Sometimes tending to a garden is a bit like planning a social event. You can try to gather a large group of plants together and hope they get along, or you can focus on finding companions for your favorite flowers.
Cultivating a successful garden match is part art and part science. The art part (design) hinges on looks - bloom and foliage color, texture and plant size. Common design principles use contrast - height versus breadth, upright versus trailing habit, hard-edged versus soft or feathery foliage. Color can be contrasting or complementary. But beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
What won't conform to personal taste - yet will be a deciding factor in an effective and long-lived plant pairing - are the cultural needs of the two plants. Pairing a confirmed sun-lover with one that fries in full sun, or a wet-footed bog plant with a drought-tolerant perennial, is a relationship that's doomed to fail. The plants' soil pH and drainage requirements need to be similar, too.
We sought advice from garden gurus, and here are some plant marriages they say are bound to succeed.
White Caladium and White Bacopa
Carrie Engle of Valley View Farms in Cockeysville loves huge, arrow-leafed white Caladium with the silvery-green leaves and tiny white flowers of Bacopa. Caladium prefers semi-shade, while Bacopa can tolerate almost anything except total shade. They work well in a container and look great all summer long. Engle says she loves the combo because they are visible at night. "I also add white impatiens," she says. "It's very simple, but it's great for a moon garden."
Canna Lily (Canna x generalis) and Dragon Wing Begonia
This combo suggestion comes from Pamela Crawford, author of Easy Container Gardens. The duo offer contrasting leaf shape and color as well as neon-bright bloom. The pair make a bold statement but need to be positioned carefully. The Canna likes plenty of sun while the begonia likes light but can be burned by too much direct sun. Their water needs are very similar. This pair is great for a deck that gets morning and early-afternoon sun. It also makes a dramatic focal point at an east- or west-facing corner or entry.
Australian fan flower (Scaevola) and creeping 'Dusty Miller' (Helichrysum petiolare).
Pete Bieneman of Green Fields Nursery and Landscaping in Baltimore says the sun-loving pair work well together because they are both drought-tolerant and can cope with Maryland's humid summers. "They are both spillers in a container, and they look fantastic," Bieneman says. They are also fast-growing. "You have a lush container quickly. You get this massed silver foliage of the 'Dusty Miller' and blue Scaevola flowers. You can add a dressing like a spike for a little height."
Little Bluestem (Andropogon scoparius) and Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa). Roy List, owner of American Native Plants/Maryland Natives Nursery in Perryville, likes to pair two sun-loving natives, which feed a variety of pollinators and are often used for restoration projects. "They are a nice contrast in height and color and will deal well with drought," he says. Little Bluestem, a lovely blue-green native grass, grows in upright clumps that turn a russet-tinged wheat in fall. The Butterfly Milkweed carries bright-orange blooms on bright-green stems for weeks in summer and attracts a variety of butterflies.
Fothergilla and 'PJM' rhododendron (vivid lavender pink)
Jason Sersen of Kingsdene Nurseries and Garden Center in Monkton suggests these shrubs that stand out in spring and fall. "Both bloom at the same time in spring," Sersen says, " and they have very different yet complementary blooms. Then in fall they turn different colors that complement each other. The 'PJM' has a purplish-green leaf while Fothergilla turns reddish-orange." Both like partial sun-to-shade.
'Black Mondo' Grass (Ophiopogon planiscapus) and Gold 'Creeping Jenny' (Lysimachia)
Terry Garrity, owner of Poor Boy's Garden Center in Baltimore, suggests pairing the semi-shade-loving 'Black Mondo' Grass, which is low-growing but striking, with lush 'Creeping Jenny,' whose leaves spill out of a pot like linked golden coins. "The contrast is great," says Garrity. Both like semi-shade, need approximately the same amount of water and will look fabulous spring through fall.
Gold Lantana and African Blue Basil
Betsey Waters of In The Garden in Baltimore likes to mix herbs and annuals in pots to produce a functional as well as beautiful combination. Drought-resistant gold-flowered Lantana with African blue basil offers nonstop color and culinary function. "The African blue basil looks like salvia with a nice blue flower, and the leaves have a little licorice flavor that you can add to all kinds of dishes," she says. Both are sun-lovers that work well in containers, and both need a weekly watering.