Simple Garden Design Trick: Repeater Plants

Repeated use of purple Salvia ensures the overall look is unified. Cambridge University Botanic Gardens

Repeated use of purple Salvia ensures the overall look is unified.

When I started learning the principles of design, all the words seemed to roll into one – repetition, unity, rhythm, cohesion and so on.  As I studied each, they became separate entities in my head, but I have, to some extent, come full circle as I have learnt a few simple techniques.  By applying just one idea, I found that you can tick the boxes of many, many principles all at once.

Repeating a plant throughout a garden is a great example of this. Pick the right one, spread it around and you really can transform the look and feel of the place.  Different areas of the garden suddenly tie in with each other, any feeling of bittiness is gone, structure is generated for winter interest and the whole thing looks and feels well designed.

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Various perennials have been repeated a number of times in this border at Queens’ College, Cambridge. These won’t add great structure in winter but have a good unifying effect from spring to autumn.

Picking the right plant is the tricky bit.  Ideally you want something that:

  • copes well in sun and shade
  • copes with dry and wet soil
  • has good, strong form (i.e. a dense, shapely habit)
  • is easy to propagate to keep costs down
  • BUT doesn’t spread so easily that it becomes weedy
  • is of a size that is proportionate to the size of your garden
  • is attractive but subtle (you don’t want it to be overpowering)

……really quite a wish list!  But there are always plants for every region that you can use.

Buxus (Box)

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Bright, spring growth on my Buxus. In humid regions, such as Sydney, use Buxus microphylla var. japonica. In colder, drier areas Buxus sempervivum (English box) works well.

For most temperate geographies, Buxus ticks every box (no pun intended!).  For this reason it has unfortunately become quite ubiquitous – look at most Chelsea show gardens and you will usually find box planted somewhere.  Usually as a neat hedge, ‘block’ or ball but it can also be softly pruned to a less formal shape.  The lush, green, evergreen colour is a fabulous backdrop to most temperate plantings and it doesn’t compete too hard with the ‘stars’ of any garden.

Soft, wispy grasses

Grasses are other great repeater plants and are very much in vogue in the US and Europe.  Piet Oudolf’s style epitomises this look and has tackled the problem of winter structure and interest in perennial beds.  The fabulous High Line gardens on a disused, elevated railway line in New York has soft grasses repeated throughout which gives a definite look right the way along it’s 1.5 mile length.

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The High Line garden in New York has soft grasses repeated along its length. Photo by and with kind permission of Michael McCoy

I am visiting a Piet Oudolf garden in London next week so watch this space for a more detail look at this style of garden.

Clivia

The garden in the house we bought in Sydney last year has Clivia as the repeating plant.  It is great for most of the year – the colour works well, it has a neat form, it will cope with the most nutrient and moisture deficient soil and as most of my garden is shady it grows well throughout.  I can divide it to make new plants, it doesn’t self seed or send out runners and it is the perfect size for my small, urban plot.  Ironically, the problem comes when it flowers.

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Repeating plants are best to be subtle, playing a role in the background. These Clivia in my garden have become a little too dominant when they flower as it is at a time when little else has colour

Generally, we eagerly await flowering time, but in my garden right now the flowering clivias definitely detract from the overall look.  The bright orange, in a mostly green garden is just too dominant and as you look out, all you can see is orange, orange, orange.  It becomes boring as your eyes struggle to see beyond just one plant type and gives the feel of a garden with very little thought put into it.  Fortunately, I have discovered that Clivia flowers last well in a vase, so I can solve the problem of garden dominance quite easily!

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Clivia last well in a vase. I do find it hard to pick any flowers from the garden but I should pack numerous flower heads into a vase and it would improve my house both inside and outside!

Osteospermum and Erigeron

For country settings, the South African daisy, Osteospermum, and the seaside daisy, Erigeron, are wonderful options to repeat throughout.  Whilst both prefer sun, they continue to flower tremendously well in shade and as long as it’s not boggy soil and you pick a pale flower colour to avoid dominance, you can’t go far wrong.  They will grow in the toughest spots (even cracks in the paving) so your only problem will be keeping them under control.

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Osteospermum flowering in a shady position, next to Liriope. The white Osteospermum may be better suited for a repeater plant to avoid over dominance

Yew

Daisies lack the strong form that is needed in more formal or urban settings and yew is a wonderful plant for this.  Most of the longstanding (it is a slow grower!), traditional English gardens have large, dramatic, deep green hedges of yew as their backdrop and ‘room’ dividers.

