In my younger days, I was so smitten by plants that growing them individually - and as many different ones as possible - was my focus. I didn't look beyond each specimen - indeed, my daily walk around the garden was a matter of peering closely at every single plant to judge its progress. When I read somewhere that gardeners should put in at least three of each plant together to create a group, I scoffed. Why waste valuable garden space?
As the years have gone on, I have gradually realised that I wanted a bigger picture and that I needed to consider how to place plants in relation to each other to achieve a pleasing result. There are a number of principles of garden design, and I don't consider myself sufficiently well-versed in them to tell anyone else how to use them, but one which has helped me over the years is the idea of repetition.
Repetition in planting takes many forms, but the result of it is unity and cohesion in the garden. Repetition of an element seems to confer strength in the garden so that instead of a plethora of individual components that don't add up to anything, we have something more distinct, that is greater than the sum of its parts. The concept works from a micro-level right up to a macro-level, such as the natural forest of gum trees shown at the start of the blog, where the clustered trees of the same species create a complete picture! At the most fundamental level, grouping three of the one plant together does indeed create a greater impact than a single specimen, I realise now, and avoids the 'bitty' look which characterised my early efforts at gardening! The photo above shows the effectiveness of generous group planting on a sunny wall in the garden of Robin Diehm in Sydney.
Also at a micro-level, repetition can also be achieved by colour echoes, which I have written about before, where one plant echoes a colour of its neighbouring plant - for example, with its leaf colour that matches the petal colour of a nearby plant - which leads the eye from one plant to the next and gives a sense of unity in that particular garden area, as in the pairing of a Fuchsia triphylla cultivar with the leaves of Canna 'Tropicanna' in the garden of Margaret Chedra in Sydney (above). Creating a colour theme within an entire border, by repeating hues, is another way of achieving cohesion.
At a broader level, repeating plants along pathways or driveways is another illustration of how this element can work in a garden. The repetition of plants seems to create a rhythm that draw the eye and leads us in, and provides a satisfying feeling of depth and substance, because of the natural perspective created by the reiteration of the same plant. The planting in the photo above, for example, with clipped golden Duranta shrubs beneath a row of ornamental peach trees, underplanted with mondo grass, provides a welcoming entrance in the garden of Alida Gray in Sydney, creating a sense of movement and drawing us up the driveway; whereas a mishmash of random different shrubs would not have the same effect.
Another obvious example is that of a formal hedge, which is a repeated row of the same plant, clipped uniformly. A hedge has a mass that give form and structure to a garden, and can sculpt the space within a garden. My own humble Murraya paniculata hedge (illustrated at left) was the first thing I planted in my present garden, 21 years ago, and is about the only one of the original plantings that remains. It has been the dependable background shape to all the ephemeral plantings that have come and gone over the years, providing a solidity to the froth and, at times, chaos of my perennial borders below it.
Repetition of form (rather than exactly the same plant) is also an effective way of giving unity in a garden - for example, the use of ornamental grasses and other strappy-leaved plants in an area can provide a satisfying arrangement that can be more pleasing than a cacophony of different shapes. I have attempted to do this in smallish beds on the paving near my house, illustrated above, with various strappy-leaved, fan-shaped foliage plants. Repeating a plant of a distinctive shape in various parts of the garden is another way of drawing the individual sections together. I have four sets of clipped Murraya sphere pairs on either side of 'entrances' to different garden 'rooms' (as illustrated in the hedge photo earlier in the blog). Although some of these spheres are still pathetically small (as it took me ages to get the idea of doing this!), I feel that in time they will add a cohesive element to my garden.
Using the same plant in different parts of the garden also is a way to provide overall cohesion through repetition. The human eye seems to enjoy seeing repeated elements, even if we are not consciously aware of this. My way of doing this is to use the same plant in different places, but with varying companion plants in each spot. This allows me to explore different colour themes in different areas of the garden. For example, tall shrubby Plectranthus ecklonii (pictured above), which comes in hues of pastel pink, white and purplish-blue, is a wonderful autumn stalwart in the Sydney climate, and I have various specimens scattered through the garden. Whilst I love to see the purple form associated harmoniously with pink Japanese windflowers and a soft blue Aster, I also like to see it take a more dramatic role with the hot hues provided by red and orange forms of Salvia and red Pentas. Such an approach also means we are taking more advantage of plants that flourish in our climate, and we can count on their success.
Repetition can, of course, be taken too far. Too much of it and a garden becomes monotonous - I have often felt oppressed by gardens of endless, beautifully clipped hedges and little else. We DO need variety and contrast but within a cohesive setting! With my own lust for plants only barely contained, I need to tell myself often: 'Please repeat yourself!'
Tall summer volunteers
24 Jan 21
These will provide colour and form in your garden every summer.
A neon rainbow revisited
17 Jan 21
Hot-coloured flowers still feature in my summer garden
The zucchini files
10 Jan 21
Zucchini can be a rewarding summer crop.
Random musings on a walk
03 Jan 21
Lots of plants caught my eye on a walk.
13 Dec 20
Cut flowers for Christmas vases