Plant Combinations, Part 1

When I talk to new garden design clients about what they want, nine times out of ten they say, “Color! I want lots of color!” It’s understandable. Who doesn’t like color? But where I live, nonstop color in the garden is hard to achieve unless you have a brightly painted tuteur, sculpture or furniture.

What many people – clients and gardeners alike – don’t realize is that foliage, texture and shape play a more significant part in keeping a garden interesting than colorful flowers, which may last only a week or two (unless you’re talking about annuals, which is an entirely different matter). Looking at a picture like this can help.

Allium caeruleum, Cornus alba Ivory Halo, planting combinations

Foliage texture and shape play important roles in making this planting combination work.


This is the first image I show new design clients as we begin to talk about color Almost every client to whom I’ve ever shown this photo (taken in my garden) loves it, even though there are really no strong colors to be seen.

What are we looking at? From left to right, the major players are a variegated shrubby red twig dogwood (Cornus alba ‘Ivory Halo’); lady’s mantle with blue ornamental onions coming up through them (Alchemilla mollis with Allium caeruleum, which I discovered on a trip to England); and on the right, a white spiraea coming into bloom (Spiraea japonica var. albiflora).

What’s so appealing? Although the blue notes of the alliums are nice, I think what makes this combination work is the harmony of the green shades coupled with the variety of textures and the variegation of the dogwood’s leaf, and the “pop” of the chartreuse blooms of the lady’s mantle. The spiraea will rebloom later in the summer if it is deadheaded after the first flush of flowers, and the broad leaf of the lady’s mantle will continue to provide a nice contrast with the delicate foliage of the spiraea and variegation of the dogwood.

Here is another example of a good plant combination that also uses the ‘Ivory Halo’ dogwood and another allium. These are ‘Purple Sensation,’ and behind them, around the river birches, you can see Karl Foerster feather reed grasses (Calamagrostis). When the alliums disappear the grasses, which stay tall and erect, are a beautiful wheat color.

Allium Gladiator, Cornus alba Ivory Halo, planting combinations

Another plant combination with alliums and Calamagrostis


OK, I’m a sucker for purple alliums and use them a lot in my planting schemes. They provide a real punch of color in early summer after other bulbs have given up the ghost. In another garden I planted them with Baptisia ‘Purple Smoke’ and the effect of the simultaneous bloom times in May is pretty impressive. But even after the flower colors are gone, the texture contrasts between the allium seed heads and the Baptisia’s foliage continues to work.

Allium Purple Sensation', Baptisia 'Purple Smoke'

Allium 'Purple Sensation' and Baptisia 'Purple Smoke' are an eye-catching duo in the spring garden.

Want something where there is stronger color and more long-lasting contrast? Here’s something for those of you who live where you can grow lavender (hard to do in our clay soil here in the mid-Atlantic region where I garden). While the photo isn’t great, the plant combination is, and would be even better if the lavender were planted directly in front of this red Berberis (barberry).

Barbery, lavender, planting combinations

Lavender and Barberry hedge at Kiftsgate Court in England

As a garden photographer, I love photographing these “plant vignettes” because such images convey a feeling or mood of part of the garden. They can supplement photographs of larger views of the garden and provide a more intimate feeling of being in a special part of the garden. When I work on garden books I always try to include a mix of vista shots and plant vignettes, along with capturing ‘garden rooms’ where they exist.

I have many more plant combination ideas to share down the road. In the meantime, let me know if you have favorites I should know about. And remember, color is only part of the equation!

Dear readers – I’m posting this by iPhone today. No power or heat at my house today in the suburbs of Washington DC thanks to our massive snowstorm!

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12 Comments on “Plant Combinations, Part 1”

  1. Edith Hope Says:

    Dear Melissa, How I feel for you without power or heat as winter yet again throws its full force at you. I do so hope that you have some alternative means of keeping warm.

    You are so right in what you say in today’s posting about this craving for colour over texture and form. As you may be aware, I much prefer a cool look to the garden so mine is principally planted in shades of green with white. Sadly, too often ‘green’ is dismissed without a thought when discussion centres around colour.

    However, the combinations which you show in your pictures are most appealing and, for me, very desirable indeed.

  2. Blossom Says:

    Purple is fine with me. I also love green blooms. They have certain attractiveness.
    BTW, please support me in the Dare to Fail contest. Come and leave a comment at Tell me how to make Hydrangea blooms. Thanks a million.

  3. Stunning combinations… I especially love the photo with the river birches… the reed grass throughout is perfect! So true that often folks forget about the texture and form of plants and how they play a huge role in our gardens. Lovely post! Carol

  4. Pam/Digging Says:

    Beautiful pics. I love purple allium like mad but cannot grow it here in hot, dry Austin, Texas. Well, we have our compensations. (I keep telling myself that anyway.)

    I hope you are able to stay warm until DC thaws out. Brr!

  5. Sunny Says:

    Lovely post, both the colour and texture in the photos are fantastic!

  6. What helpful information to the gardener who wants to pack in tons of color into the garden. I tell my clients too, that too much colors compete for your attention and make the landscape look to busy. I love using textures and various greens to bring out the colors that I do incorporate. Your photos are just stunning and bring your point home so nicely.

    • Melissa Says:

      Thanks to everyone for the comments on the post. Alliums are a favorite of mine, obviously.

      I’m about to post about my escape from the house, with some photos of the garden – unfortunately, prior to a small disaster with the crabapple tree. I’m very ready for winter to be over!

  7. Hi Melisa,
    In what Zone do you garden, that makes it difficult to give your clients color all the time?
    I design gardens in Zone 5 and except for Winter, I am able to satisfy my clients insatiable need for continuous color all season with perennials and hardy roses. Some clients even insisted that I remove ornamental evergreen shrubs from their gardens because “green is not s color”!!!!I do understand that in hotter climates, color is not always possible in the heat of Summer.
    Like many other readers, I too find your photos stunning.

    • Melissa Says:

      Allan, I’m in Zone 7. I agree that a sophisticated use of perennials and shrub roses (I tend to think Knockouts are overused and in our area almost all roses struggle with black spot and a few other diseases) can go a long way towards providing color. The client who prompted this post was someone from California and when I talked further with him it became clear that he wanted a strong tropical palette – but didn’t want to use annuals because of the cost of replacing them every year. Without that option, our midsummer heat does make giving a client lots of nonstop color a challenge.

  8. Melissa, I find the same thing in floral design, you really have to lead the client. Love those alliums, I planted another hundred last fall.

    • Melissa Says:

      A hundred! How wonderful. Do they come back for you? I always thought of them as long-lasting until I read an article a couple of months ago that said they need to be replanted every couple of years. The ones I planted around the river birches have been there about three years.

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