In the nursery I’m a pushover for a showy flower. But in the garden, my own or others peoples’, what charms is not a stand-alone stunner, but plants in satisfying combinations. Beauty is in the harmonious way they all work together. And it’s harder than it looks. Plants I think are going to be compatible neighbours sometimes end up as lonely individuals rather than a happy community. To cu down on trial and error, professional designers develop favourite go-to combos that have proven themselves to be visually complementary as well as demanding the same kind of conditions and care.
Rob Willis, a consummate plantsman who used to own Belrose Nursery and now designs gardens as Woodside Gardens, says that every garden he works on starts with a combination of three plants. “Depending on the size of the garden we either repeat that or extend it with complementary or contrasting plants.” A classic Willis combo is the purple flowers and purple-backed foliage of cherry pie, Heliotrope ‘Lord Roberts’, matched with feathery, silver-leafed Artemesia ‘Powis Castle’ and striped, grass-like society garlic, Tulbaghia violaceae. Want shade and flowers? What about the big purple floss-flowered Bartlettina sordida (which used to be called Eupatorium), Plectranthus ‘Mona Lavender’ and ‘Stripey White’ liriope. Willis has plans for pots too. Try a copper-coloured carex grass with coral diascia and a tumble of purple-silver sedum.
Designer Peter Fudge’s modern go-to trio elegantly suits the current desire for low water-use, low-maintenance gardens: shiny green Crassula ovate with felty Kalanchoe ‘Silver Spoons’, and the fine-leaf of westringia ‘Jervis Gem’ or a rosemary. All are hot sun-hardy and look great in groups interspersed through gravel. This particular westringia makes a neat sphere without pruning, and the crassula prunings can be simply stuck in the ground to extend the planting.
In subtropical gardens Nicola Cameron of Pepo Botanic Design puts together a native gang. Waterhousia ‘Sweeper’, which is a weeping form of lillypilly with rippled foliage that makes a great tall screen, contrasts with the dwarf form of the native frangipani, Hymenosporum flavum ‘Gold Nugget’ which forms a low shrub with gorgeously scented gold flowers in summer, and the native grass Dianella ‘Emerald Arch’.
So what are the rules here? Willis says he wishes he knew for sure. “It’s something about contrasting, but not contrasting everything,” he suggests. Start by not being sucked in by those dazzling flowers or other ephemera and focus instead on creating contrasts and complements in forms (mounds, mats, fountains, columns), textures (glossy, felty, leathery, feathery, smooth, puckered, large, small), foliage colour (gold, green, blue, grey, silver, burgundy, purple, striped, splodged, splashed) and density (airy, frothy, dense). Ensure the chosen few like the same conditions and then see if they work. If so, repeat or extend the gang as needed. Simple, right!