Variations on a Theme

– Posted in: Garden Design, Garden Plants

‘Black Pearl’ pepper with ‘Australian Yellow’ lettuce

Of all the things I enjoy about gardening, experimenting with plant combinations has long been one of my favorite pastimes. For most of that time, though, my efforts were rather haphazard: I ended up with some pleasing pairings each year, but I didn’t concentrate on any particular themes. About three years ago, however, I started creating foliage and flower combinations based on specific color contrasts and harmonies, in preparation for a book I was writing (Foliage: Astonishing Color and Texture beyond Flowers). Part of the point was to have the combinations available for photography, and part was to be able to actually live with the pairings, so I could see how they really looked and how they performed over time. (It’s one thing to create combinations that sound good on paper and quite another to see what the plants themselves want to do.) Some I absolutely loved, while others were “interesting” at best; either way, they’ve added an extra dimension of richness to my gardening experience.

‘Black Pearl’ pepper with ‘Goldenvale’ ghost bramble

One color theme that simply never gets old for me is near-black foliage contrasted with bright yellow to chartreuse. The photo at the top of this entry features one of my most-prized plants for practically-black leaves, ‘Black Pearl’ pepper (Capsicum annuum), edged with ‘Australian Yellow’ lettuce. At right is the same group of pepper plants from a slightly different view, set in front of the lacy yellow foliage and prickly white stems of ‘Goldenvale’ ghost bramble (Rubus cockburnianus). The effect is amazingly intense and lasts through nearly the whole growing season with practically no maintenance. (Once the lettuce started to go to seed, I pulled it out so it didn’t cover up the peppers, then set out another batch of ‘Australian Yellow’ seedlings in late summer to continue the effect until frost.)

‘Limelight’ four-o’clock and ‘Osmin’ basil

Purple basils (Ocimum basilicum) are also invaluable for deep, dark foliage. Like the peppers, they’re basically temporary, because they’re around only during the frost-free season. But when you consider how easy they are to grow from seed or to buy as transplants, it’s easy to see their advantages: You can grow lots of them even on a limited budget, and you can have fun experimenting with them in different sites and pairings each year. ‘Purple Ruffles’ is an old favorite for good color as well as its interesting texture, but I also really like the taller, smoother-leaved strains, such as ‘Osmin’, ‘Red Rubin’, and ‘Violetta’. At left is a simple pairing of ‘Osmin’ with ‘Limelight’ four-o’clock (Mirabilis jalapa). Not too many plants can hold their own against the combination of glowing golden foliage and shocking pink flowers, but ‘Osmin’ does it in style.


Coleus ‘Limelight’ Dahlia ‘Bishop of Llandaff’ with Ipomoea batatas ‘Sweet Caroline Purple’ mid Aug 05When you have lots of space to fill, you simply can’t beat purple-leaved sweet potato vines (Ipomoea batatas). ‘Sweet Caroline Purple’ is my favorite to date, with deeply cut leaves and a consistently deep purple-black color. It’s made for the front of a bed or border, carpeting the edge and weaving among taller bedmates. The photo at right features another of my seed-grown favorites: ‘Limelight’ coleus (Solenostemon scutellarioides), which is also sold as ‘Exhibition Limelight’ or ‘Giant Exhibition Limelight’. With one starter plant of ‘Sweet Caroline Purple’ and one pack of ‘Limelight’ seed, you can fill quite a few square feet with this traffic-stopping contrast. (The combination shown here also includes a bit of ‘Bishop of Llandaff’ dahlia foliage draping itself over its coleus companion.)

‘Sweet Caroline Purple’ sweet potato vine and Fiona Sunrise jasmineAnother great feature of ‘Sweet Caroline Purple’ sweet potato vine is its restrained growth habit, which makes it a perfect addition to pots and planters. This planter showcases ‘Sweet Caroline Purple’ spilling out the front, with lacy yellow Fiona Sunrise jasmine (Jasminum officinale ‘Frojas’) clambering up the trellis behind and a few ‘Profusion Fire’ zinnias tucked in for an extra punch of color. Like the other combos featured here, this one shines from planting time to frost and needs minimal care (mostly just regular watering). That’s a whole lot of impact for very little input!

Nancy J. Ondra
Nan gardens on 4 acres in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. In the firm belief that every garden ought to have a pretentious-sounding (or at least pretentious-looking) name, she refers to her home grounds as "Hayefield." There, she experiments with a wide variety of plants and planting styles, from cottage gardens and color-based borders to managed meadows, naturalistic plantings, and veggies--all under the watchful eyes of her two pet alpacas, Daniel and Duncan.
Nancy J. Ondra

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Carol August 14, 2007, 3:05 am

I do like this combination of leaf colors. Great ideas here and it definitely illustrates that it isn’t just flowers that draw our attention in the garden.

Nancy J. Ondra August 14, 2007, 2:42 pm

Thanks, Carol! I do like flowers too, but planning combinations around colored foliage is just so simple, and the results are so much more dependable.

carolyngail November 27, 2007, 12:31 pm

Did someone say “Sweet Caroline ?” Hi Nancy, love your color combos.

I stumbled upon your book THE PERENNIAL GARDENER’S DESIGN PRIMER earlier this year and couldn’t put it down. I did a Feb. 23 post about it on my blog. I’ve found it a very valuable addition to my extensive library.

Nancy J. Ondra November 27, 2007, 12:52 pm

How kind of you, Carolyn. I’m so glad to hear you enjoyed PGDP (or as we call it, “the pink book”). I’ll go check out your review! Once again, though, I’m reminded why blogging is so much more fun than book-writing. With the books, it’s like writing into a void; sometimes we get reviews, but we don’t even find out about many of them, I imagine. With blogging, we get almost immediate interaction! On the other hand, blogging doesn’t pay the bills….

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