Would you like to make your garden beds look like little works of art? Then give them interest with a mix of colors and shapes and sizes. It will give your beds depth and create an ever-changing palette during the year.
I would like to note that my gardens have been in zone 5a to 6b. All of the perennial plants in this article are at least zone 5a hardy, except of course the plants grown from seed that are typically marketed as annuals, even when they are in fact tender perennials, which with a sufficiently long season can be grown in other zones. I suggest that you check your local conditions.
The picture captioned above is a bed in which no plant actually dominates. There are many: rose 'Marie Pavie', Salvia tesquicola, geranium 'Bevan's Variety, Nepeta 'Dawn to Dusk', Nepeta 'Snowflake'. All of these plants are tough. None require additional water. And they bloom for months. The result is a prominent bed that gives the viewer a lot to see, but gives the gardener a break! No fussing - just a little deadheading, most of which can be done with a hedge trimmer or a big pair of shears. And what helps to give it interest? Texture.
Giving variety to your beds by mixing sometimes unexpected plants can give a great lift to your garden. A good illustration of this is the first picture below. The star of the show is the David Austin Rose ‘The Dark Lady’ but can be done with any rose in any color that you prefer. The plants surrounding it make it far more interesting than if it stood alone: the flowers of Heuchera ‘Firefly’, the buds of geranium ‘Bevan’s Variety’, the buds of feverfew tetra strain and the pop of Allium christophii. This technique is particularly good for roses that bloom only intermittently. Or peonies. Or small shrubs. Take out the rose altogether and you still have something that I like to think is interesting. And if you want to work in edibles, parsley 'Crispum' has a texture like feverfew – but you can eat it!
Even without a “star” in the picture below, a mix of textures creates a lot of interest. All of the plants in this picture normally accompany other plants: the Alchemilla mollis, Digitalis grandiflora, Allium christophii, Nepeta and geraniums. In this case, they are all perennials, and come back year after year. Alliums of all kinds are particularly good, since they often seed and come back in larger numbers, but are easily moved in spring because they are bulbs. I particularly watch for the foliage of Allium christophii because it can easily be dug up and put anywhere. I dug up some in bud for a neighbor who took them home, put them in the ground, and they bloomed.
A single plant can create a lot of spark if it has textural interest. Alchemilla mollis, for example, is now available as 'Auslese', a smaller plant with crisper leaves. Some of the alliums are prohibitively expensive, but Purple Sensation is readily available, and is a good purple that is a fraction of some of the other large purple alliums, and as a plus, it is not hybrid, so it comes true from seed. Digitalis grandiflora can be swapped out for Digitalis mertonensis, which while not as perennial as often claimed does last, in my garden, for three years. And it can be grown from seed with some patience, since it takes a second full season to bloom.
There are also plants that “buff out” and become much larger, so that one has a tremendous impact. I have found that geranium Sanguineum striatum, which has gorgeous and Comesin white, and pink, is a particularly interesting plant, with veined leaves and ferny foliage. It grows a foot tall in my garden, and as much as three feet wide. It’s so significant that I ordered three and put them around three different plants. It has the bonus of re-blooming repeatedly if deadheaded. It accompanies roses, peonies and viburnums.
Another way to do this even more easily is to use tender plants that self-sow but can easily be pulled out if there are too many of them: Verbena bonariensis, feverfew tetra strain, Nicotiana alata. All of these, by the way, can be grown from seed. These are easy ways to keep your work down but have color throughout the season.
And always consider this concept when you have a major plant that only blooms once. While peony foliage can be very beautiful, it is better accompanied by plants that will bloom, preferably, all season. In the final picture, the somewhat fading peony 'Festiva Maxima' has a lot of company: Allium karataviense, Allium 'Purple Sensation', Alchemilla mollis. The presence of the other plants will fill in the gap when the peony is reduced to foliage only, although the foliage is very attractive. The use of plants that fade but remain in place is always helpful when you are attempting to create a lasting pleasant view in your garden.
Here is one last example. There is so much going on in this picture that it is hard to immediately see that I was trying to hide my neighbor's chain link fence. Please note that a lot of the lilies aren't even in bloom yet (Oriental Lily 'Sorbonne' and 'Longiflorum' Oriental lily 'Bellsong'
. The Nepeta, geraniums and Campanula 'Bernice' carry the image.
I hope that you will try some of these techniques. Having people walk by in June to admire your garden is nice; having them come back in September and October and exclaiming that you still have "all these plants" may just float your boat.