Winning plant colour combinations

A garden column by Mike Lascelle

Some things just belong together – pancakes and bacon, little kids and puddles, old movies and popcorn – to name just a few.

By the same token, certain things should never be combined.

Just as there are people who like peanut butter and honey, people devoid of taste buds, there are also those who think that purple and red are great colour companions.

Of course, most of us know better, or at least we have learned from our mistakes.

But for the benefit of those still struggling with colour and form in your gardens, I thought I would touch base on using foliage and flowers to bring contrast and breathe a little life into your otherwise ‘peanut butter and honey’ landscape, and while there are no hard and fast rules, general guidelines are always helpful.

Black-leaved plants such as Colocasia ‘Black Magic’ and Ophiopogon ‘Nigrescens’ (black mondo grass) require the high contrast of gold flowers or foliage in order to silhouette their dark form, otherwise they tend to just fade into a background of dark topsoil.

Burgundy has a similar effect of enhancing surrounding flowers or foliar colours, or in the case of a monochrome green garden, it serves to add visual interest. It is particularly effective when repeated in groups of three to five (shrubs, perennials or small trees of the same colour), helping to draw attention from one part of the garden to another.

If you are a little unsure about your choice of colours, there are a few safe bets as far as hues are concerned – white, pale yellow and soft blues usually fit into most colour schemes without offending the eye.

As far as specific plants are concerned, here are eight flowering or foliar shrubs and perennials that you can use to add a little zing to your garden.

• Coreopsis verticillata (Zone 4): threadleaf coreopsis is an indispensable blending perennial for two reasons – its fine-textured foliage doesn’t overwhelm adjacent plants and it is a reliable, long-lived plant. The abundant pale yellow daisy blooms of ‘Moonbeam’ make it a universal companion perennial, while the deep yellow flowers of ‘Zagreb’ work well with brighter colour tones.

• Physocarpus opulifolius (Zone 4): ninebark gets it common name from its shredded or exfoliating bark, but it’s the foliar colours that really make it stand out. This deciduous shrub comes in many worthy cultivars – including ‘Diabolo’ (deep chocolate-purple), ‘Dart’s Gold’ (chartreuse with orange autumn tones), ‘Summer Wine’ (wine red) and ‘Center Glow’ (gold centers on new growth, maturing to deep burgundy) – all of which can be pruned to size.

• Leucanthemum ‘Broadway Lights’ (Zone 4): most people avoid Shasta daisies because they require staking and only provide a standard white daisy bloom. Enter ‘Broadway Lights’, a newer cultivar with flowers that start out lemon yellow, shift to cream, then fade to a pure white, often showing all three tones simultaneously. Final height is 60 centimetres, with rigid stems, so you also don’t have to worry about staking.

• Fragaria vesca ‘Golden Alexandria’ (Zone 5): this golden-leaved alpine strawberry is the perfect edging plant because it grows to a uniform 30 cm-wide mound with no messy runners. The fruit is smaller-sized but packed with a delicious strawberry/bubblegum flavour that the kids will love, and it is also everbearing.

• Abies balsamea ‘Nana’ (Zone 3): sure, green goes with everything, but what makes this soft-needled dwarf conifer so special is that you’ll probably never have to prune it. The spring flush is a bright lime green and it matures at 60 cm tall and  90cm wide over many years.

• Heuchera ‘Blackcurrant’ (Zone 4): this deep burgundy heuchera is a true bullet-proof model – as it is reliably evergreen, sun tolerant, has good vigour and is not prone to fungal rust. The ruffled foliage is accented with pewter on top with a purple reverse, and it is ideal in planters (pairs well with Sedum ‘Angelina’) or as a foreground border accent.

• Sedum rupestre ‘Angelina’ (Zone 3): a tough matt-forming evergreen sedum with bright yellow needle-like foliage that picks up orange highlights in winter. It is drought tolerant, good in containers and low-growing (to 15 cm) – so it practically fits anywhere in the sun and makes a great contrast to black and burgundy.

• Berberis thunbergii (Zone 4): the Japanese barberries are a versatile group of deciduous shrubs whose thorns put them on that ever-important deer-proof list. Dwarf cultivars (‘Crimson Pygmy’, ‘Royal Burgundy’) are available, although standard varieties such as ‘Rose Glow’ (burgundy with pink veins), ‘Sunsation’ (lime green to gold) and ‘Cherry Bomb’ (deep crimson) look best with some pruning. For an impressive but low maintenance display, try just inter-planting the gold and burgundy cultivars.

Mike Lascelle is a local nursery manager and gardening author. Email him at hebe_acer@hotmail.com.

• Check out to new stories on his blog – The Greatest Battle Never Fought and The Importance of a Big Dead Tree – at www.soulofagardener.wordpress.com.