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Commanding Plant Combinations

Blue salvia and pink petunias make a lovely combination in front of pink hibiscus.

One of the hardest, most challenging, and most rewarding classes I had in college was the one on making Planting Plans. This was more detailed than landscaping in general. This was getting down to the nitty-gritty of which plants and how many of them should go in this bit of garden and which should go beside it and behind it and down the way a bit. We had to consider combinations of color, texture, height, shape, and time of bloom.

Once my roommate and I stayed up all night to finish a planting plan assignment. We ran out to the gardens to check on these details until dark, combed garden catalogs, and wished we'd kept better notes on what actually bloomed when, a blooming calender. Other students would wander in with glassy eyes and say things like, "Do you think 'Don Juan' would go with 'Dolly Parton'?"

Since then I have been searching for great combinations, but I've made few detailed planting plans. If I had, I would never bring home a plant that didn't fit into them. But I'm not that disciplined and I haven't met many gardeners who are. Most of us bring home the plants we want and then search for good places to put them. Instinctively we consider whether the plant needs sun or shade and how much, how tall and wide it will grow, when it will bloom, what color the flowers will be and how they will combine with other things that will be blooming at the same time. We consider how the foliage will look, especially it if is colored or variegated, with surrounding plants and we try to remember focal points and echoes. And most of the time we make a pretty good decision.

Johnny-jump-ups combine well with bright nasturtiums, but prune enough so the nasties don't take over.

If it doesn't work out, we move something around. If it does, we repeat the combination somewhere else in the yard. It is a more fascinating game than chess. With plants, you'd think the eye appeal of the flowers would be most important. But if you ignore sun/shade needs and water needs, the plants may never get to the bloom stage.

Combinations of trees and shrubs are most important since they are most permanent. Some great ones I've seen are the silvery purple foliage of Persian shield with lavender pentas in partial shade. Or letting the white flowers of butterfly ginger sprawl over red pentas.

In full sun I've seen pink allamanda vines on a trellis as a focal point in a small garden edged with maroon coleus--a combination that stopped traffic. Another place purple bougainvillea blooming with yellow cassia did the same every fall.

Some combinations are more functional. Citrus trees will thrive in the shade of taller pines or palms if they can't have full sun. My friend Charles Novak grows his passionflower vines up his oak trees and that way they don't invade others places. They drop their fruit, he picks it up and makes gallons of juice.

Loropetalum shrubs bloom in the background, with white plumbago in the center and multicolored begonias in front

It is great fun and a good garden planning idea to go through your own yard, your friends' yards, or a public garden, and write down the combinations that you really like. I have a white angel trumpet that is seldom hurt by frost, but if it is, the flowering maple beside it spreads out and soon covers most of the bare branches until the angel trumpet leafs out again. My queenswreath just bloomed its best ever with its hanging clusters of lavender flowers above the dark purple blooms of Louisiana iris 'Jerry'. A lavender miniature petunia has been blooming in a hand crafted pot nearby all winter long and I'll soon replace it with a torenia.

I bought my darkest blue plumbago to go with the silver shrimp plant. It didn't quite work out. The shrimp plant grew more vigorously and blooms almost continuously in the winter, while the summer flowering plumbago only sometimes coincides. I have a lovely bright red geranium blooming in the center of a pot of silver licorice. And alyssum is blooming with deep blue lobelia.

Red camellias and white azaleas make a striking combination in early spring.

We once saw purple alyssum all mixed with Australian violets and blooming together, but I never quite got mine to perform that way.

Sometimes the best planting plans involve beds that recycle themselves. At the risk of repeating, my friend Vicki Parsons has nasturtiums that bloom well in the partial shade of her front yard tree. She has them mixed with caladiums, and the nasturtiums are just dying down when the caladiums are coming up and vice versa.

Keep watching and when you find a good grouping, write it down, and fit it in at home or repeat it in other parts of the garden.