Norman Winter is the Vice President for College Advancement, Brewton Parker College, Mount Vernon, Georgia and author of the highly acclaimed Tough-as-Nails Flowers for the South and his release Captivating Combinations Color and Style in the Garden.

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Creative & Captivating Plant Combos
by Norman Winter       #Ornamentals

If there was one prevalent wish among gardeners that I come in contact with, it is that they had a better flair for plant combinations. They are schooled in the horticultural technique, but something holds them back from creating captivating combinations.

The rules for creating fabulous container combinations are really pretty simple – the plants in close proximity to each other must have similar requirements from the standpoint of soil, water and light. Anything else, most likely, would be failure.

Some horticulturists have recently suggested that color wheel techniques and strategies for monochromatic, analogous, complementary and triadic, or quadratic harmony are outdated. They suggest just sticking in lots of color. That will certainly yield flowers, but it may look like more of a hodgepodge

I have written about designing beds and color schemes, so you may want to refer to some of my previous articles. This time I want to show you visually some ideas you can use. It’s easy for me as a horticulturist to tell you that ‘Sunny Border Blue’ veronica makes a striking partner with ‘Goldsturm’ rudbeckia, but you may not really understand the suggestion without prior knowledge of growing these plants. Hopefully, these photos will be worth a thousand words.

So, let’s look at some possibilities that you may not have considered, but as you can see, do work quite well together.


Chinese snowball viburnum (Viburnum macrocephalum) is an old-fashioned Southern garden favorite that adds pizzazz to this somewhat typical planting of azaleas under pine trees. Huge pure white pompom-like blooms contrast beautifully with the bright pink azalea flowers in spring.

Snowball Viburnum

When you think of shrubs for the South, the azalea definitely comes to mind first. There are more festivals and tours for this plant than any other. But besides copious quantities of this springtime delight, what are some of the most striking partners? Spiraea usually comes to mind, but the one I want to encourage is the old-fashioned snowball virburnum, Viburnum macrocephalum.

Many Southern gardeners have the snowball but use it almost like an afterthought just because they love the huge white blossoms. They tend to stick it nakedly by itself in the front landscape. Instead, try growing it behind or adjacent to azaleas. The result is breathtakingly beautiful.


'Nikko Blue' hydrangea (Hydrangea macrophylla 'Nikko Blue') with 'Minimus Aureus' golden miniature sweet flag (Acorus gramineus 'Minimus Aureus')



The hydrangea certainly takes the honor for summer beauty. The French or bigleaf hydrangea, Hydrangea macrophylla, whether blue or pink, commands immediate attention. It reaches out and grabs you with its stunning beauty, but it’s a rare garden when you find that someone has given thought to adjoining blooms or color.

One incredible companion is the native oakleaf hydrangea, Hydrangea quercifolia. The giant, almost tropical-looking leaves of the oakleaf, and the glistening white panicles of blooms make for a blissful marriage no matter the color of French hydrangea.

Almost no one would consider a grass as a suitable partner for the hydrangea, but the Japanese sweet flag, Acorus gramineus, offers a display of rare beauty. The cultivar ‘Minimus Aureus’, which means miniature gold, only gets about 3 inches tall and curves slightly downward. Used like a carpet or thread of gold winding around blue hydrangeas, one might equate it with a 24-karat gold bracelet with blue sapphires.



Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergii) and pink yarrow (Achillea millefolium) make a surprisingly stunning monochromatic blend.

Crimson Japanese Barberry

In a world dominated by green leafed plants, it’s nice to have shrubs like the Japanese barberry, Berberis thunbergii. Normally, one simply lets the red leaves play off other shrub-like hollies or ligustrums. Partnering with flowers is almost never considered. One planting that mesmerized me last year had barberry and pink yarrow growing side by side in monochromatic harmony.

Japanese barberry can be invasive in different parts of the United States. Check before planting. ­– Ed. note


The foliage of blue agave is outstanding in combination with the bright red flowers of lantana. Both species in this clever combination are tough and drought tolerant.

Agave and Yucca

However, there is a new, bold gardener out there stirring up excitement. What I like about the bold gardener's style is plant selections or combinations used in atypical ways. The result is that we're pushed outside our comfort zone – we are challenged.

One instance of this bold style involves plants thought of as only for the arid west, or perhaps Mexico. These plants typically have swordlike leaves and even prickles.

One of the most beautiful is the blue agave. This plant, usually listed as a Deep South plant, is being seen far outside the comfort zone listed in most books. The agave obviously is drought tolerant and makes for a tough and magnificent union with other rugged plants, such as a fiery red lantana.

Whether you want to try agaves or yuccas like the variegated form of the native Yucca filamentosa, one choice companion might actually be a hardscape feature such as tumbled glass mulch. The mulch now comes in a wide variety of colors and poses no harm to the bare foot.


Bright yellow rudbeckia makes an incredible background for this mealy cup sage (Salvia farinacea). Both species perform best in full sun, and love the heat of summer.

