Growing Perennials: Perfect Combinations

Growing Perennials: Perfect Combinations

By working through a simple step-by-step process, you can craft eye-catching perennial combinations. With computer access, it's easy to study plant attributes, which is really the cornerstone of creative combinations. Here are some tip to help in designing striking perennial plantings.

Plant Perennial Favorites

Every great combination starts with one plant player. It may be a favorite plant or perhaps opens blooms in a hue you can't resist. The plant should inspire you and be hardy in your region.

A plant with a long flowering season or strong foliage interest can easily fill an anchoring role in a plant combination. Search for possible perennial plants by visiting a public garden or garden center, or viewing yards in your neighborhood.

Research the plant, and write down its attributes:

  • Growing conditions it needs
  • Flowering time
  • Flower or foliage color
  • Plant size (height and width)

Note plant texture and form for the perennials you plan to plant. A plant may have:

  • A coarse texture, characterized by broad leaves (such as Hollyhock or Hosta)
  • Fine-textured, feathery, fern-like or narrow leaves, (such as Russian Sage or "Little Bunny" Fountain Grass).
  • Short and round forms, like "Blue Clips" Campanula, or more upright and coarse forms, like Purple Coneflower.

Design Tip: Look for plant combinations in plant catalogs or garden books. Mimic combinations exactly, or let them inspire you, copying color or textural themes. Confirm that plants in a photo really do flower at the same time. Sometimes catalogs create photo-edited scenes showing plants in bloom that actually flower in different seasons.

Choose a Supporting Player

Give your starring plant a partner. This second plant should strike up a conversation with the star player, complementing or contrasting with flower or foliage color and plant height, texture and shape. Opposites attract attention, and a foolproof way to combine plants is to pair opposing textures or colors.

Vary plant height, but don't use too strong an opposite approach. A 40-inch-tall false indigo looks almost ungainly next to a 2-inch-tall creeping sedum. Stair-stepped heights stage an eye-pleasing combination.

Take the guesswork out of color blending by designing monochromatic plantings, which showcase plants in one color family. For instance, a red combination features flowers or leaves in shades of red, pink, white, scarlet, and burgundy.

Above all, remember that plants in combinations must share similar water, light, and soil needs.

Design Tip: Incorporate seasonal interest into perennial combinations. Realize that some plants may stage a strong show one season and become a silent partner in other seasons. Find a full-time garden center, and visit it often throughout the year to discover which plants peak when.

Make Your Duet a Trio

A pair of perennials may be pretty, but a well-executed trio turns heads. To add a third plant to your combination, follow the same process as with the second. Seasonal interest plays an even greater role when dealing with multiple plants.

Design Tip: Work bulbs into combinations for strong seasonal interest. Spring-blooming bulbs (Daffodil, Hyacinth or Tulip) anchor a combination early in the season. Summer-flowering bulbs (Asiatic or Oriental Lily, Crocosmia or Giant Allium) give summer combinations a strong wow factor.

In the Garden

Follow the same techniques to create several combinations. Place combinations in the garden, using silver or white plants to negotiate transitions between them and give the eye a place to rest. Ensure season-long interest by adding strong foliage plants, such as evergreens or plants with colorful leaves, to fill gaps between bloom times.

Design Tip: Repeat combinations along the length of a large planting bed to draw the eye through the design.