Creating A Plant Combination Step-By-Step

After considering one of the dismal spots in my garden, I set to work to see if I could make it look better. I decided to try to "create an exciting plant combination", as professional garden designers are said to do. I speculate most professional garden designers actually spend more time trying not to scream at their annoying clients than they do creating exciting plant combinations, but some of them must get to the fun part once in a while. Being an amateur, (in all senses of the word), I can focus on the fun part.

Gardeners go through stages. First you diligently learn to keep plants alive.

Next you start buying a lot of plants and end up with too many and nowhere to put them all, and since you learned first how to keep them alive, even though you have too many plants, you work hard and keep them all alive.

This buying stage is often affected and prolonged by the various plant fashions that come and go in the green world. Remember all the herbaceous perennials from White Flower Farm? The year you planted 2,000 bulbs? Then all those ornamental grasses that you could never figure out where to plant. Nowadays it's Native Plants, which we've all been scolded into by the Dreaded Native Plant Nazis (you know who you are). This year's fashion won't last. Next year or the year after it will be something else.

But since at some point your garden is full, you start to focus less on shopping and more on trying to make your garden look really amazing, or at least better than your neighbor's garden. You realize that two or three hundred stressed (but alive!) plants in nursery pots stuck everywhere in the yard may be amazing, but not in a good way.

So learning to "create an exciting plant combination" is the next phase of development. I focused on trying this after watching an HGTV show about "home staging", which is when someone wants to sell their house so badly they pay someone to come in and redecorate it. This particular show followed a couple of stagers as they worked on a pretty awkward condo, and what I found inspiring (and rare, for HGTV) was that success wasn't instant. They didn't walk in, make it all perfect in an hour, and walk out again. They tried this and that, discarded and restarted, and finally got it right. Ah! So that's how designers design: they experiment until they get it right. If it works for three chairs and a rug, it must work for plants.

Begin experiment.

I start with what I had, two Carex 'Toffee Twist' and an empty spot. East side of the house, morning sun, afternoon shade. Narrow space. I had three Coprosma 'Tequila Sunrise'. Perhaps the brown tones of the Carex would complement the darker browns in the Coprosma foliage. Better than before, but still not there--I now had a boy-girl-boy-girl type of arrangement. Amateur!

Hmm...the Coprosma has some vivid chartreuse touches in the leaves. What about a 'Lemon Coral' sedum added in? That brightens it up, and the chartreuse of the sedum creates a relationship with the chartreuse of the Coprosma. And it breaks up the underlying carex-coprosma-carex-coprosma pattern.

What next? So far all the foliage is either fine or small...I also had a green Aeonium arborescens of nearly the same color--with bolder ray-shaped foliage--hows that?

Maybe...what about the deep brown version of Aeonium arborescens? There's deep brown in the Coprosma, lighter brown in the Carex, and the deep brown complements the chartreuse sedum. Plus the contrast of the foliage shapes. Interesting?

At least more interesting than two Carex and an empty spot? I wanted to work with what I had on hand, and at least succeeded in that. I'm past the shopping phase, remember?

So, that was my attempt at "design". Successful? Hmmm...well, it's a start.

To summarize, I needed to pay attention first of all to compatibility of needs--remember, I learned first of all to keep plants alive--and happily, all of the plants will be satisfied with morning sun/afternoon shade. A drip system can water the Carex, Sedum, and Coprosma while I hand water the Aeonium as needed. So that's that.

Cultivation needs satisfied, I looked for relationships between plants. A bit of color in one that is echoed in another. Or the shape of the foliage is the same but the colors are different. Or one color complements the other. Add a contrast of some kind if you want some drama--foliage shape is good for that. Or fuzzy texture mixed with glossy. Or plant shape: spikes vs. globes vs. spires. I had the fine textures of the sedum and coprosma and contrasted that with the rayed shape and rosette structure of the Aeonium.

The rest is just practice. And talent of course, but I must make do with practice.


  1. I tend to buy stuff and then see what goes together. That's how I shop for everything! Sorta silly, lol!

  2. I'm halfway between the "buying things without a spot for them" phase and the design phase. I really started to take an interest in colors, forms and combinations with a shade bed and it took two seasons to get it right, but I think I did it.

    I'm really enjoying your blog and find myself smiling at our similarities, even though our growing conditions are different. :)

  3. Thank you greenfreak1. I'm still struggling daily with design, but it is a fun struggle. Happy gardening!


Post a Comment

Always interested in your thoughts.

Any comments containing a link to a commercial site with the intent to promote that site will be deleted. Thank you for your understanding on this matter.