'Kim's Mop Head' coneflower (lower left), 'Little Boy' phlox (upper left) and 'Kim's Knee High' coneflower (right) are wildlife attractants.

Rudbeckias and Coneflowers

Rudbeckias are among the easiest flowers to grow for the border. Any confusion probably centers on which ones are perennial, biennial or annuals. This would become an epistle if I dealt with that scientifically, so let’s just help you create some beds that will be the envy of your neighbors.

It seems everyone fantasizes about a wildflower meadow like the ones you see in Yosemite or in the Rockies. Wildflower mixes are bought and scattered, throwing caution to the wind. The resulting germination and bloom has rarely yielded a happy consumer.

However, what would work is to actually buy young transplants of purple coneflowers, Echinacea purpurea, my personal favorite being ‘Bravado’, and perennial rudbeckias such as Rudbeckia fulgida ‘Goldsturm’. By planting these with a few liatris or phlox, a wildflower-like look can be created and maintained.

Coneflowers of different colors combine nicely, such as the white-flowered ‘Kim’s Mop Head’ and the pink ‘Kim’s Knee High’, together in conjunction with ‘Little Boy’ phlox. Keep your eyes open for Mango Meadowbrite and Orange Meadowbrite coneflowers.          

‘Goldsturm’ rudbeckia is really a mainstay in the perennial garden and works in picturesque harmony with flowers like ‘Sunny Border Blue’ veronica or Russian sage, all three of which are former Perennial Plant Association “Perennial Plants of the Year.”          

A few years ago, ‘Prairie Sun’ Rudbeckia hirta was chosen as an All-America Selections Winner. Like ‘Indian Summer’, it produces softball-sized flowers on long stems, perfect for cutting. However, ‘Prairie Sun’ has a green eye and pale yellow petal tips. ‘Prairie Sun’ is absolutely gorgeous in mass plantings and when grown with the perennial mealy cup sage, Salvia farinacea.


All-America Selections Gold Medal winning ‘Fresh Look Red’ celosia combined with ‘Yellow Swizzle’ zinnia show the true beauty of an analogous color scheme.


The most loved flower in the summer garden may very well be the zinnia. Zinnia lovers, like myself, sometimes act as though we are addicted to this flower. We want more and more zinnias.          

Once we get control of our emotions, we realize there are really some nice companions to zinnia. One that caught my eye was the All-America Selections Gold Medal winning ‘Fresh Look Red’ celosia with ‘Scarlet Swizzle’ and ‘Yellow Swizzle’ zinnias. The combination represents the true beauty of an analogous color scheme (those colors next to each other on the color wheel).          

The Profusion series of zinnia has been one of the best, especially with the addition of Profusion Apricot and Profusion Fire, whose colors are even more brilliant than Profusion Orange. Commercial landscapers are realizing what an asset the Profusion series is, and know they can now plant zinnias without fear of rampant disease pressures.          

One planting I saw last summer that was certainly a Kodak moment partnered Japanese silver grass, ‘Red Shield’ hibiscus and Profusion Orange for a summer-long performance.


Sapphire-hued blue agapanthus, also commonly known as lily-of-the-Nile, complements the vibrant warm orange and yellow colors of the canna.

Giant leaves of ‘Black Magic’ elephant ear (Colocasia esculenta) are not only colorful, but their tropical-looking foliage combines well with the patriotic colors of ‘Pacifica Red’ periwinkle, white caladiums and ‘Blue Daze’ evolvulus.

The Tropical Look

It doesn’t matter where you go in the United States the tropical look is hot. Why not? We have a long, very warm growing season. Summer bulbs produce some of our most exotic borders.          

Sometimes it seems as though my real job is a road warrior, constantly driving. So, there I was driving and munching one afternoon, and I saw the combination planting of a lifetime. To be honest, I almost wrecked trying to stop and turn around for a photo. The planting was so exquisite I began to sweat for fear of not capturing it on film.          

Notice the iridescent blue lily-of-the-Nile (agapanthus) and the complementary orange and yellow canna in the accompanying photo. This caused me to start growing lily-of-the-Nile, and I wondered to myself what took me so long.          

With cold hardy agapanthus varieties like the Headbourne Hybrids, coupled with good drainage, most of us can grow this most impressive bulb.          

Monolithic may be the best word to describe the ‘Black Magic’ elephant ear, Colocasia esculenta. After it gets a little age on it, the enormous leaves will make any garden look like Montego Bay.          

Normally, we might combine ‘Black Magic’ with bananas, cannas or gingers, but you have to admit that planting with white caladiums, ‘Pacifica Red’ periwinkle and ‘Blue Daze’ evolvulus makes for not only a patriotic red, white and blue, but a tropical one, too!

The gardening season is just getting underway. Let’s resolve to make this the year we push the envelope by creating captivating combinations.



(From State-by-State Gardening March 2005. Photos By Norman Winter.)


Posted: 03/09/11   RSS | Print


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