In the Garden:
Northern California Coastal & Inland Valleys
Imitate nature when you choose plants for a shady retreat, and it will invite you to linger.
To create a specific mood in the garden you need to select plants that fit that particular setting, and that's where plant combinations come in. Think of landscaping a garden as dressing a stage for a play. If you want to create a desert scene, you don't use ferns and philodendrons.
The most important thing to keep in mind when you are planning combinations of different plants in the same area is that each variety be compatible with the others. They all must have the same growing requirements or some of them won't be happy.
Plants for a Shady Retreat
I love shady dells, the kind of places that invite you to linger and hide for a while. Any place where a frog might be comfortable is my idea of heaven. In my secluded dell, I'd include lush greenery -- combinations of ferns, large and small; and hostas, with their broad ribbed leaves adding contrast to the airy texture of the ferns (if you can protect them from hungry snails).
Ferns and hostas may fit perfectly into a froggy bottom, but they lack color. So to add interest and drama, I'd include some impatiens and perhaps some coralbells (Heuchera). But nothing too bright because, remember, I want my garden to have a restful quality. If the area is protected, I could even add some tropicals, such as schefflera or Ficus benjamina.
Matters of Height
Another aspect you want to take into consideration in combination plantings is the height of each plant. Although sometimes you may want every plant to be the exact same size, such as along the border of a walkway, I find it much more interesting to use the design element of high, medium, and low heights.
When I worked as a gardener at Sunset Magazine, we planted gigantic containers of multiple plants, always with a color scheme. I still remember one of my very favorite creations. It was in a 24-inch, terra cotta pot in an east-facing entryway. It contained an asparagus fern (Asparagus meyerii), a California fuchsia (Zauschneria), purple alyssum, blue lobelia 'Crystal Palace', and Calceolaria integrifolia 'Golden Nugget'. The asparagus fern (one of my all-time favorite plants) had those lovely, sculptural, octopus arms that bridged the vertical and horizontal lines, the California fuchsia added the vertical element, the alyssum and lobelia spilled over the sides of the pot, and the golden nugget filled in the middle ground. Sometimes everything just clicks and you come up with a winner!
My favorite combination planting these days is made up of carnivorous plants. Little nepenthes, butterworts, and sundews delight me with their voracious appetites and unusual foliage. The prickly sundews glisten in the morning sun, the lovely light green of the butterworts contrasts with the pink-tipped lips of the nepenthe. These little plants thrive happily together in a retired 5-gallon aquarium, keeping my office free from flies, mosquitoes, and gnats.
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