Thursday, April 27, 2017

A Couple of Spring Combinations for Sun & Shade

Magic happens when perennials are planted together beautifully. 

Experienced gardeners often become adept at creating pretty pairings, but even they will tell you that creating a nice mix of plants is often more a matter of trial and error than anything else. 

I think this is because there are so many potential considerations–color, texture, size, shape, and bloom time– that even instinct and experience are sometimes not enough. You just have to experiment and try things out. In this struggle to get it right, plants will sometimes become the unwitting participants in an elaborate game of musical chairs. 

There is no shame in moving plants around until your happy. It's precisely this type of challenge that makes gardening fun and rewarding. It's exciting when something you've struggled to create looks just as nice as you hoped it would.

Todays post uses two great spring plants; Euphorbia Polychroma (full sun) and Bleeding Heart, Dicentra spectabilis (part-shade/shade) to demonstrate a few ways color can be used to match plants together.


Euphorbia Polychroma in Combinations for Full Sun

Design Trick: An analogous color scheme makes use of colors that are next to one another on the color wheel. Blue sits next to green and green is right beside yellow. White simply adds freshness to the mix.

The plant pairing: Cushion Spurge, Euphorbia Polychroma + Forget-me-nots White tulips (or late daffodils/narcissus).

The Plant Profiles:

Cushion Spurge, Euphorbia Polychroma: prefers full sun and somewhat dry conditions. Normal or sandy soil is best. Cut Euphorbia Polychroma back in early summer to keep it neat and compact, but be careful to wear garden gloves as the milky-white sap the plant extrudes can be irritating to skin. Height: 30-45 cm (12-18 inches), Spread: 45-60 cm (18-23 inches). USDA Zones: 3-9.

Forget-me-not, Myosotis alpestris is a compact plant that reseeds itself with abandon. This biennial likes light shade, but I find it will grow just about anywhere. Mid-spring, when the plant finishes flowering, I pull out most of my Forget-me-nots and leave just a few to reseed. This may sound like a lot of work, but you can't beat Forget-me-nots as an understory for spring bulbs and flowers. Start with a cheap packet of seed and you'll have Forget-me-nots forever!

 Euphorbia polychroma 'Bonfire' 

In this variation, which again uses a type of Euphorbia, two closely related colors (reddish-orange and apricot) sit comfortably beside one another. 

The plant pairing: Euphorbia polychroma 'Bonfire'+ Geum 'Mai Tai'. The peach flowers of the Geum emphasize the burnt-orangy-red (yellow when fully open) flower-like bracts of the Euphorbia.

Euphorbia polychroma 'Bonfire' in the foreground with Geum 'Mai Tai'

Looking at the combination in the opposite direction from the previous image.

The Plant Profiles:

Euphorbia polychroma 'Bonfire' has green foliage when it first emerges from the ground. The leaves quickly turns into a mix of burgundy and green. The "flowers" are actually bright orange and yellow bracts. In fall, the deep burgundy color seems to intensify and the plant becomes magical when covered with frost crystals. Full sun and normal or sandy, dry soil. This Euphorbia also has a milky sap that is irritating to skin, so it's a good idea to wear gloves when you are doing any pruning. Height: 25-30 cm ( 10-12 inches), Spread: 30-45 cm (12-18 inches). USDA Zones: 5-9.

Geum 'Mai Tai' forms a low mound of course green leaves. In early spring, soft apricot flowers are carried on tall branching stems. Removing faded flowers will encourage new buds. A hard pruning after the plant finishes flowering will also refresh the foliage. Divide in fall. Average garden soil and moisture conditions will work for this plant. Height: 40-45 cm (16-18 inches), Spread: 30-35 cm ( 12-14 inches). USDA zones: 5-9.

Bleeding Heart, Dicentra spectabilis in Combinations for Part-shade/Shade

Bleeding Heart, Dicentra spectabilis is an old-fashioned shade garden perennial that shines in spring. The pretty, almost fern-like foliage of Bleeding Heart appears in late April/early May and lasts well into mid-to-late-summer, when hot, dry summer conditions send the plant into dormancy. By then their fading foliage is usually hidden by other plants. The dangling heart-shaped flowers are a charming bonus and last into early June in my garden.

With its striking golden foliage and reddish stems Dicentra spectabilis, 'Gold Heart' is one of the nicest Bleeding Heart cultivars available. As you can see from the image below, 'Gold Heart' is a good-sized, bushy plant.

Dicentra spectabilis, 'Gold Heart' tucked in behind a hosta in a private garden in Mississauga, ON.

Design Trick: Mix warm colors together. Reds, oranges and yellows have an intensity and energy unmatched by cooler colors.

The plant pairing: Bleeding Heart, Dicentra spectabilis, 'Gold Heart' + any warm-colored Heuchera

One nice way to play up Gold Heart's color is to plant it with a Heuchera, another shade plant whose foliage is just as striking. Heuchera seems to be the darling of plant breeders these days, so there are an abundance of cultivars to choose from when it comes to creating a plant combination with a Bleeding Heart. I'll mention just two of the many possible options.

The mix of dark maroon Heuchera 'Cajun Fire' and 'Gold Heart' are a great example of two warm colors working in harmony. The reddish-brown foliage of Cajun Fire also emphasizes the Bleeding Heart's arching magenta stems.

