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Play with colour in garden

GREAT plant combinations develop through trial and error, by adapting someone else's design or by accident and the partnering of differing textures or colours makes the sum of the combination greater than the individual plants.

GREAT plant combinations develop through trial and error, by adapting someone else's design or by accident and the partnering of differing textures or colours makes the sum of the combination greater than the individual plants.

Simple plant combinations such as blue-leaved hosta underplanted with whiteflowered sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum) look sharp, luxurious and inviting in the spring garden. Or yellow poppies (Mecanopsis cambrica) surrounding burgundy-leaved rodgersia (Rodgersia aesculifolia) make the yellow and the burgundy pop out, enhancing the display of both plants.

For those people who may not have an eye for designing great plant combinations, the easiest thing to do is to plant opposing colours together to develop eye-catching displays. Planting complementary colours together is much harder and requires a thorough knowledge of actual flower or foliage colours and sometimes the effect can be garish or outright clashing. To help you design some great plant combinations at home here are a few ideas for your garden this summer.

If you have cedar or preferably yew hedging, planting docile climbing vines up onto the hedge can produce some fantastic displays. One of my favourite hedge and vine combinations requires yew hedging to be planted with the small climbing vine known as flame flower or the scarlet creeper (Tropaeolum speciosum). The dark green of the yew provides a contrasting background for the vivid red blooms of the flame flower and the resulting display is excellent from mid-to late summer until fall. Because the flame flower vine is not too vigorous, the hedge is never negatively affected and will support the vine's growth. Flame flower can be hard to find so a good substitute is the firecracker Vine (Mina lobata) which is an annual vine with bright yellow, red and white flowers that will climb up any trellis or hedge.

Another great plant combo uses the golden yellow foliage of the Golden Japanese cedar tree (Cryptomeria japonica Sekkan-sugi) and combines it with the flame red flowers of crocosmia Lucifer. The bright yellow of the tree provides a great contrasting backdrop that makes the bright red flowers of the crocosmia pop out. The crocosmia must be planted under or near the tree to make this combination work.

Plant combinations are not restricted to shrubs and perennials, trees can also be combined to produces some stunning fall displays. Planting the paperbark maple (Acer griseum) near the maidenhair tree (Gingko biloba) or the katsura tree (Cercidiphylum japonicum) can produce a stunning fall display of fire-reds, oranges and bright yellows that will set your eyes on fire. Careful placement of these trees in a co-ordinated group is required in order to give the viewer the correct angle for the differing tree heights and shapes.

Another great combination uses the scarlet, orangey-red fall colour of the Japanese stewartia (Stewartia pseudocamellia) underplanted with blue or purple fall asters (Aster oblongifolius, Aster frikartii and other species). This is a combination that produces a fall display that just drips with eye-popping colour.

Fall asters are sold in garden centres in September and October. It is best to search around for the winter hardy Aster species but they can be hard to find. So the tender varieties that are sold can be planted to last until the winter frost kills them.

While I was out at one the wholesale nurseries in the valley last week I saw a gorgeous burgundy-purple leaved plant called the Concorde Barberry (Berberis thunbergii 'Concorde') sold by Touch of Nature Plants.

This plant was just dripping with colour and the presentation was highlighted by small but bright yellow flowers.

Nearby there were bright pink flowered Meilland roses growing and as I stood back the burgundy-purple of the Barberry was contrasted by the bright, clear pink flowers of the roses. It was great combination that was completely unintentional because the plants were simply laid out in blocks for production purposes. The Concorde barberry could easily be underplanted with white, orange or yellow annuals to make more great plant combinations.

Since colour perception can be variable and preferential from person to person it is hard to say that one colour combo is better or more outstanding than another. So my plant combinations are simply suggestions and not the gospel.

This year, try to mix it up a bit when you plant your summer annuals and avoid the same old combinations you plant every year. Step out and be bold and try something new. Some garden designer friends of mine regularly ask me what I think of their colour combinations and I like most of them and love some of them. But one thing is for sure: all great plant combinations are a feast for the eyes.

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