Many beginner gardeners have a very difficult time creating plant combinations and putting an entire garden bed together. It can be overwhelming to determine which plants will look good together.
With that said, here are some of my favorite tips for combining plants so that you can have a beautiful landscape that is exciting and interesting all year round.
The biggest mistake when making plant combinations
The biggest mistake that I see beginner gardeners make is a lack of planning. If you are familiar with my blog, I probably sound like a broken record.
Planning is the key to developing a beautiful, exciting landscape.
When you choosing plant combinations, planning is especially important.
Throughout this article, I’ll show you time and time again how planning is the key to creating a beautiful garden.
By the way, if you’re looking for some of my favorite plant combinations, be sure to download my free plant pairing guide. It features gorgeous and unique plant pairings that you can try right now in your own garden.
What feeling are you trying to evoke in your garden?
So, what are we planning for? When I’m planning my garden beds, I like to plan for the “feeling” I’m trying to evoke.
This is usually an easy question to answer, especially for beginner gardeners. And, it’s a great way to guide your decisions for choosing and combining plants.
What type of feeling do you want your garden beds to have? Is it a calm and peaceful garden that you relax in after a long day of work? Or is it going to be an exciting entertainment space with lots of fun activities?
What are you going to be using your space for? Is it just for you, or is it for entertainment or family time?
Can you think of some adjectives that you could use to describe the feeling or mood of your garden?
Here’s a few adjectives you can use for inspiration: Peaceful, calm, relaxed, restful, whimsical, playful, fun, energizing, exciting, spicy, inspired, romantic
Depending on the adjectives you use, you will need different amounts of contrast in your plant combinations (more on this later).
For example, in a peaceful garden, you would not want to add too much contrast in your plant pairings and combinations. But, if your garden beds are feeling dull and you want to evoke a feeling of energy, you will be looking for ways to add a lot more contrast in your plant combinations.
Make sense? Great.
Next we’re going to talk about the important concept of contrast when choosing plant combinations. So remember your garden feeling adjective(s). No matter what word you chose, you will still need to think about all of the contrast elements we’re going to talk about. The adjective just gives you an indicator of how much contrast you need to have.
Using Contrast in your plant combinations
The biggest concept to understand when learning about plant combinations is contrast. Contrast is simply is the scale of how similar or how different two things are from one another.
You can use contrasting colors, textures, leaf sizes and plant forms to make stunning plant combinations for your garden.
In garden design, we use contrast to create harmony, flow and excitement in our plantings. I explain all of this (and much more) in my Design Your 4-Season Garden course.
When combining plants, the four types of contrast to consider are color, texture and leaf size and form (or plant shape) contrast.
I find that most beginner gardeners have the tendency to purchase one pretty plant at a time. While it may look beautiful at the garden center or nursery, when you get home, do you have a “place” to put the plant?
In other words… considering the OTHER plants you have, where does this new pretty plant fit in? Without thinking about this, over time your garden beds will become a big mismatched mess of exploding color, texture, leaf size and form. And this doesn’t look very pretty, unfortunately.
So before you purchase another “one off” plant, let’s explore the concept of contrast within the context of color, texture, leaf size and form.
Color is certainly an important element in landscape and garden design. Using contrast, or lack of contrast, in color is one of the easiest ways to evoke the right feeling and create interesting plant combinations. Obviously when we create a garden bed we want to unite the plants within the garden using a common color scheme. Once we have set a common color palette, we can use a contrasting color to add more interest in certain areas. While you can easily add multiples of the same plant to create a color palette, there are also ways to combine plants that share a common color but not in the exact same way. This concept is called “color echoing.”
When combining plants with color, I urge you to think about color beyond just the flower or bloom. The thing about using the bloom color is that this goes away… in many plants within a week or two. So, try not to focus only on the bloom.
Instead, focus on the foliage of the plant. Some plants have dark green, green-yellow, grey-blue or even red foliage. The stems of plants are often a unique color that’s different from the rest of the foliage. Flip the leaf over, too.
When using color, you want to ensure that most of your plants share a common color, or set of colors. Whether that is the “main” color of the plant you chose or not, is really up to you. Carrying the color throughout the garden bed is called a color echo. It gives the viewers eyes a way to “bounce” to different areas of the garden.
Quick Tip: Check out this post that goes into great detail about creating color schemes in your garden.
Foliage texture is a more subtle way to combine plants in your garden. Plants have so many beautiful textures… from fleshy plump leaves to spikey ones, to furry ones to smooth and shiny ones.
