Repetition – unifying a garden or downright dull?

A surfeit of renga renga lilies repeated throughout your garden is highly unlikely to unify it

A surfeit of renga renga lilies repeated throughout your garden is highly unlikely to unify it

How often have you heard the advice to repeat the same plant in your garden to achieve continuity? It has almost achieved truism status though I would argue that this is one piece of so-called garden wisdom that too few people ever question. In fact I would go so far as to suggest that you are better to cast that piece of clichéd advice out to the wilderness and ignore it.

I don’t know where it originated, though I would hazard a guess it was from within the landscape sector. Now it is just repeated mindlessly as a golden rule.

The first time I was aware of a plant being repeated through a garden was with Dahlia Bonne Esperance. It is a baby dahlia with pink daisy flowers and increases readily (lights should be flashing here for you, dear Reader) and it featured throughout this person’s garden. Far from giving continuity, in fact it looked like a cheap, gaudy dot plant (as in dotted around everywhere). Therein lies the problem. When the advice is dispensed so glibly that you should repeat a plant to give continuity, there never seems to be any corresponding advice as to what types of plant are most effective. And in the absence of such advice, too many gardeners fall upon an option that is cheap to start with and easy to increase.

Acanthus mollis or bears' breeches - too close to weed status to be a desirable repeat planting

Acanthus mollis or bears’ breeches – too close to weed status to be a desirable repeat planting

I am sorry to say that many plantings of renga renga lilies are not going to enhance and unify your garden. The same goes for mondo grass, liriope, catmint (nepeta), the dreaded aluminium plant (lamium), common hostas which bulk up readily, Acanthus mollis, or Ligularia ‘Britt-Marie Crawford’. They are just going to look boring and repetitive when used again and again throughout.

Truly, you can have too much, even of a good thing. I have seen gardens which suffer from the ABC syndrome (another bloody clivia), or the oh no, TMBBH trait (too many big blue hostas). You need a deft hand and very good eye to make it work well.

There may be a difference between large and small gardens here. It is a long time since I have had a small garden but I can see that restricting the plant palette and using a repeating motif could help mitigate the bitsy effect so many gardens suffer from. But if you are determined to repeat a plant, try and make it a choice one. Trilliums are good. Paris, too. Though there is a possibility that the originator of the recommendation was thinking more in terms of pencil cypress or topiary yew – a woody plant rather than a perennial. I am fairly sure he or she was not thinking of Dahlia Bonne Esperance or renga rengas.

In a large garden, hmmm. As far as I am concerned, a large garden succeeds better when it has distinct changes of mood and style. To repeat a plant or plants throughout renders it too much the same and that is when large gardens become rambling, indistinct, and not very memorable. Unless you want to be remembered as, “Oh, that was the garden with all the orange clivias/acanthus mollis/buxus hedging/catmint/day lilies.” (Strike out those which do not apply.) We prefer to aim for different groups of plants in different areas, rather than mixing and matching throughout or streaming one particular plant through the lot.

That said, there are exceptions. We are steadily drifting English snowdrops throughout (on the grounds that you can’t have too many fleeting seasonal wonders and they are satisfyingly compatible with most situations – and transient, not year round). Mark has observed before that it is rhododendrons that form a backbone of continuity to our garden. But it is not just the one rhododendron that we have repeated. While we favour the nuttalliis (the rhodo equivalent of trilliums, one could say), we have multiple different varieties used in different combinations throughout. I don’t think that is what is meant by repeating a plant for continuity.

If I have failed to convince you that the interest in a garden lies in different plant combinations, interesting plants and variety, then I would at least make a plea for considering seedling variation. Mark and I looked at a planting in a garden – a hillside of red rhododendrons all the same. They will be showy in flower and look unified in conformity when not in bloom. They are also, to our eyes, dull, utility and public sector amenity planting (and it was a public garden too). What sets a private garden apart is the opportunity and scope to detail such a planting. Had it been done in seedling raised rhododendrons (collected from the same parent plant), there would have been the overall unity but subtle variation to add interest. The same goes for a range of plants – from pohutukawa to hostas. Raising them from seed takes time but gives interest and detail which is lacking when you order in a mass of one plant only.

But then we never have been fans of mass planting and massed display. The devil may be in the detail but so is the gardening interest.

If you are determined to unify through repeat planting, at least pick something with bragging rights - desirable dark red trilliums, perhaps

If you are determined to unify through repeat planting, at least pick something with bragging rights – desirable dark red trilliums, perhaps

First published in the Waikato Times and reproduced here with their permission.

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3 thoughts on “Repetition – unifying a garden or downright dull?

  1. nays

    I suspect the advice to repeat plantings is given because it is the easiest-to-execute antidote to that ‘bitsiness’ you refer to, that results from buying whatever plant catches one’s eye at the garden centre to fill a space. Thought, design, planning and research are more difficult and time-consuming than simply buying ten or twenty of said plant.

  2. Anne Wareham

    “But then we never have been fans of mass planting and massed display. The devil may be in the detail but so is the gardening interest. ”

    Hmmm, says it all, that, doesn’t it? Most British gardeners will seize on that quote with enthusiasm and relief. You rarely find anything else than plant collections in the UK. Sometimes the plants come in big clumps, sometimes in singles, but the more different plants the merrier is the notion. Dramatic and exciting it is not.

    Wish you wouldn’t encourage them.

    I remember a dreamy garden, an old manor house with moat, shrub roses and masses of purple poppies. Bliss. Romance. I could go on. I will refrain – NZ is clearly on a different planet. XXXX

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