Strange Bedfellows

Unexpected pairings make sparks in a garden.

| December/January 1993

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.

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