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Unifying yew hedge at the back of and between garden rooms at the RHS garden, Hyde Hall

Sadly, yew doesn’t grow well in most of Australia, but we have many hedges that we can grow to give strong structure in a similar way.  Try to find a dark green leaf for maximum effect.

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On a very grand scale, the Cypress of Florence look wonderful repeated through the hillside, working in a similar way to the deep, dark green of the yews of England

Westringia and Lomandra ‘Tanika’

For Australian native gardens, native rosemary (Westringia) and Tanika grass work well when repeated.  Westringia can get a little leggy in shade, as the plant desperately puts on growth trying to find light, but tip pruning will help increase density.  ‘Tanika’ is not the soft look of Piet Oudolf but it is perfectly Australian.

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Westringia mounds repeated work in exactly the same way as Buxus balls

Dietes and Iris

The strong vertical accents of irises are another great option and most flower when there is a lot going on in the garden, so don’t become too dominant.  Dietes won’t flower well in the shade, but the foliage does just fine.  Also watch out for some deciduous varieties of Iris, but they are worth investigating for your region.  You might even use two species of Iris to cope with sun and shade positions – the strong vertical from should tie them together.

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The wonderful flowers of Dietes grandiflora, which seem to float above the foliage like little butterflies (notice more Clivia in the background – this is my garden!)

In summary, find a plant that is super tough for your area, is about 60cm to 1m in height (for the average size garden) and which has a neat, strong form without being overpowering.  It really is important that the brain subconsciously see the repetition rather the eye being directly drawn towards it.  Repeat the plant throughout the garden and if you are anything like me and love growing a huge variety of plants, this one species will come to your rescue in pulling the whole thing together.

If there are plants you have used in this way or think would work well, it would be great to hear about them!

For more on the New York High Line gardens, see this article by the extremely talented Michael McCoy.

2 thoughts on “Simple Garden Design Trick: Repeater Plants

  1. Sabina says:

    I’m always looking out for plants that ‘fill the gaps’ in different parts of the garden and in so-doing, help tie the garden together.
    Many plants that self-seed take up residence wherever it suits them. People often call this trait ‘weediness’ but meh! – they’re only weeds when you don’t want them there.
    In my last garden, a cool-climate one, this role was filled by feverfew, borage and yellow Californian poppies which obligingly took up residence wherever there was a space to be filled. They seemed undeterred by frost or drought and if they became a nuisance I just removed them.
    There was also a little blue bulb I think called Ipheion uniflorum (star flower), a lamium with silver and white foliage and lambs ears.
    Echium self-seeded in a very aggressive way and had to be restrained but I let it go wherever there was room. I ended up with several giant clumps that acted as focal points.
    There was a fushia with tiny pink flowers that my Mum gave me cuttings of and I planted it all over the place. It was a favourite with the birds.
    White Japanese windflowers also featured in shady places. A bit slow to establish, (I didn’t water them) they eventually flowered reliably every autumn and spread via runners.
    I put in some jonquils and eventually had enough to plant around nearly every deciduous tree.
    In my present smaller garden, in Sydney, the filling-the-gaps and tying-together task is fulfilled by white alyssum and persicaria capitata as well as a little annual daisy I haven’t been able to name. Parsley also comes up and adds little blobs of green.
    I am trying to establish wind flowers but haven’t found the perfect spot.
    I agree with you about the cliveas being a bit in-your-face. I have mixed them up with bird’s nest ferns, tree ferns and hellebores.

    • jannaschreier says:

      Thanks, Sabina, for sharing the details of how you work repeater plants into your garden. It is always great to hear which plants others use. I quite agree that self-seeding is wonderful – plants find just the right spot for themselves, don’t need additional water and often look better and grow more strongly this way. I do have a problem with tomato plants though, which I think spread via my homemade compost – once in place I find it hard to pull them out and they really don’t look good in most of them! Generally I have a lot less self-seeding here compared with in my English garden – the hot, dry weather and thick mulch makes it a challenge for seeds to germinate and take root but you clearly do well in your garden. It sounds absolutely adorable, especially your mix of shade loving plants. And I am sure your windflowers will take off shortly – mine are as strong as ever in Sydney!

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