5 SIMPLE STEPS TO PRETTY (AND PRACTICAL) PLANT COMBOS

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Garden-making Tips for Proper Plant Spacing

Many a gardener has discovered through trial and error that getting the spacing between plants right—especially the first time—can be a challenge.

I vividly recall a visit with an avid gardener who’d asked me to consult with her about making edits to a maturing garden. She had an excellent eye for outstanding plants and her garden contained many of my all-time favorites—ones I know, love, and use in my home garden as well as client gardens.

But this story, unfortunately has a sad ending. In early days of laying out her garden, she’d planted a Stewartia pseudocamellia, Stewartia monadelpha, and several more wonderful trees and large shrubs that I can’t precisely recall from this distance, all in a small back yard. By the time I visited, they’d been in-ground for several years and were beginning to really come into their own, strutting their stuff and showing off the qualities for which they’d been chosen.

Sadly, the pair of Stewartias had been planted too close together for both to remain, and they were too big at this point to move, so one of them needed to be removed. She was heartbroken—these are slow-growing trees, and she’d invested years into growing them.

Here’s how you can avoid finding yourself in a similarly difficult spot. When I’m deciding on how much distance to leave between my slow-growing-but-eventually-awesome plants, I take into consideration their mature size and leave enough room so that my “forever” plants can remain, even when they reach maturity.


Red Banana
When your garden is young, have fun with the "extra" in-between spaces to grow something you won’t be able to later. For example, a BIG Red, sun-loving banana that hasn’t got a chance of wintering over!

But patience is hard and I’m all for unbridled enthusiasm — gardening’s supposed to be fun, right? After I’ve properly spaced my forever plants, I’m left with some pretty wide-open spaces. Trick is, they’re not actually open, just temporarily vacant. So, now for the fun part: in those in-between bits, I play, using right-for-now plants, plants that I’ll enjoy and have fun with, but which I know full well are not part of the forever plan.

Gardens can tend to get muddled over time as plants grow, and in Pacific Northwest gardens, they grow a lot. Editing my garden is a way to bring my original vision back into focus and these edits are a lot less perplexing when I’m simply executing on my original vision. I can relax and have fun, knowing that when one of my right-for-now plants dies or needs to be removed, I can make the change without remorse. It’s all part of the plan — no failure, just the natural evolution of a garden. Within this frame, I have the confidence to make the big and small changes that make each garden unique, and have a blast doing it.


A Real Life Example of Applying "Forever vs. For Now' in My Garden




Forever Plants


What constitutes a forever plant? Typically trees and large shrubs and other structure-making plants the create the outline of your garden, but really any plant that you’d feel bad about losing, would be difficult to move or replace, and would leave a hard-to-fill gap if absent. Bottom line: any plant that would break your heart or disrupt your garden if it were gone. There are also some plants are just darn slow to take their place in the garden but are well worth planting and waiting for.


Acer palmatum 'Fireglow'

Fireglow Japanese Maple

Type: Tree
Exposure: Full Sun, Full Sun, Part Sun, Morning Sun, Filtered Sun
Zone: 5, 6, 7, 8

view plant

Acer palmatum 'Seiryu'

Seiryu Japanese Maple

Type: Tree
Exposure: Open Shade, Part Sun, Filtered Sun, Morning Sun, Part Shade
Zone: 5, 6, 7, 8

view plant

Acer shirasawanum 'Autumn Moon'

Autumn Moon Maple

Type: Tree
Exposure: Part Sun, Part Shade, Morning Sun, Filtered Sun, Open Shade, Open Shade
Zone: 5, 6, 7, 8

view plant

Cedrus deodara 'Silver Mist'

Silver Mist Deodar Cedar

Type: Conifer, Shrub
Exposure: Full Sun
Zone: 6, 7, 8, 9

view plant

Cercis canadensis 'Forest Pansy'

Forest Pansy Eastern Redbud

Type: Tree
Exposure: Full Sun, Full Sun, Part Sun, Afternoon Sun, Morning Sun, Filtered Sun, Open Shade, Open Shade
Zone: 5, 6, 7, 8, 9

view plant

Chamaecyparis nootkatensis 'Green Arrow'

Weeping Alaskan Yellow Cedar

Type: Conifer, Tree
Exposure: Full Sun, Full Sun, Part Sun, Part Shade, Filtered Sun, Open Shade, Open Shade
Zone: 4, 5, 6, 7, 8

view plant

Cryptomeria japonica 'Rein's Dense Jade'

Rein's Dense Jade Japanese Cedar

Type: Conifer, Tree
Exposure: Full Sun, Full Sun, Part Sun, Part Shade, Morning Sun, Filtered Sun, Open Shade, Open Shade
Zone: 5, 6, 7, 8

view plant

Cupressus glabra 'Chaparral'

Chaparral Arizona Cypress

Type: Conifer
Exposure: Full Sun
Zone: 5, 6, 7, 8, 9

view plant

Hydrangea quercifolia 'Sike's Dwarf'

Sike's Dwarf Oakleaf Hydrangea

Type: Shrub
Exposure: Full Sun, Full Sun, Part Sun, Part Shade, Full Shade, Full Shade, Morning Sun, Filtered Sun, Open Shade, Open Shade
Zone: 5, 6, 7, 8, 9

view plant

Lagerstroemia x 'Natchez'

Crape Myrtle Natchez

Type: Shrub, Tree
Exposure: Full Sun, Full Sun, Afternoon Sun, Reflected Heat
Zone: 6, 7, 8, 9, 10

view plant

Mahonia x media 'Charity'

