Matchmaker, Matchmaker …

Book Review: The Perennial Matchmaker, by Nancy J. Ondra

Gardening is about bringing plants together into satisfying partnerships. If you were to peek into the mind of the typical gardener, as he or she stares off into the middle distance, you would most likely find thinking something like: “What on earth can I put in front of that Penstemon digitalis?”

per matchmaker

The Perennial Matchmaker is written to answer just such questions. The bulk of the book consists of plant combination ideas for over 80 genera of perennials. While it’s a book that can be read from beginning to end, I suspect that for most gardeners The Perennial Matchmaker will be most useful as a reference to be used during those moments when we are trying to come up with plant combination ideas.

This is a fun as well as a useful book. For example, many of the photographs are drawn from garden blogs you may be familiar with – including this one (cough – page 28 – cough).

Nancy Ondra discusses how plants complement each other in terms of color, shape, and texture. She considers which plant partners are best for certain garden styles – wildlife, cottage, or more formal. Her focus is on perennial combinations, but there is also some discussion of bulbs, annuals, etc.

Most of the combinations discussed involve plants with the same peak season. I would have appreciated a greater focus on planting for succession, though.

nancy ondra
Nancy Ondra

The Perennial Matchmaker concludes with a section on what makes a successful plant combination. I found this an enjoyable read, though more experienced gardeners may not find much in this section that is new.

At this point I would like to share with you my own view about what makes a successful plant combination, a view arrived at after reading countless gardening books and working in my own gardens for over 40 years.

Plants need to be culturally compatible, of course – have similar needs for water, light, soil, etc.

And it helps if plants are unable to suffocate, strangle, or poison their partners (I find this to also be true in other areas beyond gardening).

More than that, though, here is what I believe to be the secret to successful plant combination. Are you ready? Sure? OK then: the best combinations involve plants that are different – or similar.

That’s OK, no need to thank me!


Here’s a few photos from last weekend which illustrate (I hope) what I mean. If you want excitement in the garden, then you want plants with contrasting shapes or colors. For me, blue and yellow flowers, like these False Forget-Me-Not (Brunnera macrophylla) and Celandine Poppies (Stylophorum diphyllum), always have a certain dramatic tension.


Ditto with the False Forget-Me-Not and pink Old Fashioned Bleeding Heart (Lamprocapnos spectabilis).


False Forget-Me-Not also provides a nice contrast growing among ‘Purple Sensation’ Alliums. Both the dainty sprays of tiny blue flowers and the heart-shaped leaves of the Brunnera are so distinct from the wide, strappy leaves of the Allium. (The Allium blooms after the Brunnera, but the False Forget-Me-Not foliage sticks around after the Allium leaves fade away).

Purple harmony with tulips at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

For a more tranquil feeling, combine plants that echo each other. The planting above at the Chicago Botanic Garden contains Tulips of different shades of purple, from light to dark.

Finding a balance between contrast and similarity in the plant palette is part of how a gardener defines his or her own style.

In any case, if you either want to explore ideas on perennial combinations or wish to have a ready resource for plant partnership ideas, The Perennial Matchmaker is worth having on your bookshelf.


36 Comments on “Matchmaker, Matchmaker …”

  1. I would only add plants should have different or similar forms to complement each other or as you say create tension. The best way to check if form is working is to look at your images in monochrome (black and white to most of us).

  2. Nice to have a photograph published In A Book! Congrats. I agree with your points. The most interesting plant combinations (to me) have ‘texture’, as in different leaf shapes and colours so you have contrast. In your final photo above, the tulips work well because they’re in front of the clipped box(?) hedge, so there is an interesting contrast. It’s all personal, of course, which is the beauty of creating your own garden.

  3. Leaf shape, plant height, bloom and leaf color go into my match making –after meeting the prerequisites you mentioned. Agree with you that succession is yet another important element. At the end of the day it’s not as easy as it may sound!

  4. It was amazing to see garlic mustard spread. I remember a time when we did not have any. But, a few years later, much of North America was covered with it. Fortunately it does not seem to be doing as well these days. I have a friend whose woodlot was completely invaded with it 10 years ago. Now it is still there but there is not as much.

  5. Hello Jason, some of the best plant combinations are those that are either by accident or by nature (self-seeding). I tend to put contrasting plants together in combinations, contrasting in foliage and flower, sometimes size. I call this the “random” method and starts with “shoving these plants here as there’s no room elsewhere for them”

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