Plants that knit the garden together

Garden Muse

Have you ever noticed that some gardens feel disjointed? When a lot of plants are dotted around the landscape with little to connect them to each other, your eye jumps from plant to plant, with nothing to settle on.

Often, something important is missing - ground-covering plants that weave between shrubs and trees to complete the picture. These are the subtle perennials that support the showier divas. Their leaves and smaller flowers link the bigger stars with each other. Without these workhorses, the garden looks more like a nursery than a painting.

Many of us start a garden driven by the love of individual plants. Appreciating all the details of brilliant flowers, textured leaves and glossy berries, we concentrate on learning to grow each one well. We prepare the soil carefully and make sure to water, fertilize, weed, mulch and prune.

That's the horticultural part of gardening. Then there's the artistic component - arranging the plants so that they blend together in a scene. It helps to think of the garden as layers that relate to each other in a friendly way: a canopy of trees sheltering an understory of shrubs that descend to a carpet of ground covers.

Tapestry at the Ground Level

I took a stroll around my garden to see which ground covers were helping out the most. Even as late as November, 'Rozanne' cranesbill (Geranium) was a froth of color at the feet of the 'Coral Floral Carpet' roses. 'Rozanne' trails like a billowing skirt and also scrambles into neighboring bushes so that her blue-violet flowers seem to be part of the shrubs.

Because the bloom period is so long and 'Rozanne' is so reliable, I bought a few extras this summer. Now I'll add them at the front of a new border where a Stewartia tree will show off white summer flowers, brilliant orange fall color and intriguing winter bark. 'Rozanne' will provide ground-level flowers from summer through fall and also connect a few low shrubs that I'll plant in front of the stewartia.

Two eye-catching magenta cranesbills grow flowery skirts from a single crown, much like 'Rozanne.' 'Anne Folkard' has chartreuse leaves, while 'Patricia' bears green foliage. Both are lovely at the base of burgundy-leaved shrubs such as 'Wine and Roses' weigela or purple smoke tree.

Where it's shady, 'Bowles Golden' sedge softens the base of shrubs and trees with grassy blades that stand two- to three-feet tall, and echoes the colors of golden-leaved hostas and yellow daylilies. It's especially striking below purple-leaved ninebarks such as 'Summer Wine' and 'Coppertina.'

I first fell in love with Knautia macedonica on a visit to the Bellevue Botanical Garden ( Its small, deep-red pincushion flowers were like the dots on an old-fashioned veil. Blooming in front of 'Preziosa' hydrangeas with red tints in the leaves, it brought out the best in the hydrangeas. The similar 'Monarch's Velvet' potentilla is a mass of small red flowers forming a petticoat at the base of any shrub. Its foliage reminds me of strawberry leaves, and the flowers are bigger than knautia's.

Both are loose, fluffy plants that spread wide and grow about two feet tall, just right to hide the awkward legs of shrub roses.

Vines to Soften the Picture

Like a garland weaving the garden, vines also help link woody plants to each other. My favorite, easygoing clematis, 'Etoile Violette,' scrambles through three pink roses, embracing them in a froth of purple.

Not all clematis climb. Shrubby Clematis recta makes a blowsy skirt that reminds me of baby's breath when it blooms. Lacy white flowers top the strong stems and adorn the area at the base of shrubbery. Mine has naturalized in a bed that goes from sun to shade, so that the whole space is alive with a froth of white, glimmering between established hybrid musk roses.

Coming Events

Master Gardener Training, an OSU Extension program, is a comprehensive course in sustainable gardening that includes 66 hours of training and 66 hours of volunteer internship. It will be offered in three locations - Beaverton, Southeast Portland and Oregon City - from January to March 2009. Cost is $345. Scholarships are available on a first-come first-served basis. Contact or 503-650-3118 for complete information and to register. Registration deadline is Nov. 30.