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All gardening is landscape painting

The well-known garden quote, penned over 200 years ago by landscape designer William Kent, that is the headline for this week’s column still rings true today. Creating a beautiful garden is akin to making pictures where you, the artist, get to choose the plants and manipulate them on your canvas to create a vibrant glorious whole.
In the previous article I described how to design compelling shapes for your flowerbeds, along with the complimentary shapes of the lawn and hardscape. (If you missed it you can read it at northcountryreflections.com/pictures-ground/). Now let’s take a look at how to complete the picture by filling your beds with great plants.
Painting pictures with plants
Each plant contributes four unique visual qualities — shape, texture, size and color — to your picture making. And, generally speaking, you will get the most interesting results when you combine plants with contrasting qualities. For instance, pair up plants that have both different shapes and different colors, or dissimilar heights and textures, as shown in the adjacent pictures. As the old adage says: opposites attract.
Obviously, as you plan a new bed or edit an existing one, you must consider its inherent growing environment — sunny or shady, wet or dry — and choose plants that will flourish there. But, even with this caveat, you will still have plenty of plant choices and an abundance of ways to combine them for best effect.
And, as every gardener knows, as the weeks and months roll by, the garden is always changing. So, as you make your selections, it also helps to review photographs from prior years to remind yourself what bloomed each month.
Shape
Start by studying the shapes of the biggest plants you are considering — trees, shrubs and large perennials — and the contribution each will make to your overall picture. There is a world of difference between a dense conical evergreen, a gently arching crabapple tree or a group of rounded shrubs like spirea. Ponder how the shapes of these large players will work together across the bed, and even between beds, to create a basic structure for your picture that will be both interesting and visually balanced.
As you do this, remember to factor in the eventual size of all woody plants, so each has room to mature in place. A good rule of thumb is to place them far enough apart so that, when fully grown, their branches will just touch.
Next, seek out perennials with inherently strong shapes that bloom together, and pair up plants with contrasting shapes. See, in the adjacent pictures, how the cup-shaped poppy complements the yellow fingers of baptisia, and the exclamation points of a small group of Kansas Gayfeather (Liatris “Kobold”) stand out among an expanse of disc-like black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia “Goldstrum”).
Texture
Textures of garden plants range from the delicate and lacy — like ferns, astilbes and lady’s mantle — to the coarse leaves of hostas or the umbrella plant (Darmera peltata).
And here again it works well to pair up opposites. The picture taken in a shady corner of my garden beneath a multi-stemmed serviceberry tree shows a huge specimen of false hydrangea (Deinanthe bifida) with its impressive leaves amongst an assortment of delicate textured companions including the frothy yellow lady’s mantle and some Japanese painted fern.
Height
It goes without saying that the heights of our garden plants run the gamut, from a six-inch, ground-cover geranium to a 20-foot-high crabapple.
The old rule for designing a “mixed border” was to put the tallest plants at the back of the bed, medium height ones in the middle and the shortest at the front.
But rules are made to be broken and the results may well be more interesting! Experiment with using a few big bold plants toward the front of the bed; they will break up the mundane and add some excitement to the whole composition.
As a case in point, I decided to emphasize the corner of one of my beds with a group of five-foot-high, ramrod-straight Feather Reed grass (Clamagrostis “Karl Foerster”), and I was very pleased with the result. And then, to my added pleasure, I discovered how nicely the tall, straight shapes of the feather reed grass complemented the conical Falsecypress, (Chamaecyparis “Boulevard”) already growing nearby. It’s these little moments of gardening serendipity that put a smile on my face!
Color
Maybe I saved the best to last. But color is the essence of the summer garden. Try converting some of your garden pictures to black and white, and you will see what I mean.
Whole books have been written on how to use color in the garden that make for wonderful reading in the depth of winter. But, if you don’t want to delve too deeply, all you need to do is to try combining plants with boldly contrasting colors that bloom at the same time. Blues against yellow, pink or white, all work beautifully, as well as reds and yellows. In these pictures you can see how the red poppy complements the yellow Baptisia and the purple Kansas Gayfeather stands out among a sea of gold Rudbeckia.
Or, for a quick experiment to see what color combinations work, while the plants are in bloom take a few flower cuttings from one plant and place them beside other flowers elsewhere in the garden. You will quickly see what pleases you.
And finally, remember that some LEAVES come in colors other than green!
For colorful accents all season long, incorporate a few plants with bronze or yellow leaves among your perennials. Good choices include the elderberry, Sambucus “Black Lace” (which is actually a deep bronze), one of the colored ninebarks such as Physocarpus “Summer Wine,” the purple smokebush, Cotinus “Grace,” or a yellow spirea such as Spirea “Gold Princess” or “Goldflame.”
Summertime is planning time
Right now, at the height of summer, is a great time to make plans for next year’s garden. You can study all the different colors, textures, heights and shapes of the plants you have, see what you like and contemplate what might be changed. It is also an excellent time to visit other gardens. However wait until fall, when the perennials have gone dormant, to actually move any plants to their new positions — this part always reminds me of rearranging the furniture in the living room.
Judith Irven and Dick Conrad live in Goshen, where together they nurture a large garden. Judith is a Vermont Certified Horticulturist and teaches Sustainable Home Landscaping for the Vermont Master Gardener program. You can subscribe to her blog about her Vermont gardening life at www.northcountryreflections.com. Dick is a landscape and garden photographer; you can see more of his photographs at www.northcountryimpressions.

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