I'm a plant lover, just like you, so I'm inclined to experiment with new varieties as they come to market, and you'll find them included in some of our combos. That said, though, eGardenGo isn’t an exhaustive directory of every plant available on the nursery shelves — have you counted how many varieties of pink-toned echinacea, burgundy heuchera, or dwarf red-leaf maples there are out there? So, what to do if you can't locate that exact variety in your local market? Is the combo a bust? Absolutely not. These four tips will help you make substitutions that maintain the integrity of the combo, tell a story in keeping with the combo you’re trying to recreate, and keep you in the game.
The trick is to understand why the plant was selected as a member of the vignette in the first place. One way to do this is to describe its key characteristics. What role is it playing? You’ll want to think about design attributes it’s contributing as well as more practical considerations. These strategies will help you to adapt plant combos from eGardenGo to work in your growing zone, make a substitution because you can't find the specified plant, or perhaps choose a plant for rounding out the vignette that’s more to your taste.
Make sure you’re paying attention to the cultural needs of the planting combination and only considering subs that are appropriate to your growing zone, soil conditions, and have the same water requirements as the other members of the team.
Think about color, shape, texture. Consider the color of the plant’s foliage and/or flower, and the seasons in which it contributes same. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I often start with a shape study when composing my vignettes — a rounded form begs to be paired with an upright shape; bold begs for fine; flowing for rigid; and so on. I want to know what’s covering the ground and what’s creating the canopy – oh, and the mid-plane, can’t forget about that! And you’ll want to be careful to match expected size and rate of growth so that the overall scale of the vignette works as intended.
Spolighting Members of the Team
Some combos are composed to accentuate and put a spotlight on a seasonal detail, so making a substitution may not yield the same results. The combos below are possible examples of this – the first two play up the light and bright, crisp white blooms when paired with silver and white-margined foliage, while the lower two celebrate a moment in time: when blooming, their “eyes” echo their neighbors’ colors.
Focus: Flower Fest, Hellstrip / Parking Strip, Saving Water
Exposure: Afternoon Sun, Sun, Full Sun
Zone: 5, 6, 7, 8
What Job is it Doing?
Did the plant you want to replace have an assigned responsibility, such as providing shade, screening or covering the ground? Will the replacement get that job done and do it well? Perhaps the original was selected for a particular form and design function; a series of columnar plants that lend rhythm and movement to a design by virtue of their shape and placement, for example. It’s possible, after considering the prospects from all angles, that the columnar variety of the Plum Yew and the Bean Pole yew are able to be interchanged in a design.
Building Your Own Team of Champions
You can’t always find a match based on all attributes, but you’ll want to make sure not to go in an entirely new direction, if you want to maintain the design intent – otherwise, you’ll end up with something entirely different. Then again, you may come up with something fresh and different, and that’s what it’s all about. In the end, all that matters is this: are the plants healthy, happy and thriving? Does the combo make you happy to tend it? Do you find it beautiful to look at? Boom! Success.
Keep the Game Going
Carex 'Everest' or Carex 'Evergold'? Echinacea 'Ruby Star' versus Echinacea 'Merlot' or perhaps even Echinacea 'Green Envy? Would Heuchera 'Georgia Plum' make a suitable stand-in for Heuchera 'Amethyst Myst'? And which variety of hellebore with so many pretty faces to choose from?
These are typical dilemmas. In most cases, to be perfectly honest, it doesn’t make much of a difference. In the images below, you can easily see the strong similarities of the featured plants. But here’s the up side: you'll be able expand the number of plant combo options you can consider by using eGardenGo to look at the recipes for plants similar to the one you're looking at. For example, we have lots of combos that use Echinacea 'Merlot' because it's a personal favorite, but you could easily sub the straight species or E. 'Ruby Star', and achieve almost identical results.