24 Surprising Plant Combos

What happens when a plant biologist and a landscape artist team up to create a garden on a California hillside? Surprising plant combinations at every turn.

Kathleen N. Brenzel

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Floral fireworks

Landscape architect Jarrod Baumann practically skips down the steps of the sprawling hillside garden, pointing out a vibrant mix of flowers near the pool. “That’s our little nursery,” he says. The plants are extras, parked here until he dreams up a home for them elsewhere on the grounds. Baumann looks every bit the young artist—an apt comparison. “When you love plants as much as I do, you pull them out like paints, and paint the garden with them.”

Luckily, for this project he got to work with someone equally passionate. Carol Giannandrea, the property’s owner (with her husband, John), is a plant biologist with a weakness for cactus, succulents, and citrus. She hired Baumann four years ago to convert her country-style garden in Los Gatos, California, into a more modern landscape.

“I didn’t start with an overall design,” Baumann says, “but focused on one area at a time, so Carol could get to know my work.” Before long, the two were bouncing ideas off each other, Baumann scribbling his on paper napkins out in the garden. The result is a plant playground full of unexpected foliage and flower blends, garden art—and a little magic.

In the pool area, black mondo grass reaches out, spiderlike, from the base of a horsetail “fence.” Downslope from the house is a series of terraced gardens, each framed with embossed steel “wave walls.” “My crazy ideas come from everywhere—jewelry, plants, fashion,” Baumann says.

He even makes a nod to Giannandrea’s native Scotland: Along a roadside bank, a dry-stacked stone wall juts like a rocky coast into a sea of echeverias. It’s Baumann’s gift to the owners—and to anyone driving down the country road.

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"Painting" with plants

Baumann was a student at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, when he met Andy Cao, the internationally known landscape designer and artist. “Cao made me look at gardens differently,” says Baumann, as installations that make you want to explore further. To unleash your inner artist, try Baumann’s suggestions.

Contrast shapes. Pair mounding and spiky plants, such as catmint with phormiums, then tuck in plants with fine leaves to add texture.

Expand your palette. “Because there’s so much green in the natural landscape, I add foliage for contrast—blue, burgundy, orange, and chartreuse,” Baumann says. To lighten shaded areas, use plants with variegated leaves.

Make your own art. To build his wave walls, which hide existing concrete retaining walls, Baumann sketched the waves on sheets of plywood, then took the numbered panels to a metal fabricator.

Design: zeterre.com

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Making waves

Phormium 'Amazing Red,' silver puya, blue fescue, and threadleaf nandina add geometric contrast to the fluid movement of Baumann's wave wall. 'Ebb Tide' rose and catmint soften the overall look.

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Textural play

A curved stone wall plays against dramatically vertical agave franzosinii, while smooth, charcoal-hued stones allow the bright colors and soft lines of dasylirion and echeveria elegans to pop.

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Green walkway

A row of horsetail acts as a natural screen. Fringing it with black mondo grass below and coral aloe above creates a color-blocking effect.

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Sun-kissed palette

Golden Aeonium 'Sunburst' and bright pink-tinged Leucadendron 'Jester' add cheer to this corner of the garden. Mexican feather grass creates a lovely corona effect when hit with sunlight.
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Psychedelic trip

When grouped together, the other-worldly shapes and contrasting textures of golden barrel cactus, Libertia peregrinans, and coral aloe evoke an Alice in Wonderland-inspired scene.

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An allium bulb and an Aeonium ‘Schwarzkopf’ made for a brooding, moody scene in front of a gate.

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Tree story

We love this tree aloe (A. beinesii) because it looks like a plant but is completely drought tolerant. Below it is a mass of ‘Angelina’ sedum, sword-like libertia, and Aloe striata with bright orange-red flowers.

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Botanical soulmates

Echeveria and heuchera are a surprising combination. But both unthrirsy and tolerant of some shade, they make a perfect pairing. The burgundy and icy blue is a color combo that pops.

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Color pop

The fuzzy stems and bright pink-purple flowers of Geranium maderense provide color in the shadier part of the garden. Be sure to cut this plant back when it topples over to spread the seed for next year.

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Paying complements

The complementary-color effect of silver-blue agave plus a rust-orange Japanese maple creates a view we can’t stop staring at.

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Fire and ice

The dark purple tulips, well past their prime, are left drying in place. As Baumann says, “We appreciate all stages of a plant.” The dark purple of the tulips and smoke tree looks so good against the ice blue of the agave. It’s one of Baumann’s all-time favorite color combinations, and we find it a lot on his property.

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Poetry in motion

A path through a shady woodland garden leads to a swimming pool. The pink blooms of Geranium madrense provides a pop of color in the shade. Baumann wanted the path to look like water was spilling down it, so he had the centers of the flagstone cut away and pebbles as infill. Now it resembles a rivulet.

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Cool, calm, and collected

This pot combination is stunning. An ‘Ever Red’ phormium makes a dark plum background for a feathery thread-leaf Nandina, and a spiny silver Puya coerulea violacea. In back, chartreuse heuchera leafs out in between mondo grass.

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Mediterranean symphony

This nook blends shrubs, perennials, grasses, and succulents from Mediterranean climates across the globe. ‘Jetsetter’ leucadendron is in the foreground. Behind it we see lavender and Aloe striata, and beyond that phormiums. On the right hand side are pink grevillea flowers followed by tall, stiff stalks of equisetum.

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Blue period

A cotiunus offers purple plumes of fluffy flowers, while two types of agave sit in front, bordered by the same color in blue fescue.

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Not fade away

Baumann loves ‘Ebb Tide’ rose because it's one of the only purple roses whose color just doesn’t fade. Here we see it with the classic catmint pairing.

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Tall tale

A tree aloe and sansevieria both sit tall and upright in their container.

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Bordering on genius

Aloe striata underplanted with libertia makes a great low-water border. Lavender, flowering above the wall, softens the view.

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Down to earth

Tall strands of structural equisetum are underplanted with black mondo grass.

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California dreamin'

A classic California scene—palm trees and redwoods.
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Succulent mania

We love this lush succulent container planting of agaves with echeveria spilling out the sides.

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Going green

Japanese maple (Acer palmatum), dissectum type, in the "Maple forest" is underplanted with variegated yellow ginger.

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A living carpet

Blue fescue with Puya coerulea, threadleaf nandina, and 'Ever Red' phormium, with incredible grass and hardscape patterning at the base. The patterns were laid out on graph paper, then the concrete was poured (in one day). Afterwards, grass was planted in soil that fills the spaces between pavers.

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Everything is illuminated

Leaves of a giant elephants ear are surrounded by limey green heuchera. Embossed steel risers on steps bounce light around and make the whole area glow.