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Posts for advanced or expert gardeners that have a lot of years of experience.

Plant Combinations: How to make unforgettable plant pairings

Plant Combinations: How to make unforgettable plant pairings

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.

What Blooms with What?

Never know what to plant together? Find out with this FREE Plant Pairing Guide and become a pro at combining plants for the best garden design possible!

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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

collage of items for garden mood board.
In my Create a Garden Mood Board Workshop, we go into a lot of detail about how we want our gardens to feel… and what we can do to make it feel that way.

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.

infographic of how to use contrast when combining plants
The easiest way to combine to plants is by choosing contrasting features. Some of these features are color, texture, leaf size and plant form. Illustration by Pretty Purple Door.

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 Contrast

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.”

Quick Tip: I made an instagram story recently that will show you come examples of how I use color echoes in my own garden. You can watch it here if you have an Instagram account!

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.

Coral Bells - Heuchera
Quick Tip: Some plants have a different color on the underside of the leaf! Coral bells are a great example of this.

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.

What Blooms with What?

Never know what to plant together? Find out with this FREE Plant Pairing Guide and become a pro at combining plants for the best garden design possible!

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Texture Contrast

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.

Plant combination with contrasting texture

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.

Fixing Plant Texture with Black and White Photos
As you can see, when you eliminate color from the equation, you will be able to see whether or not you have enough texture. The photo on the top clearly does not. But, by adding a few contrasting plants, the combination becomes much more interesting.

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 Contrast

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.

Hand Drawn Plant Forms
All plants can be reduced to a simple form, such as mounding, rounded, vase, horizontal, spikey, weeping, oval, pyramidal and more. Illustration by PrettyPurpleDoor.

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.

Blue point junipers have a vertical column-like form.

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!

Wrapping up

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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Landscape Layering: How to Create an Amazing Landscape

Landscape Layering: How to Create an Amazing Landscape

If you’ve ever drooled over glossy magazine articles, awe-inspiring Instagram feeds or curated Pinterest boards of gorgeous gardens and wondered, “how’d they do that?” you are going to love landscape layering.

Landscape layering is using a wide variety of plants arranged into a staggered foreground, middle-ground and background creating casual, mixed border planting.

When layering a landscape, design principles such as repetition, scale, flow and depth are used to create a intentional and dynamic garden design. Layering plants, trees, shrubs, grasses, vines and groundcovers in multiple rows using design principles as a guide is what sets magazine-worthy gardens apart from the average home garden.

But, if you’ve ever tried to do this yourself, I’m sure you’ve already realized that it’s not that easy to accomplish. I struggled to create a beautiful garden for over 6 years trying to make sense of books, articles and videos about garden design before I figured this out.

So, first things first, grab your FREE Master the Mixed Border Guide & Checklist so you can follow along with this post. You’ll get my illustrated 8 step guide, a printable planting pyramid and a checklist that you can use to make sure that you don’t forget any of the steps!

8 Steps to a layered landscape

Can you relate?

  • You love plants, but you have no idea how to make your landscape look beautiful.
  • You live for that moment at the garden center when you spot a plant you’ve never seen before… and immediately put it in your cart!
  • Your garden looks great for a week or two, but always reverts back to a messy blob of stuff.
  • You’ve felt like you’re garden isn’t “full” enough, but when you planted more plants, it didn’t help (or made things worse/messier).

I know I can…

No matter what I did, my garden was still missing something. I literally squinted my eyes to try to SEE it. How come, even though I had dozens of amazing plants, my garden didn’t look like the pictures in my magazines?

landscape layering
This Soothing backdrop contrasts tall, upright evergreens and prickly conifers with mounded perennials and wispy grasses. (from BHG)

What I always thought was a lack of stuff in my garden… was actually a lack of layering. And, once you learn this you’re going to be like 50 steps ahead of everyone else. 

I like to call it landscape layering.

To start understanding layering a bit more, let’s first take a look at my handy-dandy Garden Pyramid for planting.

The Landscape Layering Garden Pyramid

The Layered Planting Pyramid

It’s easy to understand landscape layering when you look at this garden pyramid. Start at the top and work your way down. Add more of each type as you go.

Following this garden pyramid is going to change your garden from looking really amateurish to being garden magazine-worthy. Trust me. This is a great guide to help you create a layered landscape that’s lush and beautiful.

By the way, there’s a list of links to articles about each layer of the planting pyramid at the bottom of this post so you can read more.

Is your garden missing ANY of the categories from the pyramid? Or is there a lack of balance (like lots of evergreens, not too many flowering shrubs and no groundcovers)? This pyramid will give you an idea of how many of each you need.

If you start at the tippy-top with 1 tree and 3 evergreen shrubs, how many deciduous shrubs would you need? Obviously more than 3, right? As you work down the pyramid you should include more and more of each type of planting.

Often times, a messy border or a feeling that there’s a lack of “stuff” in your garden bed, is caused by missing a layer of this pyramid (extra hint: it’s usually evergreens).

