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Inspired Combinations
At the E.B. Dunn Historic Garden Trust in North Seattle, pale-blue muscari and white Anemone nemerosa are shown off by the deeper hue of massed Corydalis flexuosa 'Blue Panda.'
Thanks to you, we can share a panoply of pairing possibilities

LAST SUMMER I wrote a column about how good gardens are made one plant combination at a time, and ever since, readers have been writing me about their own favorite plant pairings. I only wish I'd invited each of you to send photos as well as descriptions. Even without the visuals to spur me on, you have all cost me a lot of money because I've been hanging out at nurseries for months, inspired by your innovative pairings and tracking down some of the same plants for my own garden.

What has been most interesting are all the disclaimers — if I believed your modesties, I'd have to think that all these great plant associations occurred haphazardly, and you merely chanced upon them and happened to recognize their beauty.

It doesn't take a gardener long to learn that stunning flowers and colorful foliage aren't enough; a plant's effectiveness depends on what you place next to it, below it and above it. Here are some of the most alluring plant combinations I've heard about from many of you over the past three seasons:

Some of the most common plants make the most satisfying combinations, in part because it's rewarding to see familiar plants used to best advantage. A simple ground-cover tapestry of the glowingly gold dead nettle Lamium maculatum 'Aureum' interplanted with dark-leafed, purple-spiked Ajuga reptans 'Catlin's Giant' provides a long season of color and complementary textures spring through early summer. Dead nettles with white spotted leaves, such as L. maculatum 'Beacon Silver' or 'White Nancy' look wonderful interspersed with white and purple crocus in early spring. In summer they serve as a nice contrast to black mondo grass or the tiny purple leaves of Ajuga 'Chocolate Chip.'
Illustration Now In Bloom
Mellow yellow spirea (S. thunbergii 'Ogon') is a new little shrub, one of the few golden-leafed plants that doesn't burn in full sun. It is deciduous, grows to 4 feet high, has a graceful, arching shape, does best in a sunny spot, and is reliably hardy. It has white flowers in springtime, but the real point of this bright, lacy shrub is the finely dissected, sunny yellow foliage.
Just to continue the white and brown food theme into late summer, you could grow some dark, velvety chocolate cosmos up through the lamium and ajuga for a great contrast of texture and color, all in a fairly small space and close to the ground.

Hostas seem to be a favorite plant partner, perhaps because their leaves unfurl just in time to cover up ratty bulb foliage while consorting well with early spring perennials. The small Hosta 'Hydon Sunset' has smooth, rounded yellow leaves that offer a perfect contrast to equally shade-tolerant plants like fluffy maidenhair ferns or dark-leafed heucheras. Another good shade combo is lacy red-leaf maples planted so their branches droop over the fat green leaves of Hosta fortunei. White-margined hostas such as H. fortunei 'Albomarginata' look their best emerging from a bed of white violets.

Shrubs and treescan often use a little skirting around their bare stems, and silver Artemisia 'Powis Castle' serves the purpose planted at the base of white-barked birches or beneath burgundy barberries. An inspired combination is purple smoke bush (Cotinus coggygria 'Royal Purple') laced with the yellow leaves and little magenta flowers of the wandering hardy geranium 'Anne Folkard.' I'd say that every third combination suggested by readers included hardy geraniums, probably because they're long-blooming and about as accommodating a plant as you can find. How about the lacy little G. clarkei 'Kashimir White' fluffing out the stems of iceberg roses, or G. 'Johnson's Blue,' which seems to bloom most of the summer, spreading along the edge of a bed planted with blue mophead hydrangeas?

Many of you are great drama-seekers, combining plants with show-off contrasts. Large, rounded leaves, like those of rodgersia or marsh marigold (Caltha palustris) are great counterpoints to sharply pointed plants such as the yellow-striped Iris pseudacorus 'Variegata.' All three plants thrive in damp, sunny sites. In a drier area, you might try the cream-striped Phormium 'Duet' underplanted with the similarly colored but very differently shaped scented-leafed geranium Pelargonium 'Lady Plymouth.' Or perhaps the darkly bladed New Zealand flax Phormium tenax in the midst of a swarm of bright scarlet verbenas.

Beware: This combining of plants is so creative and so gratifying that it becomes addictive. And is so much more fun to think about than weeding.

Valerie Easton is a Seattle free-lance writer and contributing editor for Horticulture magazine. Her e-mail address is

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