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It’s Good to Repeat Yourself: Design Lessons from My Mistakes

December 5, 2009
Siberian iris and tradescantia 'Danielle' (photo credit: Jean Potuchek)
Two of my “foundation plants,” siberian
iris and tradescantia
All gardeners — whether amateurs like me, certified Master Gardeners, or professionals with degrees in horticulture — learn by doing. And for most of us, that means a process of trial and error and learning from our mistakes. Perhaps because of my poor spatial reasoning skills, learning principles of good garden design has been especially challenging for me, and my mistakes have been a critical part of that learning process. This is the first in a series of posts that focus on design lessons I have learned from my mistakes.

Like many novice gardeners, I began by falling in love with individual plants and planting them one-by-one. The result was the familiar one-of-this, one-of-that hodge-podge. I did notice early on that the only flower bed that was visually pleasing was the iris bed, where I had planted several divisions of siberian irises given to me by a friend. But it was only when these irises needed to be divided further and I began to add them to other parts of the garden that I learned my first important design lesson: it’s good to repeat yourself.

I’m not a gardener who thinks plants should only be planted in large drifts or in groups of 3-7. My flower beds usually combine some repeated plants with others that are singular specimens. For example, the circular bed at the entrance to my driveway is designed with a single tall delphinium at the center and three concentric circles of plants around it. The inner ring surrounding the delphinium consists of five plants, one each of Allium giganteumLiatris spicata, Platycodon, Iris sibirica, and Heliopsis. What provides coherence to all this variety is the repetition of geranium – and to a lesser extent, daylilies, in the outer two rings.

In June, the focal point
in the circular bed is
provided by Allium
giganteum ‘Globemaster’
or by an unidentified Iris sibirica (depending on
whether you approach
from the road or
from the house).
Circular bed in June (photo credit: Jean Potuchek)
In August, the focus is on
the profuse blooms of
Heliopsis ‘Bressingham Doubloon.’

Throughout the garden
season, unity is created
by the repetition of
Geranium varieties
around the outer
perimeter.

Circular bed in August (photo credit: Jean Potuchek)

Grouping of three different varieties of Iris sibirica (photo credit: Jean Potuchek)I do sometimes use the ‘plant in groups of three’ rule, particularly in the blue and yellow border, which is my largest flower bed and which needs a fairly bold planting style to set it off from the adjacent woods.  Both siberian irises and daylilies are planted in groups of three here, but not in groups of three identical plants. Rather, I have grouped different varieties in similar colors and with overlapping bloom times. The early daylily, Hemerocallis flava is planted in a group with the mid-season ‘Mary Todd’ and the late-blooming ‘Yellow Pinwheel,’ providing yellow daylily blooms from early June through August. The photo to the left shows a grouping of Iris sibirica ‘Superego,’ at the height of its bloom, with an old fashioned iris that is near the end of its bloom period and with ‘Tiffany Lass,’ which is just beginning to bloom.

If repeating plants within a flower bed gives coherence to that planting area, repeating the same plants from one part of the garden to the next can give coherence to the garden as a whole. Because my philosophy of gardening includes embracing plants that tell you they want to grow in your garden (see Love the Plant You’re With), this repetition happens naturally. I have identified a number of plants that are particularly happy in my growing conditions as “foundation plants” for my garden. These include siberian iris, tradescantia, daylilies, hardy geraniums, hosta, and platycodon, each of which can be found in 5 or more different areas of the garden. Repetition of these foundation plants may include many different cultivars of the same plant or repeated divisions of the same variety.

I sometimes use repetition very deliberately to link adjacent planting areas. This is particularly true in my back garden. Here, the deck border and the blue and yellow border face each other across a long walkway that leads from the deck down to the driveway. Not only are varieties of all my foundation plants present in both these flower borders, but Geranium x cantabrigiense ‘Biokovo,’ which grows along the front edge of the deck border for much of its length, is echoed by similar but larger foliage on repeated plants of Alchemilla mollis across the walkway. I’ve planted the front edge of the semi-oval fence border (which is located where the walkway curves away toward the driveway and perpendicular to the deck border and the blue and yellow border) with a mixture of Geranium x cantabrigiense ‘Biokovo’ and G. x cantabrigiense ‘Karmina,’ punctuated by several Alchemilla mollis plants. This not only repeats a very pleasing combination that a visitor first encounters at the front of the property in the circular bed, but also ties the front edge of the fence border to the front edges of both the deck border and the blue and yellow border.

Use of repetition in back garden (photo credit: Jean Potuchek)

In this way, even as individual plants get to be stars and individual flower beds have their own personalities, repetition creates a sense of family resemblance and cohesion. While it may not be a good idea to repeat yourself a lot in conversation, it is good to repeat yourself in the garden.

