A few nights ago, I spoke to the Ohio Landscapers Association about how I create exciting plant combinations. Instead of showing them a bunch of combinations, I mostly used parts of my garden to demonstrate my thinking process.
One of the gardens I used was not my own but a photo I had taken in 1995 at Hidcote, one of England’s premier gardens. This was basically a shady, spring blooming garden (although the Hosta blooms in July and August) in dry to average soil yet the essence of the garden was the foliage, all of it green but with different forms and textures.
In creating a composition, start with a plant that catches the eye. I believe that the soft and divided leaf of Geranium maculatum (Wood Geranium) is that starter. The next step is finding contrasting foliage like that of Bergenia crassifolia (Pig Squeak) which is entire and leathery, and then finishing with the large and entire but distinctly veined foliage of Hosta ‘Hyacinthina’. I would also consider adding another form and texture with Liriope muscari ‘Big Blue’ (Big Blue Lily-Turf), the foliage of which is mounding and strappy. As a bonus, we would also add bloom in August and September.
If we were to add some light to this compostion, the use of variegated foliage would be quite helpful. We could substitute Hosta ‘Francee’ for ‘Hyacinthina’ and Lirope muscari ‘Variegata’ for ‘Big Blue’. The first of my own gardens that I showed was a partial shade bed under old magnolias. Although the best is irrigated, the plants I choose must do well in dry shade becase the extensive tree roots suck up most of the moisture.
I started with Brunnera ‘Jack Frost’ for its silvery overlay and veining of the green, heart-shaped base. Then, below, I added Athyrium niporicum ‘Pictum’ (Japanese Painted Fern) to reinforce the silver, a color that illuminated shade like no other. All of this silver needed some contrast so I added another fern, Athyrium filix-femina ‘Rotstiel (Rotstiel Lady Fern). It is slightly larger than Japanese Painted Fern but is all green and has reddish sterns.
Plant number four is Helleborus ‘Blue Lady’ that placed right of and slightly back of the painted fern. Thus the two green plants were arranged in asymmetrical balance although their textures are distinctly different, that of the hellebore being leathery, glossy, and widely divided. Helleborus ‘Blue Lady’ blooms in April, Brunnera ‘Jack Frost’ and Anthriscus sylvetris ‘Ravenswing’ in May, and Hosta ‘Majesty’ in July but there is ongoing foliage color from Athyrium niponicum ‘Pictum’, Athyrium felix-femina ‘Rotstiel’, and Carex siderosticha ‘Variegata’. As long as you have a strong central focus and surround it with complementary textures and colors, you too can create exciting plant combinations.