Unexpected pairings make sparks in a garden.
My garden is like a movie set. As the director and producer, it’s my job (and prerogative) to tell my gardening story as I see fit. Each bed is a new opportunity. There are extravaganzas, period pieces, comedies (usually unintentional), epic dramas, and even short features. An international cast appears in my creations. Some are superstars while others are supporting players.
Casting is everything. Even the brightest star needs a supporting cast and is all the more radiant when the director, in a stroke of genius or just plain luck, finds a perfect pairing. In the movies, it was Astaire and Rogers, Hepburn and Tracy, Bogie and Bacall. Movie buffs still debate why sparks fly when these couples meet on the silver screen. The characters seem to have little in common—one cultured and refined, the other brash or rough—but once they’re paired, it’s difficult to picture them apart. Strange bedfellows can become classic couples.
In gardening, it’s the juxtaposition of contrasting forms, textures, foliage, and flowers that defines interesting combinations. As many gardeners have discovered, roses and catmint—disparate as they might first appear—make perfect partners. In fact, they’re so perfect that they’re in danger of becoming a cliché. Why do they work so well together in the first place? Is it because the soft blue haze of the catmint blossoms makes such a lovely underskirt for sherbet-toned roses? Is it because the catmint shades the roots of the roses and conserves moisture? Or because the gray catmint foliage contrasts so pleasingly with the glossy, deep green leaves of the rose?
In casting, whether in a movie or a garden, character is even more important than sheer beauty. Many herbs that are not considered classic beauties often offer great character.
Herb lovers tend to overlook the frumpiness of some of their favorites. A garden of strictly culinary herbs must rely on the layout, paths, benches, or ornaments for effect if the plants in it are unimaginatively displayed. A mass of similar plants with simple, small leaves and mounding or sprawling habits can look dull even though each is interesting when considered separately. I visited a garden once where the gardener had taken her passion for variegated and golden leaves to extremes. Beautiful as many of the plants appeared individually, the garden when viewed as a whole looked chlorotic; I had the urge to give the place a good shot of fertilizer.
I don’t subscribe to the idea that nature has endowed herbs with flavor and aroma and proportionately subtracted from them in ornamental qualities. Some herbs do fall into the supporting player category, but some are stars in their own right, and others just need the right companion to really come into their own. To begin pairing them up, consider their cultural needs first. A duo is doomed if one longs for the desert and the other the glade. Beyond that, the sky’s the limit.
The first pairing of catmint and roses probably happened in an English garden. Americans, building on that tradition, have become adventurous and audacious about exploring plant combinations, often to excess. Bizarre combinations, simply because they are possible, are not necessarily pleasing. As we design our gardens, we sometimes forget that we are working with blossoms and foliage, not paint and wallpaper.
The easiest way to find interesting pairings is through color, either of the flowers or leaves. A direct, violent clash of color is always dramatic but rarely effective for more than shock value. More subtle variations are easier on the eye and perhaps more pleasing in the long run. Most of the books about color in the garden on my shelves were written by English gardeners who have never stood in a Colorado garden in July. Under that umbrella of true blue, cloudless sky, it is difficult to apply color lessons from those who garden in a nearly perpetual mist. Light is variable from region to region and even from garden to garden, and we thus must make decisions about color largely on our own.
Some principles prevail, however, and I have found two to be true: nearly every pastel flower looks great with silver leaves, and nearly every bold-colored flower works with bronze foliage. Why else would my garden be so full of lamb’s-ears and partridge feather (Tanacetum densum ‘Amani’) in one half, and perilla and bronze fennel in the other? Perhaps it is a passion which, like the woman with the variegated plants, I’ve taken too far, but it seems consistently successful to me.
Another route to creating interesting pairings is through form and texture. Those words appear so frequently in garden literature that I imagine most readers’ eyes and minds blur at the sight of them, expecting a lofty, artistic lecture to follow that contains examples of plants so rare they grow only in one garden at a castle in northern Scotland. What it boils down to is this: put the big-leaved plants near the small-leaved plants, the spiky plants near the round, mounding plants, the fuzzy plants near the shiny plants. In short, plant catmint with roses.
