Plant pairings can give a garden pizazz

June 06, 1993|By Carol Stocker | Carol Stocker,Boston Globe

Do you remember when you were a teen-ager and you used to spend hours in front of the mirror trying on different combinations of clothes, figuring out what generated fashion electricity -- and what made a fashion meltdown?

Well, learning how to combine plants in the garden is like that. It takes practice to get the hang of it, but the practice is fun -- if you can shrug off the mistakes.

So what if the salvia "East Friesland" bloomed a month before the coreopsis you planted it with? Remember the time you paired a tweed jacket with knit denim-look bell-bottoms? Now there are two things you won't do again.

And just as you can always change your clothes, you can always move your plants.

Mary Ann McGourty, co-owner with her husband, Fred, of Hillside Gardens in Norfolk, Conn., thinks Americans are too timid about trying out plant combinations -- which is where a garden gets much of its synergy.

"The important thing becomes how the plants relate to one another so you end up with a garden rather than a plant collection. For instance, if you have some daisy-form flowers, they look well with the spiky form." One example of this kind of combination would be golden black-eyed Susans with magenta blazing stars, two native wildflowers now widely grown in backyard gardens.

"It's tricky, but I don't think you have to hire a professional," Mrs. McGourty said in a phone interview. "It's simply a matter of observation. Vita Sackville-West [the British creator of Sissinghurst garden] wrote that it's the duty of the gardener to be a matchmaker."

So Mrs. McGourty goes into her garden on a Saturday morning with a spiral-bound notebook see what is in flower at any particular time and to look for possible companions for each plant. She takes some notes, and when fall comes round she starts moving things around.

I used to be one of those people who spend the winter making little diagrams, and then was disappointed when the blue irises and peach poppies I paired on paper didn't look all that good together. Now I work from life, like Mrs. McGourty. It's difficult to predict successful plant pairings without trying them out. Things that should look good together don't. Things that shouldn't work do.

Certainly, one of the most time-honored methods of coming up with plant combinations is to visit someone else's garden (preferably that of a genius) and to steal their ideas.

You can also steal ideas from pictures in books such as Penelope Hobhouse's "Color in Your Garden," Pamela Harper's "Designing with Perennials" and Jeff Cox's new "Plant Marriages."

Here's another trick. One of the "plant marriages" in Mr. Cox's book is brazen Oriental poppies planted with genteel pendulous Solomon's seal. I already have both plants in my garden. When they come into bloom, I'll pick some Solomon's seal and put it in a vase in the garden next to the poppies and try out the combination in my garden without doing any premature digging.

Similarly, you can audition flowers that you bring home from nurseries by walking around the garden with them and placing them next to various plants until you find a spot where they look good.

In a phone interview from his California home, Mr. Cox, who is host of the nationally distributed PBS gardening show "Your Organic Garden," advised working with small, discrete areas rather than entire borders or interplanted drifts. "Take an area 5 feet wide and 4 feet deep and just figure out three plants to put in there that will look good together."

Generally speaking, there's one plant that's the star, and others that are supporting players with the job of making the star look good. If I put a marquee over my back yard right now it would probably say: "Starring yellow lily-flowered tulips, and featuring self-seeding blue forget-me-nots."

If you want to approach plant combinations intellectually, a key concept is contrast. For instance, between those tulips and forget-me-nots, size, form and color are all in contrast.

bTC With foliage plants, use contrast in shape and size -- for example, airy ferns with large-leafed hostas, said Mr. Cox.

With flowers, color is the primary concern. Colors that are closely related often make good combinations. Try warm oranges with yellows and golds, or cool violets with pinks and purples.

Colors can also be used for contrast by selecting hues that are opposite on the color wheel -- for instance, pairing blue wood phlox with golden celandine poppies, or magenta blazing stars with golden black-eyed Susans, maybe in a one-to-three ratio.

Another color to consider is that of your background architecture. Kevin Doyle of the Gardener's Garden, a Dover lawn-care and gardening business, likes the azalea "Cornell Pink" planted against a brick background, with a complementary under-planting of evergreen vinca, which has long-blooming blue flowers, and anemone blanda, which has short-lived white daisies.

Plants with gray foliage, including the artemisias and stachys, are the most foolproof all-around supporting players.

Blue, blue-gray and mauve also look good with almost everything, and there are a number of plants, such as mauve catnip, that have blue flowers and silver foliage.

White is also versatile, though more than a touch will quickly dominate a garden. (Which you may like if you don't get home until sunset, since white glows in moonlight -- and porch light, for that matter.)

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