Take a look inside my brain and you behold an untidy sight. It’s chaos in there, due to continually picturing my life as if it’s going to be made into an episode for my TV show, Garden Wise Guys.

I co-host a regional public education show with Owen Dell, author of the recently published Sustainable Landscaping for Dummies book. Our show’s mission is to make the principles of sustainable landscaping and water conservation into an informative and entertaining half-hour. But lately, I’ve been lazy. Instead of 30-minute programs, I’ve been thinking about 60-second commercials.

Concept for Advertisement

Gray foliage is the common trait that brings order and harmony to this vignette.
Scene 1: Baby boomer couple, she in a mint green gardening hat with little pink Cecil Bruner roses on the band; he in his weekend Eddie Bauer sartorial splendor. They are meandering through a nursery looking at the vast selection of colorful, enticing perennials, discussing the merits of each. They are smiling and laughing, but as he continues to observe his wife, an ominous look of worry creeps over his face.

Scene 2: Long shot of the car. It is the scene from The Grapes of Wrath with all the family possessions tied, welded, and hot-glued to the roof. Except, in this version, trees jut through the sunroof, shrubs spill from the trunk, and assorted four-inch perennials are jammed into the cup holder.

I love the way these subtle color combinations are tied together by the identical forms of these succulents.
Scene 3: Our couple is in the office of their family doctor. Audio voice-over: “You’ve tried coping with this disorder on your own. You’ve attended support groups and struggled through past-life regression therapy. You might be suffering from of One-Of-Each-itis. Maybe it’s time to talk to your doctor about Chill Pill, the prescription medication that reduces your obsession to buy every plant you see.

[Fade to ten-minute disclaimer message: "May cause Dengue fever, cessation of all bodily functions, etc."]

“Yipes! That’s ME,” you’re thinking. Yes, like Stacy and Clinton, we’ve been following you around, secretly filming your nursery jaunts. Worry not; you aren’t alone. One-Of-Each-itis afflicts most gardeners at one time or another.  And there’s nothing especially wrong with having a lot of different plants in your garden. But once you unpack the car and carried your new babies into the yard, how do you decide where to put the lovely little beasts?

I try to avoid design-speak, but what you need is an ordering principle—a theme that makes it look like you thought the whole planting thing through. 

Are You A Collector or an Arranger?

This grouping of three plants all share a pinkish hue. Additionally, the two shades of mums have the identical form. This photo was taken at Riley's Flowers in Santa Barbara.
There are two camps of gardeners: Collectors and Arrangers.

The Collector’s objective is simply owning and successfully growing all of the plants that they adore. Collectors don’t pay a lot of attention to the other plants that are growing nearby—the big picture takes a back seat to growing each individual plant. The criteria for where to plant the new purchase are straightforward: 1) Is there an empty space, and 2) Can I get it to grow?

The Arranger, on the other hand, is all about creating combinations that result in vignettes. The objective is a play of colors, forms and textures that will be subtly relaxing, exuberantly energizing, or whatever mood you’d like to create.

The pink throat of the lily and buds of veronica unite while the vastly different forms create an interesting contrast.
If you are a Collector but long to free your inner Arranger, the following approach gives you the best of both worlds. The principle is simple: find a common trait shared by a few of the plants and group those plants together to unify the composition.

Let’s start. Assume that you just got home with a slew of new impulse purchases. Grab a clipboard, a sheet of blank paper and a marker, then head out to your garden.

Five Step Prescription
Step 1: Draw a shape that looks like a big planting bed in your garden. Don’t worry about scale. It might look something like this…

Image of blank planter bed


Step 2: Subdivide the bed you just drew into three flowing forms that we’ll call A, B and C (clever, eh?). My sketch looks like paisleys in heat. 

Original bed subdivided into three forms

Step 3: Set the drawing aside for a moment, gather the new plants near the empty planting bed and have a seat. Look at each plant and jot down your observations about the following: leaf color, form (vertical, mounding, spreading, etc.), leaf size and shape, flower color, etc. For instance, French lavender is mounding, has small gray leaves and violet flowers—it could fit into a number of categories.

Step 4: It’s time to think like a designer. Decide what “ordering principle” you’d like to use to tame this unruly mob. Floral color? Variations on form?

For this exercise, we’ll base the groups on color. Group A will contain the warm colors (yellow, red, orange, etc.), Group B, the cool colors (blue, purple, green, etc.) and Group C will feature white, gray and silver. Sort the plants accordingly.

We’re almost there.

Step 5: Begin laying out the plants within the broad outlines you sketched. I’m putting the cool colors in the left foreground, the white/gray plants to the right and the warm colors in the back. Within each of those groups you can micro-tune to create contrasts and interest. I have three different plants in each of the three subgroups. Perhaps in Group A, the tall golden coreopsis will be in the back, sizzling red poppies will fill the mid-ground, and the orange nemesia will fill out the front.

Repeat for Groups B and C using your own sense of style to create pleasing combinations of plants.

Before you start digging holes, take a few steps back and behold! What you’ll see is three “big ideas” that simplify the entire bed and bring order to the composition. The good news is that within each major grouping are very unique plants, each with its own distinct character.
Final division with colors

I’m hoping our couple from the nursery has a chance to read this blog. I hear that even the generic version of Chill Pill can set you back the price of a dozen lovely perennials.

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