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32 Comments leave one →
  1. December 5, 2009 11:35 am

    Great post!! I need to read and reread your advice. I also buy one of things, or if I buy many, I plant them here & there, not in a drift. As a result, my garden is not as cohesive as I’d like it, but I’m learning by trial and error and it is improving with time (& more additions). Your circular bed with the large Allium is lovely! :)

  2. December 5, 2009 1:23 pm

    Hi Jean,
    This is a very informative post. Many of the principles you stated are those that I used to educate my clients with when I was creating designs for them. I think repetition, when done correctly, brings the garden cohesiveness.

    • Jean permalink*
      December 5, 2009 10:52 pm

      Noelle, It’s nice to have my self-taught lessons confirmed by a professional. Thanks.

  3. December 5, 2009 1:58 pm

    Great post and it looks like you are doing it right because your combinations are beautiful. I love your circular bed and all the choices you made. Thanks for sharing! -Amy

    • Jean permalink*
      December 6, 2009 10:11 pm

      Rebecca and Amy, I’m so pleased that you like the circular bed. This is the third version of that flower bed, so it took some trial and error to get it right. (Funny how I don’t seem to have any photos of those earlier less successful attempts. :-))

  4. December 5, 2009 2:39 pm

    Your post immediately made me start rethinking some of my plans. I’ve already tried to follow the principle of “Love the Plant You’re With” (what a great term for it!), but I also like your idea of recurrent themes. Thanks for the stimulus.

    • Jean permalink*
      December 7, 2009 4:28 pm

      Barbara, I’m so glad that you found this helpful. Of course, “Love the Plant You’re With” probably only makes sense to those of us old enough to remember the Stephen Stills song that it references. :-)

  5. December 5, 2009 2:51 pm

    I concur Jean. Having learned every garden principle by error, I’m slowly learning. Probably my biggest gardening challenge is finding the balance. On one side is my plant collector tendencies. On the other, my design sensibilities. In the past few years, I’ve taken to container-izing the must-have plants that don’t seem to fit within my borders. This seems to work well.

    Your photos attest to your design aplomb.

    • Jean permalink*
      December 5, 2009 10:56 pm

      Grace, I think I have two advantages that help with finding the balance. One is that I’m not much of a collector (in any area of life); I’m more of a saver, and just can’t bear to discard any of those plant divisions or self-sown seedlings. The second is that I have an acre and a half to deal with here; so discovering a plant I want (like peonies) is just a good excuse to plan another flower bed.
      I need to learn how to do more with containers. Looking at others’ photos of their colorful containers full of gorgeous plants makes me realize that I’m missing an important opportunity here.

  6. Elephant's Eye permalink
    December 5, 2009 3:46 pm

    Repetition bring harmony, and makes the garden sing. What doesn’t grow in this new garden, is being replaced with volunteers that DO like it here.

  7. December 5, 2009 4:16 pm

    Jean, I think every beginning gardener goes through the “one of everything” process. I know I certainly did. Either plant or colour repetition are the keys to a “non busy” garden. But it can be hard to restrain yourself, I certainly have to rein myself in every summer.
    Deborah

    • Jean permalink*
      December 5, 2009 10:58 pm

      Deborah, I suspect that we all have to learn these things by making mistakes. In addition to repeating plants and colors, I’ve also learned to repeat types of foliage. (More on that in an upcoming post.)

  8. December 5, 2009 5:28 pm

    Ooh those irises! Here in the UK we have Sarah Raven, a gardener & mail order house, slowly educating us about sequentially flowering tulips, but this is the first time I’ve seen an explanation of how to extend the show of the notoriously flash-in-the-pan irises. Brilliant, thanks!

    • Jean permalink*
      December 5, 2009 10:50 pm

      Sheila, I checked my records and, even though I only grow siberian irises, because I grow a number of different cultivars with different bloom times and grow them in different parts of the garden, I have irises in bloom for 4-5 weeks each summer. Some of my friends extend the season even more by also growing Japanese irises, which bloom later.

  9. December 5, 2009 7:08 pm

    Great post and so true in its recommendation towards repetition. It works in paintings and plantings and nature does it all the time. Lovely flower beds! I love the last shot with the curving pathway. Carol

  10. December 5, 2009 11:04 pm

    Your path is gorgeous! Excellent post.

  11. December 5, 2009 11:51 pm

    Very good post Jean, thank you! I used to do the same – plant hodge-podge. The good thing is – most of my plants spread, self-seed, and create mass planting effect without my help.
    I love your circular bed, and the path looks very dinamic!

    • Jean permalink*
      December 6, 2009 10:33 pm

      Carol, Deborah, and Tatyana, I’m glad you all like my path; I have about three years of sweat equity in it, and it isn’t quite finished yet. But then I guess it’s in the nature of gardening that things are never quite finished — as Tatyana says, it’s dynamic.