Once you have all the layers and correct ratios, you need to make sure you are mixing them together properly. Creating these diverse layers of a variety of plants in your garden will give you that “magazine” garden look. This is how landscape layering works!

ebook mockup pdf download

Designing Landscape Layers eBook (Brand New Version 2.0)

Get the layered, 4-season landscape of your dreams with this instant-download eBook. 110 pages.

Key Principals of Landscape Layering

There are a lot of principles of landscape design and this is a subject that I can talk about for hours. So, If you are already interested you may want to grab the eBook I wrote about designing landscape layers. It has a ton of great examples and way more detail than this post does.

Here are few design principles that will help you get started with layering:

  • Repetition: Repetition can be used in landscape layering using groupings or “Drifts” of plants. You can also use a similar color and different plants to achieve repetition.
  • Scale: The scale, or sizes of plants you use is important. In addition, the scale of the garden bed in proportion to the rest of your property plays a part.
  • Flow: How does one area of your landscape tie into another? Are you playing connect the dots with different flower beds or are they connected in some way?
  • Depth: Do you have your plants lined up like soldiers in their beds, or are they staggered in front and behind one another? Using depth is an important part of landscape layering.

Now let’s talk a little more in-depth about each.

Repetition in Landscape Layering

Consistency in your layered garden design is really important. Repetition can be created by repeating a specific plant, a specific color or a specific plant feature. When you repeat plants, colors or features, it gives your garden a more cohesive feel.

Repeat a Specific Plant

Think about how the plant would look if it were a mass planting (like a group of 3, 5, or 7 of the same plant). Planting a “drift” of plants creates a lot more impact than just spotting one plant here and there.

Repetition in Landscape Layering
Repetition of plant type (round evergreen shrubs) unites this garden and makes you want to walk down the path.
Lost Horizons Nursery, Acton Ontario

You can see in the photo above how the repetition of the round, evergreen shrub guides your eye down the pathway.

Repeat a Specific Color

You can also achieve repetition by choosing different plants in the same color family, such as light green, yellow, or even pink! Repeating the same color (even if the textures and sizes vary) will give a similar effect as repeating a single plant. It helps your eyes to bounce across the landscape and makes everything feel more connected!

Repetition in Landscape Layering
The repetition of magenta in this garden design ties it all together. By anneclarkdesign

Repetition of color (hot pink blooms) in the photo above makes your eye flow down the path.

Repeat a Specific Plant Feature

How about using several spiky plants or other plant textures, or selecting several shrubs that have horizontal branching structure? By mimicking the features of the plant, you are creating repetition.

Quick Tip: using repetition when arranging plants in your landscape can also create unity and flow. By using a specific plant throughout the entire landscape, you can control how someone’s eye will flow across your landscape.

Using Scale in Landscape Layering

Scale is very important garden layering technique for arranging plants in your landscape. It determines how many plants you’ll use and what sizes of plants you’ll need. This means using scale to determine the proper plant size, using varying sizes of plants and using enough plants for the size of your landscape.

Using the Correct Size Plants

Make sure that your plants will fit into the area when they are full grown.  It’s important to use large enough (or small enough) plantings for the space you are putting them in. Don’t shove stuff into every crack and crevice like I did. You’ll end up with an overgrown mess. But, don’t space your plants too far apart either! Your plants should touch each other to create a lush border.

Using Varying Sizes of Plants

Straight Path with Mixed Garden Borders in blues and purples
At Parham House & Gardens, West Sussex, a mixed border of blue and purple blooms with varying sizes and shape makes the design flow. Mark Wordy (CC BY 2.0), via Flickr.

Changing up the size of each plant will create visual interest. Using a low, wide shrub next to a tall, narrow tree will accentuate the features of each plant.

My free plant pairing guide goes over lots of plant combinations that will bring out the best features of really unique plants.

Using Enough Plants

Make sure you’re filling up the space with enough plants for the size of your house and yard. If you don’t use enough plants, your landscape will look a bit scarce and disconnected. Honestly if you are like me I doubt you’ll have any problems FILLING the space… but I wanted to throw this in here, anyway.

Creating Flow in Landscape Layering

When layering your plants in the landscape, you’ll want your plants to flow and you’ll also want your garden beds to flow from one of the next. Creating proper landscape flow involves combining your garden beds together, extending your beds out from your foundation and nestling your house into the landscape.

You should think about your landscape as a whole. And… yes that means you’ll have to do some planning, first.

Quick Tip: If you’re struggling with flow, read my article about unity and flow to learn more.

Stop “Zoning Out” Your Property

Try to resist the urge to create tiny “zones” that are spotted throughout your lawn. For example:

  • this is my rose garden
  • this circle is where I put my tulips
  • over here is where I’ll put this tree
Illustration of poor landscape design

Here’s a typical foundation-hugging landscape with doo-dads scattered throughout. These people must have a ton of time to mow around all the little islands they’ve created.

(Illustration by Pretty Purple Door)

Connect Your Garden Beds

If there is a tree near your garden, why not encompass that tree into the planting area?

Instead of creating smaller areas or hugging your foundation like it’s your long lost grandpa, encompass landscape elements into garden beds.

Illustration of Good Landscape Design

This example has a much better flow and the scale of the gardens to the rest of the property is much more balanced. There is still plenty of lawn for the kids to play, too.

