As a young gardener, I bought and cared for individual plants I liked.  I still remember a beautiful, red-leafed Begonia in a hanging basket that I bought at a Richmond farmer’s market in the early 80’s.  I happily brought it home to my little apartment and hung it on the screened in porch.  It brought tremendous joy as it bloomed and stretched and succeeded in that humble little space. 

Many of us may spend our entire gardening lives focusing on single plants.  There are orchid enthusiasts, African violet enthusiasts, rose enthusiasts and Begonia enthusiasts; and we can remain quite happy with our special plants in special little pots doing their beautiful genus specific ‘thing.’

Begonia x. rex

But at some point, some of us experiment with putting several different types of plants, together, into a single pot or basket.  You may have seen ‘how-to’ articles in gardening magazines that offer recipes for container gardens of 3, 5, 7, maybe 9 or more plants.  When plants are grown together in a community like this, we call it an ‘association.’

It takes a little more understanding of the chosen plants to create a successful association.  In addition to considerations of the various colors of the flowers and leaves, we also consider each plant’s form.  What will grow tall?  What will droop or drape down the pot?  What will grow thick and dense?  What will reach out of the arrangement for the sun, or what will creep across the soil as a groundcover?  When will the flowers bloom, and for how long?

To create a good association, we also need to know what is happening in the soil.  How deep do each plants roots want to grow?  Do any have taproots?  Will there be bulbs dividing and expanding?  Rhizomes creeping?

And of course, we need to consider the amount of sun each plant needs to thrive, and which plants might die back with too much or too little light.  Does the plant want the soil to dry between waterings, or should the soil remain moist?  Or ever waterlogged?  Most of us learn these things through our mistakes as much as through our study.

It may be simpler to use a recipe from a magazine, but experienced gardeners develop their own ideas of favorite associations that suit their own microclimate.  A simple potted arrangement also allows us to learn about new plants, watching them carefully through a season or two to learn more about how they perform.  We can decide whether to grow more, or move on to something else.

A good association of plants can carry a pot or basket with something of interest every month of the year.  Winter blooming annuals, bulbs that begin their growth during the cold weeks of winter, and good strong foliage plants can bridge the awkward times when nothing else much may bloom.  Annuals may be popped in and out of a grouping anchored by a shrub or an evergreen perennial.

Pots are a great way to try out new associations of plants.  Some will work beautifully, and maybe others, not so much.  Nothing ventured, nothing gained, right?  Pots are portable, allowing a gardener to easily move the grouping into different light, and to control the water more reliably.

Those of us blessed with a bit of ground where we can dig, and plant, will eventually create associations in our garden beds and borders.  That is how great designs develop, as we get a good feel for which plants make good neighbors and stunning displays together.

Read more at Our Forest Garden

About woodlandgnome

Lifelong teacher and gardener.

12 responses to “Associations

  1. Ah, I read ‘Richmond’ and automatically thought of Annie’s Annuals. Wrong Richmond.

    • Too funny, Tony. The Great Big Greenhouse has been ‘the place’ for plants since before I lived there in the 80s. They have a terrific selection of everything, including houseplants. native perennials, woodies, Bonsai supplies, hardscaping, etc. Its is my favorite place to shop. On Saturday, they had in a shipment of vanilla orchids, rare citrus, and even coffee seedlings. Always something interesting going on there. Hope all is well with you, Tony- take care WG

      • Does anyone ever actually grow the vanilla orchid? I have tried, and it just rots. Yet, I keep seeing them for sale.

        • Great Question, Tony. Unless I had the light and humidity it needs, I wouldn’t even bring one home. They are nice to see in the greenhouse or glasshouse, but It doesn’t strike me as something to grow in my living room….

          • I wanted to grow it down near the creek, since it is so damp there, but they do not like the cool weather in winter. When I tried to grow cuttings as houseplants, I watered them so much that they stayed too damp.

            • If I’m remembering correctly, this is an epiphytic orchid. If you get another one, you might try mounting it on a piece of wood like you would a staghorn fern, and see whether your results are better. It would certainly be a fun challenge to get one to thrive and bloom, Tony.

              • Yes, it is epiphytic, but rather than staying confined to spots that collect detritus from above, it climbs up tree trunks with aerial roots. It is not easy to confine. I wanted it to grow up the damp stone cliffs down near the creek, or up nearby tree trunks. (Epiphytes do not like redwoods, but there are other hardwood trees there too.) It probably is not too finicky, but just can not be satisfied with conditions that are SO different from what it prefers.

                • Tony, that sounds like a beautiful plan. Orchids are probably easier than I assume them to be. Maybe you can start one on a potted tree that comes inside to a safe space each winter?

                  • That may be the only option, since it can not live through winter here. Even if protected from the minor frost, it dislikes cool weather. That is when rots takes it out. It is probably fine while actively growing through warm weather. I think if it were easy to grow, I would have noticed it in Los Angeles. I suppose I could ask around there too.

                    • If it were easy to grow, I suspect that folks in your area would be growing it to harvest the pods- it is very profitable, and home cooks would love to ‘grow their own.’ You are right about winter rot. I hope you figure out a way to grow it successfully, Tony. I took this photo of Beautyberry, Callicarpa americana, this morning with you in mind-

                    • Even if it were to grow here, it would not produce fully developed and well flavored vanilla. The weather is just too mild. When it gets warm, it does not stay warm for long, and cools off at night. I just want to grow the plant to get acquainted with it. (However, I did get a bit of maple syrup from the native maples, just because my colleagues told me that I could not.)
                      Beautyberry is something else that I insist on growing. I have sources for the two that I want, but have not purchased them yet because the garden can not accommodate them yet. I suppose I could plant them at work, and then take cuttings or layers for my own garden later. The Arbor Day Foundation sells beautyberry that is grown from seed, like in the wild, rather than a cultivar. There is also a cultivar of the same American beautyberry (not Japanese) with white berries.

                    • Tony, I love to grow all sorts of things to get acquainted with them, too. It is fascinating to watch how individual plants develop. Sometimes I learn more than I wanted to know, and end up having to yank things out. Like beautyberry. It reseeds freely. I must have pulled a dozen seedlings out of the rock garden yesterday morning. We removed 2 of the three shrubs growing in that bed last fall, and the one that is left already needs cutting back at the base to give other plants space and light. Once established, they are extremely vigorous in our climate. It would be interesting to see how they perform for you. I love the purple berries in the fall, and they are terrific wildlife plants, so I try to leave as many seedlings as I can to grow on. Enjoy the day!

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