Creating a plant combination that pops is tricky. You have to use plants that like similar conditions of light, water, and soil. Then you have to create an overall design that incorporates varying shapes and colors that both clash and recall each other’s characteristics. While it takes a bit of work, the general rules of it can be learned.
Earlier this summer, my friend Angela who’s a container designer created this lovely arrangement for part-sun with a general potting soil. So I thought I’d talk about why it works so well in an effort to demystify the process.
A pleasing plant combination, whether in a border or pot, needs some kind of height. To create verticality, Angela used Fuchsia ‘Gartenmeister Bonstedt’ in the center. It’s the smokey green plant with tubular orange-red flowers. Then to widen that verticality into a cool arc, she tucked in a variegated New Zealand flax (phormium tenax ‘Variegata’) in the back. While the fuchsia creates a dominant focal point, the flax creates a spiky vertical echo with its sword-like leaves.
Filled With Mounds and Trails
Just as an arrangement needs verticality, it also needs more mounding plants to fill out the space horizontally. Then, trailing plants can extend the design downward. For the mounding middle section, Angela used a chartreuse pineapple sage (salvia elegans ‘Golden Delicious’), coleus (ruffle series), and New Guinea impatiens. For the lower trailing section, she used a potato vine (ipomaea batatas ‘Margarita’), lobelia (lobelia erinus, probably Laguna Compact Blue), black mondo grass (ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’), and blue daisy (felicia amelloides ‘Variegata’). All of these plants together broadened the robust feel of the arrangement and softened the pot’s geometric line.
Contrasts Create Energy
To create energy and vibrance in a plant combination, designers often contrast leaf shapes. Here, we see narrow blades and broader leaves, spiky swords and rambling ovals. Angela used the coleus’s ruffles to contrast the fuchsia’s smoother wider shapes. The tiny lobelia cheerily rambles into the sharpness of the black mondo grass before giving way to the delicate daisy stems.
In terms of color, the rich red fuchsia blooms bang against the vivid chartreuse leaves. The fuchsia and impatiens smokey green leaves soften the busy variegation in the flax and daisy. The mondo grass’s blunt blackness pops against the lobelia’s true blue flowers.
Recalling Colors Bring Harmony
But to avoid chaos and create a cohesive pattern that’s pleasing, Angela limited the palette to certain colors. Notice at the left how the orange impatiens recall the fuchsia’s orange-red blooms at the center. The coleus’s maroon splotches, the flax’s narrow stripe of carmine, and the fuchsia’s scarlet veination all echo the reddish tones as well.
Similarly, the bright beam of the salvia’s chartreuse leaves lead the eye down to the potato vine, where the chartreuse repeats. Then the coleus’s leaf margins and the flax’s yellow stripes recall the beaming light. Even the light green band on the pot ties in with the chartreuse tones.
A Feast for the Eyes
Overall, I love how this container vibrates with texture and punches with color. Notice how there are spikes at the top and bottom? Notice how the fuchsia blooms cascade downward in layers, bringing the viewer’s eye to the lone unusual color of blue? And how the daisies’ white-lined leaves peek through here and there. Angela’s container is a stunning display. She shows, with some careful choices, how plant combinations really can be an artistic masterpiece.
For beginner gardeners, a simple reliable petunia is the best choice to grow for long summer color. Experienced gardeners might argue these zone 9-11 annuals are trite. They’re available at every nursery and hardware store, bursting in bright colors, begging loudly to be taken home. Still, they cheer up a garden like no other flower. I’ve been a professional gardener for over a decade and a half and every year I use them in arrangements, both for myself and clients.
What Kind Is Best?
Because both commercial businesses and home gardeners use petunias, growers work hard to perfect the longest blooming, easiest care cultivars. They’re divided into multifloras and grandifloras (fancy words for many blooms or large blooms) and trailing petunias. But you needn’t worry much about that. Get whatever kind you like most.
Growers also offer different series of petunias. I’d recommend the ‘Ultra’ or ‘Madness’ series. They’ve been bred well for disease-resistance and long-lasting blooms. I often grow petunias from the ‘Wave’ series. They fill in quickly, bloom profusely, and the colors are bold. If you don’t want to waste time filling in a container, a ‘Wave’ petunia of any color is a good choice.