  12. December 6, 2009 8:35 am

    I heard a professor say “Don’t plant one of thses, and one of those. Plant in great swaths and drifts.”, and I thought, “I am going to have a hard time here”!
    But I learned, and I agree totally. Nothing prettier than turning the corner and seeing more of the prettiest flowers you just passed. Hard to explain, because it doesn’t sound logical, but so true.
    I have never seen white tradescantia! We have the blue/purply color, which I love. Is it native, or did you purchase seeds?
    Great post, Jean!

    • Jean permalink*
      December 7, 2009 9:13 am

      Janie, the white Tradescantia is a cultivar named ‘Danielle,’ one of the x andersonia hybrids. I bought it as a seedling from a local nursery. Unfortunately, it has “gone out of fashion” and I haven’t seen it at a nursery for several years now. Which is too bad because it’s really a beautiful plant.

  13. December 6, 2009 6:32 pm

    Great post, Jean. I have been thinking a lot about this over the past few weeks. Last summer I spent much of my time ripping apart what I had planted the summer before. Why? Because, like you, I fell in love with all kinds of plants. I had to have them. Then, last summer, I discovered a garden full of unique and beautiful plants, but with no order or rhythm. I had read in the beginning that I SHOULD plant in groups, and repeat. But, I thought, how can I do that if I want to include all of these wonderful plants? Lesson learned. I’ll plant in groups and repeat. Dang it. :)

  14. December 6, 2009 8:00 pm

    I believe that the one-of that new gardeners go through is an important part of them finding their own path in their garden. They get to try out lots of different plants, see what grows, what doesn’t, what pleases them, what is a pain in their butt. Each garden and gardener is different, and without the initial trial period, if they were to just grab a pre-made garden design and plunk it in, the gardener may just be getting a pretty garden with no real soul.

    • Jean permalink*
      December 6, 2009 10:23 pm

      Sylvana, This is such an important insight. It explains why so many of us (including Janie, Liisa and me) couldn’t learn this lesson just by hearing it or reading it. We had to discover on our own the plants that please us and work in our gardens before we could figure out how to combine and repeat them.

  15. December 6, 2009 10:47 pm

    What a great post! And it makes so much sense that we find pleasing what mother nature would present for us. Also much better for butterflies and pollinators if there’s enough for a full meal…

    • Jean permalink*
      December 7, 2009 9:33 am

      What a good observation! I hadn’t thought about the benefits of repetition for pollinators. But, now that you mention it, I realize that my garden is frequently visited by butterflies, hummingbirds, bees, etc. — even though, at least up until now, I haven’t made any special efforts to attract them.

  16. December 7, 2009 7:50 am

    Very useful post. I must say i learned at lot and no need to say it is helping a lot in my new gardening projects. thanks for sharing

    • Jean permalink*
      December 7, 2009 9:35 am

      And thank you for visiting. I’d be interested in hearing how these ideas translate into your very different gardening environment in Lahore.

  17. December 8, 2009 1:52 pm

    A very interesting post. I am, unfortunately, the collecting type and while I want to try more group plantings I can only begin by removing some plants first. My chronic indecision is preventing any progress – but your pictures do show the advantage of giving it a try!

    • Jean permalink*
      December 8, 2009 2:22 pm

      I sympathize; I find it very difficult to remove any plants from my garden. As I said in response to Grace, I am blessed to have a fairly big piece of rural property to work with, so I can always add new flower beds for new plants. Grouping different varieties of the same genus is a way for me to assuage the collecting impulse somewhat. The hybridizer I used to buy daylilies from once teased me that I had nine different plants, but they all looked alike. (They were all yellow daylilies for my blue and yellow border.) But I knew the differences among ‘Mary Todd’ and ‘ Yellow Pinwheel’ and ‘Alna Pride’ and ‘His Pastures Green’ and ‘Buried Treasure’ and ‘Treasure Room’ and ‘Hyperion.’ I loved them all and I wanted every one of them in my garden. Happily, their resemblances mean that I can group them together and get that sense of repetition.

  18. December 8, 2009 10:26 pm

    I love your blue iris, something that I often jealousy desire becoz this one can’t survive in tropical climate.
    Nevertheless, do repeat this plant as many as possible as they look so gorgeous.

    • Jean permalink*
      December 9, 2009 10:58 am

      James, I love the irises, too. They are the high point of my garden in June. In recent years, I have had a bit of struggle with them because my garden has been visited by an insect pest (the iris budfly) that attacks them, but I think they’re worth some extra effort. We all have envy of plants we can’t grow, but we also love the ones we can grow!

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