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  • Writer's pictureHeather Thomas

Tips For All-Season Color: Companion Planting

Four Tips for All-Season Color: Part One

One Spot: Three Seasons
Have you ever wandered around your garden and been enchanted by a section filled with beautiful blooms only to cringe in disappointment two weeks later because all the blooms in that spot faded, with nothing to take their place? When I first started gardening, I was astonished at how quickly the blooms on peonies, azaleas, and tulips faded, leaving an unsightly mass of brown or yellowing flowers in their wake! It was daunting to realize that many gorgeous flowers shine a mere two weeks out of the gardening year. Creating a garden that stuns throughout the seasons is one of gardening's great challenges. So how does a gardener create continuous interest? What does it take to create a garden that overflows with waves of successive blooms all season long?  This blog post - and the ones to follow in the coming weeks - will share some strategies I use in my garden. After all, who among us doesn't want to get closer to achieving the holy grail of gardening - all-season color? Let's start by taking a look at Cape Cottage Garden at different times of the year. Visitors to the garden and those who follow the garden online often tell me that they love how well the garden transitions through the seasons - as shown below.

Companion Planting

Over the years, I've developed a few key strategies to achieve waves of color. Let's call them the "Four C's of Continuous Color." This post will cover the first "C" - strategy one, "Companion Planting".

I suspect you may have heard of the concept of companion planting but in a different context. Hailing from the world of vegetable gardening, it's the idea that certain plants or vegetables make good pairs and should be planted together in a vegetable plot.  For example, experts often recommend that you plant the following plants together:

-Basil and tomatoes (technically a fruit, I know!)
-The "Three Sisters" - corn, beans, and squash
-Nasturtium flowers along with kale, cabbage, and broccoli

Even though my garden is not composed of vegetables, I borrowed the concept to create my cottage garden. In other words, I was disciplined about NOT filling every square foot with whatever I brought home from the garden center that day, but instead, saved a spot so that I could pair that day's purchase with a plant from another season. I'd pair a spring bloomer with a fall bloomer. A summer next to an early spring. And so on. In essence, I continuously paired plants that would bloom later (or earlier) next to whatever I was planting that day.

I did this over and over as I planted each key section of the garden, and voilà, ultimately created a garden that keeps on blooming. I found working at the micro level easier than trying to work everything out at the macro level. After all, it takes significant mental skill to hold a snapshot of an entire section of your garden in mind and then fast forward that vision, week by week, in order to plan a season's worth of continuous blooms in one fell swoop. Over the years, I have increasingly strengthened my "multi-season envisioning skills." However, it can be easier - especially when you are starting out - to deconstruct the design process into manageable chunks. In the same way that a pointillist like Seurat might create an large masterpiece by painting small individual dots, a big garden is comprised of components of much smaller grids. By applying a disciplined and intentional approach as you plant each section, you can create the macro effect you seek. For example, in my arbor garden, I planted April and May-blooming tulips next to June roses, which I sited right next to July phlox and oriental lilies that I flanked with August and September-blooming caryopteris that resided next to October-blooming asters. I repeated this practice throughout every 10' x 10' grid of the garden which resulted in a guaranteed succession of color. Let's examine one section of the east cottage garden to see this principle in practice.

roses and flowers with an arbor
The June Arbor Bed in Full Bloom

The June garden is in full bloom.

A breakdown of what's blooming

Above, I've labeled each plant in the bed so that you can see what's contributing to the June floral bloom sweep. Now, I'd like to invite you to view the picture above again. This time, focus on the "negative space" in the photo - in essence, what is NOT in bloom. If you've planted using a companion planting approach, your bed should appear vibrant and full but there should be also gaps in the bloom sweep due to plants that are not in bloom, either because they bloomed earlier - or will bloom later. To help you identify what's NOT blooming in the picture below, I've labeled the non-bloomers in blue.

What's NOT in bloom

Each plant in blue has either: already bloomed (clematis), is about to bloom (rose, 'The Fairy') or will bloom later in the season (phlox, oriental lilies and balloon flower). Although not visible from this angle, this garden bed is also chock-full of July-blooming day lilies and late summer/early fall-blooming caryopteris, chelone, asters, feverfew and lobelia. To illustrate this concept in another part of the garden, I've included one more photo gallery to show you how effectively the companion planting concept creates continuous interest. In this picture from our south garden, you can view one spot (clockwise from upper left) at different times of year, as follows: -Picture one: April (features azaleas, daffodils, and tulips)
-Picture two: May (features azaleas, late tulips, and a lilac tree ) -Picture three: June (features shrub roses, coral bells, and container-planted petunias) -Picture four: July (features roses, daisies, orange day lilies, and marigolds)

One spot, photographed in April, May, June, and July (clockwise from upper left)

So the next time you feel tempted to load up the car with - and fill your garden beds - with whatever is in full bloom at the garden center, resist the desire to plant for instant impact! Instead, remember to save room so that your new plant selections can have a few "companion" friends next to them which bloom during another time of year.

As you weave the tapestry of the design, over time, you can create the visual effect that a bed is in full bloom, but also know that many other flowers are waiting in the wings for their moment to shine. To read my next tip for all-season color - how to create "Convertible Containers", click here.

Happy gardening,


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