One of my favorite ways to use texture is through extreme contrast. A spiky grey plant (like sedum, hens & chicks or agave) next to a furry, fuzzy grey plant (like lambs ears) makes a stunning plant combination. It adds contrast and interest, even though the plants share the same color scheme! This is a more subtle way to create interest in the garden. Photo by PrettyPurpleDoor
When choosing textures in plant combinations, I like to make a note of what plants I reach out to touch at the garden center. Some plants have such an interesting texture that you instinctively want to reach out and feel it. It’s an element that you won’t notice until you get closer to the plants. Changing up the foliage texture and combining different textures together is a great way to draw people into your garden. They won’t be able to stop themselves!
Quick Tip: My post on plant texture explores how to create an amazing garden that you HAFTA touch!
‘Red Ruby’ cabbage add a ton of texture, a cool seasonal vibe and a bit of whimsy to the spring garden bed. Here they are keeping company with ‘emerald blue’ creeping phlox (zones 3-10), pansies (annual), golden feverfew (zones 3-9) and vinca minor (periwinkle) groundcover (zones 3-9).
Photo courtesy of @potagerblog on Instagram.
Leaf Size Contrast
Another common mistake I see in home gardens is a lack of contrast in plant leaf size.
an easy way to create a beautiful plant combination is to combine two plants that have very different leaf sizes. It’s amazing how much impact this can have. When you have a garden that has a lot of different plants but the foliage is all kind of the same, it’s hard to discern where one plant ends and another begins.
An easy way to “check” for this in your own garden is to snap a photo, then turn it to black and white.
If you begin to mix in plants with VERY different leaf sizes (large leaves vs. small leaves), it creates more separation. You can see this in the photo on the bottom. I added a different leaf size with the large leafed plant at the bottom of the photo.
I go into more detail about leaf size in this article about plant texture.
I also added a different plant form with the mounding yew… but more on that next :).
Can you see how this creates a much more interesting plant combination?
Form is another aspect of combining plants that can really add contrast to your garden. Think about the overall shape and form of the plant.
Here are some of the common plant forms you can consider.
What form could you pull into the garden bed that would contrast with the form of your other plants?
For example, in your foundation plantings you may have several evergreen shrubs that are a rounded shape. This is a great way to create a cohesive look, but it quickly gets boring. So, how about adding a shrub with a different form into the mix?
I find that spikey, weeping, oval and pyramidal plant forms are a bit underused, myself.
Quick Tip: Pencil Point Juniper (Juniperus communis ‘Compressa’) has a very vertical column-like form. It would definitely pack a punch in a grouping of rounded junipers, making it a great plant combination to try. Photo courtesy of Washington State University.
Check out more narrow, vertical trees you can incorporate into your garden.
When creating plant combinations, you can also use the shape and form of the foliage of the plant for ideas.
Some shrubs have tiny little leaves on it, like the boxwood or inkberry holly.
Other shrubs have bigger, wider leaves like the ninebark.
So, if you have a few boxwoods that are blending together a bit too much, try slipping in a ninebark to break up the leaf shape.
If this topic is really interesting and exciting for you, definitely check out my free Plant Form Printouts download. Print & cut out the plant forms, then arrange them over a photo of your garden bed to find the perfect design layout.
Bringing it all together
The key to creating plant combinations is using contrast in the color, texture or form of your plants. The KEY to doing this right? Make sure your plant combinations do NOT have major contrast in all three areas.
- If choosing a contrasting color, it’s best to choose plants that have a similar form and/or texture.
- When introducing more textures, keep the color or the form of the textured plants similar.
- When improving a “blobby” area of your garden, consider adding a plant with a much different leaf size than the rest of the grouping. This subtle trick can have a big impact.
- When contrasting plant forms, keep them in the same color scheme and/or a similar foliage texture.
Remember your “feeling” adjective from earlier? This can help you determine how much contrast you should be adding to your garden. By using contrast in your plantings color, texture, leaf size and form, you’ll begin to combine plants in your garden like a pro. No more boring, cookie-cutter gardens, here!
There are a lot of different ways to create interesting plant combinations in your garden. With the right combos, you can create a cohesive look in your garden with both color echoes and contrasting focal points of different colors, textures and forms.
The first step to combining plants is to determine that feeling that you want your garden to evoke. Your “feeling” will give you cues to how strong/subtle to make the contrast in your plant combinations.
Use color, texture, leaf size and form to choose plants that are similar to one another. Then, choose plants with opposing colors, textures, leaf sizes or forms to add more contrast and create focal points to your garden.
Remember that not everything should contrast. There has to be some continuity. So, make sure the plants in your garden have some similar features, too. This will ensure you maintain the unity and flow of your garden beds.
If you want to learn more about combining plants and creating a garden with interest in all 4 seasons, check out my Design Your 4-Season Garden course.
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