By Irene Virag
It can be dangerous to play matchmaker. But it’s different in the garden. There are no dramas and traumas if things don’t work out.
In the garden it’s just plain fun.
Of course this doesn’t mean I haven’t had my share of failures. But nobody got hurt. In the garden there’s always a do-over.
Besides, for the most part my attempts have produced happy couples such as large-leafed hostas and lacy ferns, soft-plumed pennisetums and starry asters, or even moonflowers and morning glories. They may be ships that pass in the night, but one takes up where the other leaves off. And sometimes there is a magic moment at dusk when the arbor the two vines share fades from brilliant blue to pure white.
If you want to be a garden matchmaker, all you have to do is look for plant partners that will stand the test of time—that complement or contrast each other or at least look good together. Over the last few years I’ve been getting more and more into hot colors, like orange, red and yellow. For instance I tuck magenta gomphrena among purple balloon flowers (Platycodon). And I mix yellow dark-leaf dahlias with bright-eyed annual Rudbeckia and tawny grasses.
This summer I scored with a mailbox planting that brought together stately yellow cannas, burgundy coleus, rosy-pink Salvia ‘Wendy’s Wish’ and purple trailing verbena.
And one of my all-time favorites is Crocosmia ‘Lucifer’, a bold, clump-forming beauty from the South African grasslands, with deep-red flowers on graceful arching stalks. It grows next to blue salvia and yellow yarrow. It’s not just the color combination. The yarrow is flat, so it contrasts with the birdlike flowers of crocosmia and the spiky stalks of the salvia. A backdrop of yellow roses and purple clematis on the fence enhances the scene.
I’ve been bringing together purple and red whenever I can. I made a lovely match this season with Verbena bonariensis and Strobilanthes near a Knock Out rose. The iridescent purple and green leaves of Persian shield (Strobilanthes) held their own next to the supersize shrub rose. The tall, airy purple verbena wove through the planting, nudging the shiny, shield-shape foliage of the annual here, and cozying up to the red rose there.
I also introduced Persian shield to Russian sage (Perovskia). Somehow I just knew the pale, lavender-hue Russian sage and the deep-purple Persian shield would hit it off.
And I wasn’t disappointed when I fixed up maroon-leaf ajuga and golden creeping Jenny (Lysimachia). The two perennial groundcovers are a match made in heaven. Both like sun or shade and moist, well-drained soil, and seem to bring out the best in each other. The chartreuse creeping Jenny shines a spotlight on the dark, glossy foliage of the ajuga. And when the ajuga’s blue-violet flowers show up, there’s no doubt the relationship works.
The same can be said for bronze-leaf heucheras and sedum Angelina, another chartreuse groundcover that puts on its own show as it takes on the russet tones of autumn. It’s another example of the advantage of foliage—flowers can be fleeting, but foliage has staying power.
Still, flowers are usually the main event. Purple alliums and pink peonies are a classic couple.
So are lacecap hydrangeas and clematis.
And I’m always looking for fitting consorts for the royalty of my garden—tall and elegant 'Casa Blanca' lilies. They’re pretty near perfect all on their own, with sumptuous flowers and a fragrance to die for. But they like having adoring subjects, especially ones that help hide their only defect: They don’t have very nice legs. Which is why I partner them with purple coneflowers or blue salvia or iresine, a frost-tender perennial with pink-vein crimson foliage. I just love it when things click.
I don’t claim to be the Dolly Levi of botanical matchmakers, but I’ve had my successes. And they’ve made for a happy garden. Mine.
Tell me about the happy partners that grow in your garden.