Speed dating for plants

Sunday, 24 January 2016

One of my more successful matches: the bright orange petals of Hemerocallis August Flame echo the eye zone of Dahlia Moonfire

One of the worst habits I have as a gardener is leaving plants in pots for way too long. Plants I have bought from nurseries or plant fairs; plants I have grown from cuttings I have been given or from when I am pruning a plant and 'can't bear' to put the prunings on the compost heap: the poor things can languish in pots for months, if not years. The result is a collection of specimens silently begging to be planted into the ground. I know that right now is not an ideal time for planting things. However, I really want to get rid of these little pot plants and have had to contrive ways of doing so.

Flowers of Cuphea cynaea Pink Mouse matched with a coleus of similar colours

Four trays of the plants were sent off with various friends who visited last week. For others, I have devised a new method, loosely based on the 'speed dating' concept where people chat briefly to a variety of others, moving on quickly after a few minutes to the next person, as a way of assessing their compatibility. In the case of my potted plants that were looking for a home, I piled them all into a wheelbarrow (which was already half-filled with compost) and gave myself an hour to get them into the ground. The idea was that I would visit each empty space in the garden and position each of the pot plants in turn in this spot to decide which one was most suitable for it. Apparently, in real speed dating, participants make up their minds within three seconds whether someone is a 'possibility'. I found that I was similarly swift in making my choices with the plants - it all came down to which potted plant somehow best resonated with the plants surrounding the empty spot to form a pleasing vignette (taking into account preferences for sun or shade, and dryness or dampness etc).

Artemisia Powys Castle with Plectranthus argentatus: contrast of leaf texture

Such compatibility comes about in a several ways, but my basic rule is 'same but different'. My favourite is when the colour of the flower or leaf of one plant echoes a colour in some aspect of a potential partner plant. The matching hue can be just in a leaf marking or even the underside of the leaf, or in the 'eye zone' or calyx of a flower. For example, a coleus with purplish-brown fleck on its leaves looked fab nearby dark-foliaged Ajuga 'Black Scallop', so in it went. The small, vivid orange, tubular blooms of small shrubby Cuphea ignea 'clicked' immediately with the orange calyces of Abutilon megapotamicum. Sometimes the similarity is in leaf colour (usually, but not always,green!) and the difference is in the leaf texture: adding a ferny or strappy-foliaged plant to an area with too many rounded leaves, for example. Other times the difference can be in leaf size: a bold-leaved plant can make a statement in a spot with an abundance of small-leaved specimens. Likewise, a plant with a froth of tiny flowers can be effectively paired with one with large flowers of the same hue.

Crassula multicava Purple Dragon

Grouping a few related plants together also can work. Plants that belong to the same overall botanical family usually have a visual coherence: put a couple together and they often look very satisfying. There is some whiff of commonality that we often possibly can't even put our finger on (unless of course we are botanists!). This harmony works at the genus level even more so, because of the closer relationship between the plants. The variety provided by the species within a genus gives enough interest so that the grouping doesn't become boringly monotonous. And on the most macro level, I sometimes like to pair a cultivar of a species with the original species, or two cultivars of a species together, as on the most fundamental level they are 'the same but different'! Note that all such plantings also do need the diversity provided by quite different forms and textures nearby to complete the picture, and I would never herd large numbers of related plants together. An example from my recent feverish planting was coupling the apparently vigorous cultivar Crassula multicava 'Purple Dragon' (which has an alluring purple undersides to its fleshy leaves) with the plain green-leaved species, as a carpet beneath a large potted specimen of the striking bromeliad Neoregelia 'Rosy Morn', which currently has a similar purplish flush to its leaves. The arching branches tipped with burgundy foliage of a dark-leaved Loropetalum chinense completed the picture.

The upright white spires of Justicia betonica echo the form of the tall, dark-leaved Canna

'Speed dating for plants' is probably a shaky analogy; unlike with their human counterparts, my plants didn't actually get a say in whom they got matched with! I was probably acting as a more traditional matchmaker. However, as with human introductions, the plants will have the final say in whether the partnership I've chosen for each of them will actually work. So many factors are at play to determine whether a plant will thrive in a particular spot with its chosen partner: their preferences for amount of sunlight, moisture, pH and type of soil, air circulation around the plant etc need to match, and they each need to be given enough garden space to fulfil their potential. Aesthetic considerations of how they look together are irrelevant to the plant itself! Through trial and error, however, our gardens can get better and better, as we learn more and more about what our plants need to grow well - and finding exciting plant partnerships that work is great fun!