Easy Care for Easy Blooms
Petunias like well-draining soil. An all-purpose potting soil should suffice, something fresh that still contains nutrients. They also like full sun. No shade, please. They bloom less in shade. Water every few days in summer to keep them perky. Try not to water the flowers themselves as they’re delicate. They flatten and resemble wet tissue. If given a 10-10-10 fertilizer, flowers will multiply quickly.
The Beautiful Benefits
Obviously, the best reason to grow a petunia is its bold alluring color. If you want a garden to pop with it, plant petunias. I like deep purples and magentas, but of course, I also like that yellows, whites, blues, pale shades, and striped varieties exist. You can have great fun arranging the candy-striped ‘Ultra Star’ with black mondo grass or the veiny ‘Purple Vein Ray’ with lavenders or powdery asters.
Also, petunias can attract hummingbirds. The birds like the large tubular shape of the flowers and are particularly attracted to bright red colors. The rare and slightly odd looking Petunia exserta is apparently the most enticing.
A Couple of Drawbacks
You might notice petunia leaves and flowers are sticky. They produce a protective sap on their leaves to trap and kill insects. But the residue can come off on your fingers. I’d recommend caring for them while wearing gloves. And clean pruning shears with an alcohol wipe if needed.
Later in the summer, petunias can turn leggy. They also turn leggy if in too much shade. When this happens, they look gangly and awkward. But new blooms can be pinched back to keep the plant bushy, which I recommend. If you don’t mind the leggy look, they will keep blooming until frost.
Overall, if you want to beautify a patio or balcony or even border, you can’t go wrong with a petunia. These South American natives are a proliferous joy to grow. And if you already have some, please share the photos in the comments below. I’d love to see your favorites. Happy planting!
Yes, it’s February but it’s never too early to dream about the garden for spring. If you’re new to gardening chances are you don’t have a lot of books on the subject. Well, the truth is you don’t need that many but there’s one book I recommend to everyone when starting out. The A-Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants.
Just the other day, I talked about this book with writer/interviewer Erin Popelka for the Must Read Fiction Podcast, where afterward I realized I didn’t do that good of a job in describing why you need this book. Hopefully, I can correct that here.
Who is The American Horticultural Society?
The American Horticultural Society is the oldest and largest non-profit gardening organization in America. Established in 1922, it works to promote plants and the natural world. They have the most experienced experts who write various books and speak at events to educate the public. One of those people is English botanist Christopher Brickell. He was the director of the Royal Horticultural Society and is still an editor, explorer, writer, horticulturalist, etc. He was awarded the Victoria Medal of Honour in Britain, which basically makes him the king of horticulture.
Setting the Standard for a Comprehensive Garden Guide
In the 1990s, via the RHS, he, with Judith Zuk, edited the most comprehensive book on plants that grow in Europe and North America. It has over 15,000 entries and 6,000 pictures. Plants are arranged alphabetically and easy to find. Later, he updated it via the American Horticultural Society. This book is massive, it’s heavy, it’s my favorite. It’s the A-Z Encylopedia of Garden Plants.
Why I Love It
I love the A-Z because it’s easy to use and sooo complete. It has basic info about how the plant kingdom works, basic plant structure, cultivating in various regions and environments, simple pruning info, and the various categories that plants fall under. And that’s all before the directory! Afterward, there’s growing zone maps, a glossary, and a common names index, which is very handy for newbie gardeners.
In the directory itself, entries don’t just describe the plants generally, they go into depth. For instance, they discuss the hydrangea genus, its various species, its varieties and cultivars. It doesn’t feature them all but it gets pretty darn close — with pictures. By the way, what’s the difference between a variety and cultivar? I’ll let you discover that in this book! (But hint, it has to do whether the plant naturally changed or was created.)
Also, the A-Z entries don’t speak in dreamy general language, it’s all scientific botanical information. For instance, in Hydrangea arborescens, the cup symbol denotes that the AHS considers it a “Great Plant,” before offering its botanical name, common name, and characteristics: “Rounded, deciduous shrub with long-stalked, broadly ovate leaves, to 7in (18cm) long, dark green above and paler beneath.” It also describes its flowers, its height and width, where it normally grows, etc. In other words, it offers the most exacting, detailed information out there about plants.
Why You Need It
So, why should a beginning gardener spend the 100 bucks on this doorstop of a book? And yes, it is expensive. Because as a new gardener, you’ll go to the nursery, get inspired, buy a bunch of plants, maybe based on the nursery person’s advice, and then come home and need to know more precise growing information about the plants you just bought. This book will answer your questions.