Heuchera is a little slower to emerge in the spring, so the combination of the two plants should kick-in nicely just as the flowers of 'Gold Heart' start to fade. Heuchera is a smaller, more tightly mounded perennial than a Bleeding Heart, so plant a Heuchera to the front of a Bleeding Heart.

The Plant Profiles:

Bleeding Heart, Dicentra spectabilis, 'Gold Heart' has amazing golden foliage with reddish stems. The heart-shaped flowers are magenta. Bleeding Heart likes average to moist soil.  Part or full shade. Height: 60-90 cm (23-35 inches), Spread: 60-90 cm (23-35 inches). USDA zones: 2-9.

Heuchera 'Cajun Fire' has lobed foliage that is red in spring, turns black in summer and is maroon in the fall. The bell-shaped flowers are white. Part shade. Height: 25-30 cm (10-12 inches), Spread: 25-30 cm (10-12 inches). USDA zones: 4-9.

This combination with the peachy-magenta colored foliage of Heuchera 'Marmalade' is a similar combination of warm colors.

The Plant Profile:

Heuchera 'Marmalade' has foliage that varies in color from peachy-bronze to magenta. The tall flower sprays are brownish in color. Average garden soil and moisture conditions should be fine for this perennial. Part shade. Height: 25-40 cm (10-16 inches), Spread: 30-45 cm (12-18 inches). USDA zones: 4-9.

Another couple of combinations for shade using Bleeding Hearts:

Bleeding Heart, Dicentra spectabilis, 'Alba' (left) and Hosta 'Night Before Christmas' (right)

Design Trick: Another way to make a nice plant pairing is to pick a color from one plant and find a another plant with that same color. The delicate white flowers of Bleeding Heart, Dicentra spectabilis, 'Alba' works nicely with a hosta variegated with creamy white.

The plant pairing: Bleeding Heart, Dicentra spectabilis, 'Alba' + any hosta with creamy-white variegation. Here's just of the many hostas that might work:

The Plant Profiles:

Bleeding Heart, Dicentra spectabilis, 'Alba' has bright green foliage and white flowers. Height: 70-90 cm (27-35 inches), Spread: 70-90 cm (27-35 inches). Light shade to full shade. Average to moist soil. Hardy: Zones 2-9.

Hosta 'Night Before Christmas' has foliage with creamy-white centres and green margins. Pale lavender flowers appear in July or August. Part to full shade. Height: 40-45 cm (16-18 inches), Spread: 85-90 cm (33-35 inches ). USDA zones: 2-9.

Design Trick: The idea behind this combination is simple: balance a hot color (pink in this case) with a cool color (blue).

The plant pairing: Common Bleeding Heart, Dicentra spectabilis + biennial Forget-me-nots 

The Plant Profiles:

Common Bleeding Heart, Dicentra spectabilis takes a few years to come into its own, but when it does, Dicentra spectabilis forms a generous mound of fresh green foliage. You can refresh the plant after it flowers by cutting it to 6" above the ground, but even so, it will go dormant by late summer. Light to full shade. Height: 70-90 cm, Spread: 70-90 cm. Average to moist soil. USDA Zones 2-9.

Forget-me-not, Myosotis alpestris: please see the notes on Forget-me-nots at the beginning of the post.

Do you have a favourite spring plant combination? Please share it!


  1. What great timing on this post--I have Dicentra and it need of something by it. Myosotis looks marvelous next to it--thanks!

  2. Gorgeous combinations! I will definitely use some of these. Thanks Jennifer!

  3. I use forget me nots a lot too, and as you say they are easy to pull out when they are finished. Not only is it trial and error getting the balance and colours right, the beauty is quite fleeting and then it's over. Spring is my garden's prettiest most interesting season.

    1. Spring is one of my favourite times in the garden too. I think it is the contrast with winter that makes all the fresh green growth so striking. And plants respond so enthusiastically to the change of seasons don't they?

  4. Stunning photos and a good tutorial as well. Euphorbias are not as widely used as one would think and because of their tendency to reseed..just a little bit...I count myself lucky when it happens. Bought euphorbia griffithii last year and it is gorgeous, but romping. Great post! hope you are well.

    1. You raise a good point about Euphorbias Brenda. I once had some Euphorbia griffithii 'Fireglow' and it was a spreader. I haven't had any problem with the Euphorbia Polychroma in my garden. It seems to stay put and hasn't reseeded at all.

  5. In my old garden I had a beautiful combination with Dicentra 'Gold Heart' and Rhododendron 'Ken Janeck'. It's interesting what plants you take for granted. When I moved I grabbed as many of the more unusual plants that I could but left things like Euphorbia polychroma and Sedum angelina. Now I'm buying them.

    1. I agree Sue, we do take those old standbys a bit for granted. I find a lot of the "new" plants are pricy, and even though they put through trials before the come to market, they often don't perform as well as one would like.

  6. I love your line, "plants are unwitting participants in an elaborate game of musical chairs"! For sure spring in the garden is like rearranging a room of furniture. Especially after a winter of scheming on what would look better where and with what… Thanks for the ideas of great combinations.

    Hope your spring is going better than mine. After a fast-moving early spring of growth, we had 19 degrees F last night here in N Nebraska. I am amazed at the toughness of most of my perennials. Some of the emerging and unfurling hosta leaves look a little worse for the wear however. Supposed to be in low 20's tonight. Ugh...

  7. I love your color and foliage combinations and use of the color wheel in explaining how colors can be used to complement one another. It is such an important concept in design and you have demonstrated it beautifully.


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