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Review - "Encyclopedia of Planting Combinations"

Plan Your Color Combos the Easy Way

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Crocosmia picture.

Crocosmia 'Lucifer' is frequently mentioned as a potential plant partner in this handy reference for planting combinations.

David Beaulieu

Encyclopedia of Planting Combinations, written by Tony Lord (photos provided by Andrew Lawson), is a reference book you need to have on your bookshelf if you're the type of gardener who strives for particular landscape color schemes. As you probably know, success in achieving such ensembles depends on far more than having a solid grasp of how colors go together (that's the easy part). After all, you're not mixing colors on a canvas; rather, you're asking living things to share a space.

Even plants that are superficially similar to each other can have very different sets of growing requirements. No matter how striking they might look together (in the abstract), you have to determine:

  • Do they require the same amount of sunlight (or shade)?
  • Are their water requirements similar?
  • Do they want the same soil conditions, such as soil pH?
  • Are both suited to your region's growing zone?

Then there's the issue of sequence of bloom. As Lord writes on p. 23, "Getting the individual plants of a combination to coincide in their display is not easy." That is, just because a particular combination of two plants may look great in your mind, that doesn't mean Mother Nature will cooperate by having them bloom at the same time. You can "cheat" by using long-blooming perennials (which increases your chances for bloom-time overlap), but what if you have your heart set on a particular planting combination that involves a plant with a comparatively ephemeral blooming period?

Granted, you could research all of this information yourself. But it would be a lot of work. With the Encyclopedia of Planting Combinations, you have all the information in one place -- at your fingertips. This book supplies over 1000 plant descriptions (all cross-referenced and with corresponding photos) and 4000 planting combinations.

Copyrighted by Octopus Publishing in 2008, the 2012 edition from Firefly Books sports a "flexibound" cover, a type of binding that represents an amalgam between paperback and hardcover. The cover is durable, yet you can open up the book to whatever page you wish and it will lie flat, remaining open at that particular spot. This is a useful quality in a reference book, making it physically easy to use.

Introductory Chapter 1: Landscape Design Basics

Partly what allows a book with such an ambitious agenda to work at all (as a handy reference to which you'll return again and again) is the fact that each entry is accompanied by a series of symbols. The symbols communicate such facts as a plant's sunlight needs and time of bloom. This use of symbols minimizes the amount of text needed; otherwise, the book would be unwieldy. The symbols are explained at the beginning of the book.

Next, Lord provides an overview of the basics, including concepts used in landscape design such as:

This section of the book is similar to my Landscape Design for Beginners.

Surprisingly -- given the fact that this is a book about planting combinations inspired by color considerations -- I find Lord's presentation of color theory to be one of the weakest aspects of the book. Indeed, throughout the book, I found myself questioning the author's proclamations that plant A complemented or contrasted with plant B. Perhaps symptomatic of the problem is the fact that nowhere in the book does a color wheel or color chart appear (a rather strange omission). This may not impose a significant strain on those already well-versed in such matters, but beginners will find that they have to take much on faith where an explanation would have been preferable.

Introductory Chapter 2: Styles for Your Planting Combinations

Golden chain is one of the small trees covered by Lord.

Golden chain is one of the small trees included in the book.

David Beaulieu

In the second major introductory section, Lord covers planting styles and particular kinds of plant combinations. Included is information on:

The information is interspersed with "Case Studies" that feature the designs of various luminaries; for example, Beth Chatto, author of The Shade Garden.

The main body of the book that follows is organized according to plant type. I'll note some examples as I conclude this review.

Section 1 presents the tallest plants covered: small trees. It is also the shrub section (see below).

Shrubs, Vines, Roses and Perennials

Along with trees, shrubs form the green backbone of a landscape. Here you can learn not only how to mix and match shrubs (with an eye to planting combinations that afford optimal color), but also how to combine shrubs with perennials, etc.

Certain plants in each division draw more attention than others. These are the very popular plants that merit a more extensive write-up than specimens less frequently grown. In this chapter it is rhododendrons that bask in the author's spotlight.

In the section on vines, clematis is the featured plant, but Lord doesn't shy away from mentioning such ill-behaved plants as trumpet vines. Rose bushes lord it over all other plants in the book, garnering a whole section to themselves.

In the perennials section, geraniums (cranesbills), hosta plants and irises are the stars.

Bulb and Annual Sections, and My Thoughts on the Appendix

Picture of orange tulips.

Tulips are featured prominently in the section on bulbs.

David Beaulieu

I love bulb plants, so their section was one of my personal favorites in the book. The fact that spring bulbs are among the earliest-blooming spring flowers no doubt prejudices me on the subject. One of the best works dedicated entirely to this class of plants is Anna Pavord's flower bulbs book.

Lord brings the main body of his reference book to a close with his presentation of annual plants and other plants treated in cold climates as if they were annuals. An example of the former is blue ageratum. Those of us who live in the North have to store dahlia tubers in winter, so dahlias are an example of the latter group (in fact, they're a featured plant in this chapter).

Encyclopedia of Planting Combinations contains an appendix that translates the common plant names that appear in the text into their Latinized equivalents. Such an appendix is low-priority, since Lord primarily refers to plants by their botanical names. Indeed, it's rather skimpy as appendices go, due to the scarcity of common-name usage in the main body of the work.

An appendix serving the opposite function (i.e., translating the botanical names used in the preceding chapters into their common equivalents) would have been far more useful. Such minor criticisms aside, this is a book that I recommend. The massive amount of research that went into it is impressive -- and saves you, the reader, from having to do it for yourself.

Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.
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