Now that I’ve condensed the sum total of twentieth-century horticultural artistry into two short paragraphs, the next logical step is to illustrate it with plants many people know and grow. Since this is about strange bedfellows, I should point out that my garden does contain some unusual plants, but I value them for their beauty and charm, not for their rarity. A few may be unfamiliar to gardeners in other regions, but I’ve always thought it a pleasure to see plants grown in different parts of the continent that I had known only in books. It is exciting to obtain a cutting or seeds and find out just how adaptable that plant is.
Some readers may wonder whether every plant in these combinations is a bona fide herb. If I define herbs broadly as “useful plants”, these are all useful to me in some manner, whether or not I ingest them or tie-dye my shirts with their sap. Widening the scope of what we grow can only enrich our gardens. If I stuck to growing only the sage with which we flavor turkey, I would miss out on the opportunity to experiment with several hundred species of Salvia. I would miss the fun of stroking the intensely fragrant leaves of S. clevelandii and marveling how it smells of hand lotion. Thus, when I invent combinations, I don’t discriminate against nontraditional herbs. If I delved into some of their histories, I’m sure I could find cases in which tribes or settlers used the leaves of S. chamaedryoides to rub on warts or boils or used the roots as a dental floss substitute, but that seems a silly pedigree to require for inclusion into my beds. Can’t I just enjoy its azure flowers?
These combinations are meant to be points of departure. They please me enormously—either in my garden or those of friends—but they’re just suggestions. A gardener can experiment indefinitely.
Feverfew is pretty with almost anything. It pairs well with rose campion and flowering tobacco, but I’ve found it at its best surrounding Asiatic hybrid lilies. This is one of those combinations that looks like a flower arrangement—as florists have been doing with roses and baby’s-breath since biblical times, no doubt. A mass of tiny flowers or finely cut leaves surrounding big, showy ones never fails.
Some people argue that white flowers “calm” other, more brilliant ones, but I think they enliven them. Feverfew, with its mounded, round shape and its flurry of white flowers, accents spiky perennials such as veronica or Jupiter’s beard (Centranthus ruber), and it complements relatives with larger flowers such as shasta and pink Clara Curtis daisies. It is an ideal plant to tie together a pastel grouping of various shapes, and it seems to bring out the best in each companion.
Rue works much like feverfew in combinations. Not only are its leaves an unusual shade of aqua green, but their fine texture can showcase larger blossoms. One of my favorite companions with rue is rose mallow (Lavatera trimestris). The satin sheen of the petals of this old-fashioned annual appears all the more lovely against the rue leaves. I introduce tweedia flowers (Oxypetalum caeruleum) to the grouping; their sprays of turquoise stars complement the rue but don’t compete with rose mallow.
Rue’s color and fine texture recommend it for any number of roles. It is fascinating with the linearity of ornamental grasses, especially those that echo its color, such as blue lyme grass or blue fescue. The addition of variegated kingfisher daisy (Felicia bergerana) and Plectranthus ‘Wedgwood Blue’ is startling. (Both are “designer” forms of fairly common plants—South African felicias are low-growing annuals that bear small blue daisies in summer; plectranthus is closely related to the house plant Swedish ivy.) Variegated myrtle, variegated sage, or coleus would serve the same function, introducing bolder leaves with yellow edgings to the picture.
Artemisias work the same magic as rue (see “The Many Faces of Artemisia”, October/November 1993). Their leaves are usually even more finely textured, and many gleam of silver. One of my favorites is Powis Castle, which forms a luxuriant silver cloud that invites adventuresome pairings. Encircling clumps of Autumn Joy sedum (Hylotelephium ‘Autumn Joy’), for example, its silver threads make the red plates of blossoms all the more brilliant. The most effective combinations with artemisias include vivid flowers or bold leaves. The maroon leaves of Blackie sweet potato are striking at its feet. This knocks my socks off, perhaps because it combines two of my passions in one—silver with bronze. It’s the horticultural equivalent of Hepburn and Tracy: good on their own, but extraordinary together. Mix in some other plants with strong character—ornamental peppers, flashy dahlias, or wispy tall verbena (Verbena bonariensis)—and you have a classic.
