May 7, 2012

Dynamic Duos

duos Call them good companions or perfect partners, imaginative flower and foliage combinations can transform a garden into something exceptional.


The real skill – some would say art – of great gardening is not merely getting the right plant in the right place, but getting two great plants, next to each other, in the right place. This talent involves selecting plants that not only enjoy the same basic cultural conditions, but flower at the same time or have beautiful foliage that can be blended to create a sensational contrast.

This exercise requires excellent plant knowledge. It eventually evolves into an even more complicated objective, a desire to go further and bring plants together that achieve a natural sequence of colour and form. Ideally, what you are looking for is a combination that gives you a seamless parade of flower and foliage interest, so that when one plant comes to the end of its moment in the spotlight and begins to wane, another rises to take its place or surges into bloom to keep up appearances.

Most gardens contain some dynamic plant duos. Some of these are products of pure serendipity; happy accidents that pop up unexpectedly from seed blown by the wind or planted by a bird. Others have the hallmark of having been created by a knowledgeable green thumb because there clearly is an artistic intelligence behind a perfect plant marriage that continues to look terrific year after year.

It is often what distinguishes a great garden from an average, but nevertheless beautiful, one – the intelligence, foresight and skilful long-term planting that created it. One of the gardening world’s most celebrated plant combinations put yellow laburnum together with purple alliums. It is a scheme originally dreamed up by the late Rosemary Verey at Barnsley House in Gloucestershire that has been reproduced in gardens all over the world.

Allium ‘Purple Sensation’ also combines beautifully with the blue crown-like flowers of Centaurea montana or the pink spikes of Polygonum bistorta ‘Superbum’. Blue and orange is always a popular combination, such as blue delphiniums with orange alstromeria or orange Euphorbia griffithii with blue campanula.

The red of an ‘Altissimo’ rose becomes more dramatic when contrasted with the blue of ‘The President’ clematis. And the blue flowers and dark green foliage of ceanothus can look fantastic next to the yellow leaves of Choisya ternata ‘Sundance’. Tony Lord’s book, Encyclopedia of Planting Combinations (Firefly Books, $45), with photos by Andrew Lawson, takes the guesswork out of it.

With more than 4,000 planting schemes, it is a great resource for gardeners seeking to raise the quality of their gardens by concentrating on more creative planting ideas. Lord also offers a series of helpful profiles of some of horticulture’s high achievers, their planting styles and gardening philosophy.

These luminaries include Beth Chatto and her “exotic planting,” Christopher Lloyd and Fergus Garrett (meadow planting), Dan Pearson (naturalistic garden), Piet Oudolf (country style), Rosemary Verey (cottage gardens) and Penelope Hobhouse (grasses). The Encyclopedia of Planting Combinations is broken down into six key plant categories – shrubs and trees, climbers, roses, perennials, bulbs and annuals.

You’ll find fascinating plant partnerships in each section.

Steve Whysall is The Vancouver Sun garden columnist:

Exciting combinations:


Here are some of the great combos that caught my eye in the Encyclopedia of Planting Combinations:


  • The purple flowers of Magnolia soulangiana above the pale pink flowers of Helleborus x hybridus (Lenten rose).
  • Purple smoke bush with the red flowers of Clematis ‘Julia Correvon’ or the pink flowers of Geranium oxonianum ‘Claridge Druce’.
  • The red foliage of Acer palmatum dissectum ‘Atropurpureum’ with black mondo grass (Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’).
  • The golden yellow foliage of Acer shirasawanum ‘Aureum’ against the dark green leaves of Hosta ‘Krossa Regal’.
  • Lime-green flowers of Helleborus foetidus with red stems of Cornus alba ‘Sibrica’ and the purple flowers of winter heather Erica carnea ‘King George’.
  • Yellow foliage of Lonicera ‘Baggesen’s Gold’ with the purple flowers of Clematis ‘Venosa Violacea’.
  • Yellow Phygelius aequalis ‘Yellow Trumpet’ with purple flowers of Geranium psilostemon.
  • Purple-leafed maple, Acer palmatum atropurpurea with pink low-growing Rhododendron ‘Fandango’ underneath.
  • Yellow Rhododendron lutea with Spanish bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta).
  • Bright pink flowers of Geranium ‘Dusky Crug’ with G. x antipodeum ‘Chocolate Candy’ and magenta G. psilostemon ‘Bressingham Flair’.

– Steve Whysall

Comments are closed.