other just because they taste wonderful together. Pick a tomato, snip some basil, head for the kitchen.

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