Dusty-miller (Senecio cineraria) has the dubious honor of being among the most abused annuals. Its potential far exceeds the mundane tasks it is usually assigned, such as lining a bed of geraniums. Judged strictly by its handsome silver-white foliage and excellent form, it’s worthy of better parts. I cast it where it can shine with white nicotiana (also too often taken for granted), Origanum libanoticum, and white rose campion. I tie the grouping together with a ground cover of bird’s-eye veronica (Veronica filiformis).
Sweet woodruff is another overlooked plant, but its fine texture of tiny leaves can be an exciting backdrop. Big bulbs can spring from its tight mat, be they tulips and daffodils in spring or colchicum in autumn. The British call the flowers of Colchicum autumnale “naked boys” because their plump, pink buds burst from the earth without leaves. I anticipate their fall arrival with the same joy as I do the first snowdrops of spring. They can also star with lavender cotton (Santolina chamaecyparissus) or low-growing artemisias such as Silver Mound or beach wormwood. Either way, their violet-pink blossoms glow against a backdrop of deep green or gray.
All of these vignettes fit into the garden as a whole. They’re selected scenes, each joined to another and yet another. Seen together in sequence, they make a complete picture. It takes a strong script (garden plan), good art direction (planting techniques), and careful editing (a shovel) to produce an Oscar winner.
It is tempting to make combinations based solely on flower color, but flowers aren’t always the first consideration, especially if one or more of the subjects is primarily a foliage plant. Starting with the shape of the plant and its leaves often results in a pleasing combination through most of the growing season. I always squeeze in as many good, strong foliage plants as I can; it makes my garden look as though something is going on there. A garden that relies solely on gorgeous blossoms is in trouble if it hits one of those dreaded dull periods. One with good foliage suffers through them a bit more gracefully.
The container gardener has as many, if not more, options for striking combinations. They may be displayed in the same pot or in separate pots grouped together. The first option requires forethought, while the latter is often a matter of whim. The display of container plants on a patio or deck is an art in itself. The same ideas about contrasting foliage and shape apply, as well as harmonious color combinations, but container size, height, and shape are also important.
One important advantage is that soil and water can differ from pot to pot, and so succulents can sit side by side with heliotrope, something not possible in the garden. Daydreaming is a liability when watering: it takes concentration and practice to skip over the dittany of Crete, aloes, and agaves while ensuring that the mint, castor beans, and passionflower get a thorough soaking. If I become dissatisfied with partners, I can easily separate them. Classic couples can be repeated in subsequent years.
Because cold or rainy winters spell doom for many Mediterranean or tropical herbs, the obvious solution is to grow them in pots summered outside. As I gaze around my patio, I’m astonished at the diversity there. South African ice plants sit next to Mexican kalanchoes and agaves. Mediterranean bay and oleander meet Australian eucalyptus and Asian ginger. A pot of New Zealand flax flourishes next to Malaysian voodoo lily. The fragrant, white-edged leaves of Cuban oregano (Plectranthus amboinicus) tumble from a pot next to the ferny foliage of a Mexican jacaranda, a variegated Oriental bamboo, and Oriental lilies.
Strange bedfellows, indeed, but none of them is here simply because it is strange. Some more familiar herbs, such as lemon verbena and chocolate mint, are clustered by the door for convenience. Most are here strictly for their beauty, grouped for their variety of foliage and flower. Fragrance—from night-blooming jasmine, flowering tobacco, lilies, scented geraniums, and heliotrope—is important to me because my patio is my summer headquarters. It’s the set from which I direct the garden, where ideas germinate, and where I relax or entertain after the sun sets. The setting is not exactly Hollywood (thank goodness) but I can pop some corn, plug in my portable television, and enjoy strange bedfellows who become classic couples—both on and off the screen.
Rob Proctor is a delightful blend of artist, photographer, writer, and gardener who lives and plies his trades in Denver, Colorado.
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