Making Plant Combinations the Highlight of Your Western Garden


Xeriscape-Garden--September-CC-web
Xeriscape Garden in September

Matching Plants with Their Planting Site

Planting eye-catching plant combinations is part art, part knowledge, and part planning. At the most basic level pairing plants requires that the designer/gardener understands the growing requirements of the plants they want to use, as well as the growing conditions offered by the planting site.

Ask these questions: What is the soil type of the planting site? What is the sun exposure? How will the plants be affected by the presence of buildings, walls, and large trees? What is the climate of the region in which the site is located? These questions are part of properly matching plants with their planting site, which makes for long-term success.

Nurturing the Intuitive Element

The artful side of plant combinations is more difficult to define but just as important. Certainly the willingness to listen to the intuitive and creative right side of your brain is very important. These days after many, many years of planning and planting gardens, I often find the "accidental" combinations that I didn't consciously intend are often the most effective.

Flower Colors and Shapes

In the perennial border there are numerous opportunities for beautiful combinations. In high altitude Santa Fe, NM., I've come to depend on bright, saturated colors, not pastels, because "bright" holds up best under our intense sun. Blue, and just about any color will look good together, but I particularly like blue and orange (orange being my favorite color). I also like planting flowers with similar colors together to enjoy a more subtle interplay.

Combining perennials with different flower types is also very effective. For example, Beardtongue (Penstemon) with its long spikes and tubular flowers is completely different from the daisy-type flowers of the Shasta Daisy. Combining Purple Coneflower (Echinacea) with the extremely cold hardy Blue Fortune Hummingbird Mint (Agastache) creates a similar flower-type contrast but with different complementary colors.

Aslcepias-Bumble-Bee-blog
Create a habitat for pollinators with Asclepias tuberosa (Butterfly Weed).

Foliage Textures and Colors

Non-blooming perennials, such as Artemisia Powis Castle (Silver Sage), are used for their foliar color and texture and will combine with great effectiveness with other flowering and non-flowering plants. Because many perennials may only bloom for about a month, their foliage is on display over a much longer time than their flowers. Choose plants with foliage that has interesting texture (fine or coarse) and non-green leaf color (gray, blue, blue-gray, etc.) to provide contrast throughout the season.

Spring Blooming Bulbs and Groundcovers

Never underestimate the impact of spring-blooming bulbs when combined with early-blooming groundcovers, such as Delosperma congestum (Gold Nugget Ice Plant). In Nebraska and other Plains states, where the long, cold winter seems to last forever, the blast of spring color offered by bulbs bursting through colorful carpets of groundcovers can be the highlight of the new growing season. Daffodils planted into drifts of creeping Phlox, such as the striking Phlox kelseyi (Lemhi Purple Creeping Phlox), will always be stunning. Grape hyacinths (Muscari) offer blue flowers with an unusual shape that combine nicely with all colors and sizes of Tulips (tulipa).

Creating Combinations with Year Round Interest

But just a perennial border does not a garden make. A well-rounded design provides combinations of plants that add to a landscape's year round interest. Most perennials are herbaceous, going dormant over the winter by shedding their above ground stems and leaves, and carrying their life force forward underground in their roots and crowns. Ornamental grasses, trees, shrubs, and evergreens of the broadleaf and needled types all can be used to create off peak combinations. Warm season ornamental grasses are at their best in the late summer/fall/winter months when their foliage and spikes of seed heads add texture, movement, and color to the garden. Sometimes the killer combination is created with a large, showy ornamental grass and dramatic hardscape elements in the landscape.

Dwarf and small growing conifers are easy to combine and create a permanence that anchors the garden with their year-round presence. Their contrasting needle colors, variable shapes, and dramatic textures make it a 'no-brainer' to put together some really nice combinations. Here in the drier conditions of the western US, we can use many dwarf pines with great success. I love to use "Hillside Creeper" Scotch pine (Pinus sylvestris cultivar) as the spreading shrub in front of upright growing pines, such as Compact Swiss Stone Pine (Pinus Cembra cultivar).

Showy Shrub Combinations

Native shrubs are very effective when used together. For hot, dry, windy sites, New Mexico Privet (Fosteriana neomexicana), Sand Cherry (Prunus beseyii 'Pawnee buttes'), and Apache Plume (Fallugia) make a remarkably low care, high interest trio. But never prune native shrubs into cubes and balls; their natural forms provide much of their beauty. Non-native shrub combinations can be equally alluring.

New-Mexico-Privet-blog
The New Mexico Privet (Fosteriana neomexicana) is ideal for hot, dry, windy sies, and combines well with other flowering shrubs.

For mid-summer color, Grey Santolina (Santolina chamaedryoides) and the ever-versatile Blue Mist Spirea (Caryopteris) are perfect for hot, dry sites with sandy or other fast draining, low fertility (lean) soils. Taller-growing ornamental grasses can also be combined very effectively with low growing shrubs, such as Rhus aromatica Gro-low (Sumac) and Chinese Maiden Hair Grass (Miscanthus).

Finding Inspiration in Nature

I often look to nature for inspiring flowering combinations. Walking the short grass prairies of eastern New Mexico in late summer, you will find a huge variety of prairie plants in color. These perennials include yellow Prairie Zinnia (Zinnia grandiflora), lavender-pink Gayfeather (Liatris punctata), gray Frindged Sage (Artemisia frigida), scarlet-orange Indian Paint Brush (Castillegia integra), and the nativeBlonde Ambition Blue Grama Grass (Bouteloua gracilis), which features horizontal eyelash-like chartreuse flowers that appear in mid-summer and age to blonde seed heads by fall. Hiking and studying a region's wild areas to discover the beautiful plant combinations of the native flora give the gardener/designer inspiring examples of what can be recreated at home.

Winter is the ideal time to contemplate new planting combinations. Study garden design books and magazines, plant catalogs, photos of award-winning landscapes and our award-winning plants, and books about wildflower and wild areas; all these sources will help unleash your garden design muse. And don't worry about making a mistake. Most plants are easily transplanted if your first efforts don't quite make the grade. So stretch your creative wings and see where you land.

Text by David Salman

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2 thoughts on “Making Plant Combinations the Highlight of Your Western Garden”

  • Helen Pemberton
    Helen Pemberton 05/15/13 at 1:46 am

    David, I live in zone 7b on the line between west Texas and north central Texas. Our climate is becoming more and more desert like. I have tried Apache Plume with great success and would like to propagate some more. Any special hints about shrub propagation?

    • David Salman

      Helen:
      Apache Plume is propagated by seed which germinates readily. Be sure your seedling mix has extra good drainage as the seedlings are very susceptible to rotting off. Some Apache plume plants will sucker. And you can slice the suckers from the mother plant in early spring and transplant them.

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