The second reason is, if you’re blessed with a yard or green space where you live, you’ll be surrounded by plants you’re not familiar with. Yes, you can pay experts to come and tell you, which is not a bad idea. I’ve done consultations and I love doing them. They’re fun and enlightening for clients. But you can also save money by simply using the A-Z book.
Why Not Google It?
I wouldn’t because the virtual experience of surfing around on a screen, never quite knowing if you’re landing on a proper, valid website with accurate information or not, is stressful. Use Google for an initial search, I do it all the time, or use it if you can’t find the exact cultivar in the A-Z, but overall, isn’t sitting in a comfy chair with a cat and a cup of tea and a hefty book whose weight you can feel on your lap and whose glossy pages snap between your fingers a more rewarding experience anyway? The A-Z is a feast for the browsing eyes.
How to Use the A-Z Encyclopedia
Let’s say you know you have a hydrangea in your yard. You’ve seen them before at your grandma’s house and can recognize the little flat flowers. But your hydrangea looks different than the one at grandma’s house and you don’t know why. The flowers aren’t in a pom pom ball like you’ve seen. They’re tall and look like a cone. Start by looking at the leaves. Are they the oval shape with a pointed tip? Or do they look like an oak’s leaves? If they do, you’ll be able to, with a quick scan of the Hydrangea entry, discover that this is Hydrangea quercifolia, an oakleaf hydrangea.
Then you’ll know that this shrub blooms in late summer to fall rather than mid-summer. And you’ll know it gets really cool bronzy foliage during the autumn season. Plus, extra peely showy bark in winter. And that, depending on the cultivar, the white flowers may fade to a lovely pink. Perhaps, you’ll want to plant it by the front door based on that knowledge, perhaps you have another plant that will contrast or blend with those whitish pink flowers. The bottom line is since you know what you’ve got, you can make the best choice for your garden.
I’ve Given Myself Hydrangea Fever!
All of this talk about hydrangeas has made me want to put an oakleaf hydrangea in my garden! I’ve planted them for clients before and grown them at other homes where I’ve lived but I don’t have one in my current yard! Oh no. Emergency, emergency! They’re so cool, I really I need one. Hypnotized: now I must get to the plant nursery…
Tommy Tønsberg gardens in chilly Norway. The former editor-in-chief of Norsk Hagetidend, Norway’s largest gardening magazine, now writes about and grows plants. He also photographs and broadcasts about them. He lives on a property about 30 minutes north of Oslo with his partner Kenneth and three cats, Big Cat, Little Cat and Grey Cat. When not gardening, they propagate herbaceous perennials and some tender plants for their small nursery. I asked him about growing a garden in his Zone 7 climate and the jungle of houseplants inside his house.
You have a large beautiful garden on your property outside of Oslo, Norway. Can you tell us about the various sections of the garden and how you approached designing it?
With both my partner and me being passionate gardeners and plants people, we wanted different areas where we could explore different garden styles and create different environments. We wanted to grow as big a range of plants as possible. The different areas are: a perennial garden around the house, a rock garden, the exotic garden, pond garden, herb garden, the white garden, the vegetable garden, and the woodland.
What is your favorite area of the garden and why?
I love the woodland garden because it has a wild and free feeling with lots of the woodland plants that I love. For example Trilliums, Uvularia, primulas, rhododendrons, and magnolias. This area is also more shaded so in the middle of summer, when it can get quite warm, it’s nice to spend time with shade loving plants here.
What are the best shrubs and/or perennials to grow in colder climates like Norway?
When it comes to trees and shrubs, we have a more limited range of plants to use as it gets so cold in winter (Zone 7). Especially amongst evergreen trees and shrubs. But when it comes to perennials, our planting palette is very large as many of them like the cold dry winters. Also, the snow insulates so they are nice and snug in winter. We are lucky to be able to grow a wide range of perennials from small alpine plants to taller American prairie plants.
I imagine houseplants must be popular in Norway as the country is frozen for a considerable part of the year. Are houseplants popular and if so, what are some common favorites of Norwegians?
Yes, houseplants are definitely popular. And though there has been a rise in the selection of houseplants we can get now, they’ve always been a big part of the Scandinavian home. Because of social media and trends, what is common here is similar to what you see in other European countries. But every houseplant shop will have Monstera, different Calathea, a large array of succulents and cacti, and many different orchids.
