A Master of Unusual Planting Combinations

Bulbs pushing up through the leaf litter. Janna Schreier

Bulbs pushing up through the leaf litter at Bells: there is little more magical than flowers popping up from nothing

Bells of Killcare. Banksia, Dahlia, Betula, Helichrysum, Grevillea, Prunus, Agave, Juniperus, Crocus, Strelitzia, Lomandra and wait for it, Rosa. Sound like a bit of a hotchpotch? Think again.

This garden is one of those gardens that doesn’t just fill you with joy, it makes you stop and reconsider all previous assumptions. You look at it and everything says that it shouldn’t work and yet it does.  It really, really works.

And when you figure out why, it is super exciting.  Because a whole new avenue of garden design opens up. Pinpointing and articulating the ‘why’ of gardens is one of the surest ways of developing design skills. Taking an idea is one thing, but figuring out a whole principle that you can apply in myriad ways, is quite something else.

It hit me that this was no ordinary garden when I saw this Miscanthus planted next to an evergreen Magnolia. Two plants that I don’t think I have previously seen planted in the same suburb, yet alone growing side by side.  The Miscanthus, eliciting images of American prairies; soft, delicate seed heads floating above Piet Oudolf perennial designs and coverings of white hoar frost on the hills of Japan.  The Magnolia; ubiquitous in formal, urban, Australian gardens; heavy and solid; huge brash flowers and a subtropical feel, whose large, glossy leaves blacken in heavy frost.

Magnolia and Miscanthus at Bells. Janna Schreier

Miscanthus sinensis with Magnolia grandiflora

But I loved them together. Why was this?

I realised it was all about connections.  It is important that adjacent plants have enough in common that they tie together, whilst having enough differences to create interesting, high impact contrasts. Without contrasts a garden is nothing.

Usually, we think of connections as being plants that grow together in nature.  And this is a tremendously robust way of ensuring both design and horticultural success.

But it’s easy to rely on these rules of thumb, becoming lazy at the expense of broader thinking. Connections don’t need to be geographical, or historical, they can come from a million and one different angles.

It first occurred to me that the Miscanthus and Magnolia were in perfect proportion to each other.  They were roughly equal sized, big, bold blocks.  You are off to a good start with anything planted boldly and neither dominated the other.

It then occurred to me that the beige of the Miscanthus flowers were of a similar tone to the brown of the Magnolia lower leaf surface – both earthy accents.  And when I looked further, I realised that both greens were almost identical.

Three strong visual links and the combination works. And how much more special and exhilarating is it, for being a relatively unique combination? We all love new things.

Roses in the gardens at Bells. Janna Schreier

Roses in the garden at Bells

Another combination that I was amazed I loved, was that of roses popping out at the end of a driveway full of natives.  Surely roses and natives don’t go together? But these roses were Banksia coloured, they were placed at the transition to an area of more exotics and their foliage blended into the hedgerow behind them. Again, that combination of catching your attention, but not standing out too far. It is finding that perfect balance that is the trick to good design.

Helichrysum ground cover in native setting at Bells. Janna Schreier

Helichrysum ground cover in a native setting at Bells

Another example is the use of Helichrysum at Bells, to bring light and sparkle to the native trees. It is brighter than the natives, reflecting more light, but the tones blend perfectly, the leaves are small and the form, soft and informal. I am surprised I have not seen this combination before. Contrast without dominance; it is a match made in heaven!

Hedychium gardnerianum and Lilium at Bells. Janna Schreier

White Lilium longiflorum and yellow and red Hedychium gardnerianum (Kahili ginger) in the native woodland at Bells

Plants also look right to us when we see them in a certain environment often enough.  Lilium longiflorum, above, almost looks right in Australian bushland because it has been growing wild there for so long. I find it hard to dislike it doing so, despite the potential threat to other species. A perfect example of an historical connection.

We can find new combinations of plants that work well together, if we ensure we have enough common ground; common ground on any number of levels. Find the connections and you could be the next Piet Oudolf! It is exciting to trial new styles but we need some principles to help improve our success rate.

Next time you visit a garden, it’s worth trying to articulate exactly why it does or doesn’t work for you.  It’s amazing the impact this two minute process can have on your knowledge and understanding of design, and subsequently, your own garden. The power of connections was my key learning from Bells, along with the potential this brings to explore new styles of planting. But most gardens leave me with new thoughts of one kind or another – just ask yourself why each one works.

There was so much to take from this garden……the next blog post will be along shortly!

Ducks by the pool at Bells. Janna Schreier

The pool at Bells: There’s something about ducks. Gosh, they can make a mess of your pool but I can’t help thinking they are the best garden ornaments of all. Quite fixating

10 thoughts on “A Master of Unusual Planting Combinations

  1. Adriana says:

    Every time I read your blogs I learn something new Janna! A new way of looking at things. How on earth do you have such an amazing insight and such a great way of expressing it???

    When we combine plants in our gardens, it isn’t always about following ‘rules’ – something I do often (not follow rules) but hadn’t consciously thought through..

  2. Patterson Webster says:

    Articulating why something does or doesn’t work in someone else’s garden is key to improving our own. I wrote a blog post making a similar point in June 2014 (Visiting Gardens at siteandinsight.com) when I was preparing mine for a garden visit. Despite the differences in climate and season, we can profitably and enjoyably share garden insights.

  3. Catherine says:

    I think as horticulturists we can become prejudiced against certain combinations because of a plant’s origins, especially the whole silly native v non-native debate. Australia has introduced the idea of ‘fusion’ food to the world, combining many cultures and cooking styles to brilliant effect. I wish our gardens and landscape designs were similarly multicultural as they would be the richer for it.

    • Patterson Webster says:

      Catherine, I like the idea of fusion gardening, and particularly using the words fusion and multiculturalism in relation to horticulture. If you don’t mind, I may start using those terms myself.

      • jannaschreier says:

        They are great terms, aren’t they? When I think of fusion food, I think, primarily, of a ‘geographic’ style that has been modified for the tastes of a new region. I particularly like the idea of taking horticultural ideas from elsewhere and fusing them with local ‘Australianness’ (in our case). As well as highly developed multiculturalism, we also have a huge diversity of climates in this country, which should be another factor assisting us in thinking laterally about plant types.

  4. Helen says:

    I’m just happy that you have helped me to justify the beautiful David Austin Golden Jubilee rose I planted outside the kitchen window. It’s among natives near a large banksia bush that protects it (and the house) from strong winds. I’ve consolidated nearly all the other roses in shades of pink, apricot and crimson into a single garden bed amongst more ornamental shrubs and perennials. The yellow rose looked so cheery and settled that I let it stay – and it’s profusion of golden flower buds do fade to beautiful banksia colours as they open.

    • jannaschreier says:

      I can’t remember it but it sounds gorgeous, Helen. I’m so glad you now not only have a beautiful plant outside your window, but one that you look out on, feeling that it is absolutely perfectly placed! Some plants are definitely meant to be – sounds like you knew it but just hadn’t thought why.

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