Hybrid Mahonia

Type: Shrub
Exposure: Morning Sun, Filtered Sun
Zone: 7, 8, 9, 10

view plant

Schefflera taiwaniana 'Yuan Shan'

Hardy Schefflera

Type: Shrub
Exposure: Full Sun, Full Sun, Part Sun, Morning Sun, Open Shade, Open Shade
Zone: 7, 8, 9, 10

view plant

Stewartia monadelpha

Orangebark Stewartia
Tall Stewartia

Type: Tree
Exposure: Part Sun, Part Shade, Morning Sun, Filtered Sun, Open Shade, Open Shade
Zone: 6, 7, 8

view plant

Stewartia pseudocamellia

Japanese Stewartia

Type: Tree
Exposure: Full Sun, Part Sun, Part Shade, Filtered Sun, Open Shade, Open Shade
Zone: 5, 6, 7, 8

view plant

Taxus x media 'Bean Pole'

Bean Pole Yew

Type: Conifer, Shrub
Exposure: Full Sun, Full Sun, Part Sun, Part Shade, Full Shade, Full Shade, Morning Sun, Filtered Sun, Open Shade, Open Shade
Zone: 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9

view plant

Trachycarpus fortunei

Windmill Palm

Type: Shrub, Tree
Exposure: Full Sun, Full Sun, Afternoon Sun
Zone: 7, 8, 9

view plant

Yucca rostrata 'Sapphire Skies'

Sapphire Skies Beaked Blue Yucca

Type: Perennial
Exposure: Full Sun, Full Sun, Afternoon Sun, Reflected Heat
Zone: 7, 8, 9, 10

view plant

Right—For Now


Though fun-loving and life of the party, some plants can’t be counted on to stick around, but they’re great fillers while you wait for the more permanent plantings to mature. It’s a great time be loose and have fun, growing things that you won’t likely have enough room or sun for later. Other plants, such as blue fescue or lavender, are notoriously short-lived and best replaced periodically with fresh plants to keep the overall design looking good.


Abutilon 'Nuabtang'

ABUTILON LUCKY LANTERN™ TANGERINE

Type: Tender Perennial
Exposure: Morning Sun, Full Sun
Zone: 8, 9, 10, 11

view plant

Begonia 'Canary Wing'

Canary Wing Begonia

Type: Annual or Biennial, Tender Perennial
Exposure: Full Shade, Open Shade, Morning Sun
Zone: 10, 11, annual, tender perennial

view plant

Canna indica 'Phasion'

Tropicanna Canna

Type: Bulb / Corm / Tuber, Perennial
Exposure: Full Sun, Full Sun, Part Sun, Afternoon Sun
Zone: 7, 8, 9, 10, 11

view plant

Cordyline x 'JURed'

Festival Burgundy Cordyline

Type: Grass / Grass-Like, Tender Perennial
Exposure: Morning Sun, Filtered Sun
Zone: 8, 9, 10, 11

view plant

Erysimum 'Winter Orchid'

Hybrid Wallflower

Type: Perennial
Exposure: Full Sun, Full Sun, Part Sun, Afternoon Sun
Zone: 7, 8, 9

view plant

Festuca glauca 'Elijah Blue'

Elijah Blue Fescue

Type: Grass / Grass-Like, Perennial
Exposure: Full Sun, Full Sun, Part Sun, Afternoon Sun, Reflected Heat
Zone: 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9

view plant

Gaura lindeheimeri Belleza 'Kleau04263'

Belleza™ Dark Pink Wand Flower

Type: Perennial
Exposure: Full Sun, Full Sun, Afternoon Sun, Reflected Heat
Zone: 7, 8, 9

view plant

Helictotrichon sempervirens 'Sapphire'

Sapphire' Blue Oat Grass

Type: Grass / Grass-Like, Perennial
Exposure: Full Sun, Full Sun, Part Sun, Afternoon Sun, Filtered Sun
Zone: 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9

view plant

Heuchera 'Plum Pudding'

Plum Pudding Coral Bells

Type: Perennial
Exposure: Part Sun, Part Shade, Morning Sun, Filtered Sun, Open Shade, Open Shade
Zone: 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9

view plant

Lavandula angustifolia 'Hidcote'

Hidcote English Lavender

Type: Perennial
Exposure: Full Sun, Full Sun, Afternoon Sun, Reflected Heat
Zone: 5, 6, 7, 8, 9

view plant

Salvia greggii 'Radio Red'

Radio Red Autumn Sage

Type: Perennial
Exposure: Full Sun, Full Sun
Zone: 7, 8, 9

view plant

Senecio candicans 'Senaw'

Angel Wings Senecio

Type: Perennial, Tender Perennial
Exposure: Full Sun, Filtered Sun, Morning Sun
Zone: 8, 9, 10, 11, tender perennial

view plant

Verbascum 'Jackie'

Jackie Dwarf Mullein

Type: Perennial
Exposure: Full Sun, Full Sun, Afternoon Sun
Zone: 5, 6, 7, 8, 9

view plant

My Front Garden 2008
Early on, my front garden was dominated by large shrubs such as Viburnum plicatum tomentosum ‘Mariesii’ and Cotinus ‘Royal Purple’. In their heyday, these quick-growing shrubs were wonderful and stole the show. As my garden evolved, trees planted early on matured and the viburnum and purple cotinus are now gone, having come to the natural end of their life in my garden.

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Our planting plans will help you get the spacing right between your "forever" plants.

Published June 26, 2020


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