Friday, October 4, 2013

Applying the Principle of Planting Multiples in a Suburban Garden


One of the most difficult lessons to for me to learn as a gardener has been that a single perennial plant does not always have much of an impact in a large suburban garden. 

I think this has a lot to do with where I began as a gardener. In the small townhouse backyard where I had my first garden, I had considered myself lucky to squeeze in a single example of a particular plant. 

Then, a little over ten years ago we moved to our present home and I suddenly found I had a much larger canvas to play with. It felt truly liberating. I now had room for at least one of everything!

But when I made this transition from a small space to a large one, I failed was to make any adjustment in my approach to planting: the garden's size had changed dramatically, but my planting methods remained pretty much the same as they were in the little townhouse garden. I happily continued to plant single perennials.

Sweet Woodruff

For the most part, planting one-of a particular perennial has continued to work for me. Even in a bigger space, I still can't imagine how I would ever fit in multiples of some large scaled perennials. 

That being said, I have also come to see that you actually do a disservice to smaller perennials, small sized bulbs like scilla and very dainty plants, like the sweet woodruff shown above, to plant them in limited numbers and crowd them in amongst other plants.

I think what clued me into my mistake was seeing other gardens, especially large public ones. 

The Royal Botanical Gardens, Hamilton, ON

In a large botanical garden, like the one above, a single hollyhock would simply be lost.

After seeing such impressive displays, the traditional rule of planting perennials in groups of three or five plants started to make sense to me. 

Gayfeather, Liatris at the Niagara Parks Botanical Gardens

Whether planted in a long ribbon....

... or a big patch, it became clear that mass planting can have a real impact.

Private Garden, Mississauga ON

But though my suburban garden is a good size, but it is no botanical garden!

I began to wonder how and where could I make the principle of planting in multiples might work in a smaller urban setting.

So I started taking note of how other gardeners had made this principle work in their spaces. And when I really started paying attention, I began to notice that a mass planting can really make a statement even in a smaller private garden:

Pachysandra in the foreground with Ostrich Fern just behind it on the left.

Another bonus that a large area planted with a single type of plant offered was possibility of making gardening less labour intensive. 

This big patch of Pachysandra would need little maintenance and would be certainly less work than cutting a lawn under the same tree.

I have a similar patch of lily of the valley under a big maple tree. The falling maple leaves make a great mulch each fall and the only thing I have to do is enjoy the fragrant flowers each spring.

Private garden, Hamilton, ON

I also noted that one-of every plant possible could actually start to make a garden look a little crazy-busy. 

In the battle for space, it always comes down to a survival of the fittest. Competing growth habits often mean that weaker plants in this type of planting end up being crowded out. 

This has been born out again and again in my own garden. 

Spring flowering Wood Anemone

In one small flowerbed at the foot of our Black Walnut I have crammed in no less than: several hosta, a couple of astilbe, two hellebores, a few Japanese irises and spring flowering anemone. The anemone loves this spot best and have really started to take over.

It is as if nature is impatient for me to take the finally take the hint! What I really should have planted in such a small bed was wood anemone and let it spread into a big clump. 

I need to move the other plants or watch them gradually drown in a sea of white anemones. I am learning. Albeit slowly!

Now I am not meaning to rush the seasons, but I have begun to think about next spring and how I can make mass planting small scale spring bulbs work for me.

Last fall, I planted these snowdrops (above). They were pretty, but barely noticeable in my large garden.

Ditto for the crocus I planted. A few flowers here and there is nice, but hardly dramatic.

It's when there are drifts of tiny flowers that a display of small scale bulbs gets really breathtaking. 

Last spring I noticed this expanse of scilla growing in a forested area nearby.

The carpet of bright cobalt blue flowers was fantastic. I would love to create something similar in my own garden.

But here is my latest dilemma: I can afford only so much for spring bulbs. Standard blue scilla and crocus bulbs can be found fairly cheaply and mass planted. The snowdrops I started out with last year however were a more expensive fancy variety. 

Should I stick with fancy snowdrops, knowing I can only plant limited quantities and hope that eventually my patience will be rewarded with a decent show


do I go for broke with the cheaper, more common snowdrops and hope for the more instant gratification of a good sized display?

Hmm...decisions, decisions.

Have a wonderful weekend!


  1. I totally agree with you, the hardest thing for a gardener is to limit their plants, especially when there are so many wonderful things to plant. This is a continual lesson for me also and so far I am not very good at it ~ but I am trying! I love the mass plantings of Scillia...but the Snowdrops are lovely too...sigh, what a decision.

