A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. (That’s not original; I plagarized it from Joe Biden.) Likewise, the most compulsive gardener started out with one plant. Many never get much beyond that. Oh, we may get more plants, lots more, but we still think of them one plant at a time.
A plateau is reached when we first think of one plant in relation to another. And eventually the mature gardener, those precious few who reach that point, come to think of vistas, with each plant existing as part of the whole.
I hope to get there some day. I spent decades thinking one plant at a time. Then I started to think of two together, considering the combination as a unit. I guess it’s sort of a gardening adolescence. Some of the combinations were lucky accidents — OK, most were — but a few were planned.
Houttuynia cordata provided my first insight decades ago. It’s a spreading ground cover with leaves mottled green, cream, and red. The more honest catalogs may tell you that it is “aggressive.” In fact, this is a plant that wants to take over.
Well, it was new then; I had to have it. In the manner of haphazard gardeners, I planted it where I wanted it rather than where it wanted to be. The site was too shady, it grew scraggly, and I had to move it to a sunnier spot. Where it had been, I planted a hosta, one of the H. sieboldiana hybrids with the huge, bluish leaves. But I had left a hint of the Houtuynnia behind — you always do with this fiend — and that hint grew up through the hosta, not the dense growth it has in its new location, but sprig-like, sort of punctuating the hosta. It was beautiful. I’ve told everyone it was just what I’d intended.
Nearby is a shrub rose — ‘Ferdy,’ one of those elegant names that just sings. The first year I planted it, it grew several canes straight up, leaving the ground around its base bare. A bare spot of ground is anathema to any gardener, so I poked in some pineapple mint, a variegated green and white plant, lovely to view, touch, or smell. It was intended to form a base for the seemingly upright shrub.
In the second season the rose canes began to arch, forming a six-foot mound, and the bare soil at its base vanished. But not the pineapple mint. That mint, deprived of light, has grown up through the rose and mingled. And a good thing, too. ‘Ferdy,’ though spectacular in flower, flowers only once in early June, so the mint provides summer interest.
Lamium ‘White Nancy’ is a ground cover. Catalog photos commonly show it trailing a few inches over a small rock. In fact, that one sprig of pale green and silver leaves, given rich soil and half sun, can spread over a square yard in one season. And that’s what it did that summer, overrunning a piece of ground in which a colchicum slept.
Colchicum is a lumpy little bulb sold in the fall. Planted in the garden now, it will bloom with a pale violet, crocus-like blossom within a month. But don’t plant it in the garden. Not yet. Just set the bulb on your coffee table and it will still bloom. No soil, no water, nothing. After it blooms in the living room, then plant it outside.
Next spring it will send up some nondescript leaves which quickly die back, allowing you to forget where it was planted. Next fall it will push its flowers up through whatever you planted on top of it. If you’re lucky, it will be ‘White Nancy’ or something else that looks as good.
This is just a list of my earliest successes. There have been others more recently. I think I can dredge up a couple more combinations. Maybe enough to reprise this theme next spring.