Please repeat yourself!

Sunday, 03 May 2015

Forest of gum trees, Southern Tablelands of NSW

In my younger days, I was so smitten by plants that growing them individually - and as many different ones as possible - was my focus. I didn't look beyond each specimen - indeed, my daily walk around the garden was a matter of peering closely at every single plant to judge its progress. When I read somewhere that gardeners should put in at least three of each plant together to create a group, I scoffed. Why waste valuable garden space?

As the years have gone on, I have gradually realised that I wanted a bigger picture and that I needed to consider how to place plants in relation to each other to achieve a pleasing result. There are a number of principles of garden design, and I don't consider myself sufficiently well-versed in them to tell anyone else how to use them, but one which has helped me over the years is the idea of repetition.

Front wall in the garden of Robin Diehm in Sydney

Repetition in planting takes many forms, but the result of it is unity and cohesion in the garden. Repetition of an element seems to confer strength in the garden so that instead of a plethora of individual components that don't add up to anything, we have something more distinct, that is greater than the sum of its parts. The concept works from a micro-level right up to a macro-level, such as the natural forest of gum trees shown at the start of the blog, where the clustered trees of the same species create a complete picture! At the most fundamental level, grouping three of the one plant together does indeed create a greater impact than a single specimen, I realise now, and avoids the 'bitty' look which characterised my early efforts at gardening! The photo above shows the effectiveness of generous group planting on a sunny wall in the garden of Robin Diehm in Sydney.

Fuchsia triphylla with Canna Tropicanna, in the garden of Margaret Chedra in Sydney

Also at a micro-level, repetition can also be achieved by colour echoes, which I have written about before, where one plant echoes a colour of its neighbouring plant - for example, with its leaf colour that matches the petal colour of a nearby plant - which leads the eye from one plant to the next and gives a sense of unity in that particular garden area, as in the pairing of a Fuchsia triphylla cultivar with the leaves of Canna 'Tropicanna' in the garden of Margaret Chedra in Sydney (above). Creating a colour theme within an entire border, by repeating hues, is another way of achieving cohesion.

Planting of clipped golden Duranta below ornamental peach trees in the garden of Alida Gray in Sydney

At a broader level, repeating plants along pathways or driveways is another illustration of how this element can work in a garden. The repetition of plants seems to create a rhythm that draw the eye and leads us in, and provides a satisfying feeling of depth and substance, because of the natural perspective created by the reiteration of the same plant. The planting in the photo above, for example, with clipped golden Duranta shrubs beneath a row of ornamental peach trees, underplanted with mondo grass, provides a welcoming entrance in the garden of Alida Gray in Sydney, creating a sense of movement and drawing us up the driveway; whereas a mishmash of random different shrubs would not have the same effect.

Clipped Murraya paniculata hedge with clipped Murraya spheres

Another obvious example is that of a formal hedge, which is a repeated row of the same plant, clipped uniformly. A hedge has a mass that give form and structure to a garden, and can sculpt the space within a garden. My own humble Murraya paniculata hedge (illustrated at left) was the first thing I planted in my present garden, 21 years ago, and is about the only one of the original plantings that remains. It has been the dependable background shape to all the ephemeral plantings that have come and gone over the years, providing a solidity to the froth and, at times, chaos of my perennial borders below it.

Repeated shapes, with Agave americana, Dietes robinsoniana and Phormium cultivar

Repetition of form (rather than exactly the same plant) is also an effective way of giving unity in a garden - for example, the use of ornamental grasses and other strappy-leaved plants in an area can provide a satisfying arrangement that can be more pleasing than a cacophony of different shapes. I have attempted to do this in smallish beds on the paving near my house, illustrated above, with various strappy-leaved, fan-shaped foliage plants. Repeating a plant of a distinctive shape in various parts of the garden is another way of drawing the individual sections together. I have four sets of clipped Murraya sphere pairs on either side of 'entrances' to different garden 'rooms' (as illustrated in the hedge photo earlier in the blog). Although some of these spheres are still pathetically small (as it took me ages to get the idea of doing this!), I feel that in time they will add a cohesive element to my garden.