  2. I hear what you're saying, the stronger plants will always win. I think we all have the same problem. I personally favour mass planting for its impact but as my garden borders are relatively small it means I can only favour a few plants of the same type so I go for planting in three's so I get some sort of impact. My friend though favours one of everything as she is a keen plant collector.I would go for the cheaper snowdrops 'cos as far as I can tell no one can really tell the difference.

  3. Hi Jennifer
    You've definitely identified one of the most important principles of garden design: mass plantings. In this world of constant rapid-fire changing images on TV, movies, etc. it's so relaxing to let the eye drift slowly over an area that's filled just one type of plant.
    Re: the snowdrops. You know the old cliche - you get what you pay for. Therefore go with not as many expensive snowdrops this year and just augment the same ones again next year. They'll probably last longer than the cheap ones.
    Thanks for the glorious photos as well.

  4. Ahhhhhh....snowdrops! I have to say, each year after the usual dreadful British winter I am always SO grateful to see that little snowy jewel peeping from the ground. Y'know, I'd just get lots of them and let them spread, they don't care if they are fancy or not....and I think they are all adorable.

    I love planting in multiples but a single wild poppy can be utterly breathtaking too....I think we should all go with our hearts.

    I do love your posts and always look forward to reading them. You have such a wonderful chilling effect....yes!xxxx

  5. How I smiled as I read the first line here, Jennifer!!
    I planted over 400 bulbs at House #2 in the fall of last year.
    Following the instructions very carefully, I planted my crocuses 12 inches apart, etc.
    When they all came up in the spring, I was horrified! They definitely should have been planted in clumps, but I am guessing in 10 years or so, I may have my clumps of crocuses, tulips, snowdrops, etc! :-)

    As always, your photographs are so beautiful.

    Have a fantastic weekend!

  6. When in doubt, go with blue! lol I had the same difficult lesson to learn as you. I wanted one of everything... I still struggle with that one in my much smaller yard. It was easier on the acreage - I just let things multiply and it looked fabulous AND I could have every plant I wanted. Small yards are tough! Pls send me some sweet woodruff! I didn't take a cutting when I moved and nobody sells it around here. I brought it with me when I moved here from Ontario. I'm crazy like that... :)

  7. I think I forget about mass planting because my flower borders are not very big. But I did plant three of the same rose in a mass but one of them isn't as vigorous as the other two so I hope it looks okay next year. I am not familiar with the fancy snowdrops vs. plain snowdrops. Are they doubles? If they are unique, I'd rather have it in my garden than the snowdrops everyone else has. I can't wait to see which ones you decide on! Have a great weekend, Jennifer!

  8. I think that snowdrops! And make gardening less labor intensive. My garden isn't big but I love the large areas of one perennials, as scilla, crocus, primulas, chionodoxa, etc. Have a nice weekend!

  9. That post really hit home. I know that for impact I should be planting more than 1 of each variety, and planting singly will never work in the same way, but I love the plants too much. My partner reminds me of the '3 or 5' rule every time we buy plants, but I cannot buy so many the same. It is the plants themselves that do it for me, and I am like a stamp collector in that I like to have as many different ones as I can. I'm afraid plants win over design every time for me ! I love your 'mass ' plantings and think they look tremendous, just wish I could do it !!

  10. I also know the mantra, plant 3 or 5 of the same plant. It is so difficult, when there are so many plants you want. I´m learning it though gradually, and it does look good when you can really see a mass of the same plant. But it also does require a certain size of garden. Snowdrops are expensive here also. I am fortunate that the garden had plenty when we moved in.

  11. For me it's about getting the most bang for my buck - so I would choose the less expensive bulbs and enjoy their beauty. It takes so long for these little bulbs to develop into a blanket of colour that I wouldn't want to wait. I am so blessed to a have a little side garden between the garage and fenceline (about 10' wide) that is covered in scilla in early spring. This little garden is usually ignored, but at it's best with the masses of blue scilla.

  12. You have completely summarized my problems with planting -- I have such difficulty with scale, size and massing! LIke you I am now learning to put multiples together and get away from the chaotic look of "one of everything". The snowdrops will multiply, but slowly. You have to be patient over years to get any kind of show -- so plant what you can afford each year to supplement them, and wait very patiently for them to spread on their own as well!

