Contrasts: Bobbly  Allium sphaerocephalon  with fluffy fennel foliage

Contrasts: Bobbly Allium sphaerocephalon with fluffy fennel foliage

By Liz Potter

The mixed summer border contains a joyous abundance of flower and foliage forms. From daisies and pompoms to stately spires and billowing clouds of feathery ‘froth’ – there’s plenty to excite and draw the eye. Many of the best planting schemes have a pleasing ‘free for all’ look, so it’s surprising how much organisation goes into them.

One quick and foolproof way of making a border scheme hang together is by making deliberate plant contrasts. That is, picking opposites and planting them next to each other to emphasise their key attributes. This might entail partnering a plant with rounded umbel flowers (for example, achillea or orlaya) against one with upright spires (salvia ‘Caradonna’), strappy foliage (irises) or feathery fronds (Stipa tenuissima). Any of these opposites would work well with the rounded umbel flower, so it’s just a matter of playing with the different options until you settle on something that works.

For most of us, this ‘playing with plants’ aspect of design involves a visit to a nursery or garden centre to spend time juxtaposing the different plant forms, without having to commit to buying them! Another useful idea is to visit open gardens to take photos of the successful plant contrasts they’ve used, then simply copy them at home. You may need to do a bit of detective work to find out exact cultivars used, but usually the gardening team is happy to help if you show them a photo.

Try not to limit your contrasts to flower colours alone. Although this is an easy and reliable means of striking a successful contrast in a planting scheme, don’t forget about plant texture and form, height and habit. For instance, tall and very short plants can look fabulous together – just think of any woodland scheme where spring bulbs carpet the soil around a statuesque, coppiced cornus. There are opposites in habit too: mounding and clumping plants provide an excellent foil for more upright or spiky forms: think of the way that strappy crocosmia foliage seems to ‘leap out’ of a border full of rounded evergreen shrubs.

There are some potential pitalls to avoid: you do need to know the site and soil preferences of your opposing plants before you start. It’s no good trying to partner sun-loving heleniums with lush green ferns that prefer damp shade. Instead, find opposites that will love the same growing conditions you have to offer, and work from there.

You need to get the timing right too. For least fuss and best year-round value, choose opposing plants that offer a long season of interest so your contrasts work effectively for as much of the year as possible. Some plants, such as sedums, peonies, hellebores and clematis offer an amazing array of different colour and texture effects throughout the year, and each stage of life can be paired with an opposing partner. For instance, the red spring growth of a peony can be paired with red cyclamen or heucheras, while the later peony blooms and glossy foliage might work well with the spires of foxgloves and delphiniums. It’s all about spotting the opportunities offered by your plants, and partnering them with good neighbours that will bring out their best.


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