Why is it that some gardens work, while in others a few plants just sit alongside each other with little impact? If you think about it successful planting is about creating a group of plants that get along. Just like a group of people that gel together, they have something in common. They are not necessarily alike, but there is a common thread that creates a bond and the group just works.
The problem starts when we select a plant for the garden. We evaluate the individual. Something might attract us: the colour of the flowers, the fragrance, the foliage, and then we embark on a list of questions: What soil does it like? How big does it grow? Will it grow in sun or shade? Rarely do we consider how it will associate with other plants to create a pleasing picture.
Planting with impact is not difficult. A successful combination of plants just needs a little consideration. Choose a theme, pick plants with different forms and textures and different seasons of interest and a group of three or more plants becomes a designer planting scheme. The key thing to remember is that if it is all year round interest you are looking for, then it is all about foliage, not flowers.
So let’s consider a yellow theme, with depth and drama added by deep purple foliage, and perhaps a few flowers. There are a number of yellow variegated evergreens with striking foliage that adds colour throughout the year. Elaeagnus pungens ‘Vivileg’ would be a good choice for a sunny position on well-drained soil. It has broad dark green leaves edged with golden yellow; the variegation is less brash and more sophisticated than some golden variegations. In contrast the deep purple black foliage of Pittosporum tenuifolium ‘Tom Thumb’ is at its most intense in winter and an open sunny position. In spring and early summer it is lightened with bright green new shoots that turn dark with age. These two plants together make a striking and sustainable planting relationship.
The union would be considerably lightened by the addition of Lonicera ‘Baggessen’s Gold’. This has tiny acid yellow leaves on wiry herringbone branches. It has an uplifting effect on those variegated evergreens with broad glossy leaves. Some turn up their noses at this familiar plant; but why? If it works, use it!
You could add the wonderful grass Hakenochloa macra ‘Aurea’ in front of the elaeagnus. This forms a soft mound of gently moving, soft yellow foliage that turns parchment in winter. The early winter foliage is just as pleasing as the summer leaves. Cut back in midwinter ready for fresh green shoots to appear in spring. These will be at their most verdant when the bright green new growth appears on the pittosporum.
A deciduous shrub will add another dimension to the planting scheme. In this combination Potentilla ‘Primrose Beauty’ would be particularly pleasing. This easy to grow shrub may not be the most glamorous but its simple buttercup-like pale yellow flowers and grey-green foliage are easy to live with. They are a great foil for solid, glossy evergreen leaves and this plant has flower power blooming reliably from early summer through autumn.
Phormium ‘Yellow Wave’ is an altogether bolder character and adds another plant form and leaf shape. Its pale yellow leaves are lightly striped with green, and although they are sharp and sword like they are also gently arching. They reflect the light and add movement to any planting of more solid subjects. This is one of the hardiest phormiums and also one of the easiest to associate with other plants; some of the more exotically coloured varieties are more at home in pots and containers.
Now if it is clear foliage colour you are looking for varieties of cotinus are unbeatable. Commonly known as smoke bushes, because of their airy flower clusters in late summer, these deciduous shrubs provide some of the most intense foliage colour in the summer garden. In addition they have the benefit of very definite rounded leaves, a strikingly different shape from most other shrubs. Cotinus ‘Royal Purple’ is perhaps the best known with velvety deep purple foliage. Its soft lines and ultimately statuesque size make it the perfect choice for any planting scheme where a dramatic backdrop is required. In contrast the lovely Cotinus ‘Golden Spirit’ is a shaft of pure sunshine in the border. Its golden yellow leaves turn rich shades of orange in autumn. Try planting it with the soft purple perennial wallflower Erysimum ‘Bowles Mauve’ or sweet rocket Hesperis matrionalis. Cotinus benefit from periodic hard pruning in winter. This promotes vigorous growth and enhances the quality of the foliage.
Perennials add seasonal interest and increase the impact of the planting. Lysimachia ‘Firecracker’ is rather invasive but it makes up for its habit with its striking purple black leaves on vertical stems that are at their best in early summer. Later it produces small yellow flowers in the leaf axils. These can spoil a pastel planting scheme but only add to the effect in this planting partnership. It is particularly effective when planted with the equally wandering Euphorbia ‘Fen’s Ruby’ with its acid yellow-green flowers in spring, and frothy copper coloured foliage in late summer and autumn. Some gardeners shy away from plants which stray from their allotted patch, however these tough, characters are really useful where you want effective ground cover and to suppress annual weeds.
Remember too that flowerbulbs are a great way to add colour and increase the seasonal impact of a planting scheme. A few purple or golden yellow tulips will add bold spring colour. A yellow dahlia with dark leaves would be the perfect addition for late summer colour.
If you would like to learn more about how to plant for impact why not join me on my gardening course on Designing with shrubs. There’s a new course starting on the Saturday of every month. I’ll help you to transform the planting in your garden.