A great plant combo is key to pulling off a small garden space. Looking back on the previous year provides great insight and I get a better idea of what worked and what was just meh. Because my garden is small, full of shallow beds and tight angles, I have to really think about plant groupings for the best impact. I’ve matured from the one-of-everything gardener to one who considers how plants jive together. The result is so much better.
It’s easy to think of a small garden as one that would be easy to plant and I’m the first to say you’re unequivocally WRONG. As a new gardener, I wanted one of everything, my planting style reflected it and the garden was a mess with no thought given to plant combos. I still like that somewhat unkempt, cottage vibe but one that looks knit together as opposed to thrown. There’s a difference.
Today I consider how plants gel, taking into consideration there seasonal changes like leaf color and how their flowers will work together to create a pleasing vignette. I’m not a garden designer by any means, I simply know what I like now. That’s the beauty of trial and error. It’s taken years to ignore the little voice in my head constantly telling me to buy the latest flavor of the month, or day. It’s an ongoing battle of sorts that’s been difficult to overcome as plant breeders constantly improve upon old varieties. They’re the dealers and I’m the obliging addict.
The area just off the patio was home to a rose of sharon, a cutting from my mom’s garden that succumbed to a bad case of rot. While beautiful, it dropped a horrendous number of seedlings both at the base of the plant and throughout the garden. Breeders have since developed sterile cultivars that have found homes in other places in the garden. As happens in all gardens when plants die, a new opportunity arises. I thought of this small corner as one might a container garden. I needed a thriller, filler and spiller plant combo to make this interesting. Located right off the patio, I wanted this space to resonate with both shape and texture.
Hydrangea paniculata ‘Vanilla Strawberry’ on standard provided the height (thriller) as well as multi-season interest. The flowers remain, browned and slightly wizened, throughout winter until they’re pruned off in early spring.
The filler was a vino coleus. It’s almost black velvety leaves and toothy chartreuse edges called out to me at the garden center. It’s never been hard to sell me a coleus and this one was perfect for this very hot, dry, south-facing location. Sun loving coleus varieties like Vino thrive in these tough conditions and are an excellent choice for great foliage all summer long.
The hydrangea/coleus combo also worked because their water needs were similar and I could water them equally without over watering one or the other. Three 3.5″ pots spaced around the hydrangea were enough to fill the area. I pinched the top growth on the coleus back a few times (a trick my mom showed me years ago) to encourage better branching for a lush shrub-like appearance.
While not exactly a “spiller,” Salvia argentea ‘Artemis’ from Select Seeds was the icing on the cake. I grow these from seed started indoors in early spring because it’s next to impossible to find these at garden centers. Like any salvia, Artemis is drought tolerant and loves the sun. I was a little concerned about using it to frame plants that liked more water, but they were located at the edge of the border and far enough away from the thirstier coleus and hydrangea.
When I watered the salvia, I did so making sure to avoid the leaves as to do otherwise would undoubtedly ruin the soft furry texture that makes them so desirable. Case in point… I opened my garden to neighbors last summer, encouraging them to visit my garden one day at their leisure. Many visited with small children in tow. Our neighborhood is loaded with little ones these days, making us the official old folks of the neighborhood. Our girls are 19 and 17.
I’d peak out the window from time to time when I knew little kids were in the garden just to see where they gravitated. Without fail, I’d find them crouching the way toddlers do to stroke the leaves of my silver sage, smiling as they did it and looking up at their parents to show their pleasure. I smiled too, glad that my garden spread a bit of joy for a brief moment in a very long year.
Speaking of fuzzy silver leaves, I have a video on my YouTube channel, Here She Grows, about my experience with different types of lamb’s ear and how some reseed more than others. It can be a good thing or a bad thing depending on how you look at it.