  13. Love snowdrops and scilla - beautiful photos!

  14. Seeing these spring flowers is making me feel very impatient already!

  15. I have a different twist on the same problem. My tendency is to plant three to five of each plant in a given bed - but squeezing in at least one or two more plants than can really fit (in other words, six to ten plants). The result is as you describe, the strongest plants squeeze out the weaker. As to your galanthus dilemma, I know what I would do - go for lots of the cheap ones! But that's just me.

  16. I have my special snowdrops by the path through my woodland and the wild single and doubles further back. By splitting the wild ones every three years, you will soon have the drifts that you yearn for! Over the past few years I have come to the same conclusion as you and am now planting drifts of my favourite plants, before that I just wanted one of everything!

  17. Oh, I wish I had room for at least one of everything! I try to limit to a maximum of three of a single plant, but most plants I do what you used to, just one of each. The only exception is oriental lilies. I have more than 80 of Lilium regale, but they are nicely slim and tall so don’t take up much space. I long for enough space to do mass planting of French lavender, and a field of heleniums, asters and rudbecias - and a poppy field too. Well, a girl can dream, right!
    Thanks for the beautiful photos, can’t wait for my new snowdrops to come up, bought 200 in the green this year after they were finished flowering, they are quite cheap here. Thought 200 was a lot, but when planted they didn’t amount to much, even in my tiny garden.

  18. Decisions indeed!!! Your mass planting photos are stunning!!!! Such great design lessons here. I have struggled with some of these issues myself. My problem tends to be that I want so many different plants in my young garden that focusing on one plant isn't satisfying enough though I know that having a mass grouping would create a stronger impact. But like you with your bulbs my budget each year only allows so much. I can't wait to see what you decide to do with your bulbs!!! Happy fall friend!!!

  19. Hi Jennifer,

    The three to five rule is going by the wayside. When Piet Oudolf plans he looks more to tying in form and color rather than always a repeat of the same plant. I have a small garden and cannot always do masses of the same plant. I rarely plant just one of a variety but I don't worry anymore about repeating the same plants throughout the borders and try more for color in flowers or leaves. Scilla can be invasive, but these might fill in an area quickly.

    Your post really makes me want to put in some snowdrops and maybe some crocus (the squirrels will go crazy). I will have to put down my chicken wire!


  20. Bulbs are hard - I always think I am buying enough, and then am amazed at what a puny show they put on. I tend to go with instant gratification, so if it were me I'd buy the cheap-o snowdrops. But that's why my garden looks like it does. Yours, on the other hand, looks fabulous.

  21. I have the same exact problem and actually wrote a big note to myself in my fall planting reminders to focus on groups of 3 to 5. I've noticed over the years that my garden felt choppy and didn't have the cohesion that larger plantings offer. I've stuck to my plan as I've redesigned. But some big plants I only grow in clumps of 1 or 2. Here's another question to ponder: are the differences in the expensive snowdrops so significant that they're worth the price? Will they be noticed when they bloom? If not, then go with the cheapies and enjoy the mass planting.

  22. Like you I have been looking at my issues and lack of mass plantings...I am rethinking many areas and trying to move, add and rearrange...these are very inspiring pictures.

  23. I am still too much of the one-of-a-kind kind of gardener, I'm afraid. I remember, though, several years ago seeing a field of poppies at the Chicago Botanic Garden. I was with a group touring the garden that day, and we all were immediately transfixed by the sight. A grouping of a few poppies would have been nice, but it certainly wouldn't have stopped us in our tracks as this did. The only problem with planting bulbs or anything that blooms for only part of the season is what do you do with that area the rest of the year? At the Chicago garden I discovered on a later trip that they pulled all the poppies later in the season and replanted the area with something else. Fine if you have a gardening staff:) But you have given me an idea with the pachysandra under the big tree--I'm trying to convince my husband that if I expand the shade garden under a large tree nearby, it will make his mowing a lot easier.

    As for the mass planting of snowdrops, maybe you can do it in stages. I've been trying to create a field of crocus, and every year I plant another 100 or more. One of these days it may actually look impressive:)

  24. I see in the forest photo there is bloodroot growing with the blue scilla. Bloodroot is not too hard to find and starts to spread nicely in a couple of years. Granted they are more expensive than traditional bulbs but ever so lovely.

  25. I am trying to remember this rule. It's hard not to try to squeeze in one more new plant, and as you say, mass plantings take $. But, oh, they are so effective!


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