Plant matchmaking has always been an uncertain profession. In spring, I often keep a newly acquired plant in its pot for a few weeks, moving it from one potential garden mate to another, watching for just the right partnership to emerge. Come autumn, I'm in a less sentimental frame of mind, ready to separate mismatches and improve upon the fine points of plant relationships.
But guided by the writings of Vita Sackville-West (a gardener made of sterner stuff than me), I now cultivate a more pragmatic approach: “Gardening is largely a question of mixing one sort of plant with another sort of plant, and of seeing how they marry happily together; and if you see that they don't marry happily, then you must hoick one of them out and be ruthless about it.” Following her advice, I've now become quicker to “hoick” out mismatches (if that's the term for plant divorce) so they have a better chance of success with a new companion.
During the early days of spring, I encourage lasting partnerships between perennials and small, colony-forming minor bulbs such as glory of the snow and blue squills. These are the first bulbs to bloom, and are the most likely to multiply and reappear each year. If weather conditions are favourable at the beginning of the season (early April, here in Ontario), I count on the pasque flower to send up its jewel-toned amethyst petals alongside the daisy-like stars of ‘White Splendour' Grecian windflower, which seems to blossom without warning, suddenly opening clusters of bright white flowers in a spot I'm sure was empty the day before. The rosy red pasque flower is also at home with this group of plants. Nearby, the white, prominently spurred flowers of Japanese fan columbine wait to replace the fleeting anemone blooms. Fan columbine has uniquely broad, dark blue-green leaves that are thicker than those of other columbine species, making it an intriguing partner for the long-lasting, silky seed heads of the pasque flower. All of these plants are similar in size, bloom in complementary colours and have contrasting foliage forms, making them very compatible.
Early-blooming shrubs are assets in every spring garden, and one example that marries well with perennials is the shrubby star magnolia. Its white, lemon-scented flowers look wonderful in the company of clumps of white Christmas rose. This match works because both plants have similar leaves (thick, oblong-shaped) that remain attractive all season. Fragrant yellow cowslips and sky-blue Virginia bluebells complete the grouping.
A springtime matchmaking dilemma is the poor forsythia, which languishes unappreciated, with its artless branches and jumble of dull leaves, until its brief moment of brilliance. Forsythias (or any other unkempt woody plant) shouldn't be allowed to lurk alone in corners—give them companions to help justify the inordinate amount of space they take up during their fleeting period of bloom. A strategic match could be made by massing a spreading cushion of white ‘Snowflake' perennial candytuft, some clumps of great white trillium and blue ‘Spring Beauty' squill around its skirts to disguise its untidy habit.