(Illustration by Pretty Purple Door)

Nestle Your House into the Landscape

Nestle your house into the plantings you are putting around it.  I know this can be a hard concept to grasp. Anchoring the corners of your home with larger plantings that make it look like it’s set “into” the landscape will help to create a better flow.

Quick Tip: Here are 5 more ways to create better flow in your landscape.

Mastering Depth in Landscape Layering

Finally, I think the most important part of a landscape layering is pretty much where the word “layers” comes from: DEPTH.

We know that there are many different types of plants you can use. Arranging your plants forward and behind one another is what will make your landscape feel cohesive and lush. This involves creating large garden beds (larger than you’re probably used to), so that you can incorporate a foreground, middle-ground and background layer.

Landscape layering - Gilded Mint
Notice the curves, layering of colors and laddering to give depth (from Gilded Mint).

What’s a Good Depth for a Layered Garden Bed?

Most garden beds, especially foundation plantings, are simply not deep enough. An easy way to improve the look of your landscape is to simply bring your garden beds out to at least 5-6 feet out from your home’s foundation.

If you have the space, make it even deeper than this! I have some beds that are even 10-12 feet. I find that the more depth that you have to create rows of plantings, the better off you are and the more choices you’ll have when choosing plants.

If you are short on space, it will be difficult to create layers. You’ll either have to choose a lot of small shrubs and space-saving trees, or find ways that you can expand the depth of your garden beds, at least in some places.

Create Depth with a Foreground, Middle-ground and Background

If you have the space, create a foreground, middle-ground and background. Tallest plants go in the back and the lowest growing plants go into the front of the garden bed. This is why you need so much depth in your garden beds.

Weave Plants in and out of the Layers

Weave plants in and out of the 3 rows of your garden
Weaving your plants in and out of their original rows creates a more casual look. Illustration by PrettyPurpleDoor.

Now, weave some of your middle ground plants into the background.

Or weave some of the smaller middle ground plants into the foreground.

This can be tricky because you don’t want to hide any of your plants, but offsetting the planting depth in a garden bed can give the illusion that there’s so much more going on in your garden.

Quick Tip: My post about arranging plants in your landscape goes into a lot more detail about creating depth and laying out your plants. There’s also lots of hand-drawn photos by yours truly!

Quick Tips for Layering your Landscape like a Pro

I’ve already hit on some of these points, but here are some examples of how you can achieve a beautiful layered landscape at home.

Don’t Hug the Foundation

This landscape uses different sized plantings. It also uses enough plantings for the size of the home. Notice how the landscape doesn’t just hug the foundation?

Use Repetition as Much as Possible

Repetition in Landscape Layering
Alternanthera Chardonnay weaving around annuals at The Greenbrier Resort

Repeat, repeat, repeat after me: I will repeat both color and types of plants in my gardens.

Compare & Contrast with Shape & Scale

A mix of shapes, sizes, and colors enlivens these conifers planted as a screen.
A mix of shapes, sizes, and colors enlivens these conifers planted as a screen (Fine Gardening).

Mix shape, size and color to enliven your landscape layering. Even though they’re all green, they’re different shades of green. Even though they’re all conifers, they’re all different heights and shapes and sizes.

Quick Tip: Learn more about balancing plants in a layered border in my post about symmetrical and asymmetrical balance.

Texture Is the Secret Weapon

Plant combinations with texture
Lots of texture contrast between ‘Blue Star’ Juniper, Sedum ‘Angelina’ and ‘Fuzzy Wuzzy’ Lambs Ears creates an interesting garden moment. Photo by Pretty Purple Door.

Play soft textures off of hard ones. Spikes against curves. Little needles against big ones. There’s so much texture in plants– use it to unite groups of plants, or to make one stand out. Texture is the secret weapon in a garden designer’s pocket. It can create so much more visual interest in a planting design.

Quick Tip: To learn more about texture, read my my post about creating a garden you ‘hafta’ touch by using tons of texture.

Wrapping Up

When creating an effective landscape using landscape layering, think about how the plants will look together as a whole. Follow the Planting Pyramid to stay on track with the amount of each plant you’ll need. Then let the concepts of repetition, scale, depth and flow guide how you put it all together.

My Designing Landscape Layers eBook and my Design Your 4-Season Garden course both go into more depth about all of these concepts of landscape layering. The course covers these layering principles in my own step-by-step framework. I’ve helped hundreds of home gardeners create their dream landscapes and I’d be honored if you joined me!

Remember that the most important part to successful landscape layering is to have a plan and stick to it. Don’t get caught up in all the hype when you see a new plant you don’t have. Instead, ask yourself: what am I going to plant WITH this? If you can answer that question, you are on the right track.

Keep Reading…

In my perennial garden plan, I’ll go over landscape layering and give you some suggestions for each of the 5 layers:
Layer 1: Ornamental Trees
Layer 2: Evergreen Shrubs
Layer 3: Perennial Deciduous Shrubs
Layer 4: Perennial plants and flowers
Layer 5: Groundcovers, Vines and Grasses

How to create an amazing landscape using layers
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