When did you begin gathering houseplants and how big is your collection now?
I have always been very into houseplants, but I stopped when we moved to our current house because it was so badly insulated. I lost a lot of my plants because they froze on the window sills. Now the house is better insulated and I have had a chance to make a collection again. My total number of houseplants is around 300.
What are your favorite plants and why?
In the garden, it has to be the Himalayan Blue Poppy (Meconopsis) but indoors, I have a passion for Hoyas, but also different aroids (Anthuriums and Philodendrons) and orchids.
Are there any particularly rare plants you love? If so, can you tell us about them?
What is a rare plant? ;-) Some plants that may be very hard to come by here are common elsewhere, but new species are constantly being discovered and described. I used to be more interested in plants being rare. But as I grew, I realized it’s more important that they grow well and are easy to maintain. I’m quite fond of the little Hoya kanuakumariana and Hoya curtisii though.
Do you have advice for the beginning houseplants gardener?
Use your finger. So many plants die from overwatering. Its difficult to give a good rule for when plants need water as it depends on temperature, time of year, and potting medium. But if you use your finger and feel the compost, you’ll know if its too moist or dry. Also, most plants will tolerate a short period of being too dry, but overwater once and the roots can rot.
You’ve authored a few gardening books in Norwegian. What’s next for you? Will you write another book? Any chance they will appear in English?
I’ve written about 10 gardening books and more are to follow. Currently there are none in English, but that might change, so watch this space ;-)
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Along the back fence of my garden I have a tricky spot. A dry woodland border of sun that’s tucked under fir trees. The ravine behind the fence slopes up and the fence intersects where the wild woodland ends and my cultivated area begins. So it’s the edge of a woodland, but sunny, and hot. Very very hot. The soil is sandy and drains instantly. Growing plants there has been difficult.
Sandy Acidic Soil in Full Sun
Normally, we Northwest gardeners don’t mind soil that’s sandy or acidic. It’s better than clay or heavy silt. Sand means well draining, acidic means we can grow the usual native rhododendrons, pieris, and camellias. Even hydrangeas. But those shrubs are usually tucked into the woodland and receive some shade. Not this border. It’s on the edge of a native woodland but facing full-on southern sun all day.
A False Start
At first, years ago, I started off thinking I’d plant a tropical woodland. I wanted big leaved plants that I could see from far away on my patio. So I planted a ‘Teddy Bear’ magnolia, acanthus, and cannas. They loved the sun but the problem was the soil dried out too soon. I added compost and amended the soil. But, when it rained, because they were canopied by fir trees, they received little natural water. The compost didn’t hold enough moisture, even in rainy winter. The border was a problem. A big problem.
So I took a different approach. I planted a more California-type of garden, what grew in the dry areas of sunny zone 9. Cistus, lavender, ceanothus, sedum, even penstemon. I tried redtwig dogwood and boxwood hebe for structure. It was a mild success. But moles moved in and created a huge network of tunnels around the shrubs and perennials, creating air pockets and weakening the plants. The cistus died from those air pockets, the penstemons leaned and reached for the light. Some plants lost foliage.
How to Garden Despite the Wildlife
I let the moles be. Well, that’s not totally true. I put poison worms in some of their tunnels. Some died and I think one has moved to my sunny island bed, I’m not sure. Regardless, I try to garden on despite it all, despite these little creatures working against me. Not long after the moles moved in, I noticed a rabbit constantly near or in the bed. It was adorable, true. But I’m sorry, the little rabbit, while cute, was a pain. It chewed on some plants and the destruction sometimes depressed me.
For instance, when a new purple-leafed ninebark (physocarpus) established itself, a mole came in, tunneled around, and weakened it. There was sudden leaf die off at the branch tips. It struggled. I’ve since pruned and have rearranged the soil around it. One thing, maybe good or bad, was one of my dogs got to the rabbit and it perished.
So this year, I’m going to add more compost and put in replacement plants that died. Someone on a plant group mentioned manzanita (arctostaphylos) and that coastal native might be a good addition. I’m also thinking salvia, I’m thinking more sedums. We’ll see how my little dry woodland border does this summer. I hope for the best. It would be satisfying, after all of this effort and thinking, to see a healthy, happy collection of plants from my patio.