“Once you get past the notion that plants have to be spaced several inches apart with rings of mulch around them, the possibility for great garden design opens up,” Peter Wimberg shares. “Take a walk in a prairie or the woods and you will see colonies of plants living in very close quarters to each other. Mark off a square foot or two and count the number of plants living in that space: it’s incredible how many plants nature fits into a square foot.”
Do we design and plant gardens that dense? At times, when the client allows us. More so, though, we are working with homeowners to see the benefits of minimizing their mulch and adding more plants. “I find thickly planted gardens to be more forgiving and therefore less maintenance,” Jennifer Smith shares. “With a formal design, which I do admire quite a bit, when one plant fails, the entire design is off and the flaw is immediately noticed. In my densely planted gardens, if a plant fails, is devoured by insects or simply grows old, the other plants are there to fill the void and hide the deficit.”
When planning a tightly planted garden, understanding plant pairing is quite helpful. “Knowing what plants work well together makes designing a lush garden a breeze. Where one would usually add a single plant, you have two or three to add at once,” Jennifer shares. “I know, for instance, whenever I add Japanese Beech Ferns, I will add Hypericum calycinum and Hakonechloa. The low growing habit of the St. John’s wort doesn’t compete with the erect habit of the fern, their textures look great together and they never seem to fight each other for space.”
“In sunny locations, where perennials such as Monarda, tall asclepias, even baptisia are added, a lower growing plant is a good mate. The perennials may get leggy and even have naked legs by mid-summer. I often opt for lantanas, their stiff branches support the perennials and their foliage and continuous blooms hide the naked legs’” Jennifer shares.
Julia Pentecost, garden designer for Wimberg, has a few favorite pairings for the shade garden. “I love spotted pulmonaria paired with plum or peach heucheras. I like the textures and colors of the leaves and it’s extra nice in the spring with the pulmonaria is in full bloom.” Texture plays a key role in her second shade garden pairing which calls for bleeding hearts, hellebore and northern maidenhair ferns. She shares, “I like the fine five-finger leaf foliage of the ferns paired with the coarse textured hellebore five-finger leaves, and the dainty hearts floating above.”
For landscape designer, Natalie Selker, the sun garden has her finding pleasing plant pairs including gaura and lavender. “The woody nature of a mature lavender is softened by the delicate flower stems and flowers that appear to float in mid-air of the gaura,” she shares. Some of the more traditional plants that our parents and grandparents have gardened with find their way into her favorite pairings, too. “Lamb’s ear, preferably the large leaf variety that is bit more well-behaved with Color Guard Yucca is perfect in a planting wall.” She continues by sharing, “The soft fuzzy leaves are a stunning contrast to the sharp needles of the yucca and they both look great in a rough cut stone wall with generous planting spaces.