Social Distancing is Not for Plants


I frequently take walks through our newly-built neighborhood. While my primary motivation is exercise, I also enjoy checking out the landscaping choices made by the new homeowners. The plants are still small, but it’s easy to imagine what the yards will eventually look like. Some clearly have potential, with trees framing a select palette of shrubs, grasses, and perennials. Others are mostly rocks, with the minimum number of widely-spaced shrubs—mostly junipers and shrubby cinquefoil—added to appease the HOA. Social distancing is great for staying healthy, but please don’t make your plants stand on their own. Even a gorgeous star needs a supporting cast.

I try to give these minimalist gardeners the benefit of the doubt. Maybe they aren’t done, but are merely giving the initial plantings a chance to become established before they add the accents. But I have a suspicion that, for the most part, these owners have moved on to other concerns after checking “landscape the yard” off their to-do lists.

You can see what I mean in these photos. Yes, we should give plants room to mature. Newly installed landscaping always looks a bit bare to start with. But ten, twenty, fifty years down the road, these yards will still look skimpy.

There are reasons to add more plants than required. For one, we live in a hail-prone area. While a severe storm can decimate any garden, dense plantings fare better. Neighboring plants support and shelter one another against the flying hailstones. Afterward, having more plants means that the garden will look fuller faster.

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Not all plants look good all the time, or even all over. Some have bare bottoms that need a bit of camouflage. Others, such as Bleeding Heart, fade out or go dormant as the season progresses. There’s nothing like having a close friend nearby to disguise your faults!

For example, consider this lone lilac. There’s nothing wrong with a lilac—they’re lovely plants when in bloom. However, the rest of the year, they’re either dormant or simply large and green—not exactly a stand-out—plus, there’s nothing attractive about the bare trunks at their base. Now, consider how much better lilacs look when part of a landscape. You could add other spring-bloomers—tulips, say, or early blooming perennials—and create a May focal point in your yard. Choose low-growing perennials or a fluffy groundcover to hide the plant’s base. Make your lilac part of a family.

Perhaps the most important reason to group different plants is the way varying colors, shapes, and textures complement one another. For example, individual grasses can be boring or attractive…

but they get along with so many other plants, it’s a shame to isolate them. You can even combine grasses with other types of grasses to good effect!

Here are a few more examples of how plants complement one another. Yarrow (Achillea) looks fine alone, but even better with Blue Oat Grass (above) or cuddled up to some bright orange California Poppies:

Hyssop (Agastache) is one of my favorite plants, and I like it more when it’s combined with Blue Grama Grass ‘Blonde Ambition’ and dwarf rabbitbrush, left, or sandwiched between these lower-growing perennials and a lovely green backdrop:

Notice how the different shapes, colors, and textures support one another in these landscapes:

It’s never too late to add companion plants. Take a tip from nature and fill in the gaps. You’ll be rewarded for years to come.

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