Plectranthus ecklonii with Anemone x hybrida Bowles Pink and tall, pale blue Aster

Using the same plant in different parts of the garden also is a way to provide overall cohesion through repetition. The human eye seems to enjoy seeing repeated elements, even if we are not consciously aware of this. My way of doing this is to use the same plant in different places, but with varying companion plants in each spot. This allows me to explore different colour themes in different areas of the garden. For example, tall shrubby Plectranthus ecklonii (pictured above), which comes in hues of pastel pink, white and purplish-blue, is a wonderful autumn stalwart in the Sydney climate, and I have various specimens scattered through the garden. Whilst I love to see the purple form associated harmoniously with pink Japanese windflowers and a soft blue Aster, I also like to see it take a more dramatic role with the hot hues provided by red and orange forms of Salvia and red Pentas. Such an approach also means we are taking more advantage of plants that flourish in our climate, and we can count on their success.

Repetition can, of course, be taken too far. Too much of it and a garden becomes monotonous - I have often felt oppressed by gardens of endless, beautifully clipped hedges and little else. We DO need variety and contrast but within a cohesive setting! With my own lust for plants only barely contained, I need to tell myself often: 'Please repeat yourself!'

Reader Comments

  • By Peta 2758 Monday, 04 May 2015

    I read somewhere recently that you should plant in 3"s, 5"s, 7"s etc and that the only even number allowed was 2, I suppose to have plants matching on either side of a path. I"ve always been a bit of a rebel and don"t like being told what"s right BUT must admit that I"m forcing myself to plant in batches. Generally it does look better. Thanks for the point about the "odd" numbers rule of plants. I agree we should do whatever we like in our gardens, however! Deirdre

  • By margaret 2122 Monday, 04 May 2015

    Thank you, for reminding us of the importance of repetition of plants, in the garden. I used to want one of everything, too, but realised the value of grouping plants, using various hues of colour and different shapes and heights. I don"t enjoy a monotony of colour and plant shapes, but it is pleasing to have special specimens scattered throughout the garden, to provoke thought and interest. Thanks, Margaret. It is a fine line between diversity and repetition and I will never give up my desire to grow many different plants! Deirdre

  • By Chris 3340 Monday, 04 May 2015

    I stumbled across that idea from a completely different direction. On a north facing sloping block in a particularly dry area I replanted those more hardy specimens that survived. My mantra was: if it died don"t plant more, if it survived repeat it. I now appreciate the cohesion it brings and repeat on purpose. I also prefer the odd numbers if they are planted close together, not so relevant if they are dotted about. Sounds a great way of sorting out what grows best for you in that part of your garden. I used to give a plant three chances before I would give up on it - I am not so kind now. Deirdre

  • By Chris 4034 Monday, 04 May 2015

    What a wonderful blog. I have tried to create rooms in the garden, as in the house with feelings of warm and cool and soft and solid. The very heavy rain and flooding in our area, has put gardening on hold for the moment. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on gardens. Sorry to hear of the bad weather you have experienced. In Sydney we have also had very heavy rain and some flooding - lots of damage to property and gardens are not looking great at the moment. Deirdre

  • By Sue 2251 Monday, 04 May 2015

    Great ideas here, in everyday language that the basic gardener can understand, with pictures to match. Very helpful. Sue Thank you, Sue! Deirdre

  • By Sue 2074 Monday, 04 May 2015

    I too have found it hard to break "the need a bit of everything" habit and am still trying:-) I wonder if there is a name for it as it does affect quite a few gardeners - collectaphobia perhaps. The last pic which I presume is your garden is lovely. Thanks for a great blog. Sue Plant collecting certainly can become an obsession! Deirdre

  • By Bren 2540 Monday, 04 May 2015

    I had exactly the same attitude as you describe in your first paragraph! If I had a particular plant, then why get another specimen of it! Now that I have a larger garden, I appreciate the principle of repitition, or planting in clusters. Anyway, everybody seems to advise doing this. Now because I have so much space to fill, Planting relatively large sections with the same thing is not only more economical, but adds variety to the mixed bed look. Nice blog! It is certainly easier to achieve where there is more space available. Deirdre

  • By Jan 2582 Monday, 22 June 2015

    This really resonates with me too Deirdre. I like where we are going with our gardens but still need to think bigger and have more areas of an expanse of a particular plant or colour. At least after a few years of collecting specimens we"re getting a good idea of what works and have our own stock to divide or take cuttings from! Wonderful to have the space